Did the Pre-Raphaelites Suffer from “Blurred Vision?”

This morning I came across a less-than-enthused review of “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” in the Washington Post. In the article, Andy Grundberg criticized what he termed the “blurred vision” of the Pre-Raphaelites. And while Grundberg retained some admiration for the work done by Pre-Raphaelite landscape artists, he condemned the Brotherhood with broad strokes, arguing that “its members claimed to be interested in realism and truth” but were “far more taken with notions of fiction and theatricality.”

Grundberg was a photography critic for the New York Times for many years, so it’s not surprising that he prefers the Pre-Raphaelites landscapes and photography to their paintings. But his criticism of the PRB is pretty standard. Many modern viewers can appreciate the work of artists like John William Inchbold (whose photograph-quality painting of Anstey’s Cove is pictured here), and even Ford Maddox Brown, but remain perplexed by the romanticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

I was particularly struck by Grundberg’s backhanded compliment that Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson had “managed against odds to transcend their subjects’ goofy origins in Arthurian legend.” So now it’s “goofy” to be inspired by myths and legend? Greek myth has inspired countless artists and is (quite rightly) not regarded as a “goofy” source of inspiration. Why should ancient British myths be seen differently?

Mythology is such a rich source of inspiration for artists, and it saddens me to see it dismissed off-hand. Many members of the PRB were actually very interested in a “modern” approach to art and design. They recognized that British art had become mired in convention and instead attempted to use the classics as a foundation to build from that would allow them break free from traditions that had become oppressive to artists. Even William Morris, whose passion for the middle ages is well-known, was not attempting to imitate medieval design, but to use it as a source of inspiration to create a better future.

Apparently, people today are confused that a a group that claimed to be visionary would lean so heavily on mythology and the classics for inspiration. Contemporary artists and (and their adoring critics) have the hubris to claim that they have re-invented the wheel, or are totally unencumbered by the influence of others from the past (the Young British Artists come to mind). And while this unfettered arrogance is intriguing, and can sometimes produce fascinating work, it also runs the risk of alienating the public with its hollow promise of unbridled innovation. A connection to the past and an understanding of our collective unconscious is not “goofy” – it’s a fundamental part of the creative process.