Pre-Raphaelites in The City: The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain: Victorian Avant-Garde?

Dinah Roe

The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain: Victorian Avant-Garde? A Reviews Round-Up

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 hotly-anticipated ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ has been open for a month and the critics have had their chance to weigh in. As always, it is interesting to note the very personal tenor of some responses.

Below is a selection of quotations from the broadsheet reviews, along with links to the full texts, where available. This is only meant to give the general tenor of each review; I urge you to read the reviews in their entirety. My own review was given on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ on 10 Sept 2012. Click here to listen

Of course, the best way to make up your mind is to go and see the Tate exhibition for yourself! The exhibition runs until 13 January 2013 before going abroad, so there are plenty of chances to catch it.

If you have seen it, I’d be interested to hear what you thought. Did this exhibition persuade you that the Pre-Raphelites are avant-garde? What did you like best? What did you dislike? What worked? What didn’t? Would you recommend this exhibition to others? Please leave your responses in the ‘Comments’ section below.

The Telegraph, 10 Sept 2012
Alaistair Sooke
Star Rating: 3/5

It annoys me that we are invited to view the Pre-Raphaelites through the retrospective prism of Modernism, since this privileges the more recent at the expense of the past.

But its attempts to break fresh scholarly ground can feel frustrating. Occasionally the argument is at odds with what we see on the walls.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, then, is an ambitious show full of amazing pictures. Yes, I disagreed with many of its arguments, but at least they will get people thinking – which is essential, lest such over-familiar artworks ossify into cliché.

The Guardian 11 Sept 2012
Jonathan Jones
Star Rating 3/4

Tate Britain’s new Pre-Raphaelites exhibition is a steam-punk triumph, a raw and rollicking resurrection of the attitudes, ideas and passions of our engineering, imperialist, industrialist, capitalist and novel-writing ancestors.

This is by far the best exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art I have seen – but does it make the case that these painters were an “avant garde” (the exhibition’s subtitle) who helped create modern art?

The Independent, 11 Sept 2012
Michael Glover
Star Rating: N/A

Some of what is claimed is undeniably true though: these artists were indeed looking afresh at nature. They were painting in the open air about a decade or more before the Impressionists began to claim that practice for themselves.

Only in the very last rooms of the show does the curators’ argument seem to make some sense. By this time the idea of Pre-Raphaelitism has evolved through Aestheticism and into something else altogether, a kind of painting that has begun to shrug off the idea of particular subject matter, and is inclining towards Symbolism and even Surrealism.

The Times, 12 Sept 2012
Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Star Rating: N/A

For those already persuaded of the charms of the Pre-Raphaelite painters the latest Tate Britain show will, on the most basic level, present a garden of earthly delights—and offered in such quantity that you will surely manage to find a free canvas to scrutinise in all its intricate detail.

With unrelenting energy, and in never-before rivalled detail, the exhibition pursues its arguments, hammering them in harder and harder with the benefit of historical hindsight, until one can’t help suspecting that even the Pre-Raphaelites would have found themselves convinced.

The Evening Standard 13 Sept 2012

Brian Sewell
Star Rating: N/A

This is not my hoped-for exhibition of pre-Pre-Raphaelites and the boys’ responses to them, nor of their early work before the idea of Pre-Raphaelitism seized them, nor of the changes wrought by whatever was in their unwritten manifesto; of the 175 exhibits listed in the catalogue only 20 represent the five years of the Brotherhood’s existence. Had these been hung together, combining in their impact to engender acute insights in terms of realism, emotion, colour, light and technique, we might have identified the probable declarations of the absent manifesto; but they are instead scattered to illustrate such imposed themes as Salvation, Beauty and Paradise, all chronology discarded.

… all will leave this exhibition in confusion as absolute as mine in the year of their centenary, indeed worse, for they will have no idea of what is meant by the subtitle, Victorian Avant-Garde.

The Telegraph, Seven Magazine Review, 14 Sept 2012
Alastair Smart
Star Rating: 3/5

… it’s a Marmite movement that some love, I myself loathe, but everyone has an opinion on.

Against the odds, though, this exhibition proves something of a revelation. Not aesthetically. Nor, quite, in its re-packaging of the Pre-Raphs (traditionally considered wan romantics) as proto-YBAs: ballsy, young rebels who shook up the art establishment…Where the show really excels is in its erudite look at the historical backdrop of Victorian England.

This show will have you looking at Pre-Raph art with new eyes. Albeit not ones, sadly, that make the pictures look any better.

Sunday Times, 16 Sept 2012
Waldemar Januszczak
Star Rating: N/A

Until this feeble show arrived and convinced me all over again of the incurable ludicrousness of the pre-Raphaelites, purveyors of ye olde complete twaddle to the Victorian merchant classes, I was ready to believe they weren’t as bad as I remembered.

The exhibition paperwork tries to argue that we should see the PRB as avant-gardists, rather than escapists, but the show itself achieves no such revision.

… the best way to enjoy it is to forget its themes altogether and concentrate on searching out its best paintings

The Observer, 16 Sept 2012
Laura Cumming
Star Rating: N/A

Indeed, what this show really offers is not a new take on the Pre-Raphaelites so much as the chance to be struck anew.

... although the paintings may differ from one artist to the next, what strikes is the deadening pre-Raphaelite effect. The characteristics are always the same: glistening excess, lurid colour, that all-over emphasis and oppressive density of detail that leaves the eye with nowhere to go, that demands your obedient attention. This is an art that insists on telling you where to look, what to think and how to feel - that wants to turn you into a passive Burne-Jones zombie.

The Daily Mail 8 Oct 2012
Star Rating: 4/5
Philip Hensher

Victorian Avant-Garde, featuring some of their most striking and impressive paintings, is a certain crowd-puller.

This is an engaging exhibition. I will point out, though, that a good number of the best paintings are from the Tate’s own collection and often on show in any case. But there are probably enough borrowed works to make this survey of the best-loved of English painting schools worth a visit.

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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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.