Archive for the ‘Victorian’ Category

Hyper-Realism in Pre Raphaelite Art

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Morgan Meis writes about the parallels between Pre Raphaelite mediaevalism and its pre-occupation with photographic accuracy:

"Raphael made a painting that showed the kingdom of theology presided over by Christ on one wall, and the kingdom of poetry presided over by Apollo on the other. The implication, as Ruskin saw it, was that Christ is but one truth among many. And so, thought Ruskin, all that was holy was profaned and mankind experienced a second fall from grace. Ruskin was thus quite enthusiastic about the Pre-Raphaelite rejection of everything post-Raphael, of the entirety of the ‘modern world’ from the early-15th century onward…. The real world, the one we inhabit in a day-to-day manner, has been banished altogether.

As an excellent show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (’The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875′) makes clear, the Pre-Raphaelites were, in fact, heavily influenced by what was at that time the newest of technologies. They loved photography. Specifically, they loved the way photographs captured elements of nature and human beings in such realistic detail. Often, the Pre-Raphaelites tried to make their paintings look like photographs, carefully painting every blade of grass, every fleck of color. One of the paintings in the show, John William Inchbold’s ‘Anstey’s Cove,’ looks as if it might be a touched-up photograph in the way that the shrubs and the water and the birds are so painstakingly rendered. And the photographs Pre-Raphaelites took—like Colonel Henry Stuart Wortley’s ‘The Clouds Are Broken in the Sky’ — have a distinct painterly feel as well….

We are thus left with something of a dilemma. We have an artistic movement with a professed desire to escape from modern times and return to a medieval aesthetic on the one hand, and a commitment to extreme realism and immediacy on the other. The house of Pre-Raphaelitism, divided against itself, cannot stand. Unless, of course, those two impulses can go together."

Certainly Pre-Raphaelite can be realist in a conventional sense (as with the contemporary reaction to Rossetti’s depiction of the infant christ), I wonder if the division is actually quite that marked. As Sontag observed, the assumption that photography is a medium of detail and painting a medium of impressions seems a rather anachronistic one. The photography of Frank Meadows Sutcliffe and Julia Margaret Cameron is often blurred and indistinct, while Pre-Raphaelite art is often hyper-realist. The level of detail in an Inchbold painting is impossible even with digital photography, with the amount of detail defying perspective as objects near and far are rendered in intense detail. The effect is rather more reminiscent of Hopkin’s concepts of instress and inscape than of photography.