Magazine article The Spectator

Round Up the Usual Suspects

Magazine article The Spectator

Round Up the Usual Suspects

Article excerpt

Speaking with characteristic Bloomsbury snottiness, Clive Bell once dismissed PreRaphaelite painting as 'a sermon at a teaparty'. This exhibition of some 70 paintings at the National Gallery in Washington apparently the first major exhibition devoted to Victorian painting in the United States - is meant to provide a convincing riposte to Bell: to `help people see such stereotypes of so-called Victorianism for what they are' as Malcolm Warner cocurator of the exhibition, puts it in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue.

Mr Warner has his work cut out for him. He tells us that the exhibition has been selected `more critically than historically' - that is, that he and his co-curator, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., sought `the best rather than the most representative of examples' of Victorian art: `the first goal was always high artistic quality, to represent Victorian painting by its greatest works'.

By and large, I believe, Messrs Warner and Cikovsky have succeeded. They got some of the best Victorian painting there is. The disturbing question is: how good is the best? This is the sort of thing that Mr Warner hates to hear. But remember that at the same time Courbet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas were all working across the Channel. Mr Warner says that he and Mr Cikovsky `looked for technical control and refinement, a richness and depth of meaning, ambiguity, a certain resistance to easy interpretation'. But what he has assembled are mostly very familiar paintings by all the usual suspects: Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais, Hunt and the rest of the PreRaphaelite fraternity, as well as paintings by Sargent, Leighton, Turner, Tissot, Whistler and - God help us - Edwin Landseer.

There are some very famous pictures in this exhibition: Henry Wallis's `The Death of Chatterton', Sargent's `Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose', Lord Leighton's `Flaming June', Hunt's `The Awakening Conscience', halfa-dozen new-age greeting-card stainedglass damsels by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and co. I don't know about `technical control' 'refinement', and so on, but the sugar content of this exhibition is certainly high.

So is the melodrama - and unintended humour. Consider Landseer's `Coming Events Cast Their Shadow Before Them (The Challenge)', c. 1843/1844, which portrays one stag doing breast-stroke across an icy expanse to combat another stag, baying with comic machismo on shore, or his `Man Proposes, God Disposes' (1863-1864), which depicts a couple of polar bears munching on the remains of an ill-fated Arctic expedition. These are works that animal-rights activists should be cross about: not so much for the cruelty but for the senseless indignity they inflict upon our four-footed friends. …

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