Artists Rebel Against Victorian Status Quo

Radicalism is a term we hear a lot lately, especially in politics, but a quick trip to New Haven’s Yale Center for British Art and its current exhibition “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement” shows us that radicalism is nothing new — not in politics, religion and certainly not in the arts.

Don’t think that this is just another museum exhibition. This is a show stopper. It’s the kind of exhibit that stops you dead in your tracks. You want to stand in front of paintings that are so powerfully detailed you can’t just take a quick look and walk by.  You are pulled in to the vibrant natural colors, and you’ll want to examine more closely the subjects of these works that subtly display class structure, religion, and sexuality in Victorian Britain.

This exhibit belies the saying that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” because anyone and everyone seeing these works cannot deny their beauty. These unique works transcend texture, shadow, line, and shape. They take you to another place in time where textiles experience newly discovered colors, where common men and women are no longer common and where finely crafted metal works and jewelry are so stunning, it’s difficult to walk away from them.

Focusing on three generations of rebellious artists and designers who revolted against industrial-made objects that took Victorian Britain by storm, the artists in this exhibit rejected the established ideas of what paintings should look like and what they should say. The Pre-Raphaelites broke away from convention and industrialization. Designers like William Morris, cast aside machine-made materials and how fast they could be produced and concentrated instead on the beauty of artistically handmade objects.

Right from the start, the entrance to this powerful exhibit is quite telling with a machine-made carpet that was made quickly, though gaudily, on one side of the entrance,  to the elegant, handmade, hand-dyed, linen embroidered “Bedcover” by Mary Jane Newill, which is displayed on the opposite side from the carpet. The difference makes one appreciative for this particular radicalism. Happily there are approximately 145 works from the collections of the city of Birmingham, UK on view including work by Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddall.

Everything from paintings, drawings, textiles, metalwork, jewelry and ceramics emphasizes the Pre-Raphaelites’ and Arts and Crafts Movement’s ideas on the “relationship between art and nature; questions of class and gender identity; the value of the handmade versus machine production; and the search for beauty in an age of industry — issues that remain relevant and actively debated today (Yale Center for British Art).”

While it’s one thing to look at Ford Madox Brown’s painting “Work,” which is described as the most ambitious Pre-Raphaelite painting, it’s another thing to study how the artist centers the laborers smack in the center of the painting. He places the middle class on one side, the poor on the other side and the aristocrats are designated to the back.  Victorian convention would not have focused on these  life-like laborers. That would have been considered vulgar, and Brown’s realistic representation tells quite a story about Victorian life and class structure.

One of the most beautiful paintings in the exhibit is John Everett Millais’ “The Blind Girl.”  Here’s an oil painting that immediately captures the  colors of the natural landscape while focusing on a peasant girl rather than a Madonna. Though the girl cannot see, Millais focused on the other senses. He shows us the blind girl touching and feeling the grass. We see that she is surrounded by sounds by the  birds and animals alive on the pasture behind her and the music that would come from the accordion on her lap. She also seems to be inhaling the scent left by a storm that has passed. She cannot see the gorgeous double rainbow that the other younger girl can see, but she experiences a world that Millais has brought to vivid life through senses other than sight.

Because the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to be as exact as possible in their details, William Holman Hunt who wanted to paint the life of Christ actually traveled to Jerusalem  and to the locations that were  where it was believed Christ’s life unfolded. In his oil painting “The Finding of the Savior in the Temple,” a religious painting, Christ is depicted as a young boy in a Temple filled with rabbis. Joseph and Mary are holding him as if they are relieved that they have finally found him. Inscribed on the frame are the words: “How is it that ye sought me?” Jesus responds. “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”

 The beautiful catalogue that accompanies this exhibit describes the work as a visual confrontation between the “old dispensation of Judaism and New Testament.”  The elderly rabbis look rigid in their beliefs with sacred scrolls and objects in their hands, while the young Christ and his vital parents are depicted as vibrant, alert, and full of life. Hence, Hunt created a canvas portrayal celebrating the New Testament.  

The radical artists and designers in this unforgettable exhibit wanted a more truthful and beautiful world. They dismissed the fast and furious industrialized products and sought the more unique and personal works. The stained glass, the elaborate textiles decked out in brand new dyes, the variety of metal works and so much more are not only the makings of this memorable experience, but an inspiration and realization that radicalism that questions the norm is often beneficial.

Try to spend an hour or so at this remarkable exhibit and you’re bound to stay longer. It’s almost too good to be true, but it is very true and very good.

This exhibition is on view through May 10, 2020 at the Yale Center for British Art. Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University and exhibition curator said, “This exhibition reveals the unruly and vibrant culture of Victorian Britain. The world’s first industrial nation was the site of  a rebellion against machine and against artistic convention. We are delighted to bring to the USA for the first time a superb range of objects from Birmingham Museums Trust, the finest of all collections of Victorian art and design.”

Mary-Jane Newill bedcover.

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