“Our generation has happily thrown away the accumulated wisdom of the race.” Norman O. Brown
In 1848 there were political revolutions across Europe. A revolution was avoided in England, but in that year three young artists started a revolution in art that had a profound effect through the rest of the century.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (later known as the Pre-Raphaelites). They called themselves Pre-Raphaelites because it reflected their admiration of the early Italian painters before Raphael. Their motivation came from their absolute rejection of the conventional artistic pretensions of the Royal Academy of Arts, and in particular the mechanistic imitators of Raphael and Michelangelo; especially in the uninspired techniques of the Mannerists adopted by the founder of the Royal Academy: Sir Joshua Reynolds, in whom they saw the epitome of lax composition with little detail and colors, gross and darkened with the use of the despised bitumen. They decided they would approach nature without artifice as the early Renaissance artists for the rejuvenation of spiritual art. The most common subject of the movement were idealized young ladies which reflected the values that were compromised by materialism and bourgeois moral decadence.
The first painting to be exhibited by the Brotherhood was Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. The painting is full of symbolic content. The haloed dove is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The child-angel stands beside a pile of books inscribed with the cardinal virtues, she tends to a lily which is a symbol of purity. But contemporary authors grounded in psychological determinism tend to see paintings of this kind as a manifestation of “perversion”. To quote Norman O. Brown,”They have risen to the occasion and have shown that they can be counted on to issue a medical certificate of insanity against genius”.
Years ago, I came across Bram Dijkstra’s book, Idols of Perversity. The book was filled with illustrations of painting by artists of the Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolists schools, which Dijkstra castigated to prove his premise. At the time, I had never seen most of the works in the book and I became fascinated by the art of the period, despite the intention of the author. Dijkstra claims that artists of the 19th century had an oppressive view of women, that women were expected to play roles that denied their liberty. But Dijkstra’s view reflects a modern sensibility indifferent to the effects of alienation caused by industrialization. I found more sanity in the passages Dijkstra quotes than I did in his one-dimentional perspective. For example, he quotes Sarah Stickney Ellis’ book The Women of England, published in 1839 which became popular in both England and the United States. The passage describes the effects of the dog eat dog marketplace. Ellis wrote:
“There is no union in the great field of action in which he is engaged, but envy, and hatred, and opposition, to the close of the day — every man’s hand against his brother, and each struggling to exalt himself, not merely by trampling upon his fallen foe, but by usurping the place of his weaker brother.”
Ellis emphasized that women needed to counteract the destructive influences on the male’s soul, to preserve the moral values of society. How is this a perversion?
Christopher Lasch observed that contemporary authors grounded in reductionist psychology, “end up by reading out of the historical record everything that fails to conform to modern standards of enlightenment.” Many of the Pre-Raphaelite’s images of women represented virtues, the images were a kind of refuge, a visual antidote to reject the values of Weber’s Iron Cage of bureaucracy. Indeed, women were seen as free if they could remain outside of the artificial man-made bureaucracy, and reject by their very beauty and innocence, its socially driven and pathologically empty ideals of mindless consumption; filled only with avaricious competition with ones fellow-man over ones daily bread.