Exhibit of the week
Truth & Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters
Legion of Honor, San Francisco, through Sept. 30
What an odd group the pre-Raphaelites were, said Judith Dobrzynski in The Wall Street Journal. “A bundle of contradictions and paradoxes,” the British upstarts who launched a stillborn artistic revolt in 1848 tried to create something new by looking backward, and rejected a saccharine institutional style only to produce “sweet, overripe” paintings of their own. Today, they’re “both loved and loathed,” and San Francisco’s current exhibition of the movement’s stars and the artists who inspired them “is unlikely to change many minds.” Their work, though often beautiful on a surface level, “seems anachronistic in a way that the Old Masters who animated them never will be.” But visitors should set aside the art history and simply look, said Sarah Hotchkiss in KQED.org. “What’s rare and special about ‘Truth & Beauty’ is the level of visual indulgence involved.” The show is an invitation to “smother your eyeballs” in jewel-like colors, romantic scenes, and images of female beauty that continue to shape our ideals today.
Italian and Flemish painters of the 15th to 17th centuries appear as heroes of the pre-Raphaelites, and “it’s tempting to say that Sandro Botticelli is the standout artist in the show,” said Charles Desmarais in the San Francisco Chronicle. Botticelli (1445–1510) has five dazzling canvases on display against the single small self-portrait by Raphael himself. But credit the pre-Raphaelites for rediscovering Botticelli—and for borrowing from such models a love of romance, vivid color, symbolism, ornamentation, and lushly depicted tresses and fabrics. One of the movement’s young founders, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, developed “a lovely but peculiar female archetype,” with large hands, a prominent nose, and a long neck, who’s often captured in moody reverie. The type flourished for generations in illustrated children’s books, representing just one of many ways the pre-Raphaelites left their mark. Indeed, “few artistic movements have had so profound an effect on the way we think about art and artists.”
The three co-founders really could paint, said Sura Wood in the Bay Area Reporter. Rossetti’s lavish style recalls the late Renaissance master Paolo Veronese, and in John Everett Millais’ masterful Mariana (1850–51), the colors “nearly leap off the canvas” and the subject’s blue velvet dress “begs to be touched.” Among the works in the last room, “none can compete with the grandeur—some might say hubris—of William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott.” In the 1886–1905 painting, inspired by Tennyson’s poem about an imprisoned noblewoman who can view the outside world only through a mirror, the central figure is “depicted with her long auburn mane swirling around her head, dressed in a sumptuous gown with an iridescent blue-green bodice.” Is it a bit too much? “Yes, certainly, but what a mighty culmination of a show whose title reads like the opening of a fairy tale.” ■