Arts / Love and desire amid some much-loved paintings

John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” (1851-2).

WHEN Tate Britain gets together with the National Gallery of Australia to present this summer blockbuster at the NGA, “Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate”, it’s likely to be a marriage of true minds.

For they’ve got what we want – “Some of the most loved and visited paintings at Tate, some of which have never before been seen in Australia,” as NGA director Nick Mitzevich says.

And we’ve got what they like – “A new generation of visitors in another part of the world,” as Tate director Maria Balshaw says.

The show has been co-curated by Carol Jacobi, curator of British art 1850-1915 at Tate Britain and Lucina Ward, senior curator, international painting and sculpture at the NGA.

Mitzevich has been keen to talk up the magnificent centrepieces of the show, John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” and John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott”, so “CityNews” asked Jacobi to explain the public fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites, deemed to be radical or rebellious even as they reached back to mediaeval and early Renaissance (“pre-Raphael”) models of art.

“‘Ophelia’ and ‘The Lady of Shalott’ are beloved paintings at Tate Britain, perhaps because they are very emotional pictures which depict people fatally overwhelmed by love,” she suggests.

“Each brings us to the place with tremendous intimacy. Millais spent many months creating each leaf and petal of the stream in which Ophelia drifts. Waterhouse’s broader brushstrokes capture the cold atmosphere and wind that blows out the candle in ‘The Lady of Shalott’.”

“The Lady of Shalott” (1888) by John William Waterhouse.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was formed in 1848 by a group of strong-minded young artists, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who set out to counter the mundane conventions of the era in arts, poetry and in what one critic has labelled “waggish male camaraderie which expressed itself in pranks, late-night smoking sessions and midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens”.

Reviled by Dickens and adored by Ruskin, they soon teamed up with artist/designers Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, who shared their yearning for the simplicity of a pre-industrial era which led in turn to the formation of the English Arts and Crafts Movement.

To help explain what the (mostly) boys of the movement were on about, we asked Jacobi to describe some other works we’ll be seeing.

“Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s unconventional and psychologically intense early painting, ‘The Annunciation’, in which his sister, the poet Christina Rossetti, is painted as Mary, is a magical highlight,” she says.

“There is also a wonderful opportunity to explore the extraordinary world of detail in Ford Madox Brown’s most important and groundbreaking painting, ‘Work’, where all of society can be seen – a novel in paint!”

The exhibition, Jacobi says, has been curated thematically rather than chronologically, in order to bring out the themes of the title, love and desire.

The Pre-Raphaelites, she says, were passionate young people preoccupied with relationships, their hopes and ambitions and the big questions, so there will be sections devoted to love in modern life, literature and myth that will look at love’s complications – rivalry between friends, parental pressures, infidelity and the femme fatale.

Other parts of the show address the crisis of belief, asking what might replace the religious certainties challenged by science, while also criticising society, its prejudices and obsession with money.

Alongside more than 40 of Tate Britain’s works, the ideas will be expanded by a further 40 loans from the UK’s Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, Manchester Art Gallery, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Leeds Museums and Galleries, Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, and the state galleries of NSW, Victoria and SA.

Impressive, but not nearly as impressive as just looking at the pictures, very slowly.

“Pre-Raphaelite paintings have an effect in real life that cannot be seen in reproductions,” says Jacobi.

“The white background under the paint lights up the colour from behind giving added brilliance.

“Their extreme technique, transcribing each millimetre of their scenes from nature, took months and years and has an extraordinary impact on the viewer.”

“Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate”, National Gallery of Australia, open from December 14 until April 28.

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