Monday, November 22, 2010

Did the Pre-Raphaelites Suffer from "Blurred Vision?"

This morning I came across a less-than-enthused review of "The Pre-Raphaelite Lens" in the Washington Post. In the article, Andy Grundberg criticized what he termed the "blurred vision" of the Pre-Raphaelites. And while Grundberg retained some admiration for the work done by Pre-Raphaelite landscape artists, he condemned the Brotherhood with broad strokes, arguing that "its members claimed to be interested in realism and truth" but were "far more taken with notions of fiction and theatricality."

Grundberg was a photography critic for the New York Times for many years, so it's not surprising that he prefers the Pre-Raphaelites landscapes and photography to their paintings. But his criticism of the PRB is pretty standard. Many modern viewers can appreciate the work of artists like John William Inchbold (whose photograph-quality painting of Anstey's Cove is pictured here), and even Ford Maddox Brown, but remain perplexed by the romanticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

I was particularly struck by Grundberg's backhanded compliment that Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson had "managed against odds to transcend their subjects' goofy origins in Arthurian legend." So now it's "goofy" to be inspired by myths and legend? Greek myth has inspired countless artists and is (quite rightly) not regarded as a "goofy" source of inspiration. Why should ancient British myths be seen differently?

Mythology is such a rich source of inspiration for artists, and it saddens me to see it dismissed off-hand. Many members of the PRB were actually very interested in a "modern" approach to art and design. They recognized that British art had become mired in convention and instead attempted to use the classics as a foundation to build from that would allow them break free from traditions that had become oppressive to artists. Even William Morris, whose passion for the middle ages is well-known, was not attempting to imitate medieval design, but to use it as a source of inspiration to create a better future.

Apparently, people today are confused that a a group that claimed to be visionary would lean so heavily on mythology and the classics for inspiration. Contemporary artists and (and their adoring critics) have the hubris to claim that they have re-invented the wheel, or are totally unencumbered by the influence of others from the past (the Young British Artists come to mind). And while this unfettered arrogance is intriguing, and can sometimes produce fascinating work, it also runs the risk of alienating the public with its hollow promise of unbridled innovation. A connection to the past and an understanding of our collective unconscious is not "goofy" - it's a fundamental part of the creative process.


Hels said...

"Blurred vision" was just a nasty way of Grundberg saying he didn't like Pre-Raphaelite art. This is no different from Spanish critics who thought El Greco had an astigmatism, and Nazi critics who thought Picasso and Modigliani has psychotic episodes.

Grundberg might also be confused that a group that claimed to be visionary would lean so heavily on mythology and the classics for inspiration, but he is using 2010 eyes. If he put himself back in 19th century eyes, he might rethink what was "visionary" and what was not.

I think taking the best of a nation's cultural heritage (eg Arthurian legends) was brilliant. Everyone in the nation would have recognised their shared cultural values and would have been filled with pride. There was enough hatred in ordinary life... the Pre-Raphaelites didn't need it in their art world as well.

Thorsprincess said...

An important facet of the Romantic movement was exploration of original national or folk myths, challenging Classicist schools that had become rather cold, formal, and celebrated identifying themes and tales of Greek and Roman culture. Sir Walter Scott, as the literary corollary to Romantic art, was especially influential in his exploration of legendary themes of Britain. The movement occurred simultaneously on the continent, stressing national myths and also looking to explore artistic and linguistic roots and identity, as well. I think this critic is rather unbalanced to characterize the Pre-Raphaelite (Romantic) interest in the rich streams of myth, language, and literature as "goofy." They were the same streams that fed many Romantic poets (although many of British poets also showed pronounced preference for Classic myth, especially in their early works. Of course, students of art or literature quite naturally first learn to master earlier styles and subjects before exploring their own directions.

Robur d'Amour said...

Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell would claim that mythology is fundamental to both an understanding of ourselves as human beings, and is also the baisis of all authentic art.

To quote Campbell: Art is the clothing of a revelation.

As a historian you'll know that the Arthurian Legends are actually French. They orginated in the Court of Eleanor of Acquitaine. They are a synthesis of Celtic and Germanic hero myths with Christian and Middle Eastern thought.

It all depends too on the meaning of the word 'truth'. Jung and Campbell would claim that the rational, scientific, photographic view of the world is less than half a truth.

And let's be clear on one other point. Photographers are not artists. And photography critics are not art critics.

H Niyazi said...

Hi Margaret! Delighted to see another post at TEP today! :)

I really have no care for column critics, particularly ones that dont really impart much knowledge. Their words are carefully considered to elicit a response!

Pay critics no mind. Whether it is a renaissance sfumato or a napkin doodle, if am image speaks to you, than that is all that is important.

The PRB occupied an interesting time in history, where photography was emerging as an artistic medium as well. I find it interesting that some of them dabbled in photography but their painting holds the most allure for me.

Keep up the lovely posts Margaret!

Kind Regards
H Niyazi
Three Pipe Problem

Margaret said...

@Hels - I agree - it's pretty ahistorical of Grundberg to accuse the PRB of not being visionary enough!

@Thorsprincess - Hi mom! Do you remember when I came home from that Picasso exhibit in highschool? What interested me the most was how well Picasso had mastered classic techniques before branching out on his own. Everyone has to start somewhere, even Picasso!

@Robur d'Amour - You are right, of course! There is some evidence of a British origin to Arthurian legend, but our contemporary understanding of Arthur is inseparable from early French romantic literature (if there was a British Arthur, I'm afraid he was pretty dull in comparison). There's no question that Chr├ętien de Troyes's version of the story was a lot more inspirational to the PRB than Geoffrey of Monmouth's!

I won't get into whether or not photographers are artists...but I see your point.

@H Niyazi - Hi, Hasan! Glad you enjoyed the post - I've been so busy lately it's been a bit of a challenge to keep up with Earthly Paradise, but that makes it even more satisfying to post something! I chose to respond to Grundberg's article because he's not just a column critic - he's actually Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Corcoran College. His area of study is photography, though he doesn't shrink from critiquing other art forms as well. I was a bit disappointed to see that writers still consider the PRB an easy target for shallow critiques.

Fete et Fleur said...

There can be no better place to turn to for artistic inspiration. Myths and legends bring the dreams of men alive.


Robur d'Amour said...

The Arthurian Romances were composed in terms of prose. They were tales intended to be recited for the amusement of ladies at court.

The Pre-Raphaelites effectively translated some of the motifs in these stories into pictorial images. The prose stories, and the paintings, are two different ways of representing the same ideas.

Jung was very interested the the Arthurian Romances. One of the best modern commentaries on the Romances,'The Grail Legend', was the life's work of Jung's wife, Emma Jung.

Jung researched the name Arthur. Arthur is related to Arte, which was the name of a Celtic god. The same word is also the name for a bear, the oldest worshipped deity in the world. And, according to Jung, Arthur is related to Artemis, Greek goddess of nature, and also to Arcturus, the brightest circumpolar star. So there is a collection of symbols associated with Arthur. Names matter.

The Romances are Christian. Jung also considered the name Mary. Mary is the name of the mother of God, and also of Mary Magdalen. The Magdalene has quite a different character, but she's an important person. Why do these two different women have the same name? Jung looked at the symbolism of words like mare (meaning sea), and mare (meaning horse). Just like Arthur, there's a collection of meaningful symbols clustered around the name.

Most of Jung's work involved visual symbols, and, today, that's what most art critics think of. Jung's work on names was set aside. But the belief in the significance of names is ancient. Tolkien is one of the few academics in recent times who still carried the torch.

Last May I had a hunch that the name Margaret might be even more interesting than Mary. Adding the G makes a big difference to the meaning. I wrote a nebulous post, basically groping around in the dark, following some threads that had been left by Jung and Campbell. My post which is about Morgana and Margaret is here:

There are a few millions of Margarets in the world, so don't think of it as anything personal.

Margaret said...

@Fete et Fleur - I quite agree!

@Robur d'Amour - Thanks for the link - what a fascinating post!

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

A fascinating post and very good rejoinder to some of the views expressed by Grundberg. I especially like how you take him to task for that dogmatism that seemingly claims that the only valid mythology for artistic inspiration is the 'classic' mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, ignoring and slighting (goofy??!) similar, related and equally rich traditions in practically all parts of the world.

Margaret said...

