by Daniel Ross Goodman
DAVID (Peter Sarsgaard): I just have a feeling that the Pre-Raphaelites are going to take off.
JENNY (Carey Mulligan): I love the Pre-Raphaelites!
DAVID: Do you?
JENNY: Yes, of course. Rossetti and Burne-Jones, anyway. Not Holman Hunt, so much.
David: He’s so garish.
JENNY: Oh, absolutely.
This exchange from Lone Scherfig’s 2009 film An Education may have been the most publicity the Pre-Raphaelites had received since the second half of the 19th century. MAt the time, many filmgoers in theaters were baffled. ‘The Pre-Raphaelites? Who? What?’ were not uncommon reactions. The Pre-Raphaelites?!
Yes, of course. The Pre-Raphaelites. An obscure movement beyond the confines of art history specialists and art connoisseurs, the Pre-Raphaelites were the surprise of the British art world in the late 1800s. Those like Jenny and David who have heard of the Pre-Raphaelites recognize its art by its polite, genteel, soothing, almost complacent nature. Yet the Pre-Raphaelites were anything but polite and complacent. Pre-Raphaelite artists like Edward Burne-Jones, Millais, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were a brash and daring lot who strove to revolutionize the artistic landscape of the nineteenth-century world. In the process, they pioneered a form of art that was groundbreaking in its unapologetic nostalgia.
This summer and fall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is highlighting these pioneers in the terrific exhibit, “The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design” (through October 26), which mostly showcases the work of the second generation of the Pre-Raphaelites, several of whom are Jenny’s favorites: the alluring, multi-dimensional Rossetti (named “the chief figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” by the critic John Ruskin, the curators inform us) and the prodigious Burne-Jones. Jones’s magnificent stained-glass window, “King David the Poet”; his masterpiece—and the show’s centerpiece—“The Love Song”; and Rossetti’s masterpiece, the exquisite “Lady Lilith,” are among the highlights.
“The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy” tells the story of Britain’s first modern art movement. Founded by the English artist John Everett Millais in 1848 and named after the great Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, the Pre-Raphaelites were a cohort of British artists who recoiled from the strictures of contemporary Realist academic art and sought to reclaim art by restoring it to its spiritual, pristine, medieval “Pre-Raphael” state: “vivid, sincere, and uplifting.” For the Pre-Raphaelites, the overly sophisticated art of their times was shallow; it was the simpler art of the medieval and early Renaissance world, they believed, that was more substantive and sincere. Medieval and Early Renaissance art, Millais and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood declared, was spiritual, idealistic and uncorrupted by the materialistic milieu of the industrialized modern world: this is the art, said the Pre-Raphaelites, that we should be emulating; this was the art, said the Pre-Raphaelites, that we should therefore be producing.
What is the legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites? Even though Pre-Raphaelite art is characterized by its highly realistic techniques—namely, the microscopic attention to detail that bequeathed a near-photographic-like vividness to some Pre-Raphaelite paintings—because they chose to portray non-realistic scenes and fictional subjects, their influence may be found in Surrealism, avant-garde art, the late-nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau design. The Pre-Raphaelites’ proto-cinematic depiction of fictional events through the use of realistic techniques even anticipated modern film and cinéma vérité. Additionally, the movement’s influence can be found in mystically oriented art, in realist paintings that conjure otherworldliness, and in any art that evokes “the soul’s quest for meaning and perfection.”
The Pre-Raphaelites’ legacy, however, may also be glimpsed in any artistic or ideological movement which wallows in nostalgia for a golden age that never was. In this regard, it is useful to compare the British Pre-Raphaelites with the Italian Futurists; in some sense, the Guggenheim’s current exhibit on Italian Futurism is in dialogue with the Met’s exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites. On an elemental level, they represent opposite ends of the artistic and ideological spectrum: one can simply say that the Pre-Raphaelites were backward-looking, and the Futurists were forward-looking.
