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.

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