Exactly a week ago today, when I was in Washington D.C., I spent the afternoon at the National Gallery of Art. A friend of a friend had recommended I see the Albrecht Dürer exhibit, but when I arrived in front of the West Building’s main façade and saw the banner advertising another exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites, I knew that Dürer didn’t stand a chance.
“Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900” is the first major exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to be organised in the United States. It features 130 works of art on loan from the Tate Gallery – paintings, sculpture, photographs, and decorative artefacts – which reveal the imaginative power and scope of the group founded in 1848 by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in open defiance of the Royal Academy.
What mingled sensations of pleasure, privilege, and awe you experience as you enter a room and behold paintings which you have read so much about, which you have seen reproduced so many times (with varying degrees of success), but never before seen in the flesh, so to speak! What a pang you get as, again and again, in the faces of the subjects, you recognise the features of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Burden, or even Rossetti himself! Millais’s Ophelia, Morris’s La Belle Iseult, Rossetti’s Proserpine, his Bocca Baciata, his Beata Beatrix… they were all there, every brush stroke as fresh and vivid as if the paint had just been applied.
Scenes from the Bible, from Arthurian legend, from Shakespeare, Dante, and Keats vied for my attention; besides the more famous canvases, there were others, by friends and admirers – satellites, as it were, of the Pre-Raphaelites. I was interested, for example, in some small paintings by Elizabeth Siddal, which, with their glowing colours and great precision of detail, bore a strong resemblance to mediaeval manuscripts. Also of note was a large decorative screen, all three panels of which had been embroidered by Jane Morris. It was a very rich and varied exhibit, and I emerged three hours later, my head reeling with colours, patterns, and images of mysterious, elongated female figures. Washingtonians, the exhibit is on until May 19th, so you still have a chance to go and see it!
The Pre-Raphaelites were to be a bit of a running theme for me this past week, for this weekend I came across a lovely blog called The Kissed Mouth. The title, added to the fact that the authoress writes under the pseudonym Fanny Cornforth (Rossetti’s model and mistress) makes it clear the blog’s subject is the Pre-Raphaelites – with a certain preference for Rossetti, it seems, which is far from displeasing to me! Though Miss Cornforth is perhaps a little too apt to swoon and drool over the smouldering sexiness of Mr Rossetti, which sometimes gives her blog the flavour of a teen fan page, she may be forgiven this in light of the many interesting topics she covers. I particularly enjoyed her recent article on May Morris, entitled “William’s Daughter”.
Fired with enthusiasm all over again, I knew there was only one thing to do: sit down to watch an episode (or two or three!) of the 2009 BBC mini-series “Desperate Romantics”. Focusing on the tight-knit group formed by Millais, Hunt, Rossetti, and the fictional art critic Fred Walters (a conflation of Frederick George Stephens, Walter Deverell, and Rossetti’s brother William), it tells the story of their friendship, their careers, and their rivalries, both artistic and amorous, from the moment when they first discover Elizabeth Siddal in a hat shop and convince her to model for them, to her suicide several years later.
What I like so much about this series is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s meant to be fun, as you discover from the very beginning – as soon as you hear the title tune, in fact. It begins sweetly enough, but just as you are lulled into thinking that you’re in for another period drama in the grand BBC tradition of “Pride and Prejudice”, an anachronistic bass beat starts up and sweeps you up in its wake. For a split second, I hated it. Then I burst out laughing…and fell in love. I think that title tune tells you all you need to know about the film and what it aims to be: modern, energetic and audacious. Adjectives that could all be applied to the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, for these were men who longed – and indeed, did their very best – to shake their contemporaries out of their staid Victorian complacency.
Easily the most provocative of the group was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and I think Aidan Turner (better known now as the dwarf Killi in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit) excels at capturing the passion and the excesses of the Italian painter-poet. Rossetti comes off as a man of multiple contradictions: possessed of enormous talent yet chronically lazy; arrogant but also charming, with a rare gift for persuasion (i.e. getting his own way); an affectionate friend, yet both selfish and self-serving; a visionary artist, in constant pursuit of a poetic ideal, but at the same time a man of coarser appetites, addicted to laudanum, cheap gin, and cheap women. In short, one of those larger than life characters, both charismatic and infuriating, whose antics are a source of endless fascination, even as we pity poor Lizzy Siddal for her devotion to him.
© Florence Berlioz 2013