Avant garde? – No, actually that’s Pollock’s

11th September 2012
This week sees the opening of a major new exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London. It's entitled 'Pre-Raphaelites - Victorian Avant Garde.'
banner advert for exhibition, woman in green robe
Don't worry, it's avant garde. (I'm cool. How about you?)
This is a most mouthwatering prospect for any art lover. And the Tate is to be congratulated on putting on such a fabulous event. The term avant garde, by the way, is French for 'advanced guard.' It first came into use as a term for describing art only about 1910. Is the title therefore an accurate description of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite movement? I don't think so.

Let's get a couple of things straight, shall we, before we carry on.

This is proper ‘avant garde’- it’s a work by Jackson Pollock …
abstract painting, colourful blobs
This is a Pre-Raphaelite painting - it's a work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ...
painting of woman seated combing red hair, with mirror
Can you spot the difference yet? Good - that's our first lesson in the Avant Garde, successfully completed. Now on to the rest of this article.
The real Pre-Raphaelites

An awful lot of nonsense has been written and will no doubt continue to be written (perhaps even in this blogpost) about the Pre-Raphaelites, that brilliant and highly original group of artists who created a distinctive style of allegorical English painting at the mid-point of the 19th Century. There are many today who would like to just think of them as angry young men and women. We have heard the word 'revolutionary' over and over again this week. Is this really the best way to package the Pre-Raphs' to a modern audience? The answer might be yes. But what a pity!

Anyway, for what it's worth, here is Rob's Alternative Handy Guide to the Pre-Raphs' - a group of rather nice Victorian gentlemen who had a penchant for Christianity and saving fallen women. Oh yes, and for painting beautiful pictures (I nearly forgot about that!)

All right. I know, that doesn't sound terribly avant garde - but it gets worse! - because I don't even think they were all that 'angry' or revolutionary either. They wouldn't have been able to get through the sheer volume of work they did if they had been constantly throwing their toys out the pram.

A product of their times

Yes, the Pre-Raphaelites were different, they were radical, but they were also very much a product of their times, of their culture. And that culture was one which (rather inconveniently for anyone wanting to portray them as swivel-eyed revolutionaries) celebrated things like polite conduct, hard graft, philanthropy, Christian/Humanist values, Gothic architecture and design - and, in their weaker moments, probably more than a little helping of Imperial pomp and swagger. (Prince Albert's Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace was being planned at that very moment, don't forget).

Founded in 1848 by artists William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood became a loosely bound gathering of assorted genius, which quickly brought in other exceptional creative spirits such as William Morris and later, Edward Burne Jones, John William Waterhouse and many others. Rather than being avant garde, they were really more intent on looking backwards in time, to an era when painting was, if only in their imaginations, of a higher standard of allegorical content and visual accuracy. They wanted their paintings to faithfully reflect nature and anatomical detail and also to have a deeper meaning - beyond the merely decorative.

Sources and Inspiration

For this purpose they drew upon medieval art; on Christian themes; on the plays of Shakespeare and even older English texts such as Le Mort d' Arthur for inspiration - along with contemporary derivatives such as the fabulous neo-Gothic movement in literature and architecture in vogue at the time, and - last but by no means least - the wonderful poetry of Tennyson. Altogether not very avant garde - but hey, what more do you want! Who needs the avant garde when you've got that kind of back yard to play in!

Later manifestations

No handy guide would be complete without a picture. So here, above, is one of my favourite 'Pre-Raphaelite' works. It was, however, painted many years after the founding of the group. This one was as late as 1916, and you won't find it in the Tate exhibition. It is a later manifestation of the Pre-Raphalite genre called "'I Am Half-Sick of Shadows' Said the Lady of Shalott" by John William Waterhouse. It shows a moment from the poem The Lady of Shalott by Tennyson.
painting of woman seated at loom, red dress, dark hair
By J.W. Waterhouse - one of his several Lady of Shalotts.
This is a work that deals with neo-Platonic themes of illusion versus the reality that lies beyond the physical world - a reality that we humans see as shadows of the divine light of reason or, if you are so inclined (and most of the Pre-Raphaelites were so inclined), God.


Don't mention religion.

Religioin and God - these are difficult words for many 21st century English folk. A recent survey determined that we have become one of the least-religious nations of the world. But it tends to slip into the conversation quite often if you really want to get to the bottom of the Pre-Raphaelites. How very inconvenient! It's a bit like that famous episode of the sitcom Fawlty Towers when the Germans come to stay at the hotel. 'Ssh! Whatever you do don't mention the war!'
hotel manager and waiter speaking
We will probably have quite a lot of 'Ssh! Whatever you do don't mention Christianity!' in the coming months as the critics and commentators in the press and on TV endeavour once again to skirt around everything that made the Pre-Raphs tick and instead do their best to focus on all their oddities. Those fine, clever, spiritually-literate 19th century gentlemen will become, for a short time anyway, 'the Victorian Avant Garde.' And we shall all have to pretend they really were.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

You might also like

Arthur Hughes. The 'quiet' Pre-Raphaelite
small sketch of young Victorian gentleman artist, long hair
Georgian era
The Skating Minister by Sir Henry Raeburn.
small image of black-clad minister skating on ice
When Alexander met the Queen. The ingenious Mr Bell.
sepia tone photo of Queen Victoria, half-profile, smiling
Um ... made me a bit shifty-looking, haven't you?
small portrait image of Italian novleman in large black hat