Sunday, 9 December 2012

Pre-Raphaelites and Poetry at Tate Britain

This painting is Love Among the Ruins by my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones. It is based on the poem of the same title by Robert Browning, which can be found on the link below. The painting and the poem both set up a striking contrast between the monumental achievements of the powerful, now crumbling, and the inexorable strength of love and the "plenty and perfection" of natural life:

LOVE AMONG THE RUINS (Robert Browning)

I went this afternoon with a friend to the current exhibition at London's Tate Britain, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which included this painting among others. I've been to a few different Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in the past ten years, and as much as I enjoyed this one, I think that my favourite is still the exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2003, which was based on Andrew Lloyd-Webber's personal was absolutely amazing. (I was living in Dublin at the time and was just visiting London, but it was more than worth flying over for.) I also especially liked the Waterhouse exhibition a few years ago, also at the Royal Academy.

The current exhibition grouped the works of art more or less by theme: Nature, History, Religion, Beauty, Mythology. My Pre-Raphaelite preference is very much for Mythology, so I wouldn't have minded seeing some more of those, especially as Burne-Jones is pre-eminent in such themes. It was especially exciting to see those that were new to me, though. I developed a love of Pre-Raphaelite art in large part because of Burne-Jones's affinity for Arthurian themes. This exhibition included two of Burne-Jones's tapestries on the Grail Quest - rather wonderfully, they were on loan from Jimmy Page's personal collection. Burne-Jones, Arthuriana and Led Zeppelin - it doesn't get much better.

Others have described the details and the unofficial membership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood far better than I could, but I can say why I personally love the art. It is both romantic and formal, neither of which I would entirely want to do without. The women portrayed, while obviously highly idealised, are also powerful, sensual and intelligent. I can't help thinking that ideals of female beauty have gone backwards. These women are not childlike or androgynous, for example.

The movement was also very highly...integrated, if that is the right word. The Pre-Raphaelites were not only painters, or only visual artists; they had a whole design ethic, and some of the decorative material, furniture, etc associated with the movement appeared as well. There was a beautiful clavichord with an incredibly lovely painting by Burne-Jones inside.

From my current perspective, one of the most interesting points was the fact that poetry was so highly integrated into Pre-Raphaelite art. It genuinely seemed as though half the paintings had some poetic inspiration: Dante, Tennyson, poems by their own contemporaries and so forth. There was an early edition of Tennyson's Poems on display, open to the first lines of 'The Lady of Shalott', and an early edition of Christina Rossetti's poems as well. This was a time when poetic achievement was innate in the art of a nation.

I also discovered that I don't much like William Holman Hunt. Burne-Jones's remote and beautiful myths, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's remarkable women, carried the exhibition for me, and that was much as it should be.

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