Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rethinking the Pre-Raphaelites

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I had the chance to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Watching Frodo and his friends linger with the elves in Rivendell, ride with the horsemen of Rohan, or fight Orcs and Balrogs and other dark foes, I found myself both entranced and in a state of cognitive dissonance. The ethereal women in long, flowing gowns; the slightly disheveled, handsome swordsmen in cloaks and boots; the earthy dwarves and mysterious sorcerers all inhabited a world that was first envisioned by a group of artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Schooled in a minimal, rational Modernist aesthetic, I was taught to disdain the florid, overwrought emotionalism of the Pre-Raphaelites. The writers of my art history books put these Englishmen, yearning for a medieval world that never was, outside the mainstream of progressive art, their movement a misshapen eddy that died out as rapidly as it arose. And, like the good student that I was, I accepted the storyline that marginalized them while putting their French contemporaries, Corot and Courbet, at the center.

It was easy to do that because I really do thrill to the ascetic emptiness of Barnett Newman’s zips, the un-nameable depths of Rothko’s color fields, the hard-edged logic of Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings. But as I learned to articulate the goals and glories of Modernism, my equally passionate taste for excess never went away. It just went on flowing silently underground, watering my own work, which never quite looks like the spare, austere paintings that I so much admire.

What I realized as I watched the Lord of the Rings is that my own work draws from the same well that inspired William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and, yes, J.R.R. Tolkien. The graceful curves, fanciful animals, dense patterning, and formalized flowers and vines that glow out of the pages of illuminated manuscripts inform my imagination as much as it did theirs. The medieval world, with all its spiritual mysteries, is an endless source of images and ideas for me, as much as it was for them.

And so I must begin to reconsider the Pre-Raphaelites, to learn what they have to teach me about looking, about art, about myself. What an adventure!  

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