The Dream Hunters

As autumn descends and the ivy turns to a vivid burgundy and the tree leaves turns to burnished bronze or arterial crimson, I visited London and the Millais exhibition at the Tate. The choice of subject seems apt for the season, with several paintings like Mariana and Autumn Leaves allegorising the life of man through the seasons.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement is a classic example of the reactionary tendency in English culture, along with the Gothic Revival and Palladian architecture. English painting sought to return to medieval models, depicting nature with obsessive precision, at a time when European art was beginning to forge movements like impressionism and expressionism. Equally, the brotherhood was founded in the year of The Communist Manifesto but although Millais seems to have made many satirical (somewhat Hogarthian) drawings of contemporary society, none of them were transferred to canvas. Unlike Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England, Millais retreats to a mythical past. Like much of Victorian culture, the Pre-Raphaelites can perhaps be best understood as a means of withdrawing from an industrialised society to a romanticised past, looting models freely from different periods (the subjects displayed at the Millais exhibition range from Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas to Renaissance Florence and Medieval England). It lacks any sense of expressing the collective consciousness of its age and seems instead to point to a lacuna. The sense of a void becomes painful in several of his later society portraits and grotesquely sentimental paintings of children; one can only be surprised that Little Nell evaded him as a subjects. Whereas contemporaries like Burne Jones and Watts devised stained glass and frescos for churches, Millais sold his pictures for soap adverts and painted portraits of the haute bourgeoisie.

However, with all of that said, much remains to be said in defence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Millais’ sympathy for outsiders dominates his early paintings; Jacobite rebels, exiled Huguenots, heretics and vagrants. His women are alternately depicted as passive victims of the men that abandon them, but also have to be shown in terms of their stoic fortitude. Much of his work, such as The Bridesmaid, seems to look forward to the likes of Moreau, Klimt and Albert Moore. The iallusive quality of his later works, freed of explicit depictions of historical or literary scenes seem to parallel Bocklin and David Friedrich. The Pre-Raphaelite stress on literary allusions, with references to Tennyson, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, comes close to a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

The initial rooms of the exhibition concentrate on showing the development of the early Millais to his Pre-Raphaelite work. His first major work is Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru, a picture that veers uneasily between historical epic and the later depictions of the victims of Catholic oppression, a Massacre of the Innocents The early Pre-Raphaelite works also quickly draw attention to the idea of the excluded and outcast; doomed love in Isabella, Ophelia, Mariana and The Death of Romeo and Juliet. A drawing showing the disinterrment of Queen Mathilda by Huguenot fanatics was presumably too sympathetic and Catholicism and was never painted. The (infamous) painting of Christ in the House of his Parents seems oddly realistic in comparison to the other works, as does The Order of Release, wherein the soldier’s wife stands tall while her son and husband are huddled against her, inverting the model used in A Huguenot on St Bartholomew’s Day. In a similar vein is The Proscribed Royalist where a somewhat effeminate cavalier is hidden by a puritan lover and in Peace Concluded where a wounded soldier returned from the Crimea is held by his wife. The sexual politics of Millais’ painting are endlessly confusing; his depictions of women with persecuted men require them to be strong and resilient (although the atttitude in The Black Brunswicker is simply one of female helplessness even as the strong soldier shown is certain to die) but he is as likely to show them abandoned and betrayed, as in Waiting. One painting, The Escape of a Heretic is entirely different; showing a female heretic being rescued by a lover from the clutches of the Inquisition. Again, his drawings show what his paintings can’t’ The Bridge of Sighs depicts a fallen woman contemplating suicide.

The later works show Millais moving to looser brush strokes in a style more reminiscent of Titian or Velasquez, depicting subjects without explicit comment and with only the suggestion of context. Backgrounds are frequently blackened out to show the subject. Works like Spring and The Vale of Rest having a nonetheless rather crudely symbolised theme of mortality. Where historical subjects are shown, the results are often depressingly remniscent of much forgettable genre painting (Reynolds and Van Dyck emerge as influences at this point), although a painting like Esther continues the theme of female fortitude and courage. The most interesting works from this time onwards, are his Scottish landscapes which in their depicition of solitary figures in wintry scenes leaves me strongly reminded of Caspar David Friedrich, for instance in Dew Drenched Furze and Glen Birnam.

Leaving the exhibition, I spend a little time looking at the permanent collection, from Rossetti’s The Annunciation and The Beloved, Holman Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella and The Awakening Conscience , Hughes’ The Eve of St Agnes , Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge and Moore’s The Toilette and A Sleeping Girl. It does seem to me that Millais has at least some claim to be a via media between Hunt and Hughes on the one hand and Whistler and Moore on the other, while his woman are surely not simply objects in the way they always seem to be for Rossetti. I also find myself looking at more unusual works like John Brett’s seascapes, Watts’ Hope, Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Tuke’s August Blue, but I’m most struck by Richard Dadd’s paintings; although not dissimilar to the Pre-Rapahelites in style and fitting in with Victorian conventions of fairy paintings, his work does nonetheless seem more like Bosch.

I then decide to look at the modern section. Some of the individual works are quite startling here; Sickert’s Brighton Pierrots, Heron’s Azalea Garden: May 1956, Hitchens’ Woodland, Vertical and Horizontal, Hepworth’s Curved Form (Trevalgan), Vanesssa Bell’s Studland Beach and Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round. I find myself particularly drawn to the room dedicated to John Piper’s works, from his Britten set paintings (Death in Venice) to his work as a war artist (All Saints Chapel, Bath) to his Betjeman-like recordings of historic buildings (Holkham, Norfolk, Yarnton Monument) – although rather conventional subjects depicted in uncomprosingly modern terms. Another room dwells on war art, with results that seem quite surrealist – whether by intent or simply through elapsed time is difficult to say; Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex looks like a dissection rather than a ruin while Nash’s Bomber in the Corn and The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park almost look like totems. Sutherland’s Devastation, 1941 series is perhaps the most conventional depiction of destruction and decay, although his Horned Forms contrives to turn the organic into something threatening and unnatural. Finally, a small exhibition is dedicated to Hockney’s selection of Turner’s paintings. I hadn’t realised that Turner is in many respects an architectural painter, with Lichfield Cathedral, St George’s Bloomsbury and Durham Cathedral all amongst his English subjects, while some of his Venetian work is dedicated to Canaletto’s architectural fantasias. Hockney also has a collection on one of the stair wells; paintings of English woodland from different times of the year. I then walk from Tate Britain to Tate Modern, mostly to see the giant metal spider on display outside the gallery. Although given an artistic subtext it mostly reminds me of the metal sculpture of the invading Martians at Woking.

Reading Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars I was particularly reminded of Umberto Eco’s observations about the medieval quest for the prelapsarian language that had existed before the Tower of Babel. The dictionary seems equally preoccupied with the loss of language’s capacity to represent certitude in the midst of a series of mirrored dichotomies; dream and reality, good and evil, male and female (as with the male and female editions of the text), life and death, all of which are blurred in the course of the text. Where Eco is interested in semiotic playfulness almost as an end in its own right, Pavic seems to envisage differance in mystical terms, as a means of representing man’s fallen state (perhaps Habermas was right to call Derrida a Jewish mystic). He then complicates these chiastic divisions by enfolding them into a tripartite structure; Christian, Islamic and Jewish, with each dictionary having mirrored entries (either the same entry told from a fundamentally different viewpoint or the convergence of three different but related characters), the division between which is also blurred (with the idea of each religion being an aspect of the other two). The text also foregrounds the issue of interpretation, with every character who comes close to understanding the history of the Khazars being punished Icarus-like.

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