Literary art: contamination or transgression?

The original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and those that followed them, were avid readers. They read novels, especially Gothic, but it was poetry which really inspired them. Their ‘List of Immortals’ included many writers, such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Thackeray, Blake, Dante, Homer, Longfellow and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Most significantly, perhaps, is Keats, whose poetry inspired a number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and whose work bonded the Brotherhood in its early period. In The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites (ed. Prettejohn, CUP 2012), Isobel Armstrong uses the List of Immortals as a starting-point to consider the reading habits of the PRB. This seems a good place to start the Reading Art project, by thinking about what the PRB read, and the ways in which this influenced their art.

Ophelia Millais

I think it can be argued that the majority of the works produced by the Pre-Raphaelites was, in one way or another, ‘literary art’. This includes paintings or other works directly inspired by a poem or other form of literature, such as Millais’s Ophelia (1851-3, Tate, above), or Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Laing, 1868). It’s not just about direct inspiration, though: the literary approach of the PRB means that their art often has a more intangible literary aspect – for example, in narrative paintings, which seem to indicate a story but isn’t linked to a literary work, such as Millais’ Waiting (1854, BMAG, below).

Another literary approach is the use of symbolism, which echoes the ‘reading’ of the written word. One word is replete with a waitingrange of meanings and implications, from personal to universal, socially specific to timeless; a symbol, be it a flower, an abandoned glove or a mirror, means something when you’read’ a painting. The Pre-Raphaelites – particularly Rossetti – sometimes wrote poems to accompany paintings, or used lines of verse on a frame. It was a case of ‘ut pictura poesis’ – as the picture, so the poem: the verbal and visual are inseparable in the Pre-Raphaelite world view.

However, not everyone agrees. As Liz Prettejohn points out in the introduction to the Cambridge Companion, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism would seem to be a classic example of what the great America critic of modernist painting, Clement Greenberg, called “the confusion of the arts” – where painting is contaminated by narrative of literary allusion’ (p. 6). Greenberg was suggesting that there should be – can be – a ‘pure’ art, not infected by the narrative drive of literature but solely visual, which is perhaps not a surprising view for a modernist. However, the Pre-Raphaelites were, of course, also trying to break down barriers and ‘make it new’, as the modernists were, though in a very different form. Cambridge Pre-RaphsAs Prettejohn and many others are keen to emphasise, the PRB wanted to do something different, moving away from the ‘sloshy’ Academy painting to a new, clearer, truer form, but one which could still embrace the past and the present, as well as drawing on a rich heritage of myth and poetry. In their literary approach to painting, the Pre-Raphaelites were breaking down barriers between the visual and the verbal, beginning a dialogue between image and text which bore no relation to illustration but instead intentionally blurred the boundaries. As their doomed magazine The Germ indicates, these were artists, sculptors and poets who wanted to transgress the boundaries of the traditional, with revolutionary intentions. Poets painted, painters wrote, sculptors and architects tried their hands at different arts, and the result of such transgression, perhaps, was polymaths such as William Morris.

Prettejohn wisely points out that ‘Pre-Raphaelitism was both a literary and an artistic movement; or perhaps it would be better to say that it was neither, in that it refused to recognise the difference as meaningful.’ (p. 7) This is the approach that the Reading Art project will take, but it is not really the accepted view now; for many, Pre-Raphaelitism is an artistic movement alone, with little notice taken of its literary aspects. Please join my journey reading art over the next few months and see if you agree!

Tennyson reading Maud DGR 1855
‘Tennyson Reading Maud’, Rossetti, 1855 (BMAG)




2 thoughts on “Literary art: contamination or transgression?”

    1. Thanks for your comment, Chris – I see what you mean, but I’m reading transgression as a positive thing (unlike contamination!) – being groundbreaking and doing something new. Illustration is much more specific, I think, and refers to printed work, rather than paintings etc, while decoration – like illustration, I think – is seen as a lesser art, compared with painting. It’s all semantics, I suppose!

      Liked by 1 person

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