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Were The Pre-Raphaelites Really the Victorian Avant-Garde?

Can an idea that looks backward also look forward? That question hangs over the the Tate Britain’s new exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at the same moment that it celebrates the now crowd-pleasing artists that made up the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones. As seductive as the femme fatales featured in works such as Rosetti’s Astarte Syriaca (from 1877; detail shown above), the idea that the Pre-Raphaelites stepped back aesthetically to step forward artistically seems just crazy enough to be true.

Rosetti, Hunt, and Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, a short 11 years into the reign of Queen Victoria and her eponymous era now synonymous with starchy conservatism and high-minded morality. The trio felt that art itself had taken a wrong turn more than three centuries before, when Mannerism succeeded the style of Raphael and other Renaissance masters. Hence, “pre-Raphaelitism” became the rallying cry for these young artists, who articulated their goals in their own journal, called The Germ, and infected like-minded artists attracted to the sumptuous detail and color of the Quattrocento. Whereas some movements formed or even were named in retrospect, the PRB wore their revolutionary mantel openly and self-consciously broke with the recent past in search of the distant past as a path to the artistic future.

First, the case for the Pre-Raphaelites as avant-garde: Simply by self-consciously making art to fit a theory, the PRB set the stage for all art movements to follow, from Cubism to Pop. Courbet, the PRB’s French contemporary, still reigns as the patron saint (or Satan, depending on your viewpoint) of self-promoting artists, but everyone down to Warhol and Koons also owes a debt to the Pre-Raphaelites. Also, despite going old school when it came to style, the PRB’s content choices scandalized the long skirts and high collars of Victorianism. Rosetti’s life and work alone would fill tabloid newsstands today.

Now, the case against avant-gardism: Just as Turner’s late works raised the possibility of British art developing an early form of Impressionism, if not abstraction, Rosetti and company turned back the clock to history painting and a faithful rendition of nature itself. The results are beautiful, of course, but it’s fun to consider an alternative art history where Turner becomes the father of an Impressionist movement two decades before Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. I’m not saying that the PRB set British art back, but they certainly set a taste that diverged from what would soon command the Continent. Millais flirted with Impressionism late in life, when the movement had earned wider attention, so they were certainly capable of painting in that way. In choosing not to—and the PRB’s all about conscious choice—they look much less avant-garde than many supporters wish they could.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which runs through January 13, 2013, raises an important question not just for British art history but for art movements in general. Can you be avant-garde in spirit (which the spirited PRB certainly was) while also being conservative in goals (the heart of this debate)? As more and more contemporary art leans heavily on appropriation of the past, can it still be considered avant-garde? In the Post-Modern age, is all art avant-garde simply based of when it was made? The Pre-Raphaelites worked in an age now famous for conservative values while darker impulses lurked in the shadows like Jack the Ripper (also a Victorian). Asking these questions about the nature of simultaneously looking back and forward like Janus might not just apply to art movements but also to politics, making Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde more than just an art show and a diagnostic tool for our time.

[Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Astarte Syriaca (detail), 1877. Copyright Manchester City Galleries.]

[Many thanks to the Tate Britain for the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which runs through January 13, 2013.]

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