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Pre-Raphaelite Haters Then And Now

What is the reason behind the strong reactions elicited by the Pre-Raphaelites, surpassing those of other art movements?

If the Pre-Raphaelites were present in contemporary times, they would likely be delighted to discover that they are still generating controversy.

Observing comments on the recent Observer online article regarding the upcoming Tate Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition reveals that opinions on the significance of Pre-Raphaelitism remain polarized.

The debate initiated by the audacious Brothers in 1848 about contemporary art continues to persist.

Views on the Pre-Raphaelites remain polarized: some admire the vibrant color palette, while others criticize the eroticized portrayal of women and overt symbolism.

Additionally, there are those dissatisfied with them for not aligning with the French Impressionists.

Pre-Raphaelitism: Beyond Painting Into Aesthetics And Ambition

The group’s aesthetic agenda encompassed more than just painting, extending into literature, design, photography, and even home decor.

As forerunners of Aestheticism, they embraced the profound interaction between the physical world and the human imagination.

The Pre-Raphaelites, shaped by critics and admirers, anticipated similar sentiments in Tate exhibition reviews as their Victorian counterparts’ reactions to the 1850 exhibitions.

Notable paintings included Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini, Hunt’s A Converted British Family, Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, and Deverell’s Twelfth Night.

[On Ecce Ancilla Domini] An unintelligent imitation of the mere technicalities of old Art–golden glories, fanciful scribblings on the frames, and other infantine absurdities–constitutes all its claim. (Athenaeum)

Can [Deverell] paint by the light of common sense as well as he can in the style nonsensical? For if he can, he might be a powerful painter: as it is, he is little more than a powerful practical joker, a self-burlesquer. (Spectator)

Sydney Smith said that Quakers would have clothed all creation in grey if they could. The ‘P.R.B.’ would be bolder still, for they would beat it out flat and make men and women like artfully-shaped and colored pancakes. (Illustrated London News)

‘monstrously perverse’ (Spectator)

The attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, and even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness, is disgusting…’ (The Times)

Though interesting to the eye of medicine, to the non-professional beholder they are unpleasant–not to say, revolting. (Punch)

they dream of material beauty but never get beyond the study of the skeleton. (Art Journal)

prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting. (Charles Dickens, Household Words)

… the mountebank [sic] proceedings of a small number of artists who, stimulated by their own conceit and by the applause of a few foolish persons, are endeavoringggg to set up a school of their own. We allude, [sic] to the pre-Raphaelites.
(Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine)

We have lingered too long over this frantic trash. (Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine)

Criticism Of Pre-Raphaelitism: A Legacy Of Contradictions

Since its inception, critiques of pre-aphaelitism have been marked by extreme contradictions, leading one to question whether critics are discussing the same artistic movement.

The movement has been labeled both childish and pornographically adult, radical and conservative, respectful towards women and scornful of them.

The 1984 Tate Pre-Raphaelite exhibition sparked varied opinions, labeled by the New Statesman as “Mrs. Thatcher’s Neo-Victorian Age” and criticized by the Sunday Telegraph for its bohemianism and ‘druggy’ muses.

Unlike nineteenth-century critics who disliked its realism, contemporary detractors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries take issue with its symbolism and fantasy.

However, the persistent notion that Pre-Raphaelitism is childish, vulgar, and repulsive is evident.

For instance, columnist Joe Queenan contends, ‘I know of no Pre-Raphaelite paintings that are not vulgar and stupid; they make Boucler and Fragonard look like gritty urban realists. They are easily the worst painters that ever lived.’

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Divergent Contemporary Critiques Of Pre-Raphaelitism

Laura Cumming, in an 1850 Spectator-like tone, criticizes Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death, noting Christ’s ‘alarming varicose veins.’

Andrew Marr blames Rossetti for the Pre-Raphaelites’ artistic direction, citing ‘luxurious Classical fantasies’ and a ‘dead end.’

In a somewhat surprising stance, Germaine Greer criticizes the Pre-Raphaelites for not being French impressionists. She characterizes their work as ‘false sentiment, fancy dress, and finicking pseudo-realism,’ leading their followers into a welter of truly bad art: stultified, inauthentic, meretricious, and vulgar.’ Despite her modernity, Greer’s perspective echoes a Victorian sensibility in her dismissal of Pre-Raphaelitism.

As the reviews pour in following the Tate’s exhibition, it promises to be interesting to observe how many of these historical objections resurface.

The enduring controversy surrounding Pre-Raphaelitism prompts reflection.

Why, in your opinion, does Pre-Raphaelitism evoke such passionate reactions? Do you find yourself enamored or repulsed by Pre-Raphaelitism, and what shapes your sentiment toward this art movement?

This article was initially published on Dinah’s blog Pre-Raphaelites in the City.

Nishan Dahal
Nishan Dahal
Nishan Dahal, an astute editor and versatile writer, polishes the gems of storytelling and brings forth captivating narratives that sparkle with brilliance.

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