‘Down with the pretty ladies of Gainsborough! Down with the old masters!’ chant the Pre-Raphaelites as they lob paintings on a fire in Ken Russell’s radical 1967 film on Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
A short clip is shown at the end of this show about the nineteenth century English artist and the people closest to him (his sister Christina and his wife Elizabeth Siddal). But to modern eyes, it can be hard to see what’s so much more modern about the Pre-Raphs than poor old Gainsborough.
But the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had revolution in mind when they started their movement. They wanted to prioritise passion, sensuality, poetry and the ephemeral (and sad ginger women with enormous jaws), they looked to the romantic past to break with conservative present.
The Rossettis were a fiery family who loved poetry, literature and art. Christina’s love poems are written across the walls as you walk in here, full of lines like ‘love me – I love you, love me my baby’ and ‘I never said I loved you, John’. Really top notch verse.
It’s tough to do exhibitions on poetry though (thankfully), and the Tate knows that, so she’s brushed aside pretty quickly in favour of her brother Gabriel (the Dante is an affectation because he really liked Italian poet Dante Alighieri, a bit like a toddler insisting on being called Spiderman). The opening rooms are full of drawings from his teens; dark, murky portrayals of drunken street scenes and illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe poems, like any teenager would do. None of them are great works.
Shame there weren’t any photocopiers in the 1860s
The show then flip flops between eras, looking at the birth of the Pre-Raph brotherhood, Gabriel’s relationship with Elizabeth Siddal and her own paintings. The whole thing’s a classic Tate Britain move of trying to turn book chapters into an exhibition and it just not working. They’re trying to show how Elizabeth and Gabriel inspired each other, copied one another’s compositions, but again, most of these are not great works by anyone’s standards, so no one comes out of it well.
There are good things on display, including some beautifully wispy, dreamy watercolours by Elizabeth (though if this is an attempt to get the public to see her as an artist and not just the ultimate Pre-Raph muse they shouldn’t have half-arsed it by presenting her only in the context of her husband). Best of all is a lock of her auburn hair and a poem Gabriel had buried with her after she died at 32, and then had dug up so he could publish it later. Shame there weren’t any photocopiers in the 1860s.
But you spend the whole first half waiting to be wowed by some majestic painting and then find they've saved them all for the last two rooms. Now you're surrounded by Gabriel’s florid, dramatic, romantic, grandiose, ridiculous portraits of women with endless flowing hair and jaws you could use to demolish a house. Classic, poetic, schmaltzy Dante Gabriel Rossetti stuff.
The issue is that this is meant to be a show about the Rossettis, but it’s only really about one of them. Down with the the pretty ladies of Gainsborough and the old masters, sure, but down with exhibitions that are a bloated mess too.