The Pre-Raphaelites: Avant-Garde or Kitsch?

Well known for their fantastical paintings of beautiful melancholic women with serpentine hair and bee stung lips, the Pre-Raphaelites are not often associated with the avant-garde of painting. Traveling across the pond from the Tate the current exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900 at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C aims to reconsider the Pre-Raphaelites as “an avant-garde movement” that “contributed to the history modern art.” However, can we look past the mountain of symbolism, overwrought emotions, literary escapism, and irrefutable sentimentality and see the radicalness of the Pre-Raphaelites, or are the curators just blowing smoke? Critic Roberta Smith would most likely think the latter as she dishes out her usual scathing brilliance in a recent review of the exhibition.

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An installation view of “Ophelia” (1851-52), by John Everett Millais

Smith’s criticisms and arguments against the exhibition’s curatorial premise are apt, and I would have to agree with her that a comparison of Millais to Pollock is too dubious for even the most open minded person. The show itself she compares to a “theme-park ride” of  “jolts” and “thrills,” no doubt due to the intensely colored walls against already intensely colored paintings. Her praises of the exhibition and the Pre-Raphealites, if any, are few and far between. In the end Smith condemns the Pre-Raphaelites with the onset of kitsch and aestheticism, and like a bad rash she states, “its influence never goes away, it only spreads.” Ironically, Smith’s impression of the show was opposite of its intentions. Instead of reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelites as avant-garde it seems the show managed to reinstate their singular stereotypical perception as being overwrought, overwhelming, and overly romantic.

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“The Awakening Conscience” (1853-54), by William Holman Hunt

This interpretation of the Pre-Raphaelites is unfortunate, though their paintings can be and should be celebrated as beautiful objects, I believe the Brotherhood deserves a little more credit than they have received. The big question is though how can these paintings be seen as avant-garde and not just kitsch? Founded in 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which included Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais and later, Edward Burne-Jones, set out to create socially challenging paintings. When we consider other paintings considered “avant-garde” such as Manet’s Olympia, or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon controversy and avant-garde seem to go hand in hand. Therefore, I would argue that the PRB could be seen as avant-garde in the beginning of their career, when they depicted the uncomfortable truths of Victorian society such as prostitution, instead of socially acceptable, devastatingly beautiful women.

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A detail of John Everett Millais’s “Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop),” from 1849-50

At face value the hyper-realistic style of the PRB’s would certainly not be considered avant-garde, and Roberta Smith is quick to snub them of any painting contribution in this sense. However, I would disagree with Smith and argue that Pre-Raphaelite’s radically changed painting when they began painting directly on the white gesso instead of a toned ground, seemingly before the Impressionists. Maybe the Impressionists were inspired by them? If so then the PRB would be avant-garde indeed. Only in these two ways, controversy and painting inventiveness, can I argue that the Pre-Raphaelites were in any way avant-garde. But what is most confusing, and possibly the reason why Smith is gathering a sentimental/kitsch vibe from this exhibition is that theses two topics aren’t emphasized within the exhibition and early radical works are intermixed with later superficial works.

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“Lady Lilith” (1866-68), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A clear line needs to be drawn between the good and the bad, the progressive and the insignificant, and an exhibition that features both sides of the spectrum is clearly going to fall flat in some manner. The predicament lies in the Pre-Raphaelite’s womanizing nature, at some point they got sick of painting unattractive prostitutes and instead decided to paint women as an object of desire, such as Lady Lilith (above), negating any sense of radicalness because women have for centuries been represented in this way. So how can these paintings really be seen as avant-garde? I am not sure. In the end I would say that the paintings of Albert Moore or Frederic Leighton (part of the Victorian aesthetic movement), who were undoubtedly inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites are more comparable to Modernism in the sense it was an “art for art’s sake” pursuit, with strong emphasis on ideal geometry, line, and color arrangement with complete lack of narrative. Regardless of whether we like them or not, Smith reminds us, that the Pre-Raphaelite inspiration is undying and has trickled down into popular culture e.g. Game of Thrones, the kicker here is that pop culture is not avant-garde….so then maybe the Pre-Raphaelites aren’t either?

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“Lady of Shalott” (1888 to 1905), by William Holman Hunt

{Image credit Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times}

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4 comments on “The Pre-Raphaelites: Avant-Garde or Kitsch?

  1. You are so correct in the fact that pop culture tends to take the easy route when it comes to taste.The idea of the avant-garde is a fleeting notion at best; the Pre-Raphaelites embraced the medieval notion of inspiration from nature and tried to reject the Renaissance reverie of geometry. Nature creeps into every corner of their compositions.
    My personal tastes fall more toward Lord Leighton rather than Rosetti.
    Great post.

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