Azara Blog: Millais and Siena exhibitions in London

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Date published: 2007/12/29

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition, "Millais", covering the work of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. It finishes in a few weeks (13 January 2008) but then moves onto the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (from 15 February to 18 May 2008) and then oddly enough onto two musuems in Japan (Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Fukuoka, 7 June to 17 August 2008 and Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo, 30 August to 26 October 2008), but nowhere in America. As with most exhibitions of this sort, most of the paintings come from British museums, and in particular the Tate itself. Usually, other museums that subsequently show the exhibition have also contributed much of the work, but that definitely does not seem to be the case here. So presumably there is some other quid pro quo going on here.

Millais was a gifted painter already as a child, and the exhibition has an amazing chalk work done by him when he was supposedly less than ten years old. Most twenty year old artists would have been proud to have done as well. And Millais enrolled in the Royal Academy at the age of eleven. Unlike many other boy geniuses, he lived up to expectations. He is best known for being one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was easily the most talented of the lot. The first room of the exhibition is dedicated to this early work, and included many of his well known works. (Tate Britain had a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition 15 or 20 years ago where the same works were on display.) So already here the exhibition is worth seeing. The second room had some more of a similar theme.

Most artists, like most scientists, do their best work when they are young. And certainly Millais seems to be in this mould. After his great early work, the later work seems like more of the same. And he seems to have made a lot of money from doing fairly commercial work like society portraits (and he did them well). The exhibition even has a Millais painting, "Bubbles", which was bought by the Pears' Soap company to use in an advertising campaign, which must have been one of the first marketing uses of real art.

The Pre-Raphaelites had a thing about sexually frustrated women and sexually frustrated girls, and that is on full display in the exhibition. This is presumably what brought them some favour, even though the particular style was going agaist the staid academicism of the time. Millais carried on with this theme through many of his later paintings (e.g. "Spring" in room three, and "Bright Eyes" in room five).

The real surprise of the exhibition was the last room, which consisted of a dozen large landscapes that Millais did in Scotland. Much of the Pre-Raphaelite output was fairly chocolate box in flavour, and in some ways so were these landscapes. But Millais just managed to do enough to make the paintings interesting rather than pedestrian. The Scottish winter landscapes (e.g. "Glen Birnam") are particularly good.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery is also coming to the end (also on 13 January 2008) of an exhibition on renaissance art from Siena. In the early renaissance they discovered perspective, which immediately made the art more interesting, but it was mostly rather formal, indeed rather architectural, and rather lacking in emotion. That was on full display here. The point of the exhibition seems to have been to promote the idea that Siena was up there with Florence in art, but the paintings themselves seem to do the opposite. There were some good works, but mostly not as good as what you would have found in Florence. The one surprise was the last room, dedicated to work by the late renaissance painter Domenico Beccafumi. Here was some work with emotion, e.g. "The Virgin and Child with Saint Jerome and Infant Saint John the Baptist", perhaps the best work in the exhibition. As is to be expected from National Gallery exhibitions, the paintings were almost all in amazingly good shape, with vibrant colours, almost as if they had been painted yesterday.

The National Gallery is also having a small exhibition (until 17 February 2008), "Art of Light", on renaissance German stained glass windows. There was not actually that much stained glass in the exhibition, and what there was mostly came from the Victoria and Albert Museum (who do indeed have a good collection of stained glass, and not just renaissance German). So only worth going to this exhibition if you happen to be in the National Gallery in any case.

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