Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

2012-8-23

The Tate Britain has brought together over 150 examples of Pre-Raphelite art for this huge exhibition of Victoriana.

It's difficult to know how to evaluate the Tate's revisionist claim that the Pre-Raphaelites constituted an avant-garde movement. It may be that their depictions of Christ proved shocking to Victorian audiences, but the fact that their techniques were the result of consciously copying the artistry of earlier eras means that they were hardly radical experimentalists.

Rather than an avant-garde movement, it seems that Pre-Raphaelites were the Victorian equivalent of contemporary hipsters, if not in their attitudes at least in terms of their artistic output. Consider this description of contemporary hipster art:

> The tensions of this art revolved around the very old dyad of adulthood and a child-centered world, but landed heavily on the side of the child. Formally, there was an anesthetization of the mode of pastiche... Here, however, 'blank parody' gave way to a reconstruction of past techniques more perfect than the originals, in an irony without sarcasm, bitterness, or critique. Reflexivity was used as a means to get back to sentimental emotion.

The Pre-Raphaelites referenced King Arthur and Greek mythology in much the same way that hipster artists reference 1970s Americana. Like the hipsters, the Pre-Raphaelites focused on the emotional and interpersonal aspects of their source material. The curators at Tate deploy this fact to support their claims that the Pre-Raphaelites were the cutting edge.

Like hipsters, the allegedly progressive ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when it came to labour relations obscured some less progressive ideas about women. The Pre-Raphaelites liked a certain kind of woman, or in the case of Dante Gabriel Rossetti precisely one woman. Similarly, the progressive labour policies of hipster clothing brand American Apparel was coupled with the adoption of a pornographic aesthetic, in which the women tend to look a certain way. The women featured in American Apparel ads or in the hipster pornography of SuicideGirls look exactly the same as the women in mainstream pornography, but with tattoos and labret piercings. In the case of Lauren Phoenix, they are exactly the same person.

Is perhaps the case that the naked and bound Andromeda depicted in Edward Burne-Jones's The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled exemplifies a Victorian hipster pornography rather than the Victorian avant-garde?

The artistic output of the hipsters and the Pre-Raphaelites are also similar in their effects. Hipster art, for example can be described in terms of overwhelming kitsch:

> The ironic games were weightless. The emotional expressions suggested therapy culture, but hipster art often kitschified—or at least made playful—the weightiest tragedies, whether personal or historical: orphans and cancer for Eggers, the Holocaust and 9/11 for Jonathan Safran Foer.

Doesn't John Everett Millais's Ophelia) turn tragedy into kitsch in precisely the same way? It is as brightly coloured, overly detailed and melodramatic as a Wes Anderson film.

A final point of comparison can be found in the numerous socialist booklets and pamphlets illustrated by the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Are these not the Victorian equivalent of the contemporary hipster's pro bono web design projects?

If the preceding argument isn't entirely satisfactory, it is no more or less so than the one put forward by the Tate''s curators. It should at least be indicative of the dangers of retrofitting sociocultural categories, whether the category is "avant-garde" or "hipster." Reinterpreting in this way as an artistic or literary heuristic may yield some new insights, but as a matter of history it is a less legitimate technique.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at the Tate Britain until the 13th of January, 2013


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