My former colleague, painter and art historian Thomas Germano, sent an interesting rebuttal to Roberta Smith’s dismissive review of the Pre-Raphaelite show at the National Gallery, and has agreed to let me post it:
Without mentioning John Ruskin, or discussing the PRB’s literary associations beyond a superficial glazing, RSmith simply hasn’t done her homework or, to use her phrase, “just doesn’t go very deep.” Manet and Cezanne are not contemporaneous with the founding of the PRB (1848), but they came on the scene fifteen and twenty-five years later, in another country and at a time that was so rapidly accelerated that the comparison falls short of its intended effect. 1863 was after all, the birth of the modern era but it did not happen overnight.
The use of the catch phrases: “Victorian decadence,” “kitsch,” “radioactive,” and “so-bad-maybe-its-good” are cold war era terminology, intended as anti-academic, anti-representational, anti-illustrative, anti-figurative, anti-aesthetic art bashing, reflecting modernist cold war era art criticism. Yes, the best art in the National Gallery is definitely down the hall and it’s hard for any show to compete with the NG’s impressive permanent collection when you put it that way. While some will dismiss Pre-Raphaelite art as illustrative because they were the first artists to employ the new technology of photography in their art, the use of photography today is a perfectly accepted method of image making and artists no longer hide this fact nor apologize for doing so. The Pre-Raphaelites were simply too popular and widely circulated in their day and critics have always frowned upon the universal acceptance of the PRB art movement questioning, “how can anything this popular be good art when so many commoners admire it?”
Having actually spent several hours carefully examining the current exhibition in Washington DC last week, I had a very different take on the exhibit and there are some excellent works and masterfully crafted paintings in “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design.”
While I’ve never been the first to champion the PRB, this exhibition demonstrates their brilliance and proves exactly why “now” is the time to re-examine their admirable accomplishments. The literary sources of Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tennyson, Keats, Dante Alighieri, Arthurian Legends and the PRB painter/poets themselves, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife, Elizabeth Siddall all require a careful reading before coming to a measured understanding and appreciation of the PRB pictorial language. The satellite exhibition downstairs: “Pre Raphaelites and The Book” supports this claim. Beyond the literary references, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to create pure aesthetic beauty whereby Rossetti’s and Burne-Jones’s women are every bit as sensual as Botticelli’s quatrocento Madonnas.
The PRB were the poets and social commentators of their Victorian epoch and just as Shakespeare used ancient references to comment on his Elizabethan times, the PRB referenced a medieval age of innocence and courtly love to counterbalance what they saw as the ills of the industrial revolution that turned men to machine-bound slaves. Speaking to their Victorian era by incorporating universal themes and well referenced narrative sources from the profound, mostly English literary tradition, themes appear from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Measure For Measure” and “The Tempest;” while Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is revisited by his namesake Dante Gabriel Rossetti. An especially provocative theme from Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” revisited by the poet John Keats is the source of inspiration for the painters: John Everett Millais’s Isabella and Lorenzo (not included in the exhibition), and later, William Holman Hunt’s Isabella/The Pot of Basil, one of the finest paintings in the exhibit. These are not only beautiful paintings to look upon, but they possess layers of literary narrative to contemplate while one is drawn into the painting’s pure aesthetic beauty containing clean lines, saturated color, soft light and careful articulation of the interior space that is not only physical but cerebral and emotional. The most famous work in the exhibition, Millais’s Ophelia is based on Shakespeare’s ill-fated lover who was cast away by Hamlet and in her melancholic state, helplessly succumbs to drowning in a shallow stream. Shakespeare never showed the death of Ophelia in his theatrical staging of “Hamlet” but the artistic license and poetic interpretation taken by Millais, is reverential, referential, poetic and visually masterful while on par with the great bard himself.
The NYTimes review reads like something encouragingly written fifty years ago for Horst Woldemar Janson’s art survey class (aside from the Thomas Kinkade reference.) While today’s art has returned to some traditional roots of formal image making, you would never know that by reading the NYTimes article. Art today has welcomed back painting, reintroduced the narrative and the human figure and what went out of vogue in the early 20th century with modernism’s arrival, has returned in full force. So many banished 19th century paintings have been taken out of purgatorial museum storage vaults and we can once again appreciate Millais, Hunt and Rossetti, but now hung in the same museums as Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh. There is no need to compare the PRB to Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh and certainly not appropriate to interpret them using the same visual criteria. John Ruskin wrote meaningful essays about Pre-Raphaelite art as early as 1850.
Taste, like fashion comes and goes, but the PRB is back standing their ground after a century of neglect and shunning. Post modern interpretations about a pre-modern era sheds very little light on visual matters and always requires more seasoned responses rather than stock summaries. I’m reminded about the rediscovery of Botticelli, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, four artists who went out of style late in their lives. Each came back because tastes change and what air led to their being ignored transformed as I sense will also occur with the PRB very soon.
“Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Through May 19, 2013
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