Thursday, September 22, 2016

pre-raphaelite aesthetics (or the design mandate)


John Everett Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents, 1850 (Millais' painting became the PR's manifesto)
'Ricketty children, emaciation and deformity constitute their chief stock in trade ...the Pre-Raphaelites apparently select bad models, and then exaggerate their badness till it is out of all nature. We can hardly imagine anything more ugly, graceless, and unpleasant, as in Christ in the House of His Parent.-- Tom Taylor, review for "Exhibition of The Royal Academy", Times, 3 May 1851, p. 8.
Dante Rosetti's Beata Beatrix (1863)
  William Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat,1856
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852
One can sort of hint at Pre-Raphaelite design:

1- interest in the fashionable pseudo-sciences: crainology, physiology, pathognomy, and phrenology.
'Instead of giving us figures with those fine conventional heads and regular oval faces and gracefully formed hands and feet which we like to see in albums, the Pre-Raphaelites appeared to take delight in figures with heads phrenologically clumsy, faces strongly marked and irregular, and very pronounced ankles and knuckles.' -- David Masson in the British Quarterly Review.
2- retrogressive tendencies & archaism: i.e., Medieval Gothic. so how far back? Pre-Raphaelites go for the English medieval Gothic period. And they "design" this period as they see fit within their worldview.

3-  an aggressive realism, i.e, a- foreshortened perspective, airless atmosphere, and the cramped, almost hieratic postures of the principal figures (attributed variously to the influence of medieval Italian art).

4- morbidity, which gets the following reception in Punch:
...the interest of this work is purely pathological; the figures in it being simply illustrations of the scrofulous or strumous diathesis. Their emaciated bodies, their shrunken legs, and tumid ancles, are the well-known characteristics of this morbid state of system. The incipient oedema of the lower extremities is faithfully portrayed; though, in connection with this symptom, which indicates far-gone disease, the abdominal tension might have been more strongly marked.--  Punch, 18 (May 1850), p. 198.
5- pro-Catholicism (of the Italian Quatrocentto influence).
... in the 1840s Catholicism in England became the scapegoat for all kinds of fears and misgivings, including homophobia. Charles Kingsley's first published article, for example, "Why Should We Fear the Romish Priests?", belied its feigned nonchalance in every line. The Roman Church, he claimed, with its effeminacy and unnatural and unhealthy stress on celibacy denied man's Godgiven potential. Kingsley castigated the priest and the monk for their 'cicisbeism, foppery and profligacy' --the natural concomitant, as he put it, of the 'vulpine and Machiavellian anthropology' of their order.-- Charles Kingsley, "Why Should We Fear the Romish Priests?", Fraser's Magazine, 37 ( 1848), 467-74: 468.