London: Tate Publishing, 256 pp., £24.99 (paper)
Two missionaries are fleeing a murderous mob. A Druid priest whips up the frenzy, for we are in ancient, heathen Britain, a land of megaliths and human sacrifice. Racing across the greensward, the natives are just catching up with one chasuble-clad Christian, but the other—and here we enter the picture proper—has sought refuge in the riverbank hut of a convert family. That wooden shack opens up before us, a shallow box almost coextensive with the four-foot-seven-inch-wide canvas. The hue and cry on the plains beyond can only be glimpsed through a horizontal strip of window and two other upright strips, running either side of a door held ajar by the missionary’s defenders.
He and they fill up the hut, packing rigidly into its corners like a human truss frame. The artist, William Holman Hunt, has scrutinized the nine figures exhaustively. Just as he fixes on the physical minutiae of an earthenware bowl, bark peeling from a birch post, and rushes rising from the stream, he examines the spread of robes and flesh stitch by stitch, vein by nail. The remorselessness of his attention is at one with the fierce sunlight to which the hut’s contents are exposed: it is half as if the stricken missionary has collapsed beneath that glare. But equally, his lot might be the painter’s own: for both, it is plain, are men of zeal, and such faith as theirs can never come easy, here in truth-resistant Britain.
Holman Hunt was just twenty-three in 1850, the year that London’s Royal Academy exhibited A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids. In his canvas, begun the previous summer, a fervor generated among a tiny group of ardent young Londoners pulses out at maximum intensity. The name adopted by this group, which included Hunt’s friends John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, would come however to designate a vast, three-decade swathe of nineteenth-century visual culture, embracing artists as radically dissimilar as Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones.
As a result the curators of “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde,” Tate Britain’s new survey of the phenomenon, face a daunting challenge of organization. This they resolve magnificently. The exhibition is not only compendious, bringing together almost every major innovative painting of mid-nineteenth-century Britain along with work in a host of other media. It is provocative. It throws aside hackneyed approaches to an often derided phase of cultural history and comes up with something fresh. Recasting the group as an “avant-garde” turns out to make very good sense. At the same time, in saluting the Pre-Raphaelites’ investment in modern tendencies, the show returns us to their ongoing angularity. For somehow, the works of Hunt and his associates still have it in them to make viewers wince.
The organizers’ task is significantly complicated…
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