Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through May 19, 2013

I'll confess right away that I have a problem with the Pre-Raphaelites.   They're too emotional, too dramatic, too Romantic with a capital R for me.  If you've read Sense and Sensibility, they're all Marianne, and I'm all Eleanor.  However, they're all the rage at the National Gallery at the moment, so I'm giving them their moment in the sun.

As a bit of background, the Pre-Raphaelites (or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they called themselves) felt unhappy about the industrialization of the Victorian era and looked back with admiration on an earlier, less industrial time in their art.  Now I'm quite in sympathy with their idea that mass-produced goods are not as fine or artistic as ones made by hand.  Where I part company with them is in the idealization of the Middle Ages.  They felt this was a purer, more artistic age, and I see how chivalry, and the poems of courtly love and knights in shining armor have their attractions.  I cannot help but remember, however, that the Middle Ages were ones of brutal violence and oppression, minimal intellectual advancement and no decent health care.

But enough of my quibbling, let's talk about the show.  First of all, know that this is ENORMOUS.  I lost count of how many rooms I walked through, each one full of pieces to examine and admire.  The paintings are terribly dramatic, but they are well done and quite colorful, always a plus, as far as I'm concerned.  The picture above is quite typical of their style.

My favorite bit came towards the end, with a room devoted to the decorative arts.  William Morris, who I have long admired, was part of the PRB, and he extended their artistic reach into furniture, wallpaper and tapestries.  The designs are wonderful; if you like William Morris, it's worth going to the show just to see these things.

Outside the show exit is a small gift shop set up to allow you many opportunities to purchase.  They have some beautiful things, including Williams Morris design umbrellas and coasters, among the requisite mugs and tote bags.

Note that there is a related exhibit on the Ground Floor called Pre-Raphaelites and the Book.  It features books illustrated by the PRB, published by William Morris and his Kelmscott Press.  As you might imagine, these tend to be stories of knights and ladies, as seen in the picture here.  Drawn from both the National Gallery's own collection and the collection of the University of Delaware, this is a nice accompaniment to the main show.

Verdict: If you like Pre-Raphaelite works, do not miss this colossal show.  If you find that a little bit of this goes a long way, you might want to skim.  Not doable in a lunch hour, unless you run through the rooms.

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