Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

I have long been enraptured with Pre-Raphaelite art: the high key jewel like colours, aesthetically lush scenes rendered in minute detail, and references to literature and mythology.  Dare I say that it is my favourite art movement?  It’s definitely in my top 10.  Okay, maybe my top 5.  Better not laminate that list 😛

When I heard about Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, I couldn’t wait to skip across the pond to see some works by my fave lads – Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais, et al.  The exhibition showcases the gallery’s extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art which includes paintings, drawings, stained glass, textiles and photographs, indicative of how they were not only artists but craftsmen.

Established in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelites drew their name from their influence: 15th Century artists working prior to Raphael (1483 – 1520) the great master, revered by the Royal Academy of Art.  Reacting against the Academy and the rapid industrialisation of the Victorian era, they sought simplicity, moral and social reform through art, and ‘truth to nature’.  The title of this exhibition highlights that whilst they drew on the stylistic characteristics of the medieval age, they were thoroughly modern through their utilisation of photography as a medium, and their desire to overturn the current establishment.

The artworks exhibited in Medieval Moderns are embellished by sumptuously coloured walls – carmine red and teal blue.  In one room, the walls are completely covered in a grape and vine wallpaper designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist, and later founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris.  The archways into each room are also pointed like Gothic cathedral spires and add to the medieval feel of the space.

There are a number of glorious works to see.  A particular highlight was Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1867, gouache, watercolour and gum over black chalk with sponging on 2 sheets of paper) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  A passionate image, the couple depicted are Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta, who appear in the poem, Divine Comedy by Rossetti’s idol Dante Alighieri.  The roses at their feet are symbolic of love, whilst the book they were reading, which is about to fall from Paolo’s lap, details the love affair between Queen Guinevere and Lancelot du Lac – a foreshadowing tale to this scene.  What I find to be greatly fascinating about the Pre-Raphaelites is that the skill and craft doesn’t stop at the edge of the canvas or paper: the frames are specifically designed, they are extensions of the works, and executed in marvellous detail.

Another highlight was Edward Burne-Jones’ Wheel of Fortune (1871–85, oil on canvas).  Burne-Jones was a later Pre-Raphaelite artist, and the defined musculature and Michelangelesque modelling is more Classical than medieval.  Yet the theme of lady Justice turning her unbiased and inescapable wheel of a prisoner, a king and a poet has appeared on a number of occasions in medieval literature.  It was one of significant interest for Burne-Jones, and he would return to it often in his oeuvre.  He was a self-taught artist, which I find astounding, as some of my favourite images such as Laus Veneris (1873–78) and The Legend of Briar Rose (1885–1890) are exquisite displays of technique.

Burne-Jones also did a fantastic stained glass window titled St Paul from the Chapel of Cheadle Royal Hospital, Manchester (1892 designed, 1911 manufactured, stained glass and lead).  William Morris had formed a decorative arts manufacturing firm in 1861, initially called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, before becoming Morris & Co in 1875.  As mentioned, the Pre-Raphaelites interests included crafts and stained glass, and this work is very medieval inspired with the distinct halo and decorative detail.  This window is amazingly lit from the behind, and just radiates beauty.

Do also check out Ford Madox Brown’s The Baptism of Edwin, King of Northumbria (1879–91, cartoon: pastel, coloured chalks and grey wash) simply for its intense horizontality, and basically any photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Well worth the skip over the pond, Medieval Moderns is at National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne until the 12th July 2015.  It is free entry and the gallery is open every day except Tuesdays.

Please see the link below for more info: