I think it’s good to be open minded about what you like about everything in life including art movements. This was the overriding thought in my head as I found myself in Manchester with an hour to spare and conveniently passing by Manchester Art Gallery with posters about the current Pre-Raphaelite exhibition.
I have to say that I’ve never really ‘got’ the Pre-Raphaelites. My first encounter was through a friend back in the 1970s who chose the movement to study for her A level art. The study seemed to consist of doing a lot of miniaturized painted reproductions. Another friend ‘did’ Corot. Again a lot of miniaturized painted reproductions. I felt quite envious: it seemed an idyllic way to spend half a school day, doing little paintings and calling it study.
I may have been envious of the mode of study, but I couldn’t understand her choice of the Pre-Raphaelites. The women all looked odd and I found the painting style and content tedious in the extreme.
Over the years, I’ve looked afresh, but still not got beyond finding it tedious and boring. But Manchester Art Gallery at least promised a slightly different take, having been conducting an experiment to see how local visitors responded to the collection. And if you do like Pre-Raphaelite art, it’s a pretty good place to visit.
So I went in, and I must say, the gallery has done a fine job of drawing out the interesting information underlying the work of this peculiarly English art movement. The information signs on the walls were excellent, and the ‘experiment’ was worthy of a look. It’s nice to see such enthusiastic response from the public to this sort of initiative.
And I even found a few works I rather liked. Not many, but a few. I was still appalled by the Pre-Raphaelite movement’s particular vision of “beauty”: the ugliest subject in the whole collection has got to be Rossetti’s Astorte Syriaca, whose mouth is the oddest extreme exaggerated shape it’s possible to imagine.
I’m not disinterested by the whole concept of depicting beauty and ideal beauty in particular. It’s not that which puts me off the work of Rossetti and his friends. It’s more the detailed rendering of everything; it’s not the way I ‘see’ the world, and it makes for uncomfortable viewing of the art for me. But that’s just me.
Whether or not you like the Pre-Raphaelites, visit @ManchesterArtGallery for an interesting show.