American Federation of Arts/ DelMonico, 280 pp., $65.00
It’s common for restive artists to conclude that the current generation has lost its way—less common, perhaps, to look back more than four hundred years for a solution. When a small band of would-be reformers met at the London house of John Everett Millais in 1848 and emerged as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they were deliberately rejecting not just the work of their most prominent contemporaries but a long-established consensus on the development of European art. (In addition to Millais, the original PRB, as it styled itself, included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William, who would later help document the movement, the painters William Holman Hunt and James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the future critic Frederic George Stephens.) Though Raphael’s influence dated back to the sixteenth century, the idea that painters should follow rules derived from his practice had hardened into orthodoxy after Sir Joshua Reynolds delivered his Discourses (1769–1790) to the Royal Academy.
Hunt’s retrospective account of the movement contended that it was those rules, rather than Raphael himself, that had proved the stumbling block—“Pre-Raphaelitism,” he said, “is not Pre-Raphaelism.” The group’s principal champion, John Ruskin, insisted that “nature only” was their model. But there is no question that nature, as the Brotherhood saw it, was heavily mediated by art, especially that of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Victorian Radicals, the catalog of an exhibition drawn from the collections of the Birmingham Museums and currently traveling to multiple venues in the US, begins its story with those it calls, paradoxically, “the pre-Raphaelite avant-garde”: artists who led the way by rediscovering the achievement of predecessors who had often been dismissed as primitive.
The initial impetus of the PRB was more aesthetic than political. But because of the group’s identification with Ruskin, who brooked no such distinction, and their influence on subsequent artists like William Morris, Victorian Radicals assimilates them into a broader history of resistance to industrial capitalism in Britain, a movement that itself sought to transform present conditions by looking to the past. The catalog pays tribute to three generations of artists for whom the growth of places like Birmingham, and all it represented, was anathema. The contributors to the volume recognize the irony, even as they recount how a city known for its manufacturing boom and scorned by a German visitor in 1842 as “a very desert” for fine arts became home to one of the strongest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world, as well as a major center for the craft revival at the turn of the century.
Repelled by what he called “the depressing and monotonous circumstances of English manufacturing life,” Ruskin found his ideal antithesis to the depredations of the factory system in the unalienated labor of the medieval craftsman. This was also the ideal that lay behind…
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