Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites: a garden of earthly delights

Sep 13, 2012

The Tate’s ambitious new show is a celebration of the brilliant, bonkers Victorian age

What you need to know
Tate Britain’s autumn blockbuster exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, presents the Pre-Raphaelites as Britain’s first modern art movement.

While the mid-nineteenth century British artists’ circle harked back to the early renaissance in their work, the focus of this show is about revealing the Pre-Raphaelites’ self-conscious rebellion against the art establishment and their advanced approach to creating modern painting and design.
The exhibition brings together over 150 artworks, including painting, sculpture, photography and the applied arts by artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown and John Everett Millais.
Runs until 13 January, 2013.
What the critics like
Tate Britain’s show is “a garden of earthly delights”, says Rachel Campbell Johnston in The Times, from “Ophelia floating towards her flower-strewn fate”, to Rossetti’s pouting temptresses. Its argument that the Pre-Raphaelites were radically modern isn’t new, but it’s presented with “unrelenting energy”.   
It’s “a steam-punk triumph”, says Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. This “raw and rollicking” show resurrects the ideas and passions of our engineering, imperialist, novel-writing ancestors. It’s “bursting with sexuality” and celebrates “the flawed, bonkers and brilliant Victorian age”.
Even if you disagree with the Tate’s arguments, “it will get people thinking,” says Alaistair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph, “which is essential, lest such over-familiar artworks ossify into cliché”.
What they don’t like
The Pre-Raphaelites can seem too tame, too dull, too “irredeemably Victorian” to be considered truly modern, says Michael Glover in The Independent. This show tries to persuade us otherwise, but it is only towards the last rooms, in late, powerful works by Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt, for example, that the argument makes sense.

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