In Paris recently, I was delighted to discover that the Musée d’Orsaywas playing host to the Victoria & Albert Exhibition, ‘The Cult Of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement, 1860 – 1900.’ I’d already gotten my Pre-Raphaelite jollies from seeing the exhibition in London, but I was curious to see what the French would do differently. Famous Pre-Raphaelite haters, the French were bound to emphasize different aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism. While the face of Frederick Leighton’s flirtatious Pavonia graced the poster for the English exhibition, Waterhouse’s full-length, drowsy Saint Cecile strained at her girdle in the Musée d’Orsay’s version. The stereotype-reinforcing French exhibition title made me chuckle. ‘Beauté, Morale, Volupté: dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde’ saw off the polite ‘Cult of Beauty’. The title also made it clear that this was more Oscar Wilde’s nineteenth century than Queen Victoria’s.
When I recently tweeted the question: ‘Why do people hate the Pre-Raphaelites?’, the first reply I received was: ‘Because Andrew Lloyd Webber likes them.’ This is Pre-Raphaelitism’s problem (and the new exhibition’s) in a nutshell. How can Pre-Raphaelitism challenge its image as an insular, conservative, retrogressive, stereotypically ‘Victorian’ movement which appeals solely to the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Margaret Thatcher and ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’?
Tate Britain’s answer is to recast the movement as avant-garde, putting the works in their historical context in order to (the catalogue explains) present the artists as a ‘self-conscious’ ‘radical’ group interested in ‘overturning current orthodoxies in art’ and being ‘directly engaged with the contemporary world’. Whether critics and viewers will be convinced by this approach remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Pre-Raphaelitism has succeeded in exciting debate. It seems everyone (curators, academics and the public) has his or her own very personal and passionately-defended ‘vision’ or version of the Pre-Raphaelite story.
The erudite and irreverent folks at LitBits, a podcast billing itself as 'somewhere between the pub and the seminar room', recently invited me on to discuss the topic 'Literature and Art.' As you've probably guessed, I talk at some length about Pre-Raphaelitism. The podcast's delightful hosts not only made me feel very welcome, they also made me think about art and literature in new ways. And I hope you'll have the same experience. Click HERE to listen. You can also download this podcast as an MP3. And while you're on their site, why not listen to them discussing literature 'from odd and surprising angles' with a fantastic lineup of guests, including an advertiser, a chef and a poet (among many others)!
Victorian Obsession, the new exhibition at Leighton House, has once again turned modern critics into Victorian ones. As I have banged on about elsewhere, (HERE and HERE) today’s critics uncannily (and perhaps unconsciously) echo the opinions of their nineteenth-century Royal-Academy-loving forebears in expressing their distaste for the childishness, vulgarity and escapism which they see as characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their followers.
This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.