Looking at art pre-Raphael

Spring                                                                       Bloodroot Moon

After I had lunch in the Cafe Britannia, a theme cafeteria featuring British food, I decided rather than go back through the pre-Raphaelite show today, I would go to the early Italian painting, pre-Renaissance, and follow through to Raphael, see as much as I could that was, in fact, pre-Raphael.

It was worthwhile but first let me tell you a problem with this approach. In the National Gallery there are many fine pre-Raphael paintings, including works by Fra Lippi, Fra Angelico, Botticelli and DaVinci.  The PRB, at least in their formative years, did not travel to Italy, nor were there many good examples of pre-Raphael paintings in England.]

There were a few, but not the profusion you find even here in Washington.  Instead much of their influence came through prints and drawings, the effect being especially strong in the PRB line and, I think, in their closely observed plant life.

Having said that, I was struck by the correlation between many of the fine pre-Raphael paintings, especially of the High Renaissance, that did suggest the direction taken by the PRB.  Bright colors, realism, religious and mythic subject matter.  All there.

Did the later centuries give way to sfumato (a smoky, shadowy look) as the PRB contended?  Yes, in many ways they did, but not in all.

Here’s a Grunewald, for example: 


And he’s not the only one working in intense, even tortured realism or fantasy created through realism like the Arcimboldo I posted earlier for Kate.  Bosch is another.

On the whole though I did agree with the critique of the PRB, that painting had gotten murkier.  Now there’s a whole raft of perfectly good Baroque and Mannerists works by no less artists than Rembrandt and El Greco.  But when you’re trolling for missed opportunities you don’t find the excellence in the past you seek its defects.

I’m glad the PRB did.  We now have the wonderful works between Raphael and their revolution and the works of these radicals, bright and interesting, real, present.  Not long after the PRB had run its course, maybe the turn of the century or just after, the  Nabi, the Fauves, the expressionists and the post-impressionists came onto gallery walls followed not long after by modernism in all its mutations starting with abstraction and abstract expressionism.  It’s been a wild, wild ride since then and one that’s not over, not even now in the next millennium.

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