Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde

3 October 2012

Monna Vanna, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photo: Tate Britain.

After my amazing visit to Buckingham Palace, I decided to walk down to Millbank to view the new Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde exhibition at the Tate Gallery. I was really looking forward to this as I’ve been an IMMENSE fan of the Pre-Raphaelites for almost as long as I can remember. I chose to write my History of Art A Level long essay on their depictions of women from poetry and then gladly signed up to the Friday night lectures about them by Dr Gail-Nina Anderson while studying History of Art at Nottingham. Those lectures were absolutely PACKED to the rafters, which I thought was one in the eye for certain other lecturers in the department who were constantly boring on about how the Pre-Raphaelites were purveyors of all that was cheap and nasty about art, as evidenced, they pointed out, by the profusions of posters that they graced.

Anyway, I thought of the wonderful Dr Anderson (I really should get in touch actually!) as I made my way around the exhibition, which was an absolutely astonishing bringing together of many of the best known and most opulently beauteous examples of Pre-Raphaelite art. Admittedly, many of the pieces will be well known to anyone like myself who is familiar with the collection at the Tate, but there was still much to dazzle, enthral and amaze.

The exhibition was separated into different sections, ranging from the origins of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to their treatments of history, nature, faith, beauty and mythology, with a room devoted to each as well as one given over to the wonderful vibrant designs of William Morris and others. Obviously there are overlaps between these themes but each room still had a cohesive feel and a very clear message to impart about the attitudes of this hopeful group of young, adventurous artists who were so utterly in love with history, poetry and the wonders of the natural world. It also clearly underlines the important role that faith played in their lives, which is a bit at odds with the rather rakish bohemian reputation that they tend to enjoy.

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photo: Delaware Art Museum.

Naturally, it was the room devoted to ‘Beauty’ that held my attention the longest as I absolutely adore the lushly gorgeous paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti – in particular his The Beloved, Monna Vanna and Lady Lilith, all of which were on display. Despite their familiarity, it’s always an immense treat to see them in the flesh as it were and I stood for a very long time before them, drinking in their energetic, florid gloriousness.

Elsewhere in the exhibition we were treated to Millais’ Mariana and Ophelia as well as The Awakening Conscience and Isabella and the Pot of Basil by Holman-Hunt and some of Burne-Jones exceedingly haunting and graceful series of paintings depicting the antics of Perseus. Every single wall was hung with examples of some of the most extraordinary, beautiful and well known art. I’d had a long day and began to feel rather overwhelmed by it all but I would seriously urge anyone with even a passing interest in the Pre-Raphs to go along and have a look as it’s not often that you get to see such a plethora of high calibre examples of their work on display at the same time.

The Beloved, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photo: Tate Britain.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde is at the Tate Britain, Millbank until the 13th of January 2013. Tickets are £14 but there are concessions available. It was pretty packed when I went so I’d definitely recommend booking in advance online if you can.

There is also an excellent book, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-garde, to accompany the exhibition if you can’t get there in person.

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