Skip to content

The Work of Art in the Age of Steampunk: A Review of the Tate Britain’s ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Avant-Garde’ show

2013 January 22

Gillian Piggott (Middlesex University)

In our image-obsessed world, where versions of paintings are infinitely reproduced on cards, fridge magnets and coffee coasters, how is it possible to comport ourselves productively towards the great originals on display at an exhibition – such as those in the recent Pre-Raphaelites: Avant-Garde show at Tate Britain?

In his late essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin outlines the phenomenon so descriptive of the experience one has nowadays of art.[i] With reproduction, he asserts, there is a transformation in the way artworks are received and are meaningful. The original work loses what he calls its ‘aura’ – and a ‘sense of the universal equality of all things’ replaces any attachment to the unique and the permanent.[ii]

The original work, hung in the gallery in the context of art historical tradition, can no longer raise its eyes and look back at us, and command the onlooker to seek the meanings and enigmas within its frame, within a singular encounter in a formal setting. Reproduction means the viewer absorbs the artwork into her own space and time, proliferating any meanings and disconnecting from any veneration for authoritative or expert discourses concerning the work.

Did the Tate Britain exhibition manage to deal with this conundrum, and was it able to bring a powerful perspective, “Victorian avant-garde”, to works that are hugely familiar to the public? Did the show initiate new ways of seeing the art?

While visiting venerable galleries is undoubtedly a conservative way of consuming art, a well mounted exhibition can generate lively new meanings. This was achieved in this show through the associative ideas the collection of pieces put carefully together produced.[iii] For instance, the juxtaposition of Lizzie Siddal’s watercolours (say ‘Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear’, 1857 ) with those of her lover, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (‘The Tune of Seven Towers’, 1857), gives their work a collaborative, intimate quality one rarely attributes to this artist/model nexus. Their ideas, subject matter and identical flat, primitive style sets up a multiplication of meanings across the works in this series, attributing a poignancy and a seriousness to their togetherness one perhaps did not consider before.

Left: Lizzie Siddal,  Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear’ (1857 ); Right: Dante Gabriel Rossetti The Tune of Seven Towers (1857)

Similarly, viewing great works of nature, like John Brett’s ‘Val d’Aosta’ (Oil on canvas, 1858) and Ford Maddox Brown’s ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ (Oil on panel, 1851-59) mounted next to the photography of Roger Fenton (‘The Double Bridge on the Machno’, 1857, Albumen print) , John Dillwyn Llewelyn (‘Rabbit’, 1852, Salt Print), & Ruskin himself (‘Cascade du Dard, Chamonix’, 1854, Daguerreotype) dramatically illustrates the cross fertilization of ideas between photography and Pre-Raphaelite painting. Brett stood in front of the landscape for five months completing ‘Val d’Aosta’, shaped, as the work was, by Ruskin’s ‘On Mountain Beauty’; while Brown set up on Clapham Common to get the details of undulating clumps of grass and shrubland absolutely right. Painters didn’t work from photographs, but the realist treatment of nature, the objective eye, underpinned by scientific explorations into geology and botany was thoroughly absorbed. Meanwhile, it seems Victorian photographers were influenced, in their composition, their choice of subject, and in their treatment of light, water and cloud, by painting. The curatorial decision to hang paintings with photographs invites this striking cross media comparison of studies of nature. Seeing the mutual influence of photography and painting, the visual experience of it, is much more arresting than any theoretical suggestion one might come across in a book.

Further examples of curators displaying canny combinations of works included the room exploring the relations between image and text in Pre-Raphaelitism. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrations of Goblin Market – and his lesser known illustrations for the Italian poetry he translated – were displayed against narrative paintings, taking moments from Shakespeare or, in the case of Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ (1856), a tragic life. Particularly striking is a work such as Holman Hunt’s 1851 ‘Two Gentleman of Verona’, so much realism and yet, so inextricably caught up in text, text appears on the same plane as the image (carved into the frame). In the flesh, one can almost see in PR paintings –  in famous pieces like Holman Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’(1853), and Millais’s ‘The Woodman’s Daughter’ (1851) – movement! And this is over and above the narrative impulse behind it. One can see, in confronting the original, all the dynamism and intensity of vision that has gone into the depiction of the pregnant moment, the brilliant execution of the photographic realism, the preoccupation with colour, texture and tone.

By including Arts and Crafts designs – furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles and even instruments – as part of the exhibition, and positioning pieces among PR paintings and sculpture, curators manage to dislodge, at least for a time, the association of Morris & Co with the market. The physical immersion of design pieces among artworks opens up the PR idea of ‘Paradise’ afresh, and even a visit to Kelmscott Manor could not have provided as complete a contextual basis as this exhibition does. As one walks around the gothic four poster, tapestries and cabinets, one manages to maintain the original PR vision for these handcrafted items, knowing only too well the kind of Ebay world Morris items now inhabit. As if intuiting Benjamin’s ‘conundrum’ of reproduction back in the 1860s, Morris envisaged an ideal of small scale cottage production, offering affordability and crafted beauty to working people. This kick against a system of industrialised commodity production, wherein sheer quantity threatened quality was, as we know, shortlived, undermined by Morris’s own design genius.

If combinations of artworks positioned together create interesting new meanings, viewing an original work with the naked eye, unadulterated by any technological mediation, is also a revelation. Reproductions cannot get near capturing the PR preoccupation with light and colour adequately, in, say, a picture like Holman Hunt’s 1852 Strayed Sheep. With the original, one can step up and examine how the artist applied the paint to achieve certain colour or light effects; and the scale of a canvas or panel also brings one to a fuller experience of the overall impact the artist was trying for.

Did the exhibition persuade us of the “Avant-Garde” nature of the Victorian PR project? Since the works were produced at a historical moment the consequences of which we are still witnessing – mass production, the inception of capitalism – many of the issues the PRs bring to bear are incredibly current. Gender relationships and the power of the male gaze; the triumphs and pitfalls of realism; the relationship of image to the textual; art’s conflictual relationship with capitalism; the sacred and profane in art: all of these are familiar issues. There is much to learn, particularly about the dominant influence of the photographic lens on ways of seeing the world, and the PR contribution to narrative and time in visual art – it could be argued they adumbrated film. In this sense, the label “avant garde” really does work, even without any spectacular organisational or intellectual innovations on the part of Tate Britain. And frankly, the work is so good, one need only put it in a space and point the public towards it.

‘Steampunk’ has taken hold in popular culture, producing TV successes (Sherlock, Ripper Street) and disasters like Desperate Romantics (the biopic of the PRs, made by the BBC in 2009). Anyone looking for postmodern or steampunk versions of the PRs at the Tate was to be disappointed. What we were given were the artworks, astonishing, uncluttered, hung in a collection. A more “innovative” show might have provided a “Pre-Raphaelite experience”, with interactive needlepoint, or opportunities to participate in scenes with actors. There could have been projections of film or text on shiny black walls, like the text messages in Sherlock. But you take my point. The danger is that, as Benjamin puts it, we “pry an object from its shell” [iv] and ruthlessly absorb artworks completely into our modern world, riding roughshod over the ‘otherness’ and fascination of the past, and the artist’s world. Viewing works in a gallery, being put into a position where one has to go out to the original work in an unobtrusive setting, and even humbling oneself before a curatorial grand narrative, is a refreshing experience that can be moving and enlightening.

Gillian Piggott is currently Visiting Lecturer in 19th Century Literature at Middlesex University and Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her book on Dickens and Benjamin: Moments of Revelation, Fragments of Modernity was published by Ashgate Press in December 2012.


[i] Benjamin wrote 3 versions of the essay, the first in 1935.

[ii] ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 217.

[iii] Considering the fact that many of the exhibition pieces are in Tate Britain’s permanent collection, it must be said immediately that I baulked at having to pay a whopping £14 entry fee.

[iv] Work of Art essay, ibid., p. 217

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

Captcha loading...