Tate Honors the Pre-Raphaelites, Britain's First Avant-Garde

Tate Honors the Pre-Raphaelites, Britain's First Avant-Garde
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca (detail), 1877
(© Manchester City Galleries)


Tate Britain has today announced the details of a major survey of works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the group of young dissidents who cocked a snook at the Royal Academy in the mid-19th century and, seeking their inspiration in the medieval period, rejected what they thought of as the "decadent" Renaissance.

Opening next autumn, "Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde" will gather more than 150 paintings by the likes of Dante Gabriel RossettiWilliam Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. Highlights include Millais's "Ophelia" (1851-52), for which the painter famously forced the young Elizabeth Siddal to pose fully clothed in a bathtub full of water heated only by candles, and Holman Hunt's "Scapegoat" (1854-56), based on the Book of Leviticus and symbolizing Christ.

The concept subtending the whole exhibition — curated by Tate's Alison SmithYale University's Tim Barringer, and Marymount Manhattan College's Jason Rosenfeld — is to reframe the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as the radical movement it once was, before it was absorbed and celebrated by the art establishment.

One of the most exciting aspects of this new survey is that it will reach beyond visual art to embrace a group that was as paradigm-shaking as the Brotherhood's angry anti-academy stance: William Morris and the Art & Crafts movement.

Together with Ford Madox BrownBurne JonesPhilip WebbCharles FaulknerPeter Paul Marshall, and his wife's lover Rossetti, in 1861 Morris launched the decorative art firm Morris & Co, which, despite its clear anti-industrialization tendency, paved the way for the first London department store, Liberty.

Rather than simply re-evaluating and celebrating a specific art movement, Tate's "Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde" attempts to capture a moment in history — the time when cultural England open up to modernity and the glorious promises it held.

"The mid-19th century in Britain was a period of real experiment," Victoria & Albert curator Stephen Calloway told ARTINFO UK recently. "Artists and designers were looking for new ways of doing things, new kinds of subjects — for a whole new approach to art." 

"Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde," September 12, 2012 – January, 2013, Tate Britain, London