Post-Raphaelite: it’s so Rock and Roll

Tate Britain was chock-a-block with visitors. The misery of its ongoing renovations apparent as tired tourists struggled to find places to sit, rest and recover.

Ironically they were here to leave this care-worn world for one of beauty, myth and idealisation. Welcome to the world of the Pre-Raphaelites where the dirty rise of industry and empire was left behind for sylvan landscapes and heroic spirits.

My most memorable viewing of a large collection of these works was at Manchester Art Gallery, in many ways their perfect setting. After all, the artists of the movement were producing their most celebrated paintings during the rise of the industrial revolution and were commissioned by cotton, steel and mining magnates.

Rosetti Fantasy

The early Pre-Raphaelite movement was all about didactic story-telling replacing stories from the Bible and the classics with folkloric tales of goodness and chastity triumphing over evil. But it moved inexorably through stages of development which seemed keenly aligned to the increasing power and wealth of industrial might. It ended with an almost narcissistic looking-glass quality where the ‘movement’ was really no more than an escape into beauty for beauty’s sake, sensuousness and luxury. By the end it seemed there was no more moralising, it was simple hedonism (with the exception perhaps of Holman Hunt).

There are parallels between the way the works of the Pre-Raphaelites were used on household products and by the artists of today. Bed hangings, tapestries, furniture – only affordable to the likes of the industrial barons – were the ‘must-have’ furnishings of the day. Now fast-forward and get out your wallets for your Tracey Emin tea set.

It also struck me that Jamie Hewlett’s ‘Gorillaz Stained Glass Window’ – a jewel-coloured screen print in five ‘altar’ panels – has echoes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement’s flight into fantasy. Is it a wry nod toward the worship of pop bands or an exciting example of modern myth-making?

Certainly it makes vivid gods of the animated Gorillaz characters. Certainly it has the brilliance of a piece of faux stained glass. Certainly it’s a response to the times in which we live.

I can’t believe having now viewed the Tate’s exhibition that Jamie Hewlett has not been standing somewhere in Manchester Art Gallery at some point during his journey into art. Maybe he’s responsible for a new Post-Raphaelite movement.

The work itself is all the more beautiful to me for these connections – and it’s very rock and roll.

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