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Medieval Revival

In the Victorian era, radical artists and designers launched a revolution by going back in time.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Donna della Finestra, 1881

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Donna della Finestra, 1881, oil on canvas with underdrawing in chalk and pencil;

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One way of creating a new future is to look to the past. At the end of the Middle Ages, European thinkers and artists turned to ancient Greece and Rome to find inspiration for what we now call the Renaissance. But what goes around comes around. Four centuries later, aesthetically-minded youth looked back to the culture of the Middle Ages as an antidote to the ills of the Industrial Revolution. Paradoxically, their neo-Medievalism ended up fostering radical artistic and political trends that contributed to the formation of modernism at the start of the 20th century.

The neo-Medievalism of the 19th-century, while international, reached its peak of expression in England, most notably in the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts movements. In 1848, a group of young artists, barely out of their teens, united in a secret society they called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or PRB. That was the year in which socialist revolutions swept across Europe, and while mostly abortive, they laid the groundwork for significant reforms, as well as for the triumphant Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also the year in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their Communist Manifesto. On April 10, 1848, 150,000 Chartists, advocates for working-class rights and universal suffrage, gathered for a meeting on London’s Kennington Common, striking fear into the hearts of the ruling class.

It was amid this political turmoil at home and abroad that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his brother William Michael Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Frederic George Stephens, James Collinson, and Thomas Woolner banded together in their artistic Brotherhood. They were inspired by the example of a German conventicle of a few decades earlier, the Nazarenes, who had eschewed the academic art of their day in favor of the perceived simplicity and honesty of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Like the Nazarenes, the PRB believed that beginning with Raphael, Western art had abandoned true spirituality and integrity and assumed a slickness that effectively cut art off from its true wellsprings. As the Nazarenes had done before them, the Pre-Raphaelites advocated the revival of old techniques such as fresco painting, an archaistic style that mimicked (with varying degrees of accuracy) Early Renaissance aesthetics, and a studied indifference to contemporary life as subject matter. While these artworks may give little outward hint that they were painted in the 19th century, the intention behind them and the rhetoric that surrounded them—like the modernists of a half-century later, the PRB put out their own journal and issued strident manifestos—betokened a revolutionary agenda.

One of the PRB’s tenets was the sacredness of labor. They celebrated the craft aspect of fine art and argued for a continuity between the work of a painter or sculptor and that of, say, a goldsmith, potter, or carpenter. It was in this aspect of its program that Pre-Raphaelitism dovetailed with the nascent labor movement. In England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, many workers were protesting against a system of machine production that threatened to dehumanize them. The rebellious young artists, while themselves insulated by class privilege from this danger, nonetheless made a meaningful and eloquent protest of their own against the machine, in both art and life. In this way, the PRB influenced the rise of the Arts & Crafts movement later in the 19th century. Inspired by the artist-critic John Ruskin and led by designer and businessman William Morris, Arts & Crafts sought to reunify not only the fine and applied arts but also everyday labor and creative labor, to level class divisions and ultimately reorganize society in a utopian scheme.

Of course, it did not succeed on those ambitious terms, but the Arts & Crafts movement had a profound effect on arts institutions and workers’ education in the late Victorian period. One English city in particular, Birmingham, became a showcase for institutions benefiting workers, craftsmen, and artists. A major center of factory production whose name became a mocking byword for shoddy goods, Birmingham was also a center of progressive arts education that produced a new skilled workforce of craftspeople turning out high-quality, innovative metal, glass, jewelry, and ceramic objects. The city was blessed with civic and business leaders who had the foresight to appreciate the arts of their own time as well as the past and to found a museum that in a fairly short time came to rival the much older ones in London. The Birmingham-born artist Edward Burne-Jones, who got his start within the Pre-Raphaelite movement, was a major booster of Birmingham arts and crafts and used his considerable influence in the art world both to build the museum’s collections and to aid the cause of art education.

It is, therefore, fitting that an important exhibition dedicated to these 19th-century art and design movements has been organized by the Birmingham Museums Trust. “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement,” which features 145 works from the Birmingham collections, is traveling in the U.S. and opens at the Yale Center for British Art on February 13, running there through May 10. This version of the show, which complements the narrative of British art offered by Yale’s collection, is co-curated by Victoria Osborne, Curator of Fine Art for the Birmingham Museums Trust; Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor and Chair of the History of Art at Yale University; Courtney Skipton Long, Acting Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Yale Center for British Art; and Martin Ellis, a freelance curator, design specialist, and former curator at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Spanning a period of more than 50 years, the exhibition follows the cultural thread leading from the quixotic experiments of the PRB through to the socialist-tinged revival of crafts and the first stirrings of artistic modernism.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet, and pamphleteer, is perhaps the most emblematic artist of the PRB, and the languishing, red-haired beauties he painted are the public faces of the movement even now. Works on view in the Yale exhibition such as Proserpine (1881–82), modeled by his lover and muse Jane Morris, show the the movement at its most Romantic and decadent. While this particular work draws on Greek myth, Rossetti was deeply immersed in medieval symbolism, deeply inspired by the writings of his namesake Dante Alighieri, whose poem cycle La Vita Nuova he translated into English and partially illustrated. The medievalist aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism continued to be attractive to artists of the movement’s second and third generations. For example, Frederick Sandys’ Morgan le Fay (1864) gives us a brightly-colored vision of a figure from Arthurian legend. Depicted in an act of ritual magic, the sorceress brings us into the orbit of a Middle Ages of thinly-Christianized pagan legend rather than that of Church-sanctioned piety. Produced at the end of the Pre-Raphaelite era, Fanny Bunn’s The Victor (1904), a portrayal of a knight being admired by noble ladies at a tournament, shows a more literal attempt at medievalism. Its darkly rich blues and reds and flattish composition, as well as its use of the medium of cloisonné enamel mark it as a sensitive attempt to channel the Middle Ages in terms of technique as well as subject matter.

