Visual Art

Bursting with colour, overwrought with emotion and rich in symbolism – the grandiloquent works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood leave the Tate to enliven the walls of the NGA in an exhibition powerful enough to convert even a non-fan. By Miriam Cosic.

Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate

Work by Ford Madox Brown
Work by Ford Madox Brown

I’ve never thought much of the Pre-Raphaelites. I’ll admit to loving their femmes fatales, but I’ve always thought that was more to do with channelling my swoony romantic girlhood than with any adult appreciation of art. Romance at its schmaltziest, but very pretty. Why look at the awkward updating of the early Renaissance when the elegance of the originals is there to see? Why seek out vapid 19th-century Neoclassicists – worlds away from the polished grandeur of the French movement that just preceded them – when the radicalism and aesthetic intensity of the Impressionists is ubiquitous?

God, or the devil, is in the detail.

Formed by several young artists in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelites were atheists, despite their preoccupation with Christian themes. They were working out in the open, en plein air, before the Impressionists, distancing themselves from the rush and clutter of the industrialising world, the epicentre of which was Imperial Britain. Yet their palette used the latest, brightest colours 19th-century chemistry had developed, with an initially secret formula of application – first covering their canvases with white paint, which lent the thin glazes of colour applied on top a particular brightness and depth. The works appeared garish to conservative eyes, and probably still do, to eyes trained by Modernism and Postmodernism.

The strong-jawed women who feature in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites were shocking in their day, as they did not conform to stereotypes of innocent girls or bourgeois mothers or passive odalisques. Germaine Greer once called it “pretentious pornography”. Yet the artists’ commentary on the position of women was closer to the sympathy that Verdi or Puccini had for the betrayed heroines of the demimonde in their operas than to the heartbreaking femmes fatales who preyed on submissive men in the poetry of Baudelaire and his decadent ilk.

The impressive array of Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Tate on show at the National Gallery of Australia – titled Love & Desire – provides a vivid tutorial in these contradictions. Padded out with some key works from local galleries and private collections, the exhibition spans almost 50 years in 100 works by 21 artists. Among them are some crowd-pleasing stars of Tate Britain that have never been taken off its walls, let alone toured, including John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, and Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa. The Tate’s curator of 19th-century art, Carol Jacobi, who co-curated this show, said visitors have been asking the Tate’s attendants where the paintings went since the day they went missing from the gallery.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed when most were studying at the Royal Academy Schools. Led by Rossetti, Millais and William Holman Hunt, they were immensely frustrated by academic art; indeed, by all art, since what they considered to be the purity of the early Renaissance.

With the gang instincts of young men everywhere, they called their group the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and cabalistically signed the initials PRB after their names on their early paintings. They were preoccupied with beauty and the pageantry of both biblical stories and mediaeval romances.

Earlier, they were also interested in social justice, though that faded later when others joined the group and it segued into the Aesthetic Movement, which came to believe in art for art’s sake. The younger generation, including Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse, painted huge and dramatic works that were far removed from reality. “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire,” Burne-Jones wrote.

Waterhouse’s later painting The Lady of Shalott (1888), an illustration of the melancholic poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is a good example of both the aesthetics and the group’s technical principles.

Tennyson was best known for his chef-d’oeuvre of the Arthurian legends, “Idylls of the King”. Allied in theme, The Lady of Shalott fitted the passion of the Brotherhood with its stories of young, beautiful and doomed women. At the moment of the painting, the Lady has abandoned the tower in which a curse had kept her imprisoned, for love of Sir Lancelot, whom she has only glimpsed in passing. She is seated in the boat that will take her to Camelot, though she will arrive dead of the curse upon her.

The Pre-Raphaelites would spend days, weeks, in situ studying nature and painting it for their backgrounds, into which they would insert their figures. It was an uneconomic practice and poverty haunted most of them. In The Lady of Shalott, every leaf, stick, branch and ripple of water is painstakingly limned. The cloth on which the Lady sits is finely detailed, too, with scenes of the knights and other mediaeval goings on. A crucifix is laid in the bow of the boat and candles are placed before it. A lantern on the prow lights the way. The Lady’s clothes and their golden decorations suggest her aristocracy, while her flowing red hair and doomed expression are pointedly tragic. Beyond the surface beauty, both Christian and mediaeval symbolism abound.

Ford Madox Brown’s Work, laboriously painted between 1852 and 1865, is an example of the movement’s earlier, more socially conscious work, which mirrored that of Dickens in its almost sociological examination of 19th-century poverty. Work is a sprawling masterpiece that stands at the entry to Love & Desire. A confused depiction of busyness at first glance, constructed with minute attention to detail, its meaning emerges as the viewer draws close. Working men with their head kerchiefs and shovels, digging a trench in harsh sunlight, are the focal point.

Around them are vignettes of working-class life and of the dreadful poverty that industrialisation and urbanisation brought. In front is a girl so thin her bones stick out, wearing an oversized dress that must have been her mother’s. She is disciplining one younger brother and holding a baby, a portrait of Brown’s own dead son, while a little girl stands close. Elsewhere, a mother feeds her baby gruel, made of flour and water. A woman selling oranges is moved on by the police. Driving Brown’s point home, two aristocrats on horseback have stopped to survey the scene.

Christian images span the period of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Some, such as Brown’s The Entombment (1870-78), evoke the early Renaissance, both in the organisation of the picture and in the solid gold haloes of the holy characters. Symbolism is everywhere – a grapevine representing the Eucharist, the sheep deprived of their shepherd, aspects of Jewish ritual.

Holman Hunt’s histrionic paintings, including The Shadow of Death, are harder for the modern eye to take. His most famous picture, The Light of the World, is the calmest, though still full of visual profusion that took years to produce. Holman Hunt’s fortune was made when prints of the piece were distributed worldwide – one of the first mass-marketed images of the modern era. Rossetti’s Ecce ancilla domini! (The Annunciation) was shown in the first Brotherhood exhibition in 1850. Its minimalism and its cool blue-brown tones it is more to the modern taste. The symbols of Renaissance Christianity are everywhere – the lily, the dove, the haloes, the fire at the feet of the Angel, the cowering fear of the Virgin Mary – but they don’t distract from the action.

The Pre-Raphaelites, in the public mind, are less connected with landscapes, overshadowed by those stunning women. But it is in this room that some of the most modern-looking images hang. John Brett’s The British Channel seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs (1871) shows a similar obsession with light to the Impressionists’. Instead of breaking colour into its molecular constituents as they did, however, Brett layers his pinks and yellows and various hues of blue on the white Pre-Raphaelite canvas and creates his clouds from washes applied with fabric. His Glacier of Rosenlaui (1856) is a bravura depiction of ice and rocks and cloud, painted in the Swiss Alps. The painting reveals both the era’s need to reconcile Christian doctrine with the emerging theory of evolution and the Romantic notion of the sublime.

Always, of course, one returns to the women. The climax of Love & Desire is its final room, where the celebrity pictures hang. En route, however, we have passed less sexualised depictions of women. In Burne-Jones’s Preliminary studies for Troy (1871) we see the goddess Fortune dressed in an elaborate but dun-coloured gown, helmeted and with her eyes shut to depict her blindness, turning an enormous wheel in which three nude men – a slave, a poet and a king – are suspended. Elsewhere, Millais’s The Vale of Rest (1858-59) depicts two nuns in a graveyard. The elder is seated, the younger shovels earth for a burial. It is dusk, the sky just fading, dark trees and the church’s belltower silhouetted against it, the dark green grass and brown soil. The mood is eerie.

There is plenty here to impress lovers of the grandiloquent Pre-Raphaelite movement. Yet the show also holds more than enough to keep the seeker of quieter experiences intrigued.

Arts Diary

CULTURE 100 Years: 100 Objects – Finally the War is Over

Burnie Regional Museum, until April 21

VARIOUS Sydney Festival

Venues throughout Sydney, January 9-27

MULTIMEDIA Let There Be Rock

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until February 17

VARIOUS Fringe World Festival

Venues throughout Perth, January 18–February 17

FESTIVAL So Frenchy So Chic

Pinky Flat, Adelaide, January 11

Werribee Park, Melbourne, January 13

Bicentennial Park, Sydney, January 19

MULTIMEDIA Beyond Reason: Exploring the Logic of the Imagination

QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, until February 3

MUSICAL Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 5–May 19

CULTURE Falls Music and Arts Festival

Lorne, Victoria, December 28–January 1

Marion Bay, Tasmania, December 29-31

North Byron Parklands, NSW, December 31–January 2

Fremantle Oval Precinct, Western Australia, January 5-6

SCIENCE Museum of the Moon

Scienceworks, Melbourne, until April 28

MULTIMEDIA Toby Ziegler: Your Shadow Rising

MONA Museum, Hobart, until March 25

MULTIMEDIA Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni's The Everted Capital

MONA Museum, Hobart, until February 4


Arts Centre, Melbourne, until February 16

THEATRE Since Ali Died

SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, January 7-19

THEATRE Twelfth Night

Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until January 9

MUSIC Nag Nag Nag V

Marrickville Golf Club, Sydney, January 18

Marrickville Bowling Club, Sydney, January 19

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 22, 2018 as "Hues brothers".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.