The First Modern Art Movement

The Pre-Raphelites, whose work stars in a new Tate Britain show, dismissed the artistic hierarchy and founded a brotherhood with fire in the belly

Art

In 1848, “the year of revolutions”, the authorities of Europe were living on their nerves. France, Germany, Russia, Italy and the Habsburg empire were all shaken and Britain prepared for upheaval. In September three young men met in a house on Gower Street in London to plot a revolution of their own. The agitators were not after political change, however, but an artistic convulsion. The conspirators were all students at the Royal Academy: William Holman Hunt, aged 21; John Everett Millais, aged 19; and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, aged 20. At the end of their meeting the three had come up with a name for their secret society: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).

Four other members were quickly co-opted: the painter James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and two art critics, Rossetti’s brother William Michael and F.G. Stephens. The PRB laid out their aims in a manifesto: “1. To have genuine ideas to express. 2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them. 3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote. 4. Most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.” These were young British artists with both talent and moral seriousness.

What was radical about the PRB was their dismissal of the artistic hierarchy: Raphael, the lodestar of academic art, was declared to be inferior to pre-Renaissance Italian and Netherlandish painters; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the panjandrum of art teaching, was mocked as “Sir Sloshua”; the Middle Ages were held to have been the most spiritual and creative of eras. The PRB was forward-thinking because (like earlier  Romantics) it looked backwards.

Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, includes some 175 pieces and sets out to present the Brotherhood as Britain’s first modern art movement. It also emphasises the PRB’s deep engagement with high Anglicanism, the role of women, the working poor and wider social issues — Holman Hunt and Millais, for example, both attended the huge Chartist gathering on Kennington Common in April 1848. The group itself lasted for a mere five years but its influence was only then gathering pace. The PRB was the direct source for the airy medievalism of Burne-Jones and the guild ethos of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement; it nurtured both the Aesthetic movement and the Symbolists too.  

The full scope of the group’s reach will be on display not just through a near full-hand of its most significant paintings, from Millais’s “Ophelia” to Holman Hunt’s “The Scapegoat”, but also its applied arts, from Morris & Co tapestries to Burne-Jones stained glass designs and Philip Webb furniture. 

So familiar is the Pre-Raphaelite look that it is easy to forget just what consternation their first productions caused. Critics were initially mystified by the PRB monogram that appeared on each painting and startled by the pictures themselves. When Charles Dickens saw Millais’s “Christ in the House of His Parents” he wrote that the figure of Mary was “so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England.”

Critics were taken aback not just by the scientific realism of the pictures but by their novel technique. In order to recapture the lapidary brightness of medieval paintings and manuscripts, the PRB painted on a white ground using a mosaic of largely unmixed colours (E.H. Gombrich called them “shrill colours”) instead of using a coloured base layer and tonally coherent shades. This, along with their microscopically detailed observation of nature, which was inspired both by the precision of the newly-invented daguerreotype and the works of Ruskin, caused one critic to complain that the paintings were “not art but coloured photography”. Pre-Raphaelitism, however, was inherently contradictory from the start. Both revivalist and realist, poetic and unflinching, it was never a single style but embraced numerous interpretations.

What this exhibition shows is that despite the sentimental pictures that came to be associated with the term PRB — all those Arthurian romances and “dreams of fair women” — it was a movement born of a fire in the belly and the conviction that art was not an escape from society but an integral part of it. 

With its big autumn show the Royal Academy has set itself a difficult task.  Bronze is a survey of this ancient and universal material and brings together 150 sculptures that date from 3,700 BC to 2012. Sculpture is not always a crowd-pleaser, Anish Kapoor’s 2009 RA exhibition notwithstanding, and the gallery is taking a risk with this recherché medium. Where it hopes to appeal is in both the geographical breadth of its exhibits and their quality.

Benin bronzes from Nigeria stand alongside pieces from second-millennium BC China, sixth-century India, Renaissance Italy and 1960s America. The loans are remarkable: Denmark’s greatest national treasure, a horse-drawn “Chariot of the Sun” from the 14th century BC, has been loaned, as has the most celebrated piece of all Etruscan art, the 400 BC “Chimera of Arezzo”. Unlike most other art forms bronzes of the highest quality are still being discovered, including the terrifyingly lifelike late Hellenistic head of King Seuthes III which was found in a Thracian tomb near Sofia in 2004 and the Roman Crosby Garrett cavalry helmet unearthed near Carlisle in 2010. Lost paintings of comparable quality turn up just once in the bluest of moons.

This is a brave and welcome show full of beautiful objects that demonstrate just why this simple copper alloy has long been held as a precious metal.