Back to Reality

Back to Reality

A “machine-made machine” opens the newest exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art. That’s how co-curator Tim Barringer describes a gilded clock that stands in a case before a mural of the gritty, early industrial city of Birmingham. The timepiece’s design is reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, with an oversized clock face on the front and an exposed mechanism in the back. Made around 1850 by W.F. Evans & Sons, it works as a metaphor for the 19th-century glorification of factory-produced decorative items for the masses.

The artists of the day staged a rebellion against this “absolutely unprecedented situation” of mass production, Barringer says, by asking questions such as: What is the nature of work? Can something mass-produced be beautiful? Their answers to those questions and others are on view in Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement, on loan from the Birmingham Museums Trust through May 10. The exhibition presents 145 works by well-known artists and designers of the period including Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddall.

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Barringer knows this collection well; he began his career in Birmingham. As beloved as these works were to him at the time, he says, “they seem even more pertinent and of the moment now than they did in the ’90s.” Indeed, anxieties surrounding globalization, technology and the economic, social and political pressures associated with them today are reflected back at us by many of these 150-year-old works. Turning their backs on the classical art education they’d received, the self-named Pre-Raphaelites—who aspired to the “purity, simplicity, and truth” of the 15th-century art that predated Raphael—shifted their attention to nature and to “uncompromising realism” that often put the working class and the poor center stage. They approached their dissident subjects with bright colors and photographic precision, causing “an absolute scandal,” Barringer says.

As a group of reporters toured the exhibition, Barringer repeatedly urged, “Do come forward.” That’s because these are paintings you’ll want to examine up close. Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1859-63) is a case in point. A crowded street scene centers on a quartet of muscular workmen. The shovel of the man closest to us, shining silver in the sunlight, seems almost to be an extension of his ropy arm. These men are surrounded by figures representing every social stratum: a barefoot flower seller, glancing warily from under the torn brim of a hat; a bare-backed girl caring for three younger children, including a baby who’s gazing toward us over her shoulder; a lady and gentleman waiting on horseback in the shadowed background; two men in middle-class clothing leaning against a fence and observing the scene. According to the exhibition catalog, they are the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the theologian F. D. Maurice, who “shared with the artist the notion that work tests, and displays, the moral fiber of the individual, regardless of family background.” This allegorical microcosm of people, dogs, tools, trees, buildings and even, in the distance, a group of picketers carrying sandwich board signs could occupy a viewer’s attention for half an hour or more. Such works, Barringer observes, “give up their secrets slowly.”

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Other paintings are less crammed with information but no less instructive. Their realism is such that “you can smell the apple blossoms, you can hear the lute playing,” co-curator Courtney Skipton Long says of Kate Elizabeth Bunce’s Musica (ca. 1895-97), in which a rosy-cheeked, well-dressed woman surrounded by blossoms and ornate metal ornaments strums a lute, her gaze discreetly directed not quite at us. Displayed near this painting, two Victorian garments help to bring its sensuous elements even closer. Bunce’s musician’s floral bodice is emphasized, for example, by the embroidery of a child’s dress. Including objects such as these throughout the exhibition—clothing, jewelry, furniture, ceramics, glassware—offers a three-dimensional experience.

The painters’ use of light, too, brings life to their works. It’s certainly not an effect of the gallery lighting, which falls just the same on James Campbell’s dreary The Wife’s Remonstrance (1858) as it does on Arthur Hughes’s The Long Engagement (ca. 1854-59), in which an aging suitor’s face is cast in shadow while, beside him, his beloved fiancee’s face glows as if struck by sunlight. The sheen of her dog’s coat matches that of her own purple cape as both of them look longingly at the man her father may never allow her to marry. The emerald green garment in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of the goddess Proserpine (1881-82) sparkles, even as the shape of its folds are echoed by a dull snuff of smoke from a small lantern in the painting’s lower corner. Landscapes, too, are illuminated. The pale pink sky of broad daylight in John Brett’s Southern Coast of Guernsey from the Cliff over Moulin Huet (1875) is reflected in the sea between shadows of clouds. Works of stained glass by Rossetti and others are literally lit from behind in order to give the viewer a proper experience of their color and vibrancy. Even the gilded frames of many of these pieces—part of the artworks themselves—surround their works with a shimmer.

This isn’t the work of the dour Victorians we often picture. These artists were visually, politically, materially and sexually fearless, Barringer says. He points to Simeon Solomon’s painting Bacchus (1867) as an example—a portrait that takes “the long neck, voluptuous lips, vacant eyes, and flowing hair of Rossetti’s female type” and recasts it in a “male or androgynous figure.” So, too, the choice of “beautiful, powerful and dangerous women” as subject matter flies in the face of convention in paintings such as Frederick Sandys’s Morgan le Fay (1864), in which the sorceress, cloaked in a leopard skin apron and an overskirt laced with pictographs chants an incantation over an open flame. In the background, the vertical warp yarns of an old-fashioned loom form a curtain through which an orange sunset glows.

Just as Barringer invites us all to look closely, Dante Gabriel Rossetti himself appears to look closely at us in a portrait painted in 1882-83 by William Holman Hunt. In fact, Rossetti was drawing Hunt at the same time as Hunt was painting him. But the focused gaze of the artist’s large eyes, reflecting a glimmer of light from the room, appears to lock with our own, as if to implore from us the very “purity, simplicity, and truth” he and his compatriots sought.

Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through May 10
(203) 432-2800…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Photo Key:

1. Morgan le Fay (1864) by Frederick Sandys.
2. Musica (ca. 1895-97) by Kate Elizabeth Bunce.
3. Sir Walter Scott’s Monumental Clock (circa 1850) by W.F. Evans & Sons.
4. Bacchus (1867) by Simeon Solomon.

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