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The Pre-Raphaelites

We're in Washington at the extremely charming Morrison-Clarke Hotel, recovering from a day spent among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood--or at least that part of it represented at extensive and beautifully curated show currently at the National Gallery.  I've been familiar with many (though not by any means all) of these images ever since I discovered Millais and Rossetti in at The Harvard Coop poster shop in 1972, which allowed me to have Mariana and Persephone in my graduate-student apartment (over my mother's cast-off sofa).  When I taught Freshman Comp, I had my students do an analysis of what was going on in Mariana and Isabella (the one with Lorenzo passing her a blood orange and her nasty brother kicking the greyhound) and how they knew.  Good times, good times.

So, I'm a Pre-Raph fan from WAY back.  I saw the Burne-Jones exhibit, I've mooned over the Rossettis and Hunts in Harvard's collection and visited every canvas I was near when I went to the British Isles.  But I've never seen the variety I saw today, not of the original Brotherhood, at any rate.  Here are Holman Hunts and Ford Madox Browns I'd never seen and lots of Millaises, as well as The Greatest Hits (in Morris's case, the Only Hit) of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Morris, as well as the work of less well-known disciples such as John William Inchbold (who couldn't draw animals to save his life), Rosa Brett (who showed as Rosarius so she wouldn't get flack for being a Lady Artist) and Thomas Seddon (who spent 11 hours a day for 120 days painting the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and then had to finish it from photographs at home).  There are statues and tiles and several Burne-Jones tapestries and the chair Morris had made for the digs he shared with Rossetti and Burne-Jones and painted a scene on.  There are wallpaper designs and several editions of the Kelmscott Chaucer, and more books in another part of the museum we're going to see tomorrow, because there's no such thing as too many pre-Raph books, you betcha.

And you know what?  This stuff is good.  I mean, I love the aesthetic, and would even when the figures are out of drawing (which some of them are) or the compositions are curious or the symbolism outweighs the sense of the image (which is fairly often).  But ah!  Those finely-textured rocks!  Those beautifully-shaded leaves and petals!  Those billowing, glowing, lickable damasks and velvets and changeable taffetas!  And, O, the hair--crimped, waved, braided, curled, blonde, red, mahogany, black as night, streaming over columnar throats, flowing down supple backs, springing as if electrified from alabaster brows, both male and female.  This is art you can jump into and roll around in, that makes fantasy so utterly, palpably real that you can't not believe in it.  It is, in fact, the perfect art for a budding historical fantasist, a marriage of the real and the imagined. Certainly, it worked that way for me.

One last thing.  As I walked through the rooms, seeing Rossetti and Burne-Jones and Millais hung side by side by side, I couldn't help but be struck by how lush and sensual and organic Rossetti's images are, how spare and angular and architectural Burne-Jones', and how Millais kind of strikes a middle note between them, less ascetic than Burne-Jones but not as fleshy as Rossetti, and more of a realist than both.  When I was in grad school, I was all about Rossetti.  Now, I'm fonder of Millais and Hunt and Brown, whose women look like individuals, whose myths are homelier, whose relationship with mystery is earthier than the fevered extravagances of Rossetti (who gave everybody he painted his own plump, curling lips) or the ethereal calm of Burne-Jones.  Still, the only picture that nearly made me cry, and I don't know why, was Burne-Jones's The Baleful Head.  Go figure.

The exhibit is well worth seeing, if you can possibly swing it.  We're going to go again tomorrow morning, on the way to the train.  Just for a second peek.  Because its like will not come again.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 12th, 2013 03:10 am (UTC)
What a lovely review! I just checked the NGA's website and it looks like the exhibit will still be there when I visit next month, so I know what at least one of my (non-Folger) afternoons looks like!
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:56 pm (UTC)
Give them my undying (or at least buried and exhumed) love, ok?
Mar. 12th, 2013 03:12 am (UTC)
Me too...
I'm going to view the exhibit the day before the Spoutwood Faerie Festival, between signing at Politics & Prose in the AM and speaking at the Takoma Park Library that evening. Whew. Still, I'm looking SO forward to this and have been for months!
Mar. 12th, 2013 03:29 am (UTC)
Oh, that sounds splendid.
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:52 pm (UTC)
I've seen a couple clips on You Tube, and will have to see MORE MORE MORE. Not that I think it's good or anything, but you're right about the pretty. I will forgive a lot for pretty.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:55 pm (UTC)
Go! Go! Go! I got thrown out of the Burne-Jones exhibit when the museum closed, and couldn't go back next day owing to not living in New York yet. I think I'll regret that forever. This one isn't as big, but it is cherce.
Mar. 12th, 2013 05:11 pm (UTC)
As I was telling Ellen on Twitter, this is the exhibit that I went to England to see, and which I conjured out of thin air.

The novel I just published (Slow Surrender) has an art history grad student as a main character, and I pulled the Pre-Raphs out of thin air while writing the proposal to be the thing she studies. I mean, the characters have to have something to talk about besides sex and their relationship, right? And since it's not sf or fantasy, it's a romance, how about art? The funny thing was that of course it turns out Burne Jones "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" is a perfect illustration of their relationship and the themes in the painting come up again and again...

In book two, I decided to pretend there would be this big exhibition of Pre-Raphs at the Tate in the UK that she flies there for, because I needed a plot excuse to get her out of New York. At the time I wrote the manuscript, I had no idea that an actual exhibition of Pre-Raphs was about to open at the Tate. Then I flew to England myself for a conference. I had one day in London. i decided to see if I could go see the one painting. Turned out there was a whole exhibition...

My brain hurts. Things I write in fiction become real. Fortunately I don't write horror?
Mar. 13th, 2013 10:27 pm (UTC)
Just keep writing, Cecilia!! (Do you take requests?)

Your new book sounds splendid.
Mar. 14th, 2013 06:55 am (UTC)
Grin. How's this for an even more surreal twist? My mysterious male love interest in the book is secretly an internationally renowned rock star who has gone into retirement and played his last concert the night he meets our heroine. He bears no small resemblance to a certain real-life star. I had in mind, of course, that by book 3 of the trilogy he is enticed to make a comeback.

And David Bowie has just released a surprise new album.

No, I can't explain it!
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:54 pm (UTC)
It is indeed surreal. Magical things just hang around the Pre-Raphs, and David Bowie. And your book, clearly.
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
I accidentally found the Tate (I just got off at tube stops I recognized the names of from books and history and wandered around a lot) when I was in London in 1997 and I walk in and there was Rossetti's Bride :) I don't remember who was in the show, could have been all Rossetti but I don't think it was. I did actually look at other stuff there too but the Pre-Raphs were my favorites and it was the first time I ever saw any.

Edited at 2013-03-14 09:09 pm (UTC)
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:54 pm (UTC)
See, I SAID they were magical!
Mar. 15th, 2013 12:49 am (UTC)
Then there was the time I walked around a corner in the Art Gallery of Ontario (in Toronto) and found myself confronting Miranda. Later we found the Lady, half sick of shadows.
Mar. 12th, 2013 07:47 pm (UTC)
Great review, and I love the P-Rs!
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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