Looking at this:
I was forced to think quite hard about the phrase “avant garde”. At the time John Everet Millais painted it, it was considered quite a shocker. The story was racy and the straight leg bucked painting form and convention. The painting had proud echoes of medievalism. Not least of its sins was the (hard to see here) letters “PRB” (standing for ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’) carved into the leg of the bench upon which the girl sits.
It might be that these four
(Clockwise, you’re looking at William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Ford Madox Brown. )
appear to have more in common with Mumford & Sons than with John, Paul, Steve and (well Glen in this case)
but first impressions and facial hair can be a tricky business and rather deceiving at the best of times.
These four beardies were the enfant-terribles of 1850’s London and this was their NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS.
Christ in the House of His Parents, John Everett Millais, 1849-50
A statement of intent with at least the shock factor of Anarchy In The UK, God Save The Queen and No Fun.
At first it’s not that easy to see what all the fuss was about. After all, one of the sobering things about art (and music) is that at first it shocks and soon after it is at first recognised, then assimilated, then imitated, then the norm. I could digress at length about porn or Skrillex here but perhaps best not. So it’s difficult to look back and see why the fact that Jesus might actually be a carpenter shocked everyone so much.
But in fact these four - Holman Hunt, Millais, Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown – were every bit as militant as the Pistols. They were THE PRE-RAPHAELITE BROTHERHOOD! They had their own Malcolm McLaren (art critic John Ruskin) who was also their Caroline Coon (number one fan). They had their own identity – and tagged their work PRB so everyone knew it. They had their own “old guard” to abuse and shock (Sir Sloshua Reynolds as they taunted the leading artist of the time) and like the best Rock Stars they partied like bad muthafuckas. Wine drinkers to a man, they consorted with prostitutes, swapped wives and lovers, treated their models as both muses and whores (Millais left his in a cold bath so long whilst painting Ophelia she caught pneumonia and nearly died), did mad things (Rossetti buried his poems with his wife when she died, then had to exhume her when he ran out of ideas to get them back), wrote bad poetry, had Christian epiphanies in the desert and overdosed (Lizzie Siddle, Rossetti’s wife & model, died of Laudanum poisoning).
More importantly they also had their own manifesto to affirm their belief that Raphael had fucked up modern art since and that a return to medievalism would help route a way to something new, and even if (4.) does seem a bit obvious, here it is nonetheless just as they published it
- to have genuine ideas to express
- to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them
- to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote
- most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues
And like Punk rock with music, they changed the face of art to come.
But as you wander through room upon room of polite landscapes and Shakespeare and Dante derived subjects in a new huge retrospective of their work, superficially it is hard to get excited – until suddenly you stumble over this stunning portrait of “Mariana” (well ok, that’s taken from Shakespeare too but it’s a great picture of a woman at work stretching with a visual richness that’s stunning)
Mariana, John Everett Millais, 1851
And then onto Ophelia in her custom made Gold frame, and realise that here is the direct route to Klimt’s “The Kiss”
Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1851-52
It is as if Millais (these are both his and he’s by far the best painter on show) has suddenly flicked the switch and the “Spunk” demos became “Never Mind The Bollocks”.
After that it’s as if the whole group hit a groove with classic after classic and everyone’s in on it. Suddenly the mundane becomes great and stuff like this amazing, early-socialist polemic (“work”) by Ford Madox Brown starts to appear.
Work, Ford Madox Brown, 1865
The painting sort of locates him as the Joe Strummer of the piece. An extreme allegory of socialism is a slew of images and metaphors (aristocrats and wasters in the shadows, honest workers to the forefront, philosophers to the right) in which even the dogs have a story to tell probably relates closely to something on the third side of “Sandanista” if you think laterally (maybe?). Anyway I loved this one and for once polemic was a clear winner.
Its not all good and a lot of what follows in the exhibition is still pretty ordinary in fairness. Personally, I can happily live without the moral righteousness of “The Awakening”, in which a woman who actually looks as if the guy in the image has stuck his thumb (or something else) up her arse, apparently in fact suddenly realises she is a kept woman and that’s not ok.
The Awakening Conscience, John Everett Millais, 1851
While the below struck me as something like a KLF spoof tinged with some desert acid.
The Scapegoat, William Holman Hunt, 1854-56
But on the whole, you suddenly get a sense of why this lot actually did become pretty revered and somewhat justified a tag as “Avant Garde”. Their painting is broadly vital and energetic, and in it you see the end of an old formal style and a route to many of the changes that would emerge into the 20th century. Detail as a route to abstract is particularly evident.
But as you go the cracks also start to appear pretty much Punk rock style.
Here’s middle period Rossetti. He seemed to find a vibe painting pretty women and I personally liked this even if he’d pretty much sold the others down the river by then in a hunt to be more commercial (Rossetti as Adam Ant? Or Billy Idol?)
It’s true that this period for him is far better than his earlier more earnest attempts but it’s none the less far more commercial!
Lady Lillith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1872-73
By then Rosetti had appropriated the movement’s name, dropped the sloganeering and was ready to get paid. It’s good but it’s not shocking any more. And neither is stuff like this by Burne-Jones (good though it is, and interesting in the way shape and form dominate)
The Golden Stairs, Edward Burne-Jones, 1876-80
The baton had really passed over to a new generation led by William Morris who espoused Arts & Crafts and developed into the new socialists and suffragettes and whose new art was “radical” in every sense
The original leaders of the movement shook off their wildness, grew still bigger beards and got country houses. Like all good movements they chucked someone out as unworthy (James Collinson), had a scandal (Millais ran away with Ruskin’s wife), were venemously attacked by their older critics (“the clique”) as upstarts, dropped their PRB sloganeering and splintered. And, of course, all started making money!
They never, to my knowledge, reformed for a “filthy lucre” tour however. But it may be that Mclaren’s epitaph for the Pistols does as well for the PRB actually (and arguably any avant-gardistes):
“Poor boys. They just ran out of ideas. I told them Ideas? You ran out on us, you bastard where would you boys have been otherwise?”
And maybe that’s the sobering lesson about the Avant Garde. You just cannot be it forever!
[Pre Raphaelites: The Victorian Avant Garde is an exhibition currently running at the Tate Gallery in London. It’s good ‘til Christmas or so]