I should like this stuff, it’s medium is oil on canvas (for the most part), with a healthy splattering of colour and they even try to explore a narrative, yet Pre-Raphaelite paintings leave me cold. As a contemporary comparison, Impressionist paintings do not leave me cold and it is their lack of morality and their profound interest in representing nature truthfully (and aesthetically) that warms me every time I view them.
So, what is it about the Pre-Raphaelite’s that I’m sceptical about? A quote from Holman Hunt himself goes some way to explaining my troubles with the Pre-Raphaelite movement:
“Painters should go out….like merchants of nature, and bring home precious merchandise in faithful pictures….with something like the spirit of Apostles, fearing nothing, going amongst robbers and in deserts with impunity as men without anything to lose.”
Nothing in life is disinterested and having spiritual impulses should not necessaryly detract from a work of art, but this quote shouldn’t hide the propaganda behind such images, and nor should such “merchants of nature” be considered as representing nature truthfully, they do not, they represent a cultural imposition: not the method, just the message.
For Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites, nature is sick – you see this in the paintings on display in this exhibition, the representation of torment that can only be relieved by the Christian promise – the colours of life are garish, there is an imbalance somewhere. This ‘sickness’ we see in The Scapegoat with its other-worldly dusk and wobbly, symbolic goat. This symbolism and ‘other-worldliness’ reaches a disturbing conclusion with The Triumph of the Innocents, this image of children fleeing Herod’s infanticide with Mary, Joseph and Jesus is disturbing, not because of the subject matter, but rather because of the picture itself: frankly the infants look demonic and this is probably an insight into the perverse relationship the British have with children. These demonic ‘cherubs’ are far removed from Botticelli’s puttos, they don’t seem to belong in the scene that is painted. While the rounded infants found in Botticelli’s work can provoke they are also evanescent, captured with delicacy.
Tom Lubbock in the Independent expressed what I felt walking through this exhibition:
“He oppresses on three fronts. Symbolism. Moralism. Materiality. In a Hunt painting, every detail signifies something. It preaches a lesson. And most oppressively it has a solid, glistening physical presence.”
His work is too ‘heavy’, especially the palette with its bold, contrasting colours. Above I said that Pre-Raphaelite paintings leave me cold while Impressionist paintings don’t. Yes Monet’s palette contains bold, contrasting colours, but he used them in a much less incongruent way, leaving a more natural impression. With Hunt (and the other Pre-Raphaelite painters) there is, I think, an unintended dissonance between their depiction of nature and their ‘moral message’ super-imposed over the paintings – unintended to the modern viewer, at least. No doubt their way of representing nature ‘truthfully’ came at the insistent call of their Christian philosophy.
All in all, I won’t deny that these paintings hold interest but they are not profound, they are too circumstantial for that, historical paintings with too much baggage that instigates their origin.