Editors' pick

The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875

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The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875 photo
Julia Margaret Cameron's "The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere"

Editorial Review

'The Pre-Raphaelite Lens': Painting, photography intersect at National Gallery

By Andy Grundberg
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Although they considered themselves avant-garde at the time, the mid-19th-century British artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood generally have been consigned to the back eddy of modern art history.

Promise us Édouard Manet's vignettes of urban life, Edgar Degas' ballet dancers, Paul Cézanne's pictures of fruit and Provençal hills, or anything by any French impressionist, and we flock to stand in line. Give us paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais or William Holman Hunt, on the other hand, and our feet shift into reverse.

Pre-Raphaelitism is a fascinatingly peculiar form of relapse. Its adherents were opposed to most painting since the Renaissance master Raphael, and responded by returning painting to a kind of all-out realism seemingly more suited to the camera lens.

That they did this during the early decades of photography gives traction to the National Gallery of Art's new exhibition, "The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875," which displays about 100 photographs and 20 paintings and watercolors. Curated by Diane Waggoner of the museum's photography department, the show may strike some as an academic diversion. But it makes a strong case that early British photographers eagerly adopted some of Pre-Raphaelite painting's stylistic tropes in their quest to confer art status on their own medium.

Turnabout is fair play, of course, as is mutual borrowing, which surely occurred. But as the exhibition indicates throughout its five thematic sections, photographers usually got the better part of the deal. Major figures including Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Rejlander and Lady Clementina Hawarden took the Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with the poetic and archaic and produced beautiful and affecting images. Robinson's "The Lady of Shalott," from 1860, and Cameron's "The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere," from 1874, both printed using the gorgeous albumen process, managed against odds to transcend their subjects' goofy origins in Arthurian legend.

But the show's sections on landscape and portraiture largely upstage these self-conscious, hothouse compositions. Roger Fenton's views of Wales and Northern England may be less well known than his war photographs from Crimea, but they are visually far more sophisticated and satisfying. Other landscape practitioners should become as well known as Fenton, such as Henry White, who photographed fields dotted with wheat sheaves, and Col. Henry Stuart Wortley, whose seascapes from around 1863 rival the much-admired images of Frenchman Gustave Le Gray from a few years earlier.

Cameron's portraits need no introduction for anyone conversant with photography, but they still shine forth in the company of Rejlander, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) and others. The show concludes with a suite of portraits of Pre-Raphaelite muses: Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and an obsession of Rossetti's, actress Ellen Terry and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. All show the camera to be unrivaled at the task of constructing an aura of celebrity around its subject; only Rossetti's oil painting of Jane Morris comes as close as the camera to capturing the drama of her nearly deranged-looking outer self.

With the possible exception of Rossetti's Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite painters had no reality to rub against as they made their images, and so the results have comparatively little friction. This is less true of the landscapes, which have a fetching devotion to endless detail and uniformly bright colors that seems crypto-modern, than it is of the allegorical and biblical subjects for which the movement is best known.

John Ruskin, the critic who theorized and supported the Pre-Raphaelites, and whose watercolors are included in the show, insisted that landscape artists work directly from nature, in the manner of contemporaneous French painters of the Barbizon school. That certainly helped support their claims to realism and, ultimately, truthfulness, which in Ruskin's eyes was the ultimate measure of a picture.

The exhibition leaves the impression not only that Pre-Raphaelite landscapes have more traction than the genre scenes, but also that photographers often succeeded where painters did not. A quite different story might have been told if the show had been done by a painting expert and not a photography curator. Instead of showing us how much the aesthetic of Pre-Raphaelite painting influenced the course of 19th-century British photography, and by extension European and American Pictorialism, it would have spent its time showing how photography favorably influenced the movement's painting. To do this, presumably, it would have gathered a fuller and more striking collection of paintings than the present show.

Yet even a gathering of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in existence would have a difficult time convincing us of their significance to the mainstream of art as it evolved into the 20th century. There just isn't that much newness to be found in these paintings in the way they are painted, compared to J.M.W. Turner earlier and Cézanne and Claude Monet later. And their realism reads as atavistic rather than progressive.

What they do seem to connect to, oddly enough, is our current, 21st-century condition. The mythic, spaced-out quality of most Pre-Raphaelite allegorical painting finds its counterpart today in the world of digital imagemaking, in which images originating with a camera are collaged and worked over with software to create a world that combines elements of the familiar and the strange. (Describing such images as photographs seems deficient, even if they present themselves as such.) Once again we are in a moment when photography and painting are free to borrow from each other and to emphasize their similarities over their differences.

But we have a hard time cozying up to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood all the same. Its members claimed to be interested in realism and truth; we are far more taken with notions of fiction and theatricality.