By LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic
A touring exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work awakens us to a movement that changed the course of British art by infusing beauty with an almost modern sexiness.
You see the problem with the Pre-Raphaelites as soon as you enter "Waking Dreams" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Before you is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith, a painting of show-stopping beauty that possesses a tantalizing sexiness similar to a Harlequin romance cover.
Is this art to be taken seriously?
Yes, if you believe - and you should, for at least a few hours each day - that beauty can be its own excuse for being.
Hard to understand that in the 1850s, Rossetti and his fellow artists were considered rebellious punks for work like this. And almost as hard to understand the Pre-Raphaelite tag line was "Truth to Nature," bestowed by its champion, the eminent 19th century critic John Ruskin, as a description of subjects that seem rooted in male fantasies of female pulchritude.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement has been dismissed for most of the 20th century as pretty pictures. Looking at so many of them together reminds us that they are the glamorous port of entry to a movement that propelled British art into a new century, much like impressionism - also labeled superficial at the time - did in France. The inclusion in "Waking Dreams" of jewelry, decorative objects, furniture, ceramics and illustrated books proves that point and connects the paintings to the larger aesthetic and arts and crafts movements the Pre-Raphaelites helped engender.
Rossetti, Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 to counter the restrictive codes of the Royal Academy that revered Renaissance painters such as Raphael and Michelangelo and insisted they be slavishly emulated. Instead, the young men took inspiration from 15th century art's brilliant colors and flattened perspectives, and the emotional intensity of medieval examples. The Brotherhood didn't survive long - artists tend to go their own ways - but its ideas picked up steam and followers such as Ford Maddox Brown , Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris .
None was a Gothic copycat. Their subject matter was usually a biblical story, an Arthurian legend or a folk tale as interpreted by writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson or John Keats. They were also partial to Shakespeare and Dante.
And they believed, unlike many of their contemporaries, in painting directly from nature. Those gorgeous roses in Lady Lilith, for example, were picked from Ruskin's garden and added to the background as they bloomed.
The exhibition is sometimes a hoot, with the same subliminal titillation as those heaving-bosom novels. Hunt's tragic Isabella, inspired by a Keats poem, embraces the pot of basil in which she has buried the head of her lover. She wears a diaphanous, revealing gown, her hair draped suggestively over the pot. Brown's Juliet, garments in dishabille, receives a rapturous nuzzle from Romeo as he climbs from the balcony. Charles Fairfax Murray's Beatrix - taken from Dante's poem- swoons in an ecstasy more physical than spiritual at the moment of her death and transport to heaven.
But Rossetti's women trump them all. His stable of "stunners," as they were called in their time, look past us with limpid gazes, full lips and masses of glorious hair, lost in detached self-absorption. Their allure is peculiarly Victorian: remote, unattainable beauty just asking to be ravished.
According to the wall texts, they usually were. Almost all became wives or lovers of the artists and most seemed none the worse for the relationships, with the exception of Elizabeth Siddall , Rossetti's wife. She was a talented artist who suffered through her husband's infidelities, left and returned to him, had a still-born child and overdosed on laudanum. Rossetti's paintings of her are imbued with a tenderness that could have been borne of guilt and regret.
Most of the women are dressed for role-playing. An exception is Rossetti's Water Willow, in which Jane Morris occupies the Gloucester landscape where she idled with him while her husband and Rossetti's friend, arts and crafts genius William Morris, was in Iceland. She broke off the affair and returned to her husband soon after his return. It is smaller than most of Rossetti's works and seems far more personal. She holds willow branches, symbols of sorrow and longing, and we don't know if they represent the feelings of the artist or his model.
Victorian England was a man's world but several women held their own as working artists. They produced their own versions of dreamy females, just as beautiful but less sexual. Compare Marie Spartali Stillman's Love's Messenger, with Lady Lilith, which shares a compressed perspective and is also composed of a young female beside an open casement window. Unlike Lilith, Stillman's portrait has a renaissance softness in its colors and contours. There are symbolic suggestions of sensuality but they are ambivalent - Cupid, for example is blindfolded - and the woman stares with grave and chaste attention at a pure white dove instead of temptingly in our direction.
The three-dimensional objects in the show seem more modern probably because contemporary craftsmen have embraced their stylistic signatures. Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware have sold knock-offs of arts and crafts furniture and ceramics for years.
A marvelous collection of rarely displayed books (published by Kelmscott Press) that Ringling curators discovered in the special collections at Florida State University augment the exhibition. A limited edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales designed by Morris and illustrated with wood block prints by Burne-Jones is a revelation.
The Pre-Raphaelites, though individual and independent artists, were closer to a band of brothers than many others posterity likes to lump together. (The impressionists are a good example.) They not only shared a belief that art easily becomes ossified if new ideas go unexplored - a far more radical concept then than now - they also agreed on many of the ways they thought change should be effected.
Pre-Raphaelite painting has undergone a critical re-evaluation in recent decades, and it's certainly more commercial, thanks in part to the deep pockets of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has paid record sums to build a collection of it.
This exhibition is the result of another man's earlier passion. Samuel Bancroft, a 19th century American textile manufacturer, bought it from the beginning, amassing the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside Great Britain. His family generously donated it to the Delaware Art Museum which has sent it on tour to other museums.
These seductive works are difficult to leave. I found myself making several unnecessary passes around the galleries for one more look. Such loveliness, such talent and nobility of intent, such human impulse. History may not deem it great art, but what a package.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through April 2. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission $15 adults; $13 seniors, military; $5 children 6 to 17, students, Florida teachers with ID. Includes the art museum, Ca d'Zan, the Ringlings' historic home and the Circus Museum. (941) 359-5700 or www.ringling.org.