Sunday, September 22, 2013

MWA XVII: Hunt's Awakening

With so much happening last month, I forgot to post a Monthly Work of Art. Hopefully we are back on track with this, as we post #17: William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience, 1853. It seems appropriate to post one of the most important of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, considering my last post was a summary of the recent conference in Oxford. Few people really understand what the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) was or what the style actually means. Officially, the PRB was a group of 7 radical artists who in 1848 London gathered to create their own artistic society that would rebel against the traditions taught at the Royal Academy. In short, they believed that the primacy of art lay in masterworks before the time of Raphael or the High Renaissance.  Thus they were most interested in what was then seen as primitive art, i.e. art of the 1300s and 1400s, from Duccio and Giotto to Fra Lippo Lippi and Botticelli. But what made them also modern was that they wanted to paint modern-day subjects, or modern literary scenes, with a close eye that adhered to "truth to nature," the mantra established by the great contemporary art critic John Ruskin. The influence of photography on them was of course instrumental in their development, both as a way to borrow on the verisimilitude of photography's naturalistic capabilities, but also to surpass it as a work of art. When their art was displayed, they were both credited and jeered for their attempts to paint every blade of glass and their use of intense bright colors. They ultimately used techniques from the past to paint modern subjects.

Holman Hunt was undoubtedly the most consciously moralistic in what his paintings could teach people, and he wasn't afraid to shock middle-class values in the process. The irony of this, of course, is that although this painting was meant to startle people in its exposure of a man and his kept mistress, Holman Hunt was having an affair with the model, Annie Miller, so the painting does arguably reveal his own self-awareness and shame over the situation in which he was involved. This painting is so full of symbolism and details, and rather an exquisite gem of a painting, that I'm going to quote from the Tate's curators, who describe it so well on their collection website.

"A gentleman has installed his mistress (known to be such because of her absence of a wedding ring) in a house for their meetings. As they play and sing to Thomas Moore's Oft in the Stilly Night, she has a sudden spiritual revelation. Rising from her lover's lap, she gazes into the sunlit garden beyond, which is reflected in the mirror behind her. The mirror image represents the woman's lost innocence, but redemption, indicated by the ray of light in the foreground, is still possible. Intended to be 'read', the painting is full of such symbolic elements. The cat toying with the broken-winged bird under the table symbolises the woman's plight. A man's discarded glove warns that the likely fate of a cast-off mistress was prostitution. A tangled skein of yarn on the floor symbolises the web in which the girl is entrapped. Indeed, as Ruskin wrote to the Times on 25 May 1854, 'the very hem of the poor girl's dress, at which the painter has laboured so closely, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet failing in the street'. The frame, designed by Hunt, also contains various symbolic emblems; the bells and marigolds stand for warning and sorrow, the star is a sign of spiritual revelation."

UPDATE (10/6/13): Imagine my surprise when I was going back through old posts and discovered I had spoken about Holman Hunt's painting back in 2011 during a Random Musing! It's inevitable at times that I may duplicate images, but perhaps that's a subconscious reminder of certain things I actually enjoy and want to talk about even more.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Conference on Pre-Raphaelitism

Toward the end of last week, I was in Oxford, England, where I spoke about Simeon Solomon's painting The Mother of Moses, 1860, the abstract of which I posted a few months ago here. It was my first time in Oxford, and although it has some lovely architecture and history, I have to confess that it didn't impress me with its beauty the way Cambridge does (hopefully the Oxonians won't hate me for that). Oxford turned out to be more of a bustling small city with lots of tourists; Cambridge, I must say, is more bucolic and picturesque. In any case, it was still great to be there, and to participate in the two-day conference, Pre-Raphaelitism: Past, Present and Future, held at the Ashmolean Museum and St. John's College. Planners Prof. Christiana Payne and Dr. Dinah Roe, with Dr. Alastair Wright and Colin Harrison of the Ashmolean, did a fantastic job organizing a great two days. For me the highlights among the presentations included: Jason Rosenfeld on 1960s counter-culture and fashion today, and their relationship to the Pre-Raphaelites; Claire Yearwood on the use of the mirror in Pre-Raphaelite paintings; and Amelia Yeates on narrative genre paintings of the 1850s and 1860s and how they fit (or not) within the Pre-Raphaelite style. Yeates' paper focused on the work of artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau, who was considered a peripheral Pre-Raphaelite, and whose painting The Knight's Guerdon, 1864, is the image you see here, from the Ashmolean's collection. My dear friend and colleague Carolyn Conroy (go Team Solomon!) spoke about a cache of late drawings by Solomon held by the Ashmolean and did an amazing job determining for the first time their provenance and identifying their titles through archival research. Stephen Wildman, a noted expert on John Ruskin, gave what should have been a great opening talk, but drilling noises in the room next door actually made it impossible to hear anything he had to say, so I'm disappointed that I still have no idea if Ruskin actually liked the Pre-Raphaelites or not, which was the topic of his talk.

We also had opportunities to visit the galleries of the Ashmolean and a rare opportunity to see the frescoes by some of the PR's and their associates in the Oxford Union, followed by a lovely group dinner. Many of the papers were geared toward literature scholars, who seem to have gotten much more out of the conference than the art people. I've always said that with art history if you've never seen the picture before, the speaker shows it to you during the talk; with literature, if you haven't read the work before, you're completely at a loss to know what the speaker is discussing. I also enjoyed Tate curator Alison Smith's plenary talk about the history of various Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions and their reception over the past century, leading up to the currently-traveling show Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, co-curated by her with Rosenfeld and Tim Barringer. I saw the exhibition in Washington, D.C. back in May, introducing AA to the PRB for the first time, and we both enjoyed it. That exhibition is now on in Moscow and then moves to Tokyo. The international taste for Pre-Raphaelitism has exploded, and the response from the people has been great. Art critics, on the other hand, have been a bit dismissive; their inability to move past the French trajectory of modernism leaves them short-sighted about the ways other contemporaneous art movements also were "avant garde" in their own way. Time will eventually show that there is more than one way to be modern.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Portal 3

Portal 3: Vizzola Ticino (12 July 2005)
(For others in my portal series, click here.)

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

-- Laozi, Tao Te Ching, 6th century BCE (chap. 11, trans. Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English)