I went to see an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art a couple weekends ago. I like the style and subject matter of most of the ones I’ve seen, and I’ve had a framed Rossetti print hanging on my wall for years upon years, so I was curious to see the original, on the chance it was included.
Now when it comes to art, I acknowledge that I’m not a very sophisticated viewer. I like pretty things and pictures that tell stories. Bright, layered colors make me happy. I enjoy realistic portraits, or at least paintings that demonstrate a high level of skill and mastery of the craft. I stare at modern art, hoping to catch some glimpse of the artist’s intent and artistic ability, but more often than not I’m left simply befuddled.
For me, this exhibition was a mixed bag, with some paintings being a bit rough-looking or cluttered with Christian symbolism. I’m fine with religious art for the most part – the deep-rooted stories and powerful sentiments appeal to me – but I suppose I was looking for a bit more pagan splendour here.
The first things I really liked turned out to be some vast tapestries designed by Edward Burne-Jones and produced by William Morris. The scale was astonishing, but it was the colors that captured me. I had the same reaction when I saw the medieval Unicorn tapestries in Paris. Such fine detail and beautiful, intense shadings – how do they do that in thread? Pale robes with delicately graduated shadows of peach and mauve. Angels sporting wings that cascaded from light pink to deepest red at the tips. Beautiful stuff.
The last room contained the ‘Aesthetic’ paintings, which were mostly portraits of the same few ladies in various feminine guises, including the original of my print – ‘Monna Vanna’ (vain woman). I stared at it for some time, thinking about what made this viewing different than looking at my copy at home. There definitely was a difference, I could feel it quite strongly. This was a portrait of a living woman, conceived of and painstakingly created by a living artist. These two people, the artist and his model were in the same room, face to face, and this painting was the result of that interaction.
It was as close as I would ever get to those people, to that moment in time. It really felt like I was standing in front of a window to the past, to a unique expression of human inspiration. And the idea that this painting was the only surviving witness had a strong effect on me. It’s like that question – when the house is on fire, do you save the Rembrandt or the cat? The cat, of course – a living creature that knows fear and pain, that depends on you, takes clear precedence over any inanimate object.
And yet…the loss. The last true record of a moment of sublime creation. I felt an odd sort of sadness, leaving the museum, looking at paintings I’ve seen so many times they’d stopped having much meaning for me – so fragile, and all one-of-a-kind windows to the minds and hearts of the people who not only created them, but helped create the world we now inhabit.
Yeah, art. Pretty cool.