The visual arts are not my forte. I appreciate beauty, sure. Most humans do. We evolved as a very visual species – our acuity of sight is probably our most impressive attribute besides our intelligence and capacity for conscious adaptation. I am sure the sight-impaired need none of my sympathies, but they have them nonetheless, there is much of our world that is designed around this sense, this ability, to see.
I am hoping to get some other people to write about art for me, because it’s an ‘outside’ world. The literary arts, theatre, the performing arts, these are things I have involved myself in, have an interest in and desire to know more about. Static visual arts, paintings, sculptures and the like…It’s not for me.
The thing about art is most of it is, for me, just a picture. Take ‘La Giaconda’, possibly the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous portrait known most commonly as the Mona Lisa.
I can see it’s a nice painting, sure. But it’s just an image, of a woman. This famous ‘smile’ people talk about, I don’t get it. To me it looks like the awkward face of someone who doesn’t quite know how to pose. I’ve seen the same smile on myself in so many photographs. I don’t get the hype. I’ve seen the real thing, surrounded by a throng of tourists with selfie sticks trying to take a photograph of what is, actually, a tiny little static image of a woman.
I feel nothing.
Maybe we’ll take Vermeer, ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ – I can see, clearly, this is a remarkable painting. Bordering on a level of photo-realism unknown for his time and demonstrating just what an amazing talent Vermeer was, but it’s just a portrait of a woman who means nothing to me.
Van Dyke, Picasso, Monet, Manet etc. etc. To me art is not about indulging the senses. Good music is not about what you hear, good paintings and sculptures are not about what you see, good writing is not about what you read – It’s all about what it makes you feel.
To me, anyway. Art’s a subjective bastard, always.
If you ever visit an art gallery with me you will discover this! It’s less of a cultured visit and more of “listen to an improvised stand-up set about what’s in each painting.” I’m irreverent with it all. It doesn’t matter how many people crowd around to look at the masterpiece. There are few art pieces in the world that make me feel and truly wow me.
I am partial to some Christian iconography, but it’s the symbols, the icons, that I like more than the compositions themselves. The lion and the lamb, the sacred heart, the byzantine gilded halo, it is aspects of the composition I like more than the whole.
A couple of Michelangelo’s can stun my heart. Particularly his sculpture is an outstanding study in a Platonic perfection of human form, he creates the most beautiful, lithe, exaggerated men and women – you can feel the polymath radiating out of them, you get a sense of Michelangelo as an anatomist, a proto-Gunther von Hagens, who wants to capture, simultaneously, the natural and unnatural aspects of the body.
But nothing, and I mean nothing in the visual arts makes me feel like a Pre-Raphaelite style.
The Pre-Raphaelites themselves were a collective of English artists founded in the mid-19th century, established initially by the artists John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.
It was a loose collective, at best, with many comings and goings and many people borrowing aspects of their style. Rossetti, particularly, being a poet as well as a painter, wanted a visual equivalence to the Romantic movement in poetry at the time, so studies of nature, expression of ideas, focussing on making art to produce feeling rather than simply a learned style and making sure it was ‘good’ were essentially the loose doctrines of the ‘brotherhood’.
As a result, though, they were controversial. There was a medieval influence in their compositions, and a focus, a tendency, towards natural portrayals – so there were critics who considered their works ‘ugly’. To an extent, though, I think this was as a result of the way art had been developing.
Much as movie critics today would likely have something to say if more realistic portrayals of human beings started coming out of Hollywood, if our celebrities were not all seemingly beyond-human, almost alien-pretty. Since the renaissance painting had been becoming more and more idealised, even plump, ugly, male aristocrats faces had to be given a measure of gloss and joviality.
Pre-Raphaelites did not necessarily follow this. There is a true beauty, and in so many ways an expression of the sorrows of that beauty. Nature creates these accidents, these brief collections of molecules in so many amazing forms and then – what happens? They age, they fall, they die, they rot, they decay. It is a cruelty that I feel when I look at any Pre-Raphaelite composition. Somewhere behind the eyes of every figure is this contemplation. The long hair, ivy-long limbs creeping, or awkwardly bent like branches, these tree-like figures sometimes stood tall and sometimes felled, lips often fresh-blood red – It gets you.
For a lot of these paintings the model was Jane Morris, definitely a non-typical beauty but a beauty regardless and I think this atypicality of the beauty lends the Pre-Raphaelite works a lot of their power.
Morris has a remarkable story, too. Born Jane Burden (what a name!) to poor parents in Oxford, her mother was likely an illiterate domestic servant and she almost certainly grew up incredibly poor.
She happened to attend a performance at an Oxford theatre where she was noticed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, who at the time were painting the Oxford Union Murals based mainly upon Arthurian myths. She was asked to model for them, and later modelled for William Morris who would go on to marry her.
Since Morris was a gentleman, Jane Burden was given an education and, seemingly blessed with a keen intelligence, she flourished.
She famously modelled for Rossetti, if you wonder why a lot of his paintings seem to feature women with the same face it’s because he used the same model.
All this drama, all this behind-the-scenes really emanates from every study, every picture, every painting. You can really tell they were trying to capture not merely an image, but a feeling. It worked. At least to me, I get it.
Art, to me, is always about portraying a feeling, regardless of the chosen medium. But to me, with a still image, I find it hard to ‘feel’. Photographs of my own life carry with them connotations, relationships, bonds and ties that will not break until my own heart does. I can look at an image from my own life and remember the smells, the sounds, and the other sights of that day. For me a painting is supposed to invoke the same, and yet seldom do they do that.
There are some works, renaissance ones mainly, that can make me feel awe. But that’s a ‘beyond’ kind of feeling, an otherworldly sense. The same kind of feeling I get when I stand at the top of a cliff and gaze down at the rocks and crashing spray below. It is disorienting. Powerful, yes, but beyond human.
Pre-Raphaelites make me feel alive. They make me feel there. They make me feel as though I can remember the smell of the gardens, the feel of the sun on the back of my neck, the scent of damp, and the feel of a warm, clasping, human embrace.
Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.
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