And then that curiosity in some way poses problems. Is there any central subject to Millais’s art? Isabella, the 1849 canvas that was his first Royal Academy submission as a Pre-Raphaelite (Millais at the time being only nineteen), tells a story from a Keats poem in an innovative but intelligible fashion, as the Tate catalog points out. (This outstandingly informative document is the work of Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld, and Alison Smith. The latter two curated a Millais survey at the same address only five years previously.) And yet what lingers from the image is not its dramatic logic but isolated, obsessive passages: a man’s head looming soulfully forward, a napkin pressed to lips, a leg in white hose stretched out to kick. Visual specimens, again, seem the desideratum, and so they will throughout Millais’s youth.
But information collection can become a kind of delirium. The mass circulation of daguerreotypes, lithographs, and steel engravings would lead around 1860 to the advent of the photocollage and the scrap screen, forms in which female artists put to ridicule the whole image world of their day.4 From that date, the Tate curators bring in The Choice of Paris: An Idyll, a wicked watercolor response to Pre-Raphaelitism by the feminist Florence Claxton, which places a caricatured Millais in a compositional clutter parodying his older colleague’s “Early Xtians.” Millais’s narrative scenes of the 1850s fed John Tenniel’s Lewis Carroll illustrations of 1865 and at points, such as in a passionately daft Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, surpass them in absurdity.
How should an earnest male escape the condition of nonsense? For Millais the most congenial answer lay in reaching for the condition of music. From his later twenties on, he started to improvise compositions dictated by mood rather than informational exactitude. The elegiac Autumn Leaves of 1855–1856, a reverie of girls standing at an evening bonfire, started the detour from his former symbol-choked naturalism. The move was paralleled in the slighter oeuvre of the third original Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti had never been much of a naturalist, but his early art tried to load confined spaces with meanings derived from his reading of old texts. An 1850 annunciation scene using his brother and sister as Gabriel and Mary packed dramatic tensions into a bleached and orthogonal, almost Mondrian-like interior. After this, drama more or less departed from his art, instead resurfacing in the nervy narrative watercolors of his model and lover Elizabeth Siddall.
Rossetti was an instinctual modernist, after a facile and amiable fashion: he would have accepted without any mental struggle the dictum of Maurice Denis about a painting being “essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” From assembling colors in mock-medieval schemes of symbolism, he switched after 1859 to arranging them into grandiose icons of femininity. Monna Vanna, Bocca Bacciata, Lady Lilith: euphonious titles for fruit-bowl-like extravaganzas of curvaceous forms, notionally reminiscent of belles by Titian and Palma Vecchio from three centuries before. His new production line fell in with and gave a face to the wider shift in cultural temper known as the rise of Aestheticism, or “the cult of beauty.”5 It is a turn from naturalist values that the curators of the exhibition place in a many-leveled setting.
With their complex, three-dimensional awareness of the era, it is a wonder that they so succeed in creating a persuasive visual argument. They manage to bring in not only contemporary photographs and graphic works, but the comparative example of the German Nazarenes, a slightly earlier groupuscule more seriously intent on turning the clock back in art; the then cult figure of William Blake, revered by Rossetti; and the Scottish painter William Dyce, an intellectual superior to the Pre-Raphaelites working independently of them in London. Besides many of the founders’ pictorial camp followers, they also invite in some fainthearted attempts to apply a Pre-Raphaelite ethos to sculpture.
Half offstage hovers John Ruskin, the critic who sprang to the group’s defense in 1851. Little read by Hunt or Millais, Ruskin’s precepts about the depiction of nature did influence landscapists such as John Brett, working in their wake. And then in a later phase of Ruskin’s writing, beginning in the late 1850s, he expanded his terms of reference radically. Nature and pictures got subsumed within the wider environment—social, moral, political—that Ruskin pointed toward with the word “life.”
