When did modern art begin in England? For years art historians have discussed this controversial subject, trying to trace back the birth of British modernism.
The exhibition currently displayed at Aidan Meller offers an interesting insight on the matter, suggesting that the answer can be found in the works of a group of young artists that met in London in 1848. They were joined together by the love of Italian primitive art and by the desire to break with the contemporary prevailing academic style, that they regarded to be artificial, sterile, and pretentious. The founders of this movement were three young students of the Royal Academy of London, all aged under twenty-five: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter and writer, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. They were soon joined by the sculptor Thomas Woolner, the painter James Collison, the writer Frederick George Stephens, and William Michael Rossetti, brother of one of the founders. They started to exhibit their artworks anonymously, signing their paintings just with the acronym PRB as a sign of their affinity to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
When their identities were revealed, sharp judgments were written by the main personalities of the period, like Charles Dickens, who criticised violently their realistic way of dealing with religious subjects and their disdain for the academic ideal of beauty. But the most influential art critic of the moment lined up alongside them; it was John Ruskin, who become their supporter and patron.
John Ruskin’s ideas, expressed in “The modern painters” first two volumes’ (1843 and 1846), become fundamental for the development of Pre-Raphaelite poetics: taking the the idea of ‘truth to nature’, they sought to invest their subjects with a sense of physical and psychological realism.
Ideologies of the PRB
They claimed to be inspired by early Renaissance art, seen as pure, sincere, and uncorrupted by artistic convention. The paintings had to reveal the inestimable beauty that lies in the slightest and least of God’s works. Even the name they decided to give themselves was a clear rejection of Raphael and a rebellion against all that art that had betrayed the truth of nature in order to achieve an ideal beauty.
But what made them distinctively modern?
Firstly, they came together and drew up a manifesto for what they felt art should be about. Since The Arts and Craft Movement, the Futurists, and the Secessionists, manifestos had been an important hallmark of modernism, being the expressions of a group of artists coming together with the intention of breaking away from what’s gone before and branching out in a totally new direction. Pre-Raphaelite artists were very self-conscious about it. They openly rebelled against the art establishment of the mid-nineteenth century, even calling Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of England’s Royal Academy of Arts, “Sir Sloshua.”
They overturned orthodoxy and established not only a new benchmark for modern painting but also a new design.
Innovators and influencers
In fact, they were the first artists to show an interest in and have an influence on all forms of art, craft, and design. They were progressive in trying to break down distinctions between media: rather than having a division between the fine and applied arts, or between painting and drawing, they worked across different practices. Creating textiles, furniture, ceramics, and glasses they were really innovative in forecasting the birth of modern design. Crucially, Pre-Raphaelitism gave also space to women, who not only appear in their works as models but also become artists in their own right, such as the painters May Morris and Julia Margaret Cameron or the poetess Christina Georgina Rossetti.
Finally, the Pre-Raphaelites were committed to the idea of art’s potential to change society. Even if inspired by medieval spirituality, most of their subjects were taken from modern life or literature, often representing topical social issues and challenging prevailing attitudes. Many of them self-consciously stressed beauty and ornamentation in their artworks as a resistance to an increasingly industrialised society.
The revolutionary contribution that the PRB made to British art has now taken over the entire floor of the new Aidan Meller viewing space in 13 Turl Street: don’t miss the chance to visit!
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