09 March 2019

Before Raphael ... or after Michelangelo

There were a few of the Pre-Raphaelites who were concerned with moral stories, Biblical scenes, working people and the rights of the lower classes. But they are most remembered for their women, for the femme fatales, for the "stunners" that were their models. For that's what they called their models who they eyed out and picked up on the street. Amusing to be writing this on International Women's Day, but these were young blokes in the prime of their lives and they had urges: the question is how they dealt with them. But the young models were maybe not madly diverse in intent. One wanted to be an artist and became one and was on show in the exhibition; another rejected one suitor and ended up marrying into wealth (was it minor aristocracy?). This was the second half of the 1800s and it was a harsh time to be a worker and a very comfortable time for wealth and power (common story). We took a free tour and that was interesting, then we revisited and saw things in our time. It's a very decent exhibition with some seriously famous works. There are several from Australian collections, notably Adelaide but also Melbourne. Australia was very English and very wealthy then. Adelaide also had direct connections with this movement. I knew one. I went to Adelaide Univ with a granddaughter of JW Waterhouse, one of the major late P-R artists, so I've been aware of his name for some time. And the best of these works are colourful and attractive and realistic and sometimes comely so they are popular. But there are also a string of biblical scenes. Rosetti's Annunciation that had an unusual element of reality - Mary didn't seem immediately taken by the offer she couldn't refuse - but authenticity was one concern of the Pre-Raphaelites. There were work-a-day scenes (Martineau's Kit's writing lesson and Maddox Brown's Work) and hinted seductions one way or the other (Holman Hunt's wakening conscience and Millais' Rescue) and a famous one of a couple departing for the new world (Maddox Brown's Last of England) and even landscapes. And the movement for beautiful housing appeared from William Morris and others, especially in a fabulous tapestry (Burne-Jones' Adoration of the Magi) but also in household pottery and utensils. There were numerous works of mythology and some gloriously statuesque, Michelangelesque paintings from Burne-Jones. But it must be the femme fatales and the renditions of the models themselves that are most inviting and known, especially the famed pair of Waterhouse Lady of Shalott and Millais Ophelia, which apparently almost cost the model her life from lying in a bath all day for weeks. Some of my favourites were Byrne-Jones Wheel of fortune that just felt 3d (very pre-deco) and collected models in Rosetti's Beloved. And Waterhouse for Dolce fa niente and the very active Magic circle (both from the Femme fatale room). And again Waterhouse for his Circe invidiosa which grew familiar to me as a work owned by Adelaide's Art Gallery. There's lots here that's attractive and interesting and it was far more impressive than I'd expected. A wonderful exhibition.

Love & Desire : Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces from the Tate is on display at the National Gallery of Australia until 28 April 2019.

List of works

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