3 MAY 1975, Page 16

Talking of fine arts

Bohemia, WI

Benny Green

As every artistic community is a contradiction in terms, and as there is something philistine to the verge of slapstick in the English temperament, it is no surprise that the most notorious of all English artistic conspiracies should have been led by an Italian, or that, as that entertaining guide William Gaunt has written, its most sulphurous dispute "started before it began. It went on after it was finished. And it was about the wrong thing." It is also somehow symbolic of the ambiguities of the conspiracy that, when its founder-members agreed on the caballistic device PRB to denote Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the secretary should have seen that the initials served just as usefully on the front door to indicate "Please Ring Bell," or that one wag, noting the proclivities of the brotherhood's most inspirational member, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, should have offered a further alternative, "Penis Rather Better." but the richest joke of all is contained in the acrimony of the debate surrounding the conspiracy:

I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be.

Deeper devotion to Nature's teaching was the real point at which we were aiming.

There is nothing unexpected in this fundamental contradiction between two painterly viewpoints, contemporaneous though they may have been; the artistic temperament has always tended to resemble Leacock's knight who got on his horse and rode off furiously in all directions. What is irresistibly comic about those two diametrically opposed views is that they were expressed by two men, Burne Jones and Holman Hunt, who sincerely believed, although admittedly at different times, that they were in the same brotherhood fighting for the same ideals against the same barbarism.

That there are so many aspects of the PRB which are irresistibly comic is due to the, spectacular gulf, not just between what they set out to do and what they eventually achieved, but also between what they said they believed and how they actually behaved. For like other pietists before them, the PRB put up dialectical smoke-screens which remain impenetrable only so long as their own day-to-day conduct is not questioned. We' might, for instance, forgive Holman Hunt for labouring under the splendid delusion that his paintbrush was the instrument of the Creator of the Universe, although of course the idea that the said Creator could conceivably be in need of Hunt's assistance did not augur well for that humility of the spirit which all creative artists would do well to cultivate; we might even forgive him for painting pale Galileans with girlish eyes (Christina Rossetti's, as a matter of fact) to be hung in the twilit corridors of ten thousand infant schools, thereby laying the foundations among their patrons of an unassailable agnosticism. The point at which we start blowing raspberries is when we peer down at the chasm which yawns between the Sunday School morality of the canvases and the reality of Hunt's life, which, being conventional enough sexually, naturally bore not the faintest resemblance to his painterly postures.

It is this gift for offering blatant hypocrisies with the guileless innocence of a little child, which makes us love the Pre-Raphaelites more for their lives than for their life's work. Indeed, they were not after all so far removed from childhood when they first perpetrated their aesthetic lark; an examination of the text of William Michael Rossetti's PRB Journal* serves as a useful reminder that the brothers were a bunch of beginners still far too young to have more than a glimmering of their own beliefs, or to suspect how difficult it was going to be to live up to them. There is Rossetti for instance, besotted with Dante, and improving on his idol by finding two Beatrices, Lizzie Siddal and Janey Morris, besides catering for the fleshly side of his own nature by accommodating the elephantine Fanny Cornforth. There is Millais, starting out as part of an idealistic conspiracy and ending up, knighted and benighted, as a kind of super-grocer of the arts.

Their trouble was their intellectual dishonesty. There is Rossetti's Astarte Syriaca for instance, in which Janey Morris, whom Rossetti loved with the kind of guilt-racked hopelessness we might have expected of a man who . could allow a pet peacock to expire unnoticed behind his sofa, is endowed with the mooning despair and rippling shoulders of a failed wrestler. But-then, all these painted ladies of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, in whose honour so many pints of paint were splashed, are so consumed with love as to be utterly joyless. The truth is that neither 'Rossetti nor Hunt nor any of the rest of them were quite the tragic figures they felt it their duty to be in paint. Confusing solemnity with profundity, they struck dramatic attitudes in paint and comical ones in life, and never the twain did meet. As Ford Madox Ford later wrote, "Neither about Rossetti, nor about Burne Jones norabout Morris was there any inclination talive upon the smell of the lily." Why, then, do the paintings convey an air of impenetrable gloom; why do those ladies, alone and palely loitering inside their gilt frames, seem to be trying to remember where they have mislaid their souls, too well-bred though they are to make any public inquiries to that end? According to the tootling and consistently bogus morality which so many PRB paintings peddled, these ladies were supposed to be shopsoiled and yet unattainable. However, it is not always wise to take this Sunday School art at its own valuation, as is demonstrated by the wonderful comic confusion surrounding one of its most notorious manifestations, Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience. According to Hunt this work was supposed to embody some frivolous comment on fornication which the artist would perhaps have been better advised to knit as a sampler. In it a young lady goggles into space while seated.on her boy friend's lap, the idea being that having seen the error of her ways, she is about to renounce the devil, with whom, by the way, Hunt was apparently in constant touch. Under the circumstances it was inevitable that Ruskin should have approved. After all, a painting which propagates the idea of no sexual expression outside marriage is bound to appeal to a man incapable of it even inside marriage, and Ruskin took one look at The Awakening Conscience and declared it was "an example of painting taking its place beside literature." Ruskin was wrong. The proper place of painting is not beside literature but on the canvas, which is what Whistler meant when remarking to Rossetti after the latter had composed a sonnet to accompany a painting, "Why not take out the picture and frame the sonnet?"

Ruskin actually said of Hunt's religious tract that "even the very hem of this poor girl's dress has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet failing in the street," at which we can only goggle with a stupefaction even more thyroid than that of the girl in the painting. Of all people Mario Praz has substantiated Ruskin's barmy claim by saying that

the tragedy of the girl's lost virtue is suggested in the symbols that surround her—the luxurious vulgar furnishings, the cat playing with a dead bird on the carpet, the gilded tapestry", the picture above the fireplace ...

In other words, we are given to understand that only in scarlet households do cats eat birds, that luxury is synonymous with sin, that the' paintings people choose to put on their walls are a precise representation of their own moral condition (the PRB was inspired by the belief that precisely the opposite is true), and that bad taste in furnishings is an inevitable consequence of immorality, to which Wilde would no doubt have retorted that on the contrary, good taste in furnishings is never a consequence of morality. In any case, Millais confided to a friend that Hunt never meant anything of the kind by his painting, and,had to go quietly because Ruskin was the brotherhood's lone champion at the time.

Of such delicious contradictions are the Pre-Raphaelites compounded. Geniuses at living the comic life, plodders and pedants when it came to their work, they remain the most endearing bunch of bohemians ever to pop up on the horizons of English art.