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.

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