Pre-Raphaelite movement’s secret influence on display at National Gallery of Australia
The masterpiece Ophelia, now on display at the National Gallery of Australia has direct roots in the secret society. (Supplied: Tate)
When mysterious paintings bearing the initials PRB began exhibiting in London in 1848, speculation over the signature’s meaning was instant.
The paintings themselves, raw, intimate, and often depicting common people, stood in stark contrast to the style of the time, and were even described as “primitive”.
Did it stand for “Please Ring Bell’?
Even the lewd claim ‘Penis Rather Better’ was floated as a possible solution to the riddle posed by PRB.
Though painted decades later, The Lady of Shalott was heavily influenced by PRB artists. (Supplied: Tate)
But the initials were a nod to a secret society — The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — that would go on to influence some of the world’s best-loved artworks.
That influence is now at the heart of a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).
Who were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?
The society began with three painters: John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but its influence has spread across centuries.
In the mid-19th century art world, certain rules were gospel, and the supremacy of artists like Raphael was near the top of the pile.
For that reason, the artists who openly challenged his ideas felt their identities should best be hidden.
The Pre-Raphaelites often depicted domestic scenes. (Supplied: National Gallery of Australia)
“People were quite intrigued by what PRB stood for and they came back with various interpretations, some of them quite obscene,” Carol Jacobi from The Tate in the UK said.
“When Rossetti, I think, let the cat out of the bag that it meant Pre-Raphaelite, there was a massive backlash against them.
“The newspapers were particularly vicious, so the reason they probably kept it secret was in part because they knew that was going to happen when the secret came out.”
Dismissing a master’s work
Stoking strong reactions to the group was the apparent arrogance of questioning the work and influence of a master like Raphael.
Ms Jacobi is a co-curator of the exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate, which opens at the NGA on Friday.
It showcases masterpieces