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Exhibitions

UnEnglish triumph

Sometimes an exhibition does what it says on the tin. The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, the Ashmolean’s first major show post-revamp, is such an exhibition.

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

Sometimes an exhibition does what it says on the tin. The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, the Ashmolean’s first major show post-revamp, is such an exhibition.

Sometimes an exhibition does what it says on the tin. The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, the Ashmolean’s first major show post-revamp, is such an exhibition.

This fidelity is simultaneously its strength and its weakness. In a dazzling and far-reaching show, the exhibition organisers ultimately leave us questioning the nature and meaning not only of Pre-Raphaelitism but also of 19th-century concepts of Italy. This may be part of the exhibition’s achievement. It does not make for the easy ride exhibition-goers have come to expect from the Pre-Raphaelites. In place of those all-too-familiar lusciously coloured images of narcotic sexiness and tantalising sidelights on to their creators’ erratic private lives, we are presented with 140 pictures produced by a large group of artists. Their subject matter varies, as does their treatment and indeed their inspiration. Precise architectural watercolours, prompted by Ruskin’s terror that the Italians would make a ham fist of restoring their own heritage, jostle for attention with jewel-bright meditations on a Mediterranean Neverland mostly indebted to Browning, droopy Burne-Jones angels and, wherever you look, versions of Dante’s distinctive profile, like some hawk-nosed presiding deity. It’s exhilarating if demanding stuff.


Some stars emerge. William Dyce, whose work demonstrates as many Nazarene as Pre-Raphaelite qualities, painted ‘The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel’ four times. It was a composition worth revisiting. Luminously lovely, its colours as clear and unsullied as those of a porcelain plaque, it successfully combines ardour with chasteness. Rachel’s maiden blush is as deep and winning as that of the young Lady Diana Spencer. It hangs alongside a picture by Arthur Hughes, ‘That was a Piedmontese’, acclaimed by Ruskin as ‘a little treasure’. With its near-Fauvist brightness and small-scale intensity, it’s hard to disagree with Hughes’s first critic.

What such images tell us about Italy, or indeed Italy as understood by a loose coalition of mid-Victorian British painters, is less easily grasped. That Italy existed for a number of young artists as a region of imaginative vividness is undeniable, and the exhibition organisers never stray from some connection with such ideas of Italianness, even if these are purely artistic or literary. Hovering over many of these paintings is the large presence of John Ruskin, who made more than a dozen journeys to Italy during his lifetime and wrote about both its places and its painters. It was an Italian subject, ‘Dante Drawing an Angel on the Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death’, which first drew Rossetti to Ruskin’s notice, and Ruskin was at pains — in the form of lucrative commissions — to maintain Rossetti’s youthful interest in all things Italian. Given that Rossetti was himself three-quarters Italian and at work on a book of translations from early Italian poetry, he was a willing victim. His early watercolours, opaque but intensely colourful, are among the delights of this exhibition.

Whether Ruskin considered Rossetti’s later large-scale images of female beauty as equally ‘Italian’ seems unlikely. Yet such show-stoppers as ‘Monna Vanna’ of 1866, in which close attention to the poetry of Dante has given way to a very personal synthesis of the work of Venetian school painters, achieve something that, if not Italian, is certainly triumphantly unEnglish. Rossetti never did go to Italy. Perhaps he worried that the reality couldn’t live up to the sumptuousness of the approximation he himself had created.

It was Edward Burne-Jones who said of Italy, ‘Three short weeks in that seventh heaven of a place has made me live again.’ Burne-Jones took Italy, and its painters from Michelangelo to Giorgione, to his heart. His vision of Italy, however, was as idiosyncratic as that of each artist here — suggesting that Italy was not a facet of Pre-Raphaelitism, but a region of the senses big enough to accommodate every interpretation.


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