There are certainly many odious features of Futurism, and its distasteful aspects are well-documented in the Guggenheim’s gorgeous exhibit of the movement (through September 1). The Futurists’ glorification of mechanization and their advocacy of warfare lent an insidious imprimatur to the unprecedented historical bloodshed that was World War I, and the movement’s support of fascism lent an even more harmful imprimatur to the even more unprecedented historical bloodshed that was World War II.
Yet, if we isolate the kernels of good that lurk in Futurism, we must praise the movement on at least one count: the Futurists’ steadfast belief in human progress. While many insist that this belief crashed in World War I and burned in World War II, what must always be remembered is that it is precisely the backwards-looking jingoism of World War I, and the ugly romanticism of World War II (viz., Hitler’s desire to resuscitate the militaristic volk-ways of the Germanic past by purging “undesirables” from the reich so that Germany would be restored to its past state of pristine “racial purity”) which were the ideological underpinnings of these wars, and it was precisely these reprehensible backwards-looking revanchist ideologies that were vitiated by the violence of war.
The Futurists’ uncompromisingly forward-looking vision serves as a crucial corrective to the backwards-looking art of the Pre-Raphaelites, the artists of Arcadia, and to other artistic movements that believed humanity’s golden age was in the past. While the art of the Pre-Raphaelites may be serene, their ideology sounds a seductive siren song that we would be wise to neglect (that is, if we can; Pre-Raphaelite art can immerse you in its beauty to such an extent that you need visual ear-plugs—i.e., blinders—if you wish to prevent yourself from sinking into the spiritual quicksand of its sublime paintings). After all, it was Dante Rossetti’s eponymous ancestor Dante Alighieri whose La Divina Commedia (in Purgatorio, Canto II) diagnosed nostalgia as a symptom of idolatry. As Yale Professor Guiseppe Mazzota has noted, though Dante’s poetry is highly romantic, it is a poetry that is forward-looking at its core; for Dante Alighieri—though not for Dante Gabriel Rossetti—freedom is found in the future, not in the romantic past.
It is always tempting to retreat to the past, but the Pre-Raphaelites and the better angels of our nature advise us to go forth boldly into the future. On the surface, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were a backwards-looking lot, but if they had truly dwelt in the past, they would not have started a radically subversive artistic movement that challenged the artistic conventions of its time.
As in art, so in religion: The world’s oldest monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, likewise appear to advocate a backwards-looking religious ethic. But if these religions of the past were truly backwards-looking, they would not have challenged the complacent paganism of their times; the Jews would not have left Egypt, and the Christians would not have broken away from the Pharisees and from the Pagan Romans. These were faiths that may have believed that there was a golden age in the past, but they also believed that if we deign to recreate this golden age in the future, we must break with the false gods of the present.
Judaism and Christianity advocated an ethic that viewed the human being not as an insignificant pawn in the hands of powerful empires but as a regal being endowed with a significance greater than that of any impersonal, finite empire. The spirituality embedded in these faiths conjured otherworldliness and evoked the soul’s quest for meaning and perfection, but the ethical values manifested in the practice of these faiths’ ideals illustrated a religious worldview that was innovative, ethically progressive and radically subversive. Judaism and Christianity were, in some sense, the Pre-Futurists: they taught the world that God’s name—“I shall be who I shall be” (Exodus 3:14)—is in the future tense, and advocated imitating the God of the Future—“And you shall walk in His ways (Deuteronomy 5:33; cf. Matthew 5:48, Luke 6:36, Ephesians 5)”—by choosing to march forward into the frightening fount of freedom known as the future.
The Pre-Raphaelites sought to turn back the artistic and ideological clock; the Futurists sought to set it in forward motion. After comparing the Met’s “The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy” with the Guggenheim’s “Italian Futurism: Reconstructing the Universe,” the choice should be clear: let us couple the art of the Pre-Raphaelites with the forward-looking vision of the Futurists. Let us imitate the God of the Future by working to perfect the world in the present so that one day we may enjoy a Pre-Raphaelite-like existence in the ethereal Arcadia of our fortunate future.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a rabbinical student and regular contributor to the Books & Arts section of The Weekly Standard.