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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.

Comments

deliasherman
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.

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