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100 Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces, Gordon Kerr (Flame Tree Publishing 2011)

For me there is a simple test for Pre-Raphaelite art and many of the paintings in this book don’t pass it. The test goes like this: is this art deeply, soul-stirringly ugly and unpleasant on the eye? Are its colours garish and ill-judged, its figures stiff and ungainly, its general air stilted, simpering and sentimental?

If I can say “Yes” to those questions, it’s Pre-Raphaelite art. So Sir John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849) is Pre-Raphaelite. And Millais’s Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849) is too. And Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2) definitely is. And so are William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd (1851), The Awakening Conscience (1852) and The Light of the World (c. 1852). That last, which shows Christ knocking on an overgrown door, is one of the most famous paintings ever created. For me, it’s also one of the ugliest. Pre-Raphaelite painters often turn flesh and other matter into something that looks like plastic. Here it looks like putrescent plastic.

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)


But Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1854) doesn’t pass the “Yuck!” test so successfully, so it’s not very Pre-Raphaelite for me. Nor is his Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867). And most of the paintings here by Dante Gabriel Rossetti don’t even come close to passing the “Yuck!” test. He wasn’t a particularly good artist, but he could capture the beauty of female hair, skin, lips and clothing, and even set them glowing, so I don’t like to classify him as Pre-Raphaelite. I don’t like to classify Sir Edward Burne-Jones as that either. He too could capture beauty, though less earthily and more ethereally.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Monna Vanna (1866)


But Rossetti and Burne-Jones were Pre-Raphaelite, the best of a generally bad movement. Anthony Frederick Sandys was technically a better artist than either of them, as he proved with Medea (1866-8), but he couldn’t capture beauty so well. William Waterhouse could, but he definitely wasn’t Pre-Raphaelite. He was neo-classical and skilful and if the two of his paintings included here, Ophelia (c. 1894) and Juliet (1898), don’t seem particularly out of place, that’s because they are far from his best. In fact, I would say that the only masterpieces here are by Rossetti. He was an uneven artist who belongs with the Pre-Raphaelites at his worst and transcended them at his best. Millais never transcended anything. But perhaps Pre-Raphaelitism would have been a less interesting movement if it hadn’t failed so often and so uglily.

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