Love and Desire

The National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) major summer exhibition, ‘Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate’, features some of the most visited paintings from the Tate Britain collection, marking the first time these iconic artworks have left the Tate to be exhibited together anywhere in the world. Co-curated by Carol Jacobi, Curator of British Art 1850–1915 at Tate Britain, and Lucina Ward, Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture at the NGA, the exhibition showcases forty masterpieces from the Tate Britain alongside a further forty loans from British and Australian collections.

Together, the literary scenes, portraits and landscapes in the show form a survey of Pre-Raphaelitism – the British reform movement founded in 1848 whose members eschewed what they considered the mechanistic approach pervading the art establishment of the time (adopted by artists succeeding Raphael). Central to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites was mimesis and imitation of nature, as well as a return to the meticulous detail, intense colours and complex compositions of early Renaissance painting.

Spotlighting the differing formal and thematic approaches of each artist, the presentation reveals how Pre-Raphaelite principles were deliberately non-dogmatic. Its members emphasised the importance of personal responsibility and individual freedom to forge unique ideas and methods. Spirituality and sensuality collide in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1865–6 painting The Beloved (‘The Bride’), which illustrates the biblical Song of Solomon with reverent exoticism. Attended by four virginal bridesmaids and an African page boy, the bride is caught in the action of moving back her veil, sensuousness cascading from her direct gaze. Wearing a Japanese dress and Chinese headpiece, her pale Eastern European complexion shines forth from her darker counterparts, effusing the power of woman’s beauty with religious and racial underpinnings.

Artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement siphoned inspiration from the iconic love stories of literature, creating a new genre that combined medieval romanticism with modern life. The tragic-romantic figure of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a popular subject amongst Victorian painters, and one of the best examples presented in the exhibition is John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia, which depicts the heroine’s poetic drowning. Regarded at the time as one of the most accurate and elaborate studies of nature ever made, the work is rendered with painstaking botanical detail emphasising the patterns of growth and decay in a natural ecosystem. The flowers floating on the river correspond with Shakespeare’s description of Ophelia’s garland whilst also reflecting the Victorian interest in the symbolic ‘language of flowers.’ Another key work in the show inspired by the English literary canon is The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse. One of Waterhouse’s most famous works, the painting represents the tragic ending of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s eponymous 1832 poem, where a cursed young lady sets sail for certain death after defying the terms of her confinement. Shrouded by a highly naturalistic landscape painted en plein air, the protagonist stares out beyond the frame with sorrowful eyes, the poignant action of releasing the boat’s chain coupled with the crucifix and three guttering candles symbolising her impending end.

Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate
14 December 2018 – 28 April 2019
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


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