Monday, 20 October 2008

The Tate Britain: In the Know

One of the highlights of the Tate Britain's collection is their pre-Raphaelite paintings.  Because these aren't the most famous or recognisable paintings to most people, it's probably worth emphasising some of the key aspects of pre-Raphaelite art so that you are "in the know" when you visit.

The Pre-Raphaelites (also known as the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) were a group of artists, poets, authors and philosophers working in Britain around the middle of the 19th Century.  The artists in the group aimed to return to the aesthetics and style of art before Raphael and mannerism.  They despised the sloppy handling and apparent brushstrokes of more contemporary art.  Essentially, they privileged the brighter colours, detailed compositions and complexity of earlier Italian Renaissance art.  They wanted to return to the tenants of history painting, which aimed to be truly naturalistic and less painterly.  They often painted "everyday" subjects in historic, biblical or classical dress, and in this way, aimed to return to painting serious subjects.  Aesthetically, their art is immediately recognisable for the luminous light and rich, royal colour schemes that were often used.  

John Everett Millais is one of the central pre-Raphaelites.  One of his most famous and controversial paintings "Ophelia" is part of the Tate Britain's permanent collections, although it is currently travelling as part of an exhibition.  Nonetheless, many of the pre-Raphaelite's artistic aims are exemplified in this painting, so it offers a good case study and example.  The bright colours, luminosity and classical undertones to this piece are especially typical of the pre-Raphaelite movement.  It's interesting to compare the pre-Raphaelite art in the Tate Britain to the art produced for the Royal Academy, which they so heavily rejected and criticised.  Famous artists associated with the Royal Academy whose art is displayed at the Tate Britain include Gainsborough, Reynolds and Benjamin West.  Note the different style of painting, the different subjects, and the larger size of canvas used by artists exhibiting for the Royal Academy.  

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