Friday, March 18, 2011

It's all about perspective...

It's fascinating how perceptions of art change over time.

As you may recall, the Pre-Raphaelites were so named because they rejected the Royal Academy's unquestioning devotion to Raphael's style of painting. There is still some question as to whether the Pre-Raphaelites were primarily focused on rejecting Raphael himself (less likely), or whether they merely disdained the Academy's insistence that they ape the Rapahel-like style of painting. Either way, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood rejected slavish devotion to the artistic heroes of the past, and Raphael was one of the most obvious targets.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1515 is a perfect example of what irked the Pre-Raphaelites about Raphael. It is unquestionably a lovely work, but also seems a tad insincere. The subjects are posed in an unnatural way, and their grand gestures seem a bit overwrought, though you have to love the fellow on the far right who seems determined to show off his abs and bulging triceps. But on the other hand, Raphael's work was also dignified, beautiful and graceful, which is doubtless why the Academy used him as a standard example for their students.

Of course, it's ironic that one of the chief contemporary criticisms of the Pre-Raphaelites is that their work is chocolate-boxy and picture-perfect (the shoe is on the other foot now, eh?). I'm sure most members of the PRB would be stunned that their work, once so controversial, is now decried as downright twee (in the future will we look back on the work of the Young British Artists and think of their work as cute? That's a scary thought...).

Stimulating...or saccharine?

Over time, I have grown to appreciate (and often prefer) contemporary art, and although I still enjoy the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, I probably wouldn't display it in my home. From my perspective, the work of the PRB is an important part of art history that was very influential for generations of artists (whether they want to admit to it or not), and I love to study it. But I wouldn't like to see artists today imitating the style of the PRB or - for that matter - the style of any other artists or historical period.

What do you think? Would you like to see the artistic style from one of your favourite historical periods come back in fashion? Or do you prefer to keep the past in the past?


Hels said...

I love this post.

There are two problems with taking the emergence of new art schools at face value:

Firstly mainstream art academies seemed to automatically resent and exclude the new generation of artists who wanted to create their own style, regardless of what that style was promising to be! Think of how the Impressionists were derided and excluded for a decade.

Secondly the young bucks might not have realised the sources of their own "inventions". The pre-Raphaelites may have said they were rejecting slavish devotion to the artistic heroes of the past, but they idolised the medieval.

Thorsprincess said...

Hels makes a great point. Artists may paint ancient themes with a modern sensibility, or modern subjects with reference to earlier styles, or some combination. Art exists in time and artists bring their knowledge of the past to their present every time they create. I'm not big on schools' claim to new directions, or even individual artists' claim to some dramatic new direction that will obviate the past. Modern is old school now, for those who insist on up-to-the-moment art. Most people buy contemporary art because it is affordable, but I would hardly sniff at an old master if I had the budget for one!

Hermes said...

Just been writing about this very good point. Personally I would like to see more of their 'seeing' and detail in modern art but Ruskin in particular dominated critical views of mid-late Victorian Art that held back the move to Impressionism which was a genuine advance that took a long time to be accepted in Britain.

Margaret said...

@Hels - Thanks! It's very true that the Pre-Raphaelites idealized and idolized the medieval. That said, they didn't advocate copying the medieval style, but instead sought to use it as inspiration. In that respect I think they were a little ahead of their friends at the Academy.

@Thorsprincess - I certainly wouldn't turn up my nose at any PRB originals people may wish to give me! I'm not sure I would call contemporary art affordable either. A Damien Hirst will set you back a lot further than a Rossetti!

I definitely agree with you about artists who claim to be heading in a totally new direction. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't, but everyone is influenced by things they have experienced in the path. I don't think there are any artists who can claim to have a tabula rasa!

@Hermes - Ruskin was a genius, but he was also rather short-sighted, as most of us are :). There are a number of contemporary art movements focusing on realism, though I'm not sure if photography hasn't made their work a little obsolete.

heidenkind said...

It seems like art goes through cycles where it focuses more on emotion--like the PRBs--and then more on idealism, like Raphael. Personally, I think we're going into a phase where it's more about emotion now.

M said...

Great post! I love the point that heidenkind made about cycles. I definitely think that there is a cyclical nature to art. Styles and ideas about art become unfashionable but then resurrect a few centuries later. And I agree with what others have said: artists are always influenced by other works of art (or movements) in one way or another. In today's postmodern society, it would be ridiculous to say that an artist's style had no previous influences.

Anyhow, it would be interesting to know if specific styles (like idealization, classicism, etc.) will come back into popularity. I wouldn't mind if the Baroque style became popular again, although I have to admit that I love Baroque art because it's old. As a historian, I also love that artistic movement because it makes me feel a connection with the past.

H Niyazi said...

Fascinating post Margaret! As a great fan of Raphael, I have often shuddered at the PRBs choice of name - I love reading Ruskin describe it as "an unfortunate and somewhat ludicrous" moniker.

That being said, it was a clever move from a marketing perspective - what better way to draw attention to your movement than to target the very artist that was enjoying a frenzy of popularity at the time. The closest we have in the present era is the frenzy over anything to do with Leonardo, Michelangelo, and recently Caravaggio - Raphael was *the* golden boy of the 19thC, particularly in England.

This coupled with the scathing reviews by writers such as Dickens were to propel the PRB members into the public sphere in a manner no English artistic movement had done previously.

Speaking of displaying works in one's home - Waterhouses Lady of Shalott (as in your site's banner) was the first artwork on the wall in our house - it was a gift from my partner after she had listened to me enthusisatically tell her about the painting and the story(Poem) it is based on.

Keep up the great work Margaret!

The Nightwatchman said...

I'm in agreement with the cyclical nature of art. The idea of linear progression is useful, but a cyclical one is better.

A good example in classical music, where Mozart fell out of favour for a long while, until championed by Sir Thomas Beecham.

One of the few artist, my wife and I agreed on was Barbara Rae and we do have one her artworks on the wall. But Tweedness, will not put up I.

One my favourite artists, Graham Sutherland had great success up to his death. At times, he was ranked with Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. Yet his reputation has diminish over the years. Latterly, there have been more exhibitions and wide exposure. Sutherland like Bacon never had a solid following as some of the artists who wanted to form like minded groups.

Of course, there are gallery owners who might manipulate the market by taking and promoting a particular artist after having bought up their work some time earlier.

Margaret said...

@heidenkind - Thanks for stopping by! I would definitely agree that art movements are rather cyclical, at least in "feeling".

@M - I'm not sure if Baroque style will become popular again (although interior designers like to resurrect it every now and again), but there will doubtless be other movements that will pick on the sensibilities of Baroque art.

@H Niyazi - Well, the moniker may be silly, but I think it was a great branding decision - it definitely said a great deal about their youthful rejection of authority ;)

@The Nightwatchman - Personally, I think I'm more inclined to go with a linear-cyclical model of art :). Btw, I really enjoy Barbara Rae and Graham Sutherland's work. Francis Bacon was a great artist, but I could never have anything by him in my home. It's far too unsettling!