The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism

The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism

The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism

The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism

Synopsis

Pre-Raphaelitism was the first avant-garde movement in Britain. It shocked its first audience, and as it modulated into Aestheticism it continued to disturb the British public. In this fresh and original study, Professor Bullen traces the sources of that shock to the representation of the human body. By examining the discourses which were developed to denounce or to explain the new art forms he shows that the distorted, maimed, or eroticized body formed the principal focus of anxiety in nineteenth-century criticism. Using a truly interdisciplinary method he relates the painting of Millais and other early Pre-Raphaelites to fears about cholera and Catholicism; he demonstrates how the body of the sexualized female became an object of obsessive fascination in the painting and poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris; he locates the writing of Swinburne and Prater in the context of the debate over the `Woman Question', and he shows how the responses to the `Aesthetic' painting of Burne-Jones were conditioned by the sexual psychopathology of mid nineteenth-century mental science.

Excerpt

The return to the flesh and to the body in Pre-Raphaelite painting took a form which Kingsley would not have predicted. Certainly it was influenced by Titian and the work of the Venetian Renaissance, but its mode was aggressively modern. Its subject was the sexualized female, desirable and sometimes desiring, but whose 'beauty' was determined more by libidinal drives than by classical precedents. It would be difficult to find a place in nineteenth-century culture where the struggle between fear and desire was more acute than in the representation of the sexualized woman, but it was through that representation that both the 'fleshly school of poetry' and the 'fleshly school of painting' came into being.

The eruption of the sexualized woman into the culture of the 1850s was extremely violent, and the discourses in which she appeared were always excited, or heated, and confused. Images of such women, in writing and in painting, proliferated, and their modes were infinitely various. They extended from the filthy and degraded street whore of realism to the fatal woman of fantasy, from the broken female body racked by venereal disease to the alluring and voluptuous flesh of the high-class concubine. the notion of 'fallenness' in women was associated as much with the deliciously penitent Magdalene voluptuously brought face to face with the consequences of desire, as with the medical wards of the lock hospitals, venereal disease, and the inspection of genital warts. in both versions, however, the body was demonized either as an object of delicious but guilty pleasure or as an object of degradation and rejection. There is, of course, nothing new in this binarism; it has been part of the Christian tradition since St Augustine and before, but the form of expression that it took in the nineteenth century was determined by local social, artistic, and economic conditions.

I use the term 'sexualized woman' here in preference to the term 'fallen woman' for two reasons. the first is because the more familiar . . .

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