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A masterly and insightful account
on 27 October 2012
This must be the best book ever written on Pre-Raphaelite art and it will surely stand as a classic text for many years to come. It was first published in 2000 and a new edition appeared as a paperback in 2007. Although the book is scholarly, Prettejohn wears her scholarship lightly and she writes beautifully, so you find it hard to put it down. Just read her Prologue, an account of Millais's Mariana, and you will be hooked. Her aim is ambitious: it is to demolish a common view, expressed, among others, by Stephen Spender that Pre-Raphaelitism was an insular movement of English artists that led nowhere. Instead, she argues that Pre-Raphaelite art should be considered on equal terms with the great French art of the period and of equal significance as a progenitor of much modern art. Just like French art, the influence of Pre-Raphaelite art extends beyond national boundaries such that movements like Aestheticism, Symbolism, Surrealism, Neo-Romanticism, Art Nouveau and Art Deco are unimaginable without Pre-Raphaelitism.
Prettejohn's main thesis is that Pre-Raphaelitism was an avant-garde movement and much of the book is taken up by explaining the way in which the movement was truly revolutionary. Unlike the French Impressionists, who attacked the establishment from below with everyday scenes and landscapes, the Pre-Raphaelites attacked the Royal Academy from above with paintings dealing with serious issues of politics, religion and literature. But it was the way that they made these paintings that was revolutionary. Instead of organising their pictures in the traditional manner using masses of light and shadow, with a central theme, the Pre-Raphaelites organised their paintings in patterns of line and bright colour that abhorred symmetry. These features can be seen in the great painting, Isabella, done in 1849 when Millais was just 19. In contrast to the traditional hierarchical approach, in which the less important elements of a painting are subordinated to the more important, the Pre-Raphaelites did not prejudge what was important. They started with the particular and allowed the whole to emerge. So when we look at a Pre-Raphaelite painting, we become immersed in the detail, the smallest element that can be given its own distinctive identity. In this form of `realism' there is no need to conceptualise in advance some larger truth of the whole. "The Pre-Raphaelites empower us to see more than we expect: more colour, more detail, more light. They never relieve us from the intense effort to see as much as possible, or even more. This may be disconcerting or even frightening. But it may also be exhilarating." (note the elegance of Prettejohn's writing). Prettejohn argues that the Pre-Raphaelite insistence on preserving the individual identity of each detail contravenes traditional demands for pictorial unity more dramatically than the Impressionists did. She suggests that the Pre-Raphaelites' approach should be seen not just as an act of defiance but as a coherent set of techniques for seeing the world afresh, for calling previously unregarded `truths' to attention. Prettejohn claims that Pre-Raphaelite pictures consistently give us more to look at than most other kinds of visual art. "The pictures do not prescribe a hierarchy of viewing patterns that might finalise the interpretative process. Instead they encourage us never to stop looking, or stop thinking about what we see.... that is the distinctive character of the art of the Pre-Raphaelites."
The book includes an excellent chapter on the rather neglected women artists of the Pre-Raphaelite time, a useful glossary of names, a chronology and an extensive bibliography. Fortunately, the publishers have done the author proud: the illustrations are superb: sharp, and accurate in tone and colour balance.
This truly wonderful book is full of deep insights; almost every other page has some striking point that makes you think. It is safe to predict that no-one who reads this book will ever feel or think as they used to about these great artists.