Kitsch in Sync: Tate Britain’s Pre-Raph Rads

What the hell is Tate Britain on?

We’re currently ‘enjoying’ Picasso and Modern British Art, a cobbled-together show that, unsurprisingly, serves only to emphasise the inferiority of the home-grown, and now we’re about to be treated to a major exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites, sold to us as the work of ‘revolutionaries’, of ‘radicals who did nothing less than change the world’.
Now I’ve nothing (much) against the PRBs – the work is nice to look at (mostly) – but to cast it in this light really is Utter Bollocks.

Rossetti’s Wrestler

The ‘medievalist’ reaction against rationalist neo-classicism and rapid industrialisation began long before 1848, and was already embedded in the post-Romantic mid-Victorian sensiblity: the popularity of the Gothic novel, the great medieval epics and romances, Scott’s Waverley novels; the Pugin-led Gothic Revival in architecture and the rise of Tractarianism which sought to re-introduce pre-Reformation ritual and liturgy within Anglicanism; etc, etc. If one should doubt the essentially conservative nature of this ‘taste’, one should remember that in 1844 Pugin won the competition to design the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the very heart of the British establishment.

Holman Hunt’s Gah!

Meanwhile in Vienna, as early as 1809, a group of artists, the Nazarenes, had already proposed a return to the values and practices of the Quattrocento:
“The principle motivation of the Nazarenes was a reaction against neo-classicism and the routine art education of the academy system. They hoped to return to art which embodied spiritual values, and sought inspiration in artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, rejecting what they saw as the superficial virtuosity of later art.” (Wiki.)
Sound familiar?

Far from being the Che Guevaras of Victorian England, the PRBs were band-wagon-jumpers, late-comers to a party that had been swinging for decades. Tellingly, the Tate sees them as “the equivalent…of Damien Hirst today”; I do, too: essentially opportunists who squandered whatever talents they had in the creation of kitsch. Kitsch is not about the imagination or allusion, it’s about fantasy where everything is acted out; it’s sentimental, falsely nostalgic; it’s “the trappings of belief rather than the thing believed in”, (Roger Scruton).

Burne-Jones’ Wallpaper

As I said, I like some of the work, Rossetti’s in particular: gorgeous to look at, even if his women are built like all-in wrestlers. Holman Hunt I loathe with a passion: lurid, moralising, literal to the point of banality. Burne-Jones is nothing more than decoration, finely-worked wall-paper. But like them or not, noone can seriously consider them artists of the first rank, much less as ‘avant-garde’. Oh, the exhibition will do well; as the Tate cheerfully admits, it will be full of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and this is the point: people will go in their droves, however the show is sold to them – the sine qua non of kitsch is its mass appeal; so to sell it, the show, as something it’s not strikes me as at best disingenuous, at worst downright cynical.

Get a grip, Tate Britain, you’re beginning to tick me off.


Where I first saw the ‘news’:

18 thoughts on “Kitsch in Sync: Tate Britain’s Pre-Raph Rads

  1. Beautiful to look at but just not interesting.It’s purely decorative, maybe that’s why the exhibition will work, Decoration has become some kind of “trendy new art”. The other reason it will work is that we all are fond of beautiful figures, even when they have nothing to say.
    I may trespass some kind of barrier but I can’t help thinking that deep down it’s a little “Kinkadish”…

    • Ha! That’s exactly what it is, but I didn’t want to mention that other ‘K’ word yet again. What about the Victorian Vettrianos?
      Thanks as ever for your comment.:)

    • I love what some guy at the Glasgow School said about JV: “he can’t paint, he just colours in” – about the worst thing you can say to an artist that doesn’t involve 4-letter words!

      • I love to just color in 🙂 That guy’s words are a bit harsh. What then of Hopper “the real painter of light”….Or Lichtenstein…”the whining women painter”….haha Just add the color in the shape. That’s what all painters have always done.

        • Probably a bit harsh, but snappy! Caravaggio is the only Old Master who didn’t do preliminary sketching? – as far as I know. I adore Hopper, by the way…

  2. If you’re as ill informed as me, you might believe the Holmes painting is actually called “Gah!” Then in abscence of knowledge of intent, it’s unintentionally hilarious. True story.

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