LONDON — Can we ever get enough of the Pre-Raphaelites, their lives, loves, and art? It seems not. An exhaustively well-documented show called The Rossettis is currently at Tate Britain. The focus is on the entire family this time around — Dante Gabriel (poet and painter), Christina (poet), and William (family chronicler and the only one to live to a ripe old age). It expands out into friends, lovers, models, and the Morris circle too, because their families were so intertwined. Is it a good show? No.
Why? Because Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that man who suffered the lifelong burden of living with two names no child would ever readily embrace in any schoolyard, is the dominating presence from first to last, and the final two rooms (pay particular attention to the grisly Poetic Portraits in Gallery Seven) show off some of the most garish, pouty-lipped beauties — almost truly mythic in scale and ambition — that any successful Victorian industrialist might ever have yearned to acquire. They are altar pieces in all but name, in huge, gilded frames, and all in praise of luscious over-sweepings of ginger, red, or auburn hair, as if these women are the secular saints of the new sensuality.
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Luckily, the show offers a certain amount of relief from the sheer tedium of staring at so many bad paintings and drawings by the blessed Dante Gabriel. His pious sister, Christina, was a very good poet, and many of her poems are on these walls, including, as you walk into the first gallery, a Christmas carol called “In the Bleak Midwinter” (an unusual choice for an exhibition that opened on a sunny day in April), which she wrote in answer to a call from Scribner’s Monthly for a new Christmas poem. It was published in January 1872. Who ever said that poets only write effusions that well up from the depths of the tormented soul? They can write to order, too. Dante Gabriel drew and painted his sister repeatedly, and often illustrated her poems, mawkishly. He painted her in a joyless early effort called “The Annunciation,” for example, in which we see her as a sad and shriveled Mary.
The best works by Dante Gabriel in this show are a series of drawings of the many poor children who drifted about London, and found themselves in his employ as bit-part players in some of his more grandiose painterly schemes. (These are much better than the many maudlin examples of his faux-medievalism, in which his color sense and organizational powers seem to be so woefully lacking.)
These are usually drawings, works of sober record, and they are carefully done and very touching — as in, for example, one called merely “Beloved – Study for a Boy.” Rossetti met his subject, an African-American child, outside a hotel and negotiated a fee for his services with an American.
How fortunate for him that he happened upon this child outside a hotel! What a departure from so many garish beauties!
The Rossettis continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London, England) through September 24. The exhibition was organized by Tate Britain with the Delaware Art Museum and curated at Tate Britain by Carol Jacobi, curator of British Art 1850–1915, and James Finch, assistant curator of 19th-Century British Art.