Among the works of applied arts on view, Morris’ greatest work as a publisher, the “Kelmscott Chaucer” (1896), shows how medieval aesthetics were transposed and made relevant in a modern context. This massive book, illustrated with prints by Burne-Jones and typeset in a font designed by Morris, promotes the works of the giant of Middle English letters to a modern bibliophilic audience, with a persuasive design scheme that glamorizes the Middle Ages while presaging trends in book design that would gain momentum in the early 20th century. Burne-Jones also collaborated on a quattrocento Italian-style wedding chest or cassone, the “Garden of the Hesperides” chest (1887–88), in partnership with cabinetmaker Charles Lumley and gilder Osmund Weeks. This astonishing object epitomizes the multimedia ambitions of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. Burne-Jones had an ongoing fascination with Italian Renaissance architecture and ornament, which he here unites with painting. The mythological subject was treated in William Morris’ long poem The Life and Death of Jason (1867), and several lines from that work are inscribed on the cassone itself. Burne-Jones gave the chest to a young woman, Helen Gaskell, whom he did not end up marrying, and she eventually donated it to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Not all Pre-Raphaelite artists focused exclusively on imagery from bygone days. One of the most famous paintings in the exhibition, Millais’ The Blind Girl (1856), takes its subject from contemporary rural life. This luminous work shows a young blind musician, her closed eyes raised to a sky spanned by a double rainbow. The implication is that with her spiritual vision, she sees more than we can see with our eyes of flesh. The work is Romantic rather than social-realist, evoking ideas of the sanctity of the unspoiled, unindustrialized English landscape and of the simple working people. With this depiction of a sanctified Albion, Millais is fulfilling William Blake’s call to see “infinity in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour.” England’s special role is also, indirectly, the subject of The Death of Chatterton (1855–56), by Henry Wallis. Chatterton, an 18th-century poet who wrote a set of supposed English medieval manuscripts and then killed himself at the age of 17, is a precursor figure for the Pre-Raphaelites, his experiment in literary forgery a perhaps misguided early attempt to revivify and dignify the English Middle Ages.

One of the most interesting and unusual things about “Victorian Radicals” is its generous proportion of industrial-design objects amid the artworks. Not only William Morris’ well-known printed textiles such as the “Strawberry Thief” design on block-printed cotton but some very elaborate and presciently modern metal and ceramic pieces are on view. A tea set with integral paraffin burner in spun copper and cast brass, designed around 1895 by William Arthur Smith Benson, has an eye-popping brightness coupled with minimalist grace. Ceramicist William Frend de Morgan created the “Eagle’s Supper” dish (1888–98), a lusterware masterpiece whose stylized raptor plunging its talons into the ocean evokes Japanese design. And the Chamberlain Casket (1903), an astonishing tour de force of metalwork, rock crystal, precious stones, and wood, manages to harken back to the Middle Ages while also celebrating Victorian British imperialism and pride in the carefully cultivated skills of modern English craftsmen. Designed by Henry Wilson and manufactured by staff and students of the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, it was presented to Joseph Chamberlain, a self-made Birmingham industrialist who was both a champion of the working man and a powerful Conservative force for imperialism who was pivotal in the English victory in the Second Boer War.

The Pre-Raphaelite inspiration was long-lived, continuing into the 20th century. The exhibition includes the work of artists who are less well-known, particularly in the U.S., who carried on the tradition past its Victorian heyday. Joseph Southall, a Birmingham artist and art teacher, was a key figure in the revival of tempera, a medium whose crisp, dry character made it attractive to later generations of hard-edged modernist figurative painters. His 1897 painting Sigismonda illustrates a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron, and its rich, red-dominated color palette and sharp modeling effectively reincarnate an early Italian mode of painting. Southall, who lived until 1944, taught many students and made Birmingham a center of the tempera revival. One of his ablest students was Maxwell Ashby Armfield, a very unusual and multitalented artist who deserves more fame and study. His Where the silence is more than all tunes… (1902), a portrayal of an entranced female figure, harks back to the earliest Pre-Raphaelites’ languid women, but it also brings some 1890s decadence to the task, along with Japanese ukiyo-e style and something of Gustav Klimt. Armfield, who lived in the United States for many years and was inspired by Native American aesthetics, was also an enthusiast of Jay Hambidge’s Dynamic Symmetry, a book illustrator, and an occultist who wrote books on the Tarot and sacred geometry. He died in 1972, which undoubtedly makes him thes last of the Pre-Raphaelites.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: January 2020

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