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Nigel Halliday

Victorian avant-garde
Tate Britain
Until 13 January


The rehabilitation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) may be a sign of the times. 30 years ago Andrew Lloyd-Webber's passion for them seemed eccentric and the Tate's works were rarely paraded. Now their combination of beauty, skill and narrative interest seem a welcome relief from the challenges and limitations of conceptualism.

This is an enjoyable exhibition, crowded with old favourites if you are familiar with PRB history, and delightful discoveries if you're not. As each work is marked by a love of detail, and usually much literary enrichment, you will need a hearty breakfast and a clear schedule before you embark.

The PRB formed in 1848 as a small group around John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Having three names was not a prerequisite for membership, as John Brett proved.  Nevertheless, it seemed to be the fashion, as with Ford Madox Brown and Charles Alliston Collins.) They called themselves Pre-Raphaelites in defiance of the pre-eminence of the Renaissance painter Raphael. The influence of his idealism had, they thought, made painting splashy, superficial and untrue to nature. The PRB modelled themselves on the earlier Renaissance, marked by clarity of design, description and colour, conveying a deeper sense of spiritual seriousness.

Rrossetti.jpgTo call the Pre-Raphaelites an avant-garde is more hype than historical argument.  Renato Poggioli's classic study The Theory of the Avant-Garde highlights qualities in the avant-garde that he calls 'agonism' and 'futurism' - the sense of artists sacrificing themselves for the sake of the future.  These qualities are absent from the comfortable nonconformity of the PRB. It began more in the spirit of a teenage prank with the members playfully signing their works 'PRB', rather than with their own names. But very soon, thanks to the intervention of Ruskin, it joined the mainstream.   

Then in later decades, as this exhibition demonstrates, it veered away from its early commitment to truth and engagement with reality. The ethereal women of later Rossetti and the mediaevalism of William Morris result in works of great beauty. But they seem a pallid retreat from reality, compared to their contemporaries among the Realists and Impressionists - and the PRB's own original ideals.

Like any art movement, the PRB faced contradictions that it never overcame. The problem for the early Pre-Raphaelites was that, the more realistic the painting, the harder it is to convey a spiritual or metaphorical meaning. There is no clue in Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat that this is anything more than a sharply realised goat at the edge of the Dead Sea. It seems a weakness in the painting that the metaphor is given by the title alone, and the spiritual meaning has to be read into the work. John Brett spent a heroic five months painting a delightful image of the Val d'Aosta, believing it to be a deeply spiritual work. He was, apparently, greatly upset when Ruskin then remarked that the work told you a lot about the creation, but nothing about the Creator. But Ruskin was right. It is a beautiful image, but any spiritual meaning has to be supplied.

The problem for the later Pre-Raphaelites was economic. Striving against the aesthetic poverty of industrial production, their beautiful, hand-produced work was unaffordable by most buyers of industrial goods. It was their followers a generation later in the Design and Industry Association and the Bauhaus, who sought to inject affordable beauty into industrial design.

Nevertheless, the PRB's work was profoundly of its time. Their paintings, on a scale for middle-class houses, tend to be still and contemplative, avoiding action scenes and focusing on personal relationships. As products of the Romantic era, there is a strong dose of doomed passion and nostalgia for innocent youth. But in the earlier period at least, there are also signs of hope. And throughout, there is a deeply serious, honest endeavour that is impressive. Their works are beautiful and repay close attention.

Nigel Halliday