Divine Inspiration


Think Pre-Raphaelite, and you probably see sensuality, big lips, flowing red hair and perhaps a little Arthur, a little myth here and there. Look for that at the Ashmolean this season and you’ll struggle; their new exhibition will challenge all your preconceptions about these painters. For the uninitiated, those feminine wiles belong to the belles dames of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous portraits, which is where most people’s knowledge of the Pre-Raphaelites ends. Here, they’re given only one wall in the entirety of the exhibition: prepare for a journey of discovery.
You begin with something more intricate, more intimate than sensuous sirens: it’s Rossetti, but instead, it’s his illustrations of passages from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The style is far more delicate and less sophisticated than his Italian ladies; it’s more personal, more dreamy. You’ll feel like you’re stepping into the painter’s own special vision: it’s the image of an idealised past, a wistful attempt to recreate the Italy of Rossetti’s imagination, complete with its own style, its own particular aestheticism. There’s a great variety of different medias in the drawings – sketches, paintings, studies –and they go deep, seemingly questioning art itself. Once or twice, the Pre-Raphaelites have even painted other artists, at work or at play; it’s almost like a Victorian take on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, as the painter paints his forbear, all the time aware of his inheritance and his place in the long line of art through the ages.
The gentle tour continues: sweeping landscapes peep temptingly through windows, hinting at the idyllic Italian setting. This is the land of courtly Renaissance love, where maidens are serenaded amidst the roses, and beyond, cities bristle with white towers and flapping pennants. But there’s a change. Rossetti’s idealised Italy is in great contrast with the stated purpose of the rest of the movement: from figurehead John Ruskin down, the scientific registering and copy of every piece of art that could be found in Italy was a big deal, be it architectural, natural or painted. Undoubtedly, Ruskin’s watercolours provide quite a contrast: exquisite facades and thrusting spires are shown so clearly that it’s like seeing snapshots of the country’s beauty and secrets – quite literally: some of them are actually copies of the earliest photos (daguerreotype, for those in the know). Nonetheless, there’s a definite ethereal quality here, perhaps due to the use of watercolours, so fleeting and, again, dreamy. This hints again at an idealised Italy in the mind of the artist, and it seems that, even when simply depicting a building, there’s poetry involved.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this show is all head-in-the-clouds homogenous though; there’s a definitive variety here underneath the starry ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ banner. There’s more quasi-photographic accuracy, such as in H. Roderick Newman’s The Facade of the Duomo, every shade of every stone recorded, but there’s also a more conceptual side: others offer only vague outlines, notably George Pryce Boyce’s evening landscapes. Such contrast is starkly laid bare in juxtaposed depictions of the same subject, such as of Keats’ tomb in Rome. Here, William Bell Scott and Walter Crane offer two competing visions, challenging you to pick a winner, and really making you think- do I want it shown how it is? Or is the role of art something more? Fascinating, brilliant stuff.
The exhibition really is a bit of an old curiosity shop, full of hidden gems and unfeted names that few except enthusiasts will know – there’s definitely a world of revelation here, for the casual as well as the keen viewer. But we finally get a glimpse of those Dante ladies at the end of the exhibition; it’s as if the Ashmolean folk know what you were here for, and now they’ve had their say, they treat you. This might be a message: these shouldn’t be the main focus of interest; there’s so much more. Whatever the intention, the effect remains: the open sensuality and the ambiguous, tormented temptress style that made them so popular is here in force. You won’t go home disappointed.
There’s a lot to learn from this exhibition. It’s an impossibly ambitious catalogue of Italy’s riches, and there’s beauty, in bucket loads. It’s doubled when you realise the meaning and depth for the artists, beyond the simple brushstrokes. There’s poignancy too: not all of the monuments depicted survive, making the realism of one side of the show as tenuous to us as the dreamy illustrations of the other. All of this makes the exhibition unmissable; you can’t fail to come out enriched. Just do be careful not to keep that head in the clouds won’t you…

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