Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen pe­ruses the Pre-Raphaelites

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

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