Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (Princeton University Press, 2000)
Come in I'm just sorting through some art books that I'm reviewing. Just toss the mail off the chair onto the carpet. I'll sort it out later. Though mind the cats underfoot when you do!
Collecting art books, really expensive art books, is a perk of working here at Green Man. Even more than sampling more music than one might think exists, or diving into piles of novels in hopes of finding something really good, there's art books. Now, most of us will buy a CD or two from time to time on spec, a novel for the sake of seeing if it works for us, or a single malt that we've never heard of, but really costly art books are 'nother matter. I, for one, do not buy them unless I'm feeling really flush, say after getting paid well for a gig. And what I may buy at that point is usually an artist I've been collecting for sometime, say a book by William Morris or Maxfield Parrish. I've been known to pay quite a few quid for that sort of work. More than I'll admit here, thank you!
So what do we get here for art books? Well, Grey Walker's reviewing Meinrad Craighead's Crow Mother and the Dog God: A Retrospective, and I know that our Editor in Chief invoked executive privilege to claim Susan Seddon Boulet: A Retrospective. And I got one that I've been eyeing for some time now Elizabeth Prettejohn's The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. I know you can see several dozen books on the Pre-Raphaelites on me book shelves. Why was I after this particular one? Ahhh, this is the one that the Tate Gallery did. If you aren't up to date on the British art scene, you should be made aware before we go any farther in this review that the Tate Gallery is the national gallery of British art from 1500 to the present day. (That's actually an oversimplification, as Tate's actually four galleries: Tate Britain is the national gallery of British art from 1500 to the present day; Tate Modern is their new gallery of modern and contemporary art; Tate Liverpool is the largest modern art gallery in the UK outside London; and Tate St. Ives shows modern and contemporary art in a spectacular Cornish space. Make sure you have good walking shoes if you're visiting the Tate!) Now guess which gallery has the best collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, period? That's right the Tate.
Down the past century and a half, the Pre-Raphaelites have almost always been controversial in art circles as much for their, errr, sexual activities as for their artwork; but they have always been extremely popular with museum goers, who find their art rather appealing. Elizabeth Prettejohn's new volume provides the most comprehensive view of the movement to date, and the first new work on them in over fifteen years. (Though popular with the aforementioned museum goers, they are not 'tall in favour among the weedy set known as academics.)
The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites shows us why, a century and a half later, Pre-Raphaelite art retains its power to fascinate, trouble, and ofttimes shock its viewers. (Well, less than it did the Victorians. Much of it is quite tame by contemporary standards. Or even by Edwardian standards. Naked tits just aren't as shocking now.)
So who were they? Calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as an artistic gesture against what they thought was the vulgar, unrefined contemporary art of their day, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt produced a statement of ideas that they thought would revolutionize art in Victorian England at the hieight of the rule of Victoria. Their art borrowed heavily from Classical sources and, often, featured their wives, lovers, and the wives of other artists that they were fucking. More than a few naked tits, lots of red hair, and allusions to the Classical myths created a mythos for them that permeated their art and lives. It certainly didn't help that, like William Morris, who would use their themes in creating his Arts & Crafts movement but a short while later, they were prolific buggers. Very prolific buggers.
Not surprisingly, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites is an illustrated book, but what makes it interesting is not the artwork, which I've seen many times before, but rather the new and sometimes startling questions about the group's social and artistic identity. Was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood the first avant-garde movement in modern art? (Possibly, possibly not.) What role did women play in the Pre-Raphaelite fraternity beyond being artistic models and lovers? (More than most critics admit.) Did ever-so-tangled relationships between the artists and models affect the paintings? (Of course!) The author also goes beyond the social aspects of this group to analyze the art as, GASP!, art. It is this melding of social history and art as art that makes this work unique in the field.
Is it worth the price? Yes, it indeed is. Princeton University Press should be proud to have made this work available for Americans.