London: In a world first, the two most iconic Pre-Raphaelite paintings are leaving the UK together for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.
Popular drawcards at the Tate Britain in London, Ophelia by John Everett Millais and The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse are soon to be taken off the gallery walls and shipped, under tight security, to Canberra for the summer blockbuster Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate. The show will be seen exclusively in Canberra from December 14 to April 28.
"This is the first time that they have left Britain together," the Tate's curator of British art 1850-1915, Carol Jacobi, said. "But we believed, for a show of this magnitude that they should be seen together."
The world's leading expert in Pre-Raphaelite art, Jacobi discovered Ophelia as a young teenager. "I came from a background where our family didn't really attend galleries but once a year we would catch a coach [from Birmingham] to London and we would have a picnic my mum had made and then go into the basement, where Ophelia used to hang and visit her. It was a huge influence on me."
Launching the show in London on Wednesday, the newly arrived director of the National Gallery of Australia, Nick Mitzevich, said Australian audiences were familiar with Pre-Raphaelite works from their state galleries. "But they have never seen an exhibition that charts the course of Pre-Raphaelite history so comprehensively. The inclusion of Ophelia and The Lady of Shalott, which have only been lent solo previously, gives great gravity to the exhibition."
Aside from the two top-billed works - long immortalised in posters and memorabilia - the show includes another 41 works from the Tate, which has the world's pre-eminent collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, as well as another 40 pieces from other British and Australian collections.
The Pre-Raphaelites were Britain's first modern art movement - a "brotherhood" of seven young art students and their friends who came together in 1848 and set out to revolutionise art for a newly industrialised era of social and political change. The core group of Millais, William Holman Hunt, Frederick George Stephens, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and the Rossetti brothers - Dante Gabriel and William Michael - met at the Royal Academy Schools where they were highly critical of the pre-occupation with the Old Masters.
Ms Jacobi says the brotherhood saluted and sought to emulate the naturalism and symbolism embodied by the Medieval and early Renaissance painters who preceded the hugely influential Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, hence their moniker of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Women in their circle, although not technically allowed into the "brotherhood", included sister and poet Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal who worked in a Leicester Square hat shop before modelling for many of the most famous works and becoming an artist herself, Annie Miller, and Jane Burden, a striking model who later married William Morris and was a catalyst what became known as the Arts and Crafts movement. Siddal and Burden were trendsetters "known for uncorseted gowns and unbound hair" and the move towards greater personal freedoms, Ms Jacobi said.
Although the group disbanded in 1853, after only five years, the friends continued to pursue their fierce ideals through their work and attracted a younger generation of artists and creative folk including Morris and Edward Burne-Jones." They became rich and Britain's first art celebrities.
Nick Mitzevich says Love & Desire puts William Morris, whose "revolutionary" interior decoration became wildly popular in Australia in the late 19th century, into context. "What for me is so powerful about these artists is that they tackled universal issues. Their work was defined by social, spiritual, economic and political changes at a revolutionary time in history. The paintings are sophisticated narrative tableaux that seduce. To me, art is so alluring when it has a story to tell. These artists drew heavily from literature, poetry, music and nature. There wasn't another time when all those influences were so potent."
Ms Jacobi says the Pre-Raphaelites changed conventional notions of beauty and experimented with new colours, like purple, on the market courtesy of the expanding textile industry. "Audiences will be surprised when they see the works in real life. Photographs and reproductions cannot capture luminosity resulting from their "backlit" technique."