Rossetti, the man who had first talked Hunt and Millais into forming a Pre-Raphaelite “Brotherhood,” had a separate yet convergent interest in art and environments. He was in favor of a Greater Bohemia. Cliques, poems, paintings, “stunners” (beautiful women)—they all pointed in the same romanticizing direction. A half-baked scheme Rossetti launched for painting frescoes in Oxford in 1857 led to his joining forces with two Ruskin-reading young designers, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. That conjunction is where the Pre-Raphaelite tree starts properly to fork. The complexity of the ensuing history is that with the introduction of Morris and the later Ruskin, the issue of beauty enters hand in hand with that of politics. We leave the framed compartments within which Pre-Raphaelites had formerly set down whatever radical sympathies they entertained. With Morris’s designs for furniture, tapestries, and carpets, we step into a proposed new world, an environment to be wholly aestheticized.
But this transition, with its large implications for cultural history to follow, proves hard to represent in an exhibition that has given priority to painting. Between the galumphingly bold rhythms laid out across the twenty square yards of Morris’s “Peacock and Bird Carpet” and his Marxian agitprop pamphlet of much the same date—Monopoly; or, How Labour Is Robbed, here seen displayed in an adjacent case—there inevitably yawns a huge gap of connecting social realities.
Instead, the last rooms of the exhibition are dominated by the designs of his friend and associate Burne-Jones, whose art comes as an astonishing climax. Even when he uses oils, his work never feels like painting, not at least in any sense of the term introduced after the era of his idol Botticelli. Rather, his monumental images, with their crinkly surface textures, their wan ideal figures, and their perpendicular regimentation, transport us to a zone quite beyond the easel and the art gallery. They demand to be housed in some form of grand ritual architecture. A church? A hall? Whatever the setting might be, religious or political, they would be subverting it. But to resolve that question by suggesting that Burne-Jones produces “art for art’s sake” merely begs others. It is no more helpful than his own exasperatingly precious remarks: “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be, in a light better than ever shone.” Or: “Pictures are too good to be funny. Literature’s good enough for that.”
How then does the art of Morris’s shrewd, whimsical, and unheroic business partner come by its authority and impact? For surely his twenty-four-by-eight-foot tapestry The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval is not only the largest but the most viscerally exciting exhibit in the show (see illustration on page 14). The weaving, one of six produced for a mining magnate’s sham-Gothic mansion in the early 1890s (making it among the final items in the show’s chronology), was bought in 1978 by the rock guitarist Jimmy Page, and one might lean on that for an answer. Some musical principle must be at work in this sequencing, variation, and repetition of forms, heading left to right to a crescendo. Perhaps Burne-Jones is doing to earlier Victorian Gothic what Led Zeppelin did to 1960s rhythm and blues: simplifying, amplifying, and bunching its components so as to open out a grander, more stupefying—or, you might say, more stupefied—imaginative space.
With regard to this specific design, a letter of Burne-Jones’s corroborates the hypothesis, citing the obvious nineteenth-century analog. “I heard Wagner’s Parsifal the other day…. He made sounds that are really and truly (I assure you, and I ought to know) the very sounds that were to be heard in the Sangraal Chapel.” And yet Burne-Jones’s wife, who quotes the letter in a memoir, assures us that “he did not, as a rule, love Wagner’s music.” There is an alternative handle one might reach for, faced with these terrifying angels, no less uncanny forests, this epicene Galahad, and the Sangraal Chapel’s pregnant ceiling oozing blood. Burne-Jones, one might say, is in need of a session with the psychoanalyst.
But of course that would be putting the issue upside down. What he is actually doing, working as of 1890 alongside a pan-European generation of Symbolists, is creating the imaginative conditions that will make Freudianism possible. He is an artistic pioneer, pushing his way into psychic territory later to be fenced in and signposted by the men in white coats. The material that they will have to work on has very largely been shaped by Burne-Jones and his fellow dreamers. And why has that generation taken to exploring—or inventing—the unconscious? Because the reach of the conscious will, extended to scour the world for information, looks like it has hit a dead end. The fate of Pre-Raphaelitism proper seems to demonstrate that.
4 The Metropolitan Museum staged an exhibition on this theme in 2010: “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage,” curated by Elizabeth Siegel. ↩
5 “The Cult of Beauty” was the title of a 2011 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, exploring the phenomenon. ↩