Reflections on the Pre-Raphaelites

An article for Deskarati by Alan Mason –

Popular enthusiasm.

One of the interesting aspects of this movement and its works is the enduring interest and approval of ordinary members of the public, who are largely untutored in the fine arts.  This interest has continued from the 19 C right through the 20 C to the early 21 C.  For many people this is “real art”.  They recognise classical themes and they also appreciate the attention to detail and “the amount of skilled work” that has gone into the canvases.

Dominance of Non-Repesentational Art

All this has gone on against a background of 20 C trends towards largely non-representational art.  The response of the cognoscenti, the big public galleries, the private galleries and the fashionable artists has been to scorn representational art, and, of course, the 19 C inheritance of pre-Raphaelite work as well.

The art colleges have largely given up the teaching of painting technique so highly valued by the pre-Raphs, and it has been left to “television artists”, residential art courses and authors of practical art books to pass on these skills to gifted amateurs.  Two of the best-known representational artists of the later 20 C are David Shepherd and Jack Vettriano. They are almost totally ignored by the state-funded art galleries.

Illustration of Children’s Books

One factor in promoting the popularity of  pre-Raphaelite work is the fact that colour reproductions were widely used in the 20 C for illustrating children’s literature.  In addition, commercial artists were encouraged to produce original “sub  pre-Raphaelite work” for the same purpose.  Hence, people were conditioned, to some extent, to appreciate this type of art and carry it through into their adult tastes.

Accuracy as an End in Itself

There has been some re-action against the  pre-Raphaelite obsession with presenting total accuracy of the natural world, principally because the periphery can be a distraction from the centre of interest of a painting.  The Impressionists were well aware that when we view a scene, only the centre is fully in focus and the periphery is a hazy blur.  Often we recollect only a general impression of a scene we viewed 10 seconds ago; the details are largely absent.

It is only in unusual intellects like the “idiots savants” with autistic personalities who can view a scene briefly for a few seconds and then reproduce a breath-takingly accurate and beautiful reproduction of the totality which they experienced.

Programmed Responses

One of the other criticisms of the  pre-Raphaelite movement and its works is that it tended to mawkishness and sentimentality.  I think the criticism can be put in more general terms.  Some of the work, but by no means all of it, is designed to elicit a particular response from the viewer, that may be sympathy, maternal feelings, annoyance, condemnation, horror, or a self-satisfied agreement.  This is what I would call a programmed response.

It is a complex issue in art, but I think many of the best works carry an element of uncertainty; there is no one single possible response, and there is often an element of mystery about it.  The viewer has to do some work on the picture themselves to think about what it might mean.

“La Gioconda” (The Mona Lisa) is superficially just a portrait of the wife of a wealthy man, yet we are all aware of the fountains of ink that have been spilt in discussing its puzzling significance.  The beautiful portraits by Velasquez of the 17 C Spanish court are superficially just records of relatives of the monarch, a wall-hung family album.  Yet they are so much more.  The fragility of the little children and their vulnerable innocence shines out from the incredibly stiff formal clothes they are wearing.  The artistic treatment of the achondroplasic dwarves who lived at court was quite remarkable.  Despite their inherited deformities each person is shown with a natural dignity and the  artist’s compassion for them is self-evident.

Fortunately, much of the work of the pre-Raphaelites does have this “non-programmed” quality of uncertainty and mysteriousness, even when telling a relatively simple story.  I am thinking of “King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid” or the “Beguiling of Merlin”.  Even “The Scapegoat” among the harsh colours of the Moab desert has an atmoshere to provoke reflection.

It seems very likely that enthusiasm for the pre-Raphaelites will continue unabated, not just on deskarati, but in the wider world, judging by the use of their work in greetings cards, posters and other popular reproductions.

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One Response to Reflections on the Pre-Raphaelites

  1. Deskarati says:

    Thanks for a great article, Alfy.

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