Now another Pre-Raphaelite show, also organized by the Tate, is opening at the National Gallery of Art, and what a difference almost three decades have made. When this exhibition debuted in London last September, it was called “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde.” The brotherhood of artists who came together in the mid-19th century to oppose the brown, gloppy fustiness of history painting and Royal Academy of Art conservatism, were positioned as radicals, as an avant-garde movement advocating both political and artistic reform. Their characteristic backward glance to the age before Raphael was put in its proper historical context: as a cry against the disordered and often brutal world of industrialization and its attendant woes of poverty, cheapness and drab, despoiled landscapes.
The Washington version of the show is smaller, and it has lost the provocation of the original subtitle, although wall text refers passingly to “Britain’s first avant garde movement.”
“Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design” acknowledges the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais foremost among them — as innovative and concerned with social issues, but it doesn’t strenuously argue the “avant garde” claim.
Perhaps that’s because it’s a hard claim to sustain, at least if you have in mind the history of modern art as it played out in France, where stylistic innovations are easier to detect and apparently more radical. The painters of the Pre-Raphaelite movement ended up as establishment figures — Millais eventually became president of the Royal Academy — and despite a handful of truly provocative works in their respective portfolios, they all aged out of the avant-garde label fairly quickly. When we think of avant-garde, we think of painters who aimed at radically rethinking not just how to make a painting, but how to see the world, and we don’t tend to think of the dewy-eyed gingers in medieval costumes painted by the Pre-Raphaelites.
So the change in emphasis may be completely reasonable. The Pre-Raphaelites are extremely problematic artists. Although they willingly allied themselves under an adopted name and declared themselves committed to similar aims — going forward by looking back — they are diverse artists and not easily categorized.
Some of them pursued a finicky realism to astonishing, almost photographic lengths; others stressed narrative and a fantasy of pre-industrial wholesomeness. Political ideals would lead some of them, especially William Morris, to a genuine commitment to socialism, while for others, the poor were best seen as decorative and deferential.