Review: The Pre-Raphaelite – Victorian Avant Garde Exhibition at Tate Britain

This exhibition is on until January, and we managed to get tickets on the day although we had to wait a few hours and it was still very, very busy. Tickets are £14.

Ideally you would walk around this exhibition by yourself, listening to King Charles songs and wearing something floaty. Of course, that wasn’t my reality. Nonetheless, I’m really glad I went. At first I felt a little ripped off, since the really great stuff was paintings that you could see downstairs for free most of the year. But by the end I had seen in the flesh for the first time some amazing pieces of art, sculpture and textiles, and came away with a nuanced understanding of  the PRB’s influences and influential effect on their world.

The exhibition is arranged into seven rooms simply by subject matter (nature, beauty, salvation, etc) and also loosely by chronological progression. It includes work by artists outside of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including William Morris’ incredible fabrics and tapestries, and Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs. Comparing her work to paintings was especially interesting – the PRB’s women are so idealized, striking, and larger than life that you assume them to be fantasies, yet her photographs capture the same beauty, same attention to strong facial structures, and same haunting luminosity.

Also of particular interest was the sub-narrative of the PRB’s lovers, wives and models – an ever-present theme when their work is shown collectively, but particularly emphasized by this exhibition – and those women’s contributions to and collaborative effects on the paintings.

Too often the role of muse is cast as an empty, passive, and powerless one, but these women are at the heart of the PRB’s work and were often responsible for much of the composition, including choosing costumes and even poses. I know these paintings so well that watching the transformation of Elizabeth Siddal through the PRB’s work, culminating in Rossetti’s ‘Beata Beatrix’ painted a year after she died (probably from suicide) is always an emotional experience, and that particular painting for all its apparent simplicity feels crowded with his guilt and sorrow, and some

other, more complicated emotions – his idolization of her beauty, his place in a long tradition of art that saw women primarily as embodying abstract concepts. It, like all of their work, is best appreciated for the careful and poignant construction of a narrative through the details of the painting – the white poppy representing the laudanum that killed her, the derivation fromDante’s poem of love from first sight to death – this is one of the reasons why I keep coming back to their work. They hark back to medieval or greek mythology (as well as biblical, Shakespearean, and other stories) but in a similar way to WB Yeats use of Fenian mythology to express his country’s contemporary plight, their use of these narratives only proves their timelessness. Their women, for better or worse, really were Lillith, Proserpine, and Mary to them.

I think the arrangement of this exhibition, for all its overwhelming profusion of sensuous light and colour, flesh and nature, releases the PRB once and for all from the accusations of ‘beauty for beauty’s sake’. Because of the ‘avant-garde’ nature of their work, and their ancient subject matters, it is often hard to reconcile them with our other imaginings of Victorian Britain. But if you visit this exhibition for one reason, let it be the explanation it puts forth of their interconnected place in our artistic history.

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