The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in England in 1848, was one of the first art movements to adopt a name and a manifesto, a strategy that morphed into the many “isms” of the 20th century. Alas, the PRB was not particularly coherent as a school of art (one of their early goals was “to produce thoroughly good pictures”), so it’s not surprising that an exhibition devoted to their work, and that of their followers, should seem fuzzy in intent and subject matter.
The current exhibition now at the Seattle Art Museum, “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement,” features 150 works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, stained glass and a wide range of handcrafted, functional objects. For this viewer, including all the craftwork — lovely as the pieces are on their own — muddles, rather than clarifies, the narrative. If the common threads that link the painters are tricky to define, those that unite the dozens of objects are even less obvious.
What is radical, or even progressive, about the painfully kitschy “Chamberlain Casket” of 1903, a hodgepodge of metal boats, figurines and medallions, meant to evoke medieval reliquaries, but really floating in art-historical limbo? What do all the deluxe inkwells, claret pitchers and cigarette boxes have to do with the paintings?
The truth is there are at least two exhibitions here that have been awkwardly lumped together. To appreciate what makes the artifacts special would require its own show, one that would include parallel developments in architecture and furniture, and related attempts to provide an alternative to mass production in the light of industrial mediocrity.
It’s hard not to be impressed with the technical achievements of the painters on view, for whom mastery of the figure, composition and the rendering of vivid textures was the product of rigorous training in art academies sponsored by the English state. In mainland Europe, highly skilled artists similarly emerged from government-supported art schools; they used their skills to depict patriotic national stories, snapshots of daily life, or scenes of factory workers and the oppressed. A survey of PRB art feels more like a Victorian interior, with various shelves devoted to this or that, with no one theme or subject matter dominant.
Perhaps the strongest painting in the show, “Work,” by Ford Madox Brown, is a rare example of a depiction of daily urban life. The work, a beautifully choreographed panorama of mid-19th century types jostling on a crowded city street, places heroic ditch diggers front and center. The workers seem content in their jobs, and the various classes of onlookers pay them no particular attention; political radicals these painters were not. Meanwhile, Brown successfully packs a novel’s worth of social description and commentary into a radically compressed pictorial space.
Much more typical, and much more problematic for a modern viewer, is the 1901 painting “Hope Comforting Love in Bondage” by Sidney Meteyard. Like “The Chamberlain Casket,” it’s a hodgepodge of art-historical references, a piece of faux-mythological fluff that is about to be blown into complete irrelevance by what Picasso and Co. are up to in Paris. “Hope” wears a vaguely Roman robe and cape, comforting a tied-up boy with absurdly oversized wings, all set in a version of a Renaissance city like Florence. How does this pastiche connect to British life and aspirations in the early 20th century? Not in the least.
Elsewhere, all garbed in appropriate costumes (these artists loved dress-up), are witches; wizards; tragic poets; characters from Shakespeare, Boccaccio and Dante; knights in armor, landscapes and episodes from the Bible; and a row of femmes fatales. One is reminded that, in their original mission statement, these artists did not agree on a worldview or an ideology, and perhaps the most “radical” thing about their work is its eclecticism.
Another standout painting in the exhibition, John Everett Millais’ “The Blind Girl,” brilliantly sums up the contradictions of the movement: gorgeous craftsmanship, less-than-earthshaking message. The painting features a radiant meadow landscape backed by a double rainbow and a sunstruck distant village. In the foreground, two shabbily dressed young women huddle on a stream bank; a storm has just passed. The older of the two girls wears a begging sign reading “Pity the Blind” — the gleaming panorama spotlights all the pleasures she cannot see.
It’s a stretch to call this sentimental painting radical, even by the standards of its time. The PRB and their followers succeeded in giving British art a look and a range of subject matter that was distinctly different from English art that preceded it, but in the context of art history, it was more of the nature of a new fashion, rather than a significant rebellion.
“Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through Sept. 8; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave.; $19.99-$29.99, free for SAM members and children 14 and under; 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org