Art critic and academic Roberta Smith reviews in the NYT (“Blazing a Trail for Hypnotic Hyper-Realism”) a traveling exhibition of the Pre-Rafaelites, an English artistic movement launched in the mid-19th century. The members of this self-described “brotherhood” sought to return to an earlier artistic expressiveness, which had allegedly been smothered by the classical poses and smooth compositions of Raphael and other Renaissance painters. Smith compares unfavorably the heavily ornamented paintings of the English artists to the less realistic and more innovative works of their French contemporaries Manet and Cezanne. She berates the hapless Pre-Raphaelites for the “moralizing and endless intricacies” marking their paintings, and for the way “they pile symbol upon symbol, detail upon detail and bright color upon color until the eyes beg for mercy.”
In Smith’s words, “Pre-Raphaelite art is a volatile, highly complicated mixture of questionable intentions, literary erudition, ironclad nostalgia, meticulous realism, lavish costumes and a prescient technicolor palette.” In their early 20s, the English lads “were repelled by the decadence of art and society, much of which they ascribed to the Industrial Revolution.” Smith seems particularly bothered by the Pre-Raphaelites’ retreat into a retrograde, post-Romantic elitism: “Rather than embracing the people, fashions and activities of their time, as their French contemporaries did, they escaped into fantasy.”
Smith gives several examples, including “Millais’s depiction of Shakespeare’s drowned Ophelia, a pale dark-haired lovely floating in a stream beside a grassy bank whose plants are exhaustively accounted for.” I incidentally saw this painting some time ago as part of another exhibition. And I can say Smith’s critique misses one small detail – the painting is beautiful; to a point where, after gazing at it for a few minutes, you may be overtaken by a sense of uplifting quasi-transcendence.
Of course, such beauty has long ceased to be appreciated as a legitimate aspect of artistic creation. This aesthetic shift, as the cliché goes, speaks volumes of the sensibility of art critics and the sophisticated viewing public with their highly detached artistic connoisseurship – an aspect of the proverbial “disenchantment” of the modern lifeworld (Ortega y Gasset once described how in the late 19th century the young European intelligentsia quite suddenly lost their taste for representational art, harmonious music, rhyme, and the conventional narrative of the great European novels).
As for those naïve English youths from 150 years ago, I guess their apprehensions of the cultural and social fallout of modern progress should no longer appear so baseless.