4/5 Stars ****

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an influential movement in mid 19th century England that strove to throw off the stifling, classicist reigns of the art “establishment” (personified as The Royal Academy of Arts.) If you are interested in art, this 6-hour series is an excellent, condensed introduction to the story, imbued with all the drama and pathos, of how change was wrought. But as Fanny Moyle, the author of the book which it’s based on, says in her interview (an extra on the first disc), “I think what really interests me about that period and the Pre-Raphaelites is how modern they are. How iconic their relationships are. It could be happening today…”

As she goes on to say: “The Royal Academy had been set up by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great painter towards the end of the 18th century. And it was an institution that dominated both the training of British artists, but also taste and opinion. It determined what was considered good art. And Reynolds, when he set up the Academy, had written, if you like – to be crude – a sort of rulebook about what he considered good art; and this had been interpreted and sort of ingrained in the thinking of the Royal Academy. This was really an art in what’s now referred to as the Grand Manner, when there were very particular rules of composition and of what was considered beauty. Beauty was something that was not real. Realism was not part of the Royal Academy doctrine, but idealization.”

“Now, all the Pre-Raphaelites went through the Royal Academy schools, which was a very rigorous academic training. And really, anyone who really, seriously wanted a career as a painter, if they could they would try and get into the Academy because it was an institution that once… Once you’d been through the mill, it spat you out into the establishment and it provided a market for your work, really.”

“So all of them were trained. …And what was so extraordinary was the way they turned on the Academy and said, “This is all rubbish, these rules.” That, “Life isn’t like this. We want to paint stuff that is real. We don’t want to do idealized images of the Virgin child. We want to find girls on the streets who look real and we want to paint them the way they look.”

Here is some humorous dialogue from the movie, at the annual Academy exhibition: Curator: “Is something troubling you gentlemen?” Millais: “We were just a little concerned about the position of our paintings [way up high by the ceiling.]” Curator: “What appears to be the problem?” Rossetti: “The problem isn’t so much that you put the work of these two men of genius so, so far above the line that you’d need a ladder to see them; it’s what you put on the line. On the line, Mr. Stone. I mean, look at this [pointing at a painting of three cherubs.] I’ve seen stains on a chamber pot with more artistic merit.”

Fanny Moyle goes on to say, “…It’s really hard today to understand how powerful Ruskin [the art critic] was as a critic and writer. But he was extraordinarily influential. The brotherhood had suffered two years of terrible criticism. Utter criticism. I mean, these were artists on their knees, where pretty much every national newspaper had said their art was awful, they were an outrage, they were an affront, they were audacious whippersnappers.”

“…Ruskin stayed silent throughout this period [1849-1851]. Then in 1851, Ruskin wrote a letter to The Times and he said he thought that, contrary to what everyone else was saying, in fact the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood could be the best thing for British art in the last 300 years. And then the minute he said that, other people shut up.”

“…It’s very interesting that Millais, in particular – his paintings of women, like Ophelia; like another painting he did called Mariana; were very, very, very popular with the female audience. There are descriptions that when these paintings went on show, there was just rows of bonnets. You know, women were desperate to see these pictures. And they are pictures that are highly sexed. I mean Ophelia is a woman drowning, but she’s also a woman in an almost sort of orgasmic sort of position.”

“What is extraordinary about these young men [twenty] – unmarried, very young, in mid-Victorian society – they were painting female sexual appetite; or Millais, particularly, was. And certainly you don’t really see the critics mentioning it overtly, but the public reaction implies … that the public understood that intention.”

Fanny Moyle’s interview is brilliant, as you might expect from the person who, in fact, “wrote the book”: Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives Of The Pre-Raphaelites. Her interview is an extra on the first of the two DVDs. I would recommend listening to her interview first. It doesn’t contain any spoilers – but it should help flesh out the story and give you background and perspective. The character Fred is a composite. Most of the rest of the characters are real historical characters. The timeline has been condensed.

Advertisements