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Birmingham Museums Trust/American Federation of Arts

‘Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement’

“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,” writes Ruth Bernard Yeazell, “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.”

“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.”

Victorian Radicals concentrates primarily on the line that leads through Rossetti to the Aestheticism of Morris and Burne-Jones—with its heightened emphasis on visual pleasure, on art for art’s sake rather than for representational or didactic purposes—and thence to the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished in turn-of-the-century Birmingham. One might also link Burne-Jones in particular to Art Nouveau and virtually the entire company to the Symbolists and Surrealists. Victoria Osborne notes a debt to Gustav Klimt in one of the last images of the exhibition, a watercolor of an elongated figure by the twentieth-century Birmingham painter Maxwell Ashby Armfield titled, after some lines by Algernon Swinburne, Where the silence is more than all tunes… (1902); but Klimt is himself anticipated by a picture like Sandys’s Medea (1866–1868), with its stunning femme fatale against a gold-leaf ground, begun only four years after the Viennese Symbolist’s birth.”

 

For more information, visit vbmuseum.org.

Category: Exhibition
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