A hundred and fifty years before Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, what you might call the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood’ modelled for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their timeless beauty, made more luminous by the vision (and no doubt the sexual acrobatics) of the Brotherhood, is now on display at the Tate, in a special survey of the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and their many followers. The exhibition looks at the PRB’s work from the time they formed in September 1848 through to the works of artists influenced by their style and ideology. The exhibition is a delicious prequel to the V&A’s display of the Aesthetic Movement last year.
While the PRB’s hedonistic pursuit of beauty at any cost is well known, it is their worship of nature that is embroidered all through their paintings. At the exhibition, I stood in front of Millais’s Ophelia for a good 15 minutes, staring at the pathos of Hamlet’s Ophelia, her supplication to eternity, the splashes of colour from the wildflowers that cling to her drowning body, the delicate twines engulfing her gown as she slowly sinks. While the PRB made no bones about the reproduction of nature as one of their main inspirations, what you note in their paintings is actually the blissful harmony of people (well, mostly women) and nature, a match so divine that both nature and humanity are elevated by it.
So, if you were a Pre-Raphaelite supermodel, which one would you be? Would you be Lizzie Siddal, the PRB’s favourite muse, immortalised by Millais’s Ophelia, a woman whose life changed one day as she walked out of the London hat-maker’s where she worked when she was spotted by the Brotherhood? Her addictive personality, the enormous abyss of longing in her for beauty, self-fulfillment, and for Rossetti’s loyalty make her a haunting figure. She was the perfect muse – while Millais was painting Ophelia, Siddal modelled for him submerged in a bathtub, and she stayed mute as the water slowly turned ice cold. She was a painter in her own right and found a supporter of her art in John Ruskin – though her art never quite matured enough and looks a little unfinished and childlike – all the way up to 1862 when she died of a laudanum overdose at 32 years of age. While her own paintings feature at the Tate, it is paintings like Ophelia and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix that really speak of Siddal’s lingering impact on modern art.
Would you be Fanny Cornforth, another of Rossetti’s many flings? Earthy, sexy and gloriously unself-conscious, Cornforth was a stark contrast to Siddal’s other-worldly, somewhat consumptive looks. Cornforth became Rossetti’s housekeeper after Siddal died in 1862, and had a relationship with him that lasted till his death in 1882. Paintings like Rossetti’s The Blue Bower and Monna Vanna of this red-headed beauty give the exhibition a special sumptuous light, and it is these paintings that helped Rossetti mature from a hankering amateur to a full-blown artist.
Or would you be Jane Morris – keenly intelligent, self-made, of an ambitious and steadfast disposition? Morris – born Jane Burden, daughter of a stableman – taught herself Italian and French, learnt the piano, and developed what were often noted as ‘queenly’ manners. She was married to William Morris, but had an on-again off-again relationship with Rossetti all his life.
Besides these iconic women, the exhibition also showcases cabinets and stained glass works by people like Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. While the exhibition is quite yummy, I have to say I was expecting a Tate Pre-Raphaelite survey to be full of excess. I thought I’d be running breathlessly from room to room full of panic about not being able to take it all in. There are some works missing like Rossetti’s Love’s Greeting or later works like John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot (1888). Still, if you are a fan of the PRB, the exhibition is not to be missed.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avante-Garde runs until Sunday 13 January 2013 at:
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Image: John Everett Millais, Ophelia 1851-2, Tate, Photo: Tate Photography