Looking back, over the seismic shifts of early-20th-century art, the Pre-Raphaelite painters of 19th-century England seem guilty of every crime of retrograde aesthetics: They were sentimental and traditional, treacly and decorative. They were obsessed with willowy ginger lads and lasses languishing in historical dress-up, and lavished attention on hyper-precise details of wallpaper, costume and foliage.
One of the most anticipated exhibitions this season, at the National Gallery of Art (Feb. 17), will take a new look at all that, and argue something else: that the Pre-Raphaelites were in fact part of an avant-garde movement, more unruly in their colors and design than they are given credit for, and keenly alert to the social conditions and rapidly changing world of Victorian England. The exhibition mixes art and design, and is likely to be a crowd pleaser.
Other highlights of the National Gallery season are a major exhibition of works on paper by Albrecht Durer (March 24) and a glitzy show of art, design and costumes from the Ballets Russes (May 12). The latter will be a sexy spectacle, with the National Gallery raising the ceiling of its East Building galleries to accommodate two huge theatrical paintings, one a curtain based on a design by Picasso, the other a backdrop designed by Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova. The Ballets Russes intersected with many of the major artistic currents in Paris, and it toured throughout the world, playing an outsize role in disseminating visual, musical and choreographic styles. The exhibition will be one of the rare National Gallery shows to include a substantial multimedia component, with visual material punctuated by music and film.
Durer also played an outsize role in spreading visual styles as (arguably) one of the first international art stars of the Renaissance. The exhibition, opening in March, includes more than 100 works on paper from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, supplemented by holdings from the NGA. The core of the Albertina’s exquisite Durer holdings was first collected by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who was passionate about the German artist. Included in the exhibition are some of Durer’s most striking works, such as his astonishing naturalist rendering “Great Piece of Turf” and a touching self-portrait, with wide eyes and long, stringy hair, the artist made when he was 13. The bunny — the meticulous and lovely “Young Hare” of 1502 — isn’t, alas, coming to D.C.
The Phillips Collection will undertake an ambitious project in February: rewriting a bit of sacred art history. “Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio and Dubuffet” explores the connection between the American painter Jackson Pollock and the French artist Jean Dubuffet, using the lesser-known figure of Alfonso Ossorio as linchpin (Feb. 9).
Ossorio, born in the Philippines and a resident of the Hamptons for much of his life, was a wealthy collector and substantial artist in his own right.
The exhibition, which features 53 works such as Pollock’s “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist),” argues with the popular idea that Pollock was a solitary American genius, unconnected to larger and particularly European ideas.
The spring season also includes the opening of the “wax room” by Wolfgang Laib. The artist, who also created one of his signature “pollen paintings” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art this winter, will install a room of natural beeswax as a permanent part of the Phillips collection.
Farther afield, in Richmond and Baltimore, are exhibitions of pop artist Tom Wesselmann (at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) and Richard Caton Woodville (at the Walters Art Museum). Woodville, a Baltimore artist who studied and worked in Europe, died young from an opium overdose. He left behind a small oeuvre, of which only 16 paintings remain attributed to him and in circulation (including the 1848 “War News From Mexico,” which is enjoying new fame and was recently snatched up by the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas).
The Walters exhibition (March 10) brings together all of Woodville’s paintings, including works that have never been seen in public, plus work by other contemporary artists, in what should be a fascinating glimpse into pre-Civil War American artistic and social life — and another chance to grapple with an artistic style that has only recently been given new scrutiny and respect by academic art circles.
After major exhibitions devoted to Andy Warhol at the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn, and last fall’s Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the National Gallery, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts continues the ongoing reappraisal of Pop Art with a show devoted to Wesselmann (April 6).
Originally organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann” is billed as the first major retrospective in North America of one of the seminal pop art pioneers. The exhibition, which was a critical success when first seen in Canada, goes well beyond Wesselmann’s signature style, the candy-colored, steel-edged representation of commodity objects, to explore his larger career and debt to historical painters as far afield as Ingres and Matisse.