10 June 2014

Pre-Raphaelites Revisited

My first apartment in grad school was decorated with posters of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, most of them dark and foreboding. I loved their rich tones, their allegorical symbolism, their Englishness (to my credit, I was getting a masters in English Literature at the time so the decor suited the situation). My taste has since changed but when I saw that the Met had a small exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite works, I decided to check it out.

"The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design" focuses primarily on works by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the three leaders of the second wave of the Pre-Raphaelite movement whose original founders (Rossetti was one) had rebelled against academia and rejected classical art in lieu of the more ideal (to them) Quattrocento Italian art. The exhibit consists of 30 objects—paintings and drawings as well as furniture and pottery—by these artists and those who were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement like Julia Margaret Cameron and Ford Madox Brown. Much of it is beautiful and can be admired for its craftsmanship, especially the pieces by Morris who went on to be a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement and whose textiles are still coveted by some designers today. 

Yet what struck me the most about the exhibit is how much my attitude had changed toward these artists. While I still found some of the paintings quite pretty, I didn't exactly love any of the work. Most of it seemed just too one-dimensional, populated with idealized women. The artists' models, who in real life tended to be either the lovers or wives of the painters (sometimes both), all appear to have the same features: large eyes and mouths, thick necks, and crazy wild hair. After a while it's just boring.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones' "The Love Song," the  painting at the center of the exhibit, was one of the more interesting pieces. It's very striking from the lovely colours to the medieval garb to the attention to detail like the flowers along the bottom. Yet ultimately it looks like an illustration from a book of fairy tales, which can be said about many of these works. In the case of the Aubrey Vincent Beardsley designs they were just that, illustrations created specifically for an edition of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

In the end, I realized that Pre-Raphaelite work is no longer my cup of tea (although I still admire a nice William Morris design) and that none of their prints will be decorating my place anytime soon.

"The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design" is on display at the Met through October 26, 2014. For more information, visit here.

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