Monday, May 23, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    


            How easily art is corrupted by commercial success. How soon what began as a revolutionary concept in art ends up as a crowd-pleasing commercial venture.
            So here is the PRB, or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in about 1848. Bright and talented and ambitious young artists, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They are tired of the conventional landscapes British artists are producing in the dying wake of the genius Turner. They are sick of canvases filled with groomed racehorses and sentimental views of children. They want to break with current ideals of composition by changing the focus of their canvases. They want to paint, with hyper-realism, each blade of grass and each tooth of the bleating sheep. They want to get back to the palette of the early Renaissance. And they want to make revered and religious figures look like real human beings.
So John Everett Millais paints painstakingly his Christ in the House of his Parents, showing the boy Jesus as a real boy and Joseph’s workshop as a real workshop and the Blessed Virgin Mary as a real and ageing mother, comforting the boy after a mishap. Yes, of course it is filled with symbolism that could readily be accessed by a Christian. The upright figures of Mary and the boy Jesus bisect the door being made on the carpenter’s bench, clearly making the centre of the painting a Cross. The blood on the boy Jesus’s hand, dripping onto his foot, clearly prefigures the Crucifixion. The boy on the right of the composition, dressed in animal skin and holding the bowl of water, is clearly John the Baptist. 

But none of this orthodoxy prevents contemporary critics (including Charles Dickens) from being outraged that the artist has dared to present these holy figures so naturalistically. In both conception and execution this early product of the PRB is a revolutionary work, especially in an England which hasn’t really experienced a revolution. The PRB are upstarts. They are condemned in the press and in art-journals and seen as another symptom of that disrespect for order that is causing upheavals across the channel.
But then there is a swift change in attitude. The over-influential critic John Ruskin praises the young men of the PRB. One by one other critics come around. Within a few short years the PRB (but especially Millais and Hunt) are receiving lucrative commissions. Their canvases sell for big sums. They become highly respectable. They still paint with technical skill, but their subject matter becomes less threatening, more sentimental, more attuned to the tastes of the viewing, and especially the buying, public. More comfortably middle-class and Victorian. Sure, Rossetti gets into his quasi-medieval world of fair-skinned, big rosy-lipped and preferably red-haired beauties, which influences and feeds into the insipid work of Edward Burne-Jones. Sure, there are some paintings that still hold our attention.
But the real direction of the old PRB can be measured by the distance from Millais’ early and revolutionary Christ in the House of his Parents to his late and sentimental Bubbles which, (now knighted and very respectable), he sold for a large sum to Pears’ soap company to use as advertising.

I was recently reminded of this whole story by watching a good three-part BBC documentary series on the Pre-Raphaelites narrated in a posh educated voice by, of all people, Nigel Planer. (He is probably still best known as the lugubrious hippie Neil in the “cult” 1980s sitcom The Young Ones). The series presented the journey from art to complacent commercialism much as I have presented it here. It was a little too eager to keep telling us that the early PRB anticipated by some decades the French Impressionists in the amount of outdoors work they did and in their determination to be true to nature. One expects even the best British documentaries to have at least a residue of national chauvinism – and in this case to underestimate how much more revolutionary the early Impressionists were than the early PRB. Even so, it was no hatchet job and gave due credit to the real artistic achievements of the PRB, even as it chronicled their decline.
After watching this series, I then made the mistake of watching another four-parter on the Pre-Raphaelites hosted by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Oh dear! What a twee piece of work it was in comparison. A very wealthy man on the back of his middlebrow musicals, Lloyd-Webber is not only an enthusiast for the PRB and other Victorian art, but he is wealthy enough to own some of the original canvases. Indeed he is wealthy enough to get an Oxbridge college to construct an elaborate decorated gate, which was designed by a Victorian artist but never constructed until Lloyd-Webber fronted up with the money. Much of his series was taken up with his asserting the greatness of the PRB and only briefly glancing at their corruption by material and commercial success.
I feel a larger theme coming upon me here.
The word “artist” still carries overtones of somebody with a particular vision and the skill (or talent or genius) to express it in a new way. Even if it is at least a century out of date, there is still the image of an artist suffering poverty in a garret for the sake of art.
May I suggest politely that, while this image might once have had some limited validity, it no longer does. The PRB did not merely “sell out”. They pioneered the course that most artists now take. Patronage has always been a factor in art, but when was the scramble more intense than it is now as art students at once scramble for grants, for attention, for the support of gallery owners? The aim is to get established, to get money, to sell. And what is wanted is what will provide a momentary shock to the easily-bored, short-attention-span viewing public. Let us laugh at the later, complacent, dishonest and purely commercial works of former PRB members, produced for the market. And let us now try to conceive of the guffaws that will greet, in the 22nd century, what now fills galleries.
Art and money and feeding the market – it’s a bitch, innit?

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