Visual arts Christopher Allen peruses the Pre-Raphaelites
There is something deeply mysterious about art, especially about the best art, which is no doubt why it is surrounded by so many myths, including the ancient and persistent idea that artists are a bit mad, and the more recent cliche that most artists are unrecognised in their lifetime and fully appreciated only posthumously. In reality, even a cursory knowledge of art history shows that talent generally has been recognised and rewarded. The process became less regular and predictable during the century or so from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, when a succession of avant-garde styles disconcerted the public and took a little longer to achieve recognition and financial rewards. During the past half-century or so, the public and especially institutions, anxious not to be the last to understand a new style, have found it safer to embrace everything.
Nonetheless, the appreciation of styles and movements comes and goes in waves, often correlated with contemporary styles and sensibility. Among the most interesting examples of this phenomenon are the way that 16th-century mannerism was rediscovered in the age of expressionism, and that a new appreciation of archaic sculpture coincided with the modernist interests in direct carving and simplified, abstracted form.
One of the most important cases of revaluation in art history concerns the early Renaissance. In the historiography of the 16th century, as best articulated by Giorgio Vasari in his monumental collection of artist biographies, the Vite (1550), ancient civilisation had almost collapsed after the fall of Rome and had been progressively restored from the time of Giotto onwards. The restoration was completed in what we call the High Renaissance, with the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Modern civilisation had at last broadly reached parity with the standard achieved a millennium earlier and could aspire to further progress.
Vasari’s periodisation remains the basis for our study of the Renaissance, but the emphasis on restoration and the sense that Leonardo and his successors had finished the job meant that the 14th and 15th centuries were consigned to the status of forerunners, pioneers whose work, though admirable in itself, remained somewhat crude and incomplete. The result was that from In 1951 the old mining town of Hill End celebrated the centenary of the discovery of gold in NSW. There was a re-enactment of the moment in 1872 when the largest gold specimen found, known as the Holtermann Nugget, was hauled up to the ground. A replica of the nugget was brought to the top of a specially constructed shaft. It was then put on a cart that led a procession through town, accompanied by locals in top hats and stick-on beards.
A few years earlier, Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale had come to town. Hill End for them was a place of ruined glories of the past and jovial village life in the present, centred on the Royal Hotel. In 1956 Friend produced a book called Hillendiana, a motley collection of images and stories (some true) gathered from the inhabitants of the town. Friend’s compendium included a
May 23-24, 2015 Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until July 12. the 16th to the 18th centuries, the corpus of modern painting began with the High Renaissance. This is why the great museums of Europe that have grown from princely collections formed during that time, such as the Alte Pinakothek in Munich or the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, are rich in the works of Raphael, Titian and Rubens but tend to have few if any pictures from the early Renaissance.
A new appreciation of the so-called Italian primitives arose in England in the 19th century, and this is how the National Gallery acquired such an extraordinary collection of 14th and 15th-century pictures. Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), Walter Pater’s The Renaissance (1873) and John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence (1875-77) all helped a wider public to understand this rediscovered art. Ruskin popularised Giotto and Pater’s book almost single-handedly established the cults of Botticelli, Giorgione and of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
The new taste for the early Renaissance was almost inevitably accompanied by a relative depreciation of the High Renaissance and baroque as models for contemporary practice, and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England was a group of artists who, as their name implies, sought inspiration in the styles that preceded the High Renaissance synthesis. What this meant in practice was the elimination of stylistic devices associated with Leonardo and his followers: one was the softening of contours known as sfumato, which allows forms to flow more organically into each other; the other was chiaroscuro, the use of strong lights and darks to enhance the modelling of figures as well as to dramatise effect of space and to unify the composition pictorially.
The Pre-Raphaelites, as we can see in the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, deliberately set about stripping these features, which had become standard parts of the academic curriculum, from their black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Matilda Lister titled Bringing in the Beyers Holtermann Nugget, done in the year of the re-enactment and as a celebration of the centenary. For many years the painting was lost: it wasn’t included, for example, in the 1995 touring exhibition of art from Hill End. Soon after, however, it appeared on the market (as Showing the Nugget). The picture was bought by Bathurst Regional Art
The Shadow of Death practice of painting. Contours are no longer soft but as hard and linear as any in the Quattrocento; chiaroscuro is banished so that the whole composition is equally illuminated.
At the same time, they believed in minute realism in the depiction of figures and interior or natural settings, and this, in combination with the hard outlines and the universal lighting, lends their paintings a hyper-real, even at times surreal quality, exemplified here by numerous works but most spectacularly by William Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (1873). This famous image, which the artist painted while in the Holy Land — then still part of the Ottoman Empire — shows Jesus in his father’s carpentry workshop, but raising his arms and looking upwards with an expression of ecstasy, as though he had just heard the call to begin his mission to the world. As he does so, he unwittingly casts on the wall behind a shad- Gallery and is on display as part of BRAG 200x200, an exhibition of the gallery’s collection, and part of Bathurst’s bicentenary celebrations.
Lister was an inhabitant of Hill End (her husband was descended from early gold diggers), and at the heart of its small social world. She was in her 50s when she took a correspondence course in art as a distraction after the death of her son in World War II. When Friend moved ow that anticipates his crucifixion. The original painting made a huge impression on its contemporaries. It was sold for the enormous sum of 10,000 guineas, which included the copyright that allowed its purchaser to profit from the production of thousands of prints, one of which is the work exhibited here (1878): sales of the reproductions amounted to almost twice the sale price of the original.
The case says a great deal about the intertwining of piety and commerce in the Victorian period, but the image itself has still more to teach us. In the first place we can see how the Pre-Raphaelite taste for minute realism is profoundly attuned to the literal-mindedness of the 19th century. The floor is covered with a quantity of wood shavings that no Renaissance artist would ever have dreamed of painting. One can’t help thinking of Oscar Wilde’s question on looking at WP Frith’s huge painting Derby Day to a cottage across the road from hers, he encouraged her talent and got her painting with oils, which she did until she died. Showing the Nugget is accompanied by a portrait of the artist, by Eugenie Solonov, in a crimplene dress and cardigan, looking distinctly un-bohemian.
Once she started painting, Lister could not stop; she told a journalist that it eased her loneliness. Biblical subjects dominated her output, depictions of stories that filled her head from her strict Presbyterian upbringing. And doesn’t Showing the Nugget have a religious quality too? No one takes much notice of the gold nugget that is being taken through the town, but everything is transformed by its presence. Its roughly human proportions and its aura make it reminiscent of those statues that are carried through the streets of European towns on saints’ days. There’s something terrifically strange about the notion of a gigantic gold nugget being taken on a procession. And this strangeness is expressed in formal terms in the picture. The nugget is positioned right in the centre, accompanied by two men in dark hats and coats, their arms weirdly outstretched in a gesture that seems to be defensive but that also can be seen as a benediction of the crowd. Like Sidney Nolan’s work, the painting successfully transforms a historical event (whether it’s 1872 or 1951, or a curious blend of both) into myth.
(1878) by William Holman Hunt
Oil on board, 121cm x 96cm