Ten questions for Tate Pre-Raphaelites curator Jason Rosenfeld
Co-curator of Tate show Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-garde and author of John Everett Millais explains why the Pre-Raphs were like The YBAs, how they connect to contemporary art and why Millais was 'a bit McCartney'
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - YBAs or punk rockers? Hmm elements of both. They adopted a sort of counter cultural-lifestyle that connects them more to the punks than the YBAs in the traditional realm of artistic culture. They lived in places like Chelsea and Red Lion Square which were both bohemian, and they often lived with their models - their muses. Their lives become their art as they trade ideas and theories and they were into the same kind of music - opera. But at the same time they’re like the YBAs in that they’re cultivating a network of private dealers, exhibiting in small locations and in international exhibitions - not just the Royal Academy - and getting connected with the broader artistic culture. These guys were very much part of cosmopolitan London and they wanted to make it in the city. I’d say there’s a reasonable relationship between them and say The Beatles. They all had particular strengths in terms of art. They banded together and were artists who, like The Beatles, were more than a little respectful of British art but wanted to transform native traditions by looking at sources in the art world from outside Britain - just like The Beatles went towards soul music and eastern music – and connected with the youth culture of the period. They were a great role model for other artists of the period who took up their style and other collectors and writers who gravitated towards their circle.
On that note, you’ve written a wonderful book on John Everett Millais, whom you've previously compared to Paul McCartney - infinitely talented but also someone who’s crowd-pleasing and populist, doing works which are connected with the culture. Explain. He was constantly reinventing himself as an artist, he doesn’t stay in the same place with the same style, he doesn’t stay pat he’s an adventurist in terms of the kinds of art he’s interested in and looking at and he appeals on a broad level across culture. For instance children’s subjects which are not sappy and sentimental but are more about the idea of him being a family man and being sensitive to the inner lives of children which appealed to a kind of market. And then he does portraiture and extraordinary landscape painting. Then he does history painting – which is the marker of any serious artist of the 19th century.
Was this evident at the time or have we hoisted the thesis onto him with the benefit of art history? Well Millais was not the most intellectual of artists. Things came very naturally to him. He was gifted but he was also well read and he was clever and he had a nose for things that connected with people in culture. It’s no surprise that he was the most successful illustrator of literature in the late 19th century illustrating for Thackeray and Trollope and the kinds of novels which were popular but that we now see as being titanic works of literature. He was close, eventually, to Dickens. So we have to think of him on that level - almost as a literary painter in a sense.
Why do you think the Sixties kids got into the Pre Raphaelites? Was it a reaction to all the modernism they’d been brought up on? I think that’s true. Things are cyclical and the demands of abstract painting - which is unteachable to a degree and also a certain point it become so esoteric and so removed – meant that at some point young artists in the 60s are thinking, hang it we’re going to go back to extraordinary colours and complex compositions and surfaces and rethink that whole mode and period and get away from that hard edged abstraction, that had reached a terminus in a way.
And how do the Pre-Raphs relate to contemporary art in 2012 then, where do they fit it? Their work has a lot to do with so many of the questions still considered in contemporary art today: questions of body and questions of gender and identity and, in some cases, race. Questions of empire; of appropriation and how does an artist take from earlier artists. I mean they’re not the Richard Prince of their day but . . . At the same time they call into question the history of art and the mores and the ethical culture they lived in – they take on social ills. They’re interested in the nexus of religion and class and labour - the kinds of things artists are consumed with today. But they are also interested in ecology and science and the changing face of London at a time of great industrialisation and urbanisation. That kind of thing has not gone away in art, it’s still present. And they were interested in issues of sexuality and gender and construction of identity.
Yes, their models are a bit like the members of Warhol’s Factory in the way they constructed characters for themselves aren’t they? This is a thing I think we brought out well in the Tate exhibition – that construction of personalities. Their female models were not tabulae rasae that the artists created onto but rather their female models were complicit – they took up all the themes and they changed their names and made their own dresses and created their hairstyles. The artists all came from the broad middle classes and many of the women – not Millais’ wife, of course – came from the working class. So they were - not slumming in a way - but were looking to other classes to invigorate their art and rethink their art and for the women to be brought up in society and, in many cases, become artists themselves.
Much has been made of their sexual proclivities and the fact that they were apparently at it night and day… The bodice ripping makes for juicy tales and stories and obviously there’s an element of truth in it because it’s been told so often. But it’s a little overblown. However, these artists were growing up in a time of bourgeoning media culture. They were also part of a biography-constructing publishing industry where their lives and reminisces were reported on by every possible publishing house of the 20th century. So we know a lot about them compared to the generation before. And some of it is gossip and innuendo but, in a sense, in that way they provide a template for the artists and their lives in the earliest 20th century: whether it’s Picasso and all his wives or the Die Brücke German expressionist artists who went on summer expeditions with their models and lovers and painted them. So in some way they’re a precursor to celebrity culture in contemporary society. But Millais was a very straight and narrow character. He was a family man and he was with Effie all his life. He was randy, certainly - you can tell that from the letters. She had to go to Scotland to get away from him. They had eight children. They had an active sexual life and a healthy relationship, but that was his only relationship. There was no whiff of scandal around him. Of course he did take Effie from Ruskin but he did not do it in a way that was morally suspect. He followed all the rules of society.
Tate curator Dr Carol Jacobi is convinced the shadow of a nutcracker, as well as the shape of one of the brother's legs in Millais’ Isabella are phallic symbols… Hmm… I don’t find it persuasive. For me, it’s totally out of character. Here’s Millais at 19, an exceptionally ambitious artist and to do that knowingly would be tantamount to career suicide. And to turn one of the most transcendent paintings of the 19th century into something jokey. Even if it’s subconscious or subliminal I think it has nothing to do with the picture.
There are some big name contributors to the Tate exhibition among them Andrew Lloyd Webber and former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. How do these loans come about? The museums are pretty keyed into who has what. Private collectors tend to be very collaborative and are interested in being generous about their work. As a curator the more shows you do the more you collaborate with people who own the work and they like it if you write good things and you’re eager about the work that they like. Mr Page lent stuff to the William Morris exhibition in 1996 so we were able to reach out to him and send a message. Andrew Lloyd Webber has been generous to this show and Phaidon’s Millais book. It’s not because he wants to drive up the prices of his pictures, it’s because he wants to help in raising the profile.
And do you have a say in the merchandising? We hear Millais’ Ophelia is the best-selling postcard in the Tate shops, so getting the merch right would seem, in a way, almost as important as getting the show right. No. We’re involved in the catalogue production but otherwise. . . Actually, Ophelia sort of keeps trading back and forth with Waterhouses’ Lady Of Shallot. But it is probably the most recognised Pre-Raphaelite painting of all. I did many of the wall texts. The hardest thing about writing those is that you cannot go beyond 100 words. When you are faced with something like a Pre-Raphaelite painting which has a narrative subject, sometimes drawn from literature or history, you have to tell the story a bit, then there’s the whole other story about how it was painted and who were the models that you often have really amazing frames that the artist designed and I think it’s important to give people a little information about that. So you want to give a variety of experience from work to work but you want to be quite thorough and you don’t want to be so esoteric that you’re talking over the head of the viewer. You write a thousand word entry to a work and then you have to distil it down to a hundred words. You’re really thinking of that first time visitor who’s seeing this for the first time.
Jason Rosenfeld is the Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College, New York.
Buy tickets for the Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-garde. The show travels to Moscow, Washington and Tokyo next year.