Hi, Lorenzo! I was definitely taken aback by the fact that Grundberg seemed to discount non-classical mythology. I've heard people mock Arthurian legend for its lack of historicity, but this is the first time I've seen it called "goofy!" I suppose I should thank Grundberg for giving me fodder for a post.

The Nightwatchman said...

I would say the PRB became too mainstream with their work and became over-looked by the art critics of the 20th century. There are more than few PRB-like work in the various town galleries here in the UK. You only have to look at Millais late work to see this shift from early great pieces to the 'twee' paintings later in his career.

Arthur is one of those mercurial characters, who change with the years and with the culture. Re-invention is the key, but containing universal archetypes.

Let us not forget that Arthur appears in the Mabingnon, probably in several guises. It is the landscape that captures some of this spirit as I can atest having been to St Govan's Chapel in west wales where Gawain was said to have gone after Camlann and the destruction of Camelot.

It should be remembered that Queen Victoria and Albert took up on this theme of Arthur and it developed further during the period. What we are seeing is re-invention. The idea was returned to this lost golden age was also applied to the JFK period, which has been under going some recent revision of late.

There is an irony that the Albert became the lost King Arthur dying (admittedly not on the battle field) before his time.

We have had an excellent TV programme called Greek Myths - Tales of Travelling Heroes on the BBC.

Fingers crossed that it comes across the pond. The theme is how religious ideas developed within the landscape and then travelled across the Mediterranean. The mixture of Greek myths alongside the old Hittite Gods and the incorporation by Christianity into the places that might have been built to oppose or 'join' the various religious of the area.

There is a strong French dominated art criticism, yet there are artist before their time Turner who come be championed as pre-impressionist or by his later works – abstract expressionism. Another lost British artist is David Cox.

Whose painting Beach of Rhyl reminded me of a early impression picture or a Manet or it could be Degas beach scene, yet this painting by Cox was done in 1854. My art history was dominated by French leading into American paintings of the latter 20th Century. My tutors were all from the modern St Ives groups and these abstracts and colour fields dominated their thinking.

Margaret said...

@Nightwatchman - Thanks for the links! I will be on the lookout for the Greek Myths program. And I was impressed by the David Cox "Beach of Rhyl" painting as well...After reading his bio I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps the reason his watercolours look like impressionist paintings is that he was losing his eyesight!

I can see what you mean about Millais, but I also understand his reasons for branching into more commercial art (and twee as they might be, works like "Cherry Ripe" still demonstrate his attention to detail). I have nothing against commercialism, so it doesn't bother me that much.

Of course, my husband would counter by reminding me that I loathe Thomas Kinkade... If I was honest, I would probably have to admit that I dislike Kinkade because he is so popular that his works cannot possibly hold any cachet (in other words, I'm probably a hypocrite).

Grundberg likes to deride the Pre-Raphaelites because he considers it a stamp of cultural savvy to define one's taste in opposition to popular culture. The art of the 19th century is not particularly challenging to appreciate, and so, like Kinkade's work, it is dismissed by many contemporary critics.

I still like to think that the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite movement brought a degree of thoughtfulness to their art that is missing from artists like Kinkade.

On a side note, I see that Kinkade was recently arrested for a DUI and has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection...It's difficult to imagine he could be having serious financial troubles, given the killing he must make on his art empire.

The Nightwatchman said...

Rather oddly, yesterday, I picked up a copy of the Oxford Art about 19th Century USA art from our local library as it was being sold off from stock.

I have heard of Kinkaide, but have not seen much (am I a lucky person?). He appeared on a business radio programme looking at ideas, interests or companies. Not sure I would like to live on one of his estates. It would be like living in a 'chocolate box' picture.

There are some housing estates around where I live that have a Georgian style and have columns supporting a porch, but the houses are just too small, to make the view look.

I think that the PRB by giving a painting symbols, it adds depths to the image and makes it easier to read. However, the idea only work it the artist and viewer are in tune with one another.

The other problem is if the artist does not explain. I have sat through a long lecture about Manet's Dejeunner Sur L'Herbe trying to explain a lot of the objects as symbols.

Margaret said...

Lol, you are lucky to have avoided Kinkade thus far! I completely agree that the symbolism in the PRB's work sets them apart.