During the summer break I visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to view an exclusive exhibition titled ‘Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate’ Showcasing iconic works by artists associated with Victorian Classism, the Aesthetic movement and Symbolism whilst exploring universal themes of love, beauty and tragedy, the profound paintings created a truly spectacular display.
The exhibition space was dimly lit, paintings hung upon darkly painted walls whilst bordered with grand golden frames complimented by sculptures and drawings. These aspects all emphasised the notions of mystery and romance evident in the works displayed.
The opening section of the exhibition explored Victorian fascination with life in the classical world, from lovers’ flirtations to dramatic suffering. I particularly liked ‘Dreamers’ by Albert Moore, an oil painting of four classically draped female figures, arranged in an exquisite and subtle sense of colour and tone. The flat tints and limp bodies all reminded me of the Lisbon Sisters and I adored the soft colours and texture, evident in his other work, ‘Sapphire’ also displayed at the exhibition.
I also enjoyed ‘The Bath of Psyche’ by Frederic Leighton, which represents the subject of classical myth: The Maiden Psyche bathing before meeting her bridegroom Cupid, The God of Love. The pose of the female is based on a Greek Marble statue thus legitimising the nudity of the figure as it was seen more suitable for public exhibition when presented in a classical context.
I found much inspiration from the exhibition. I hope to emulate the Pre-Raphaelite use of colour, subject matter and themes of tragedy and love, as well as how the artists cultivated their ideas. Often finding inspiration from classical myth, literature, poetry and even re-imagining life in ancient Greece or Rome, the exhibition gave me a lot to ponder in terms of creating my own imagery, none more so than the works of Waterhouse and Rossetti.
J. W. Waterhouse populated his canvases with haunting compositions of young, waif –like models immersed in ancient myth and literary tales. He won acclaim as a mastery storyteller, with a particular gift for suspending the audience at the most striking moment of the narrative, evident in ‘The Lady of Shallot’ a painting based on a poem by Alfred Tennyson.
The Lady of Shallot, by Alfred Tennyson tells the tragic tale of a beautiful unnamed female living under a mysterious curse. Locked away in a tower she is forced to experience the world indirectly, through the reflections in her mirror. However, at the climax of the story, after gazing upon the handsome reflection of Knight Sir Lancelot, she yields to temptation and gazes onto the real world, unleashing the curse which brings about her own death. The painting by J. W. Waterhouse captures the doomed heroine sailing down the river, the very moment she unleashes the deathly curse.
It’s one of Tate’s most famous and popular works, which rarely travels outside London and dominated the second gallery of the exhibition. The theme of the second gallery displayed work at which beauty and tragedy meet.
I also loved Anna Lea Merritt’s Love Locked Out (1889, Tate) due to its emotional intensity and romantic tragedy. Painted following her husband’s death, it shows the grieving figure of Love pushing vainly against the locked gold doors of a tomb.
The second exhibition I visited was titled ‘The Pre-Raphaelites’. The works were displayed green and blue walls whilst trinkets, books and other treasures were displayed in glass cabinets.
Here I discovered the origins of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a union of painters, poets and writers, founded in England in 1848 to advance the style and spirit of Italian painting before Raphael. Combining rebellion, beauty, photographic precision and original splendor, the Pre-Raphaelites constitute Britain’s first modern art movement.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais led the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whilst numerous artists became partners through the later phases.
A wide array of Edward Burne-Jones work was displayed in the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ exhibition. Burne-Jones worked on a wide range of decorative arts including jewellery, tapestries, mosaics, stain glass, paintings and book illustration, the sheer diversity of Burne-Jones talents was astounding.
Featured were ‘The Last Judgment’ one of the largest and most impressive surviving examples of a late stained glass design by Burne-Jones. An emotional intensity exudes from the design and I love the use of colour and texture. Another work I found intriguing was an unfinished piece titled, ‘The Story of Troy’ which holds a rich sense of architecture and mythical context.
I then went onto find some select paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the artists who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti’s art was characterized by its sensuality and its medieval revivalism. I particularly liked his painting titled, ‘Proserpine’ (1881). Proserpine is a character from classical myth, the ivy is a symbol of clinging hope and Jane Morris, modeling as Proserpine, is shown with auburn hair despite having naturally dark hair. These attributes were the starting point of something spectacular and influenced numerous artists in its context, style, subject and colour tone throughout the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Pretty females, flowing fabrics, delicate nudity and subtle colour tones have all been inspiring to me over the summer, and the exhibitions I viewed at Birmingham Museum and art gallery reinforced this passion. The themes of beauty and tragedy, the mythical and literary influences, the soft colours and striking muses I found awe inspiring and hope to emulate the Pre-Raphaelite style in my future photography projects.