Serene, lush, verdant surroundings, female figures clad in medieval gowns with impossibly long flowing tresses, sometimes accompanied by young men of heroic stature; all part and parcel of the beguiling pictures and leadlight panels created by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
In London in 1848, The Pre-Raphaelites, a group of British artists, the most well-known of which are William Morris, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt and Gabriel Dante Rossetti, formed an avant-garde art group which ignored the proscribed standards of the English Royal Academy of Arts.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was greatly influenced by nature and its members used fine detail to show the natural world using bright and sharp focus techniques on a white canvas.
In attempts to revive the brilliance of colour found in Quattrocento art, Hunt and Millais developed a technique of painting in thin glazes of pigment over a wet white ground in the hope that the colours would retain jewel-like transparency and clarity.
Their emphasis on brilliance of colour was a reaction to the excessive use of bitumen by earlier British artists, which produced unstable areas of muddy darkness, an effect the Pre-Raphaelites despised.
The group’s intention was to reform art by creating a new direction and technique from that which it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by artists who succeeded Raphael and Michaelangelo.
Pre-Raphaelite members believed the classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite”.
In particular, the group objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts “Sir Sloshua”.
The work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is currently being celebrated by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in an exhibition of tranquil beauty which illustrates the masterful technique and excellent execution inherent to their artistic enterprises.
The exhibition; Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is the first comprehensive display of the NGV’s renowned Pre-Raphaelite collection in forty years.
William Holman Hunt’s The Importunate Neighbour, on display, painted in 1895 aptly illustrates The Gospel of Luke’s story of a man who knocks on his neighbour’s door seeking bread for an unexpected visitor; a situation familiar to nineteenth century Christians.
Surrounded by luminous moonlight the man’s stance is of one who expects his request for charity to be well received – late night pest or in need of help to be met with forbearance by a follower of Christian doctrine?
Holman Hunt’s picture still poses an interesting question to modern day viewers.
Long female hair has always had erotic associations and the Pre-Raphaelites made good use of this with images of young women who allowed curls, normally demurely swept back and fastened, to be untrammelled in a glorious riot of colour and style.
Hair and lots of it is an important feature of the female images depicted in Pre-Raphalite images.
Young women with an angelic aura are depicted singly or in groups, their expressions impassive, perhaps a little haughty, they sit or lie in fields of pastoral splendour their long luxurious locks unrestrained by hair clip or ribbon.
The effect of this freedom and abundance of tresses is sometimes subtly erotic sometimes overtly so.
Dante’s sister, the poet Christina Rossetti – whose portrait by Dante is in the exhibition – poetically described young women’s hair as “love-locks flowing” and flow they do; waves and curls cover shoulders, rippling in delightful formation down the wearer’s back to rest in a soft sensual tangle at the waist.
A considerable number of images in the show feature young women with ‘big hair’.
In keeping with the poetic vision of the time they are redolent of Tennyson’s ‘hair and lovesome mien’ and if it’s possible are innocently erotic.
There are though exceptions and Arthur Hughes’ depiction of, La Belle Dame sans Merci, an image of a woman with serpents nested in her hair is meant to shock rather than elicit feelings of amour.
A softly glowing picture in Medieval Moderns by Edward Robert Hughes, entitled The Princess Out of School has an upmarket teen, lying prostrate in front of a stream as she focuses on the surrounding flora.
Her magnificent auburn hair stretching in a luxuriant cape from shoulders to below the waist is a focal point which provides the viewer with feelings of delight and perhaps a yearning for a time when men were Knights and Ladies were just that – Ladies.
Medieval Moderns is a smallish show well designed by NGV Director, Tony Elwood and his team which showcases the work of The Pre-Raphaellite Brotherhood who developed a new technique to create lustrous beautiful images which influenced the work of artists worldwide in the nineteenth century and continues to do so today.
The exhibition includes more than 100 paintings, prints, decorative arts, furniture, book designs and stained-glass windows by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers.
I particularly liked the exhibition room which combined furniture, paintings, tiles and wall hangings – a step back in time to the nineteenth century.
The exhibition also gives an insight into the role of the Brotherhood in the arts and crafts movement in Britain and the important part artists of the stature of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris played in the production of illustrated books and leadlight panels (examples of which can be found in churches around Melbourne and Adelaide).
‘The NGV’s holdings of works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are world-renowned and form the largest collection in the Southern Hemisphere,’ said Tony Ellwood, adding ‘The NGV has consistently collected Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood works since the 1880s – the most recent of which was acquired last year – and we are proud to be exhibiting this collection in its full glory for the first time in forty years.’
For those interested in early photography the beautiful stylised imagery of Julia Margaret Cameron and her contemporaries are also on show.
Working at the same time as the Pre-Raphaelites, pioneering photographers, such as Cameron, created stylish portraits and mood provoking landscapes which had much in common with the aesthete of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Medieval Moderns is be accompanied by the first publication on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to be published by the NGV since 1978.
This richly illustrated and comprehensive volume features new essays, analysis and commentary by leading art curators and scholars, and is available from the NGV Shop for what seemed to me the modest price of $39.95. This is a show not to miss as is the complimentary exhibition across the corridor of Exquisite Threads, an exhibition of indeed, exquisite embroidery.
Better put your skates on though, both exhibitions end on 12 July 2015.
Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is on display at NGV International until 12 July 2015. Open 10am-5pm, closed Tuesdays. Free entry.