Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (taken from Wikipedia)
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters, poets, and critics formed in 1848. They wished to restore art and literature to a more spiritual form of expression, instead of the rather formal constraints of academic art. Certain simple conventions prevailed in art beginning with Raphael. There was a tendency to avoid ostentation or excessive realism in any form. The Pre-Raphaelite wanted to return to a style that sought to depict nature as accurately as possible with extreme detail, realism, and spectacular color. All of this was in the service of a more spiritual result. They were in the vanguard of the Romantic movement in the arts. The Brotherhood didn’t last that long, by the end of the 1860’s they had more or less gone their separate ways, but their work inspired the later Symbolists and eventually the Decadence movement. The primary artists within the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Daniel Gabriel Rossetti. What I really like about these artists are how they depict the female form. They conveyed the magical quality of a woman’s face. There is a rich sensuality to their works due to the hyperrealism (my term. they were HD before the term existed). and vivid use of beautiful sexy colors. Beauty and sex are so closely related it is hard to separate the two. Sex is the desire to become one with the beautiful beloved, to merge together forming a new, uniquely beautiful and sexy being, and on it goes. From my perspective, art can serve a magical purpose, allowing the viewer to access parts of his or her self in ways not possible in any other way. Besides, it is awkward and rude to stare at a beautiful woman, however a painting of a beautiful woman can be stared at with delight, with no ill consequences. Alas, in some respects, all realistic art is pornographic. This is why realistic art was banned in the middle ages. I used to think they just didn’t have the skills, but no, the simple unrealistic forms are deliberate. Notice Rossetti’s use of the pomegranite (at least, I think that is what she’s holding). An unconscious association is made with the vagina. In the world of the pre-Raphaelite and even more so, the Symbolists and Decadents, objects and settings are symbols of other things or ideas. The paintings are a way of pointing to experiences that cannot be shown or heard, the spiritual realm if you will. It appeals to both my spiritual and perverse imaginations. There are many artists which have been considered Pre-Raphaelite who actually painted much later, such as John William Waterhouse, Gustave Moreau, These painters often used ancient myths and medieval tales as source material. Carl Jung would have said they were giving form to the universal archetypes of the collective unconscious. Freud would have said these paintings were a way of giving expression to their overflowing libido. They could both be right. All I know is that I can stare at these paintings for hours, lost in a reverie. For me, the experience is akin to the transformation of the senses which takes place when you fall in love. Everything becomes transformed, there is a special quality to the light, and the colors are magnificent when you are in love. I think that experience lies at the heart of pre-Raphaelite paintings. Then add a little Lord Byron, Shelley, or Yeats, and it is a veritable orgy of Romanticism. Perfect for young lovers!
Millais "Autumn Leaves" 1856
Check out Proserpine by Rossetti above, do you see the hair? Rossetti could depict such rich, lush, hair better than anyone! You feel as though you could reach out and stroke her thick lovely hair. And the look within those dark eyes cannot be fully expressed. It depicts someone in deep thought, tinged with melancholy, and yet it is relatively subtle compared to the melodramatic style of the Symbolists. That is a useful distinction between the pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist. The Symbolist creates pure icons, divorced from that super realistic style of the pre-Raphaelite. The pre-Raphaelite uses nature itself to create that spiritual tipping point into blissful or perhaps mournful reverie. We have all had those pre-Raphaelite moments if you will, within our daily lives. Moments which are indelibly pressed into our consciousness. John Everett Millais, on the left, depicts what is for me an incredibly poignant scene, but not maudlin such as you might find in a Norman Rockwell print of the same kind of scene. Once again the effect is subtle but powerful. The light in this painting evokes autumn perfectly, and the expressions on the girl’s faces evoke a slight melancholy, but also pleasure. There is a hint of sadness even in the landscape. This is how autumn feels. Millais is a bit more conventional, not resorting to the hyper realism of Rossetti. You might say Millais preferred using more of a soft focus in his work. But I still can’t get over the exquisite use of color! One good thing about the internet age is the fact that you have entire art galleries at your fingertips. Of course it isn’t the same as having the paintings right in front of you, but at least you can access vast archives of paintings. I would encourage you to google these artists and see what you can find. Your computer monitor can serve as an imaginary light table bringing those paintings to life!
William Holman Hunt: Isabella and the pot of basil 1868
Finally, for this post, I include one of the many wonderful paintings by William Holman Hunt. Look at the richness of detail and the sensual colors. It convinces me that ancient light was filled with delight. The face is a real face. This could easily be a HD digital photograph, the attention to strict realism is that good. Hunt’s women are voluptuous and invite lust as well as intellectual appreciation, Pre-Raphaelites delighted in the senses. They wanted us to see what they saw, touch what they touched, and feel what they felt. You feel as though you could reach out and hold that tablecloth in your hands! The pre-Raphaelites were not appreciated in their own time. They became very popular in the nineteen sixties drug culture because this kind of vivid realism and rich sensuality matches well the kind of languid eroticism produced by the ingestion of the best cannabis. I think the hippie subculture could also relate to the spirituality of these paintings. Spiritual eroticism! I suppose that could describe many of the pre-Raphaelite paintings. I will try to post more about the later Symbolist and Decadent schools of painting that owe a substantial debt to the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.