Review: Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion at The Walker Art Gallery

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) Il Dolce Far Niente, 1859–66, retouched 1874–5
William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) Il Dolce Far Niente, 1859–66, retouched 1874–5

Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion
at Walker Art Gallery Friday 12 February – Sunday 5 June 2016

Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith. Photographs by Patrick Kirk-Smith and artinliverpool

An exhibition of Victorian paintings is rarely going to move the earth nowadays, but the Pre-Raphaelite movement still manages to inspire argument today. In many ways this was the movement that began holding both artists and critics to account over arguments of the tastes and functions surrounding visual art. This exhibition is both a review of that movement, and a new approach to connecting their history to relative developments in the North West.

What the Walker are giving us here is an historical account of the clashes and connections between two very different schools of art that shared the same progressive paths, influenced each other equally, and continued to evoke the fury of the eminent John Ruskin, whose opinion stands tall even to this day regarding landscape painting and, what was then, modern art’s most exciting movement.

Holt and Millais and Rossetti made their mark on the art world by legitimising mythology on canvas; whether that myth was the stuff of religion or legend. From Greek tales of goddesses, to celebrations of iconography within landscape. It was clever then, and that shows now when we look at modern portrait photography, which has begun to look in more detail at the landscape around its portrait subject, much in the same way the Pre-Raphaelites did then.

Now what really does set this apart from the normal questions of myth and taste, is the history it has dug up and put on display. A history which shows strict influences at play over artists practicing in Liverpool at the time. Apart from one odd addition of some Whistler drawings, this is a near flawless historical overview, with clear explanations and the classic Walker addition of informative vinyl affixed to the walls, feeding us a steady stream of fact and opinion which ties these artefacts to their stories without doubt.

The Liverpool School, as this group of painters became known, are a strong focus in this exhibition, bringing to light local interests, and showing (in the midst of all the “isn’t Liverpool wonderful, look at our cultural history” statements) that inspiration was quickening in the mid-1800s. It was becoming more available, and helping to unify an entire nation of artists; artists who carried that national networking energy through to the 1900s, and into what became international energy with early modernism and cubism. As a result, what we get is an exhibition that uses Liverpool as a tool to say “The Pre-Raphaelites aren’t irrelevant yet, and it’ll be a long time still.”

Ruskin, and various other critics probably weren’t far off calling The Liverpool School mimics though. In some cases even referring to The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as mimics of idealised landscapes, much to the disappointed fury of Holt, who avidly admired Ruskin until his sudden dissent for his Brotherhood arose. The question here though isn’t of mimicry, but of influence. The immediacy of cultural influence was beginning to become apparent, with artists travelling further afield for sales, and for networking. Naturally, The Liverpool School began to pick certain elements of The Pre-Raphaelites’ work to draw on, just as artists mimic and reference those who inspire them today. This type of influence has helped form what is now the Creative Industries, in its approach if in nothing else.

This exhibition is so well rooted in established relationships between these art movements that it is almost a propaganda piece for Cultural Liverpool. Ties are made and torn between the Pre-Raphaelites and The Liverpool School based solely on cultural politics and personal taste, and this history show presents that with such clarity that even the complete beginner can begin to define new relationships with art.

A lot of people will call this an introduction to art, and in many ways it is. This is a perfect show for anyone looking to find a new understanding of painting. But, this show stands far out from that. This exhibition will remind practicing artists what they are part of now, it reframes our perspectives on the politics of local and national art scenes, and gives us a whistle-stop course on why we became fascinated with art in the first place. It’s an inspirational exhibition that is going to win a whole host of different reactions from a whole host of different communities.