Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain
There have been several exhibitions and TV programmes over recent years about the Pre-Raphaelites, highlighting the revolutionary nature of their ideals. This major survey at Tate Britain follows a similar trail from the beginnings of the brotherhood, to the full-blown aesthetic, showing that they were pushing towards social reform through images of an idealised beauty. As the horrors of massive industrialisation were creating new forms of poverty and depravity in Victorian society, the Pre-Raphaelites harked back to the fantasy of a simpler time, with the dignity of craft elevated as a way of life. They also reacted against the current art style of their day, which they considered overly academic and conventional.
Many of us fall in love with the sheer beauty of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and find the Mediaeval-inspired themes imaginative and dreamlike. Each painting tells a story, sometimes mythical, biblical or Shakespearean, occasionally political or showing the harsh realities of life. Tate Britain has grouped the exhibition together in categories of the major concerns of the Pre-Raphaelites such as beauty, nature, and earthly paradise, and also gives a sense of progression through time.
Often in galleries and collections these painting are hung high, almost in a Victorian style using the full height of the walls. This time each painting is hung quite low – at eyesight, so you can get a really good look at them. Including Pre-Raphaelite favourites and some rarer items, even those oft reproduced on postcards and posters are a surprise and treat to see live, almost seeming luminous, and changing to near photographic reality from a distance. The Pre-Raphaelites’ reinvention of early Italian technique created rich deep colours that appear to glow, and often a judicious use of glowing gold. Added to that the atmospheric, often autumnal atmospheres of their views, and a totally convincing and seductive world between reality and imagination is created.
Craft, stained glass and tapestry were as revered as paintings to some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and the exhibition includes some painted furniture, textiles, windows and books which were a major part of the work and the whole movement. The Pre-Raphaelites considered themselves avant-garde, and although Tate Britain is presenting them as such, and as the first self-consciously modern art movement, it is still possible to look at these paintings for sheer enjoyment.
The cost, and that there is a cost at all, of attending such blockbuster exhibitions is a debate which does not have a definitive answer. Although many of these painting are freely displayed in various galleries around Britain, especially in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, this is a chance to see them all at once, en masse, and showing the entire progression and scope of the movement from the mid to late 19th century. A guaranteed experience of beauty.