Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain: a review

By Paola Bassanese


Vernissage. A term generally used for preview exhibitions. The Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition at Tate Britain opened on 12th September 2012 and I went on 17th September so technically I wasn’t there for the vernissage, but the strong smell of paint made me think of it. In the past, the day before a vernissage, artists would finish their paintings at the last minute applying a coat of varnish to seal the colours. Turner was said to still make drastic modifications to his paintings just before the opening of an exhibition, hence the strong smell of paint.

The rooms at Tate are colour-coded and freshly painted; each room with its own theme: nature, paradise, history, beauty, mythologies, salvation, manifesto. As a bodyworker, I am mostly interested in anatomy and social context.

Credits: Tate Britain

A painting that particularly struck me was Mariana by John Everett Millais. I remember seeing the painting before some years ago and got the same reaction: back pain. Mariana sits up stretching and supporting her lower back. Don’t you just want to give her a shoulder rub?

Ophelia by Millais and Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt were particularly stunning “in the flesh” aka seeing them close up. I had seen Ophelia at a previous exhibition but the emotion is still the same at the lifeless body floating in water. Lady of Shalott breaking the spell, hair flying upwards and an explosion of colour from the loom, is probably the piece de resistance and strategically positioned in the last room at the end of the exibition.

A wonderful feast for the eyes. The Pre-Raphaelites were criticised for their world view of art for art’s sake but I would say there’s more than meets the eye. The Stone Breaker by Henry Wallis has a strong political meaning depicting the death of a laborer through exhaustion.