It’s all about perspective…

It’s fascinating how perceptions of art change over time.

As you may recall, the Pre-Raphaelites were so named because they rejected the Royal Academy’s unquestioning devotion to Raphael’s style of painting. There is still some question as to whether the Pre-Raphaelites were primarily focused on rejecting Raphael himself (less likely), or whether they merely disdained the Academy’s insistence that they ape the Rapahel-like style of painting. Either way, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood rejected slavish devotion to the artistic heroes of the past, and Raphael was one of the most obvious targets.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1515 is a perfect example of what irked the Pre-Raphaelites about Raphael. It is unquestionably a lovely work, but also seems a tad insincere. The subjects are posed in an unnatural way, and their grand gestures seem a bit overwrought, though you have to love the fellow on the far right who seems determined to show off his abs and bulging triceps. But on the other hand, Raphael’s work was also dignified, beautiful and graceful, which is doubtless why the Academy used him as a standard example for their students.

Of course, it’s ironic that one of the chief contemporary criticisms of the Pre-Raphaelites is that their work is chocolate-boxy and picture-perfect (the shoe is on the other foot now, eh?). I’m sure most members of the PRB would be stunned that their work, once so controversial, is now decried as downright twee (in the future will we look back on the work of the Young British Artists and think of their work as cute? That’s a scary thought…).

Stimulating…or saccharine?

Over time, I have grown to appreciate (and often prefer) contemporary art, and although I still enjoy the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, I probably wouldn’t display it in my home. From my perspective, the work of the PRB is an important part of art history that was very influential for generations of artists (whether they want to admit to it or not), and I love to study it. But I wouldn’t like to see artists today imitating the style of the PRB or – for that matter – the style of any other artists or historical period.

What do you think? Would you like to see the artistic style from one of your favourite historical periods come back in fashion? Or do you prefer to keep the past in the past?

What Makes a Pre-Raphaelite?

rose John William Waterhouse
The term Pre-Raphaelite is thrown around pretty loosely on this website. I liberally refer to Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse as Pre-Raphaelite artists, although I know perfectly well that they were not “officially” members of the brotherhood. For example, while many (including myself) would recognize Edward Burne Jones as a Pre-Raphaelite, his only connection to the movement was through Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and he was never a member of the original Brotherhood (neither, of course, was William Morris)(Barringer, 14).

This got me to thinking. What makes art Pre-Raphaelite? Why do I tend to associate some artists with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and not others? In my own mind, Pre-Raphaelite art is closely connected to its 19th century British context, and so I tend to look for those qualities in any bit of fashion or art that I label “Pre-Raphaelite.” I also think a certain dedication to accurate representation of life (realism) is another important defining characteristic of Pre-Raphalitism, though close examination of the art of the original Pre-Raphaelites’ reveals that they wasn’t always as keen on portraying “reality” as they were in finding beauty (this is particularly true of Rossetti, of course).

Pre-Raphaelites also had a very particular idea of beauty and nature that I think is common to most of the works I would consider “Pre-Raphaelite.” I suppose most people would call this romanticism. The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic values nature (or rather, an idealised form of nature), and generally opposes industrialisation and modernisation as encroachment onto nature’s turf. This is particularly evident in William Morris’ work and writing, but it can also be found in Rossetti’s idealisation of untamed feminine beauty and Ruskin’s fondness for the unspoilt landscapes of England and Scotland.

Finally, I would have to say historicism is probably the defining characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite art, and it connects closely to all the other attributes I’ve mentioned. It was certainly important to the original PRB–they even went so far as to name their movement “Pre-Raphaelite” in honour of a supposedly superior distant artistic past! And while it may seem quaint to modern viewers to see the obviously anachronistic characters that fill Pre-Raphaelite art, the Pre-Raphaelites felt that they were celebrating a mythical, mystical golden age.

What is Pre-Raphaelitism to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Source consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998.
Image: “The Soul of the Rose” John William Waterhouse, 1908. “And the soul of the rose went into my blood”(from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’).

Oscar Wilde on Ruskin

I’ve been an Oscar Wilde fan for as long as I can remember. I instantly fell in love with his flippant, irreverent humour. His quotable quotes are everywhere–I particularly love this one: “work is the curse of the drinking classes.” So outrageous! How can you not love him?

In addition to his witty sayings and flamboyant excesses, Oscar Wilde is also very well known for his involvement in the aesthetic movement (which partially explains his penchant for velvet kneebritches). But did you know that Oscar Wilde was also a huge fan of John Ruskin?

Ruskin (then Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford) was one of the two people that Wilde most wanted to meet when he went to Oxford. Wilde befriended Ruskin during his first year at school after going to Ruskin’s lectures of Florentine Art in the fall of 1874. Soon Wilde was he even helped Ruskin to plant flowers while constructing a country road in North Hinksey outside of Oxford! For several months, Wilde got up early in the morning to wheel “Mr. Ruskin’s especial wheelbarrow.” I personally find it a little difficult to imagine Oscar Wilde pushing a wheelbarrow and digging ditches. He must have been truly eager to impress Ruskin! It paid off though…Ruskin invited the students who helped him with his project were invited to breakfast afterwards, and I’m sure Wilde took advantage of the opportunity to talk with Ruskin.

Ruskin’s ideas left a lasting impression on Wilde, who rose to his defense in his work Intentions. His defense of Ruskin was later republished in the New York Times in 1891.

Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his so fervid and so fiery coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s gallery; greater, indeed, one is apt to think at times, not merely because its equal beauty is more enduring, but on account of the fuller variety of its appeal, soul speaking to soul in those long-cadenced lines, not through form and colour alone, though through these, indeed, completely and without loss, but with intellectual and emotional utterance, with lofty passion and with loftier thought, with imaginative insight and with poetic aim; greater I think even as literature is the greater art.

Oh, Oscar.

sources consulted: “Noted with Pleasure” from the New York Times

Gothic Revival and Spirituality: John Henry Newman and AWN Pugin

Thank you for all of your comments on my France trip! I’ll definitely be following your advice!

Before I move on to John Ruskin’s interpretation of Gothic architecture, I’d like to spend a bit more time talking about the Medieval/Gothic revival of the early 19th century that Augustus Welby Pugin was such an important part of.

If you’re a church history buff, you’ve probably heard of John Henry Newman (pictured right), the Anglican cleric who converted to Roman Catholicism after falling in love with the church’s apostolic heritage (he later became a cardinal). Before his conversion, Newman was an extremely influential member of the Oxford Movement that aspired to return the Church of England to its Roman Catholic roots. Newman and Pugin were both heavily involved in a religious movement that idealized the Middle Ages for the spiritual awareness they believed the people of the time possessed.

During Pugin and Newman’s time, Gothic Revival was closely connected to spiritual renewal, and a number of sermons were preached on the subject. Some portrayed Gothic architecture in a positive light, some did not. For example, a rather inflammatory address on Gothic Architecture entitled “The “Restoration of Churches” is the Restoration of Popery!” was given by Reverend Francis Close of Cheltenham in 1844(186).

When Newman decided to have the Chapel of St. Mary and St. Nicholas constructed in the Gothic style in 1835, it created a bit of a stir. This was prior to his conversion to Catholicism, but Newman was still a controversial figure. And while Newman did not join the Camden society–Pugin’s circle of Gothic architects–he praised the style, and started his own group, the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture (190).

Although Newman and Pugin were initially close friends, they ultimately had a falling out over (what else) the importance of Gothic architecture. Newman eventually came to beleive that, while Gothic architecture represented the perfect style for the Middle Ages, and that it should be preserved, it was not necessarily the best design for the 19th century (206). In the end, he rejected the notion that only one style could truly glorify God. This infuriated Pugin, who felt betrayed by Newman.

The lasting contribution of the early 19th century Gothic revivalists was their belief that one’s moral and spiritual convictions are reflected (and informed!) by the work one produces. Augustus Welby Pugin wrote in defense of Gothic architecture that “the belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised”(186). We will see that this sentiment had a powerful influence on the works of both William Morris and John Ruskin, although they would later re-interpret it in a more secular light. Morris himself saw Pugin’s revival in Marxist terms: “the Gothic Revival was and is really connected with the general progress of the world, with…aspirations towards freedom”(206). In contrast, Pugin’s desire was for the restoration of the Middle Ages, and through it “the star-gilt world that lived in his imagination”(206).

Source consulted: James Patrick, “Newman, Pugin and Gothic” Victorian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Winter, 1981): 185-207

Image courtesy wikimedia commons.

Gothic Revival in Architecture and Augustus Welby Pugin

The Gothic Revival in architecture was one of the cornerstones of the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements. And while many people familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement associate Gothic Revival with Ruskin and Morris, Augustus Welby Pugin was actually England’s leading exponent of Gothic Revival in the 19th century. It was Pugin’s unique, moral and artistic interpretation of the medieval period that had the greatest influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The other day we examined Horace Walpole’s mini Gothic revival in the 18th century. Walpole did a great deal to re-popularize Medieval style, but he knew little about architecture and his “Gothick” mansion at Strawberry Hill was about as authentic as Cinderella’s castle at Disney World. So while Walpole is considered by some to be the father of Gothic revival, it’s a comparison somewhat akin to calling Marie Antoinette the mother of rural revival because she constructed a play village at Versailles.

It was not until the 19th century that a more heartfelt champion of Gothic style was born. Augustus Welby Pugin was born in 1812 in London in a family of exiled Gallic Aristocrats who had fled the French Revolution. The elder Pugin worked as a draftsman for the architect John Nash. His son exhibited a natural talent at drawing and his sketches were so popular that he was chosen to design furniture for Windsor Castle at the tender age of 19! Shortly thereafter, he went into business for himself.

Pugin was the polar opposite of Horace Walpole, whose interest in Gothic style was more for entertainment value. Pugin represented the new wave of Gothic revival in the 19th century, because he saw Medieval design elements as a moral force.

Pugin converted to Roman Catholicism in his adulthood, and his conversion experience motivated him to express his faith through architecture. Unlike Walpole, who toyed about with Gothic style as a plaything, Pugin idealized the Middle Ages for its intertwining of faith and beauty. In 1836, Pugin synthesised his thoughts about the moral superiority of the Middle Ages in a book entitled Contrasts, A Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the 14th and 15th centuries and Similar buildings of the Present Day. Showing a Decay of Taste .

Pugin’s writings struck a chord with his 19th century audience and he soon received a number of commissions. Pugin is best known for designing the interiors of the Palace of Westminster (Parliament, shown right) in London. His greatest contribution, though, was the way he recast the medieval as a moral force, something that inspired John Ruskin, and later William Morris.

Sadly, Pugin had a nervous breakdown while trying to prepare the Medieval exhibit for the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851. He was institutionalized briefly, but was released to die at home in 1852.

For more information, see the Pugin Society. Sadly, I took a look at Project Gutenberg, and it doesn’t look like any of his works are available online yet! This is a project for somebody! I would really love to read his books, and I’ll definitely be posting a review once I do.