Tate Britain exhibition to uncover sexy, dangerous side of the Pre-Raphaelites
London gallery aims to dispel group’s prudish image with works by Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown
Pre-Raphaelite artists were Britain’s first modern art movement with rebellious ideas and revolutionary methods way ahead of their time, a major new exhibition at Tate Britain will argue.
John Everett Millais, Mariana (1851) Photograph: Tate Britain (Click to see full artwork)
The gallery is staging the biggest survey of the group’s work since 1984 and aims to dispel once and for all any notion that Pre-Raphaelite art was safe, prudish and ‘chocolate box’.
One example is John Everett Millais’ extraordinary Isabella, which normally hangs in Liverpool. Inspired by a Keats poem, the work is packed with danger and symbols – “a Hollywood blockbuster” of a painting, according to Carol Jacobi, a Tate curator who has studied the painting for a number of years.
Jacobi has concluded that the abundance of phallic symbols in the painting – a stiff thrust of a leg, a nutcracker, a shadow from a groin – was completely deliberate.
The phallic nature of Isabella is not well established; it is sometimes assumed to be little more than furtive schoolboy naughtiness, especially since Millais was 19 when he painted it.
Jacobi begs to differ. She points to the white splodge of salt from an overturned salt cellar: Victorian audiences would have known what that was all about because all the medical books warned of the dangers of ‘self abuse’. It was not a case of ‘you’ll go blind’, but it would cause you to lose control over your body both literally and psychologically.
Given that the character goes on to murder and decapitate Lorenzo – a man who is falling for his sister – the analysis begins to make sense. “It is stunningly innovative, a really effective way of giving us an insight into the character,” says Jacobi.
“The amazing thing about the Pre-Raphaelites is that it is extreme painting. They use every possible stylistic and pictorial effect to intensify what they are doing, they are interested in finding ways of showing what is going on inside these people’s heads.”
Jacobi has written a research paper on the painting, which will be published online by Tate.
The true drama of Isabella is just one example of how the artists tried to reinvent painting. The show contains around 180 works by artists including Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown.
The exhibition, which opens to the public on Wednesday, aims to cast fresh light on the Pre-Raphaelites in a number of areas and argues that it was one of the earliest avant-garde art movements, well ahead of the Impressionists and Cubists and Surrealists.
It includes a number of significant loans, not least Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott which has not been seen in the UK since the Festival of Britain in 1951 and has been loaned by the oldest museum in the US, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut.
It is one of the latest Pre-Raphaelite paintings and provides the show’s dramatic conclusion. Co-curator Jason Rosenfeld said: “I always think of this as the Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott of late 19th-century painting. This painting does everything, it has movement, colour, action and scale – it feels cinematic and it is meant to blow you away.”
Another is Ford Madox Brown’s extraordinary painting Work, which co-curator Tim Barringer called “one of the greatest paintings of the 19th century. It is a consummate achievement of 19th century realism.”
Barringer said it was a painting that people could easily spend hours looking at and still not understand everything that was going on and, significantly, it is being shown at Tate Britain without glass in front of it.
• Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde 12 September-13 January
by the Guardian – Mark Brown
Category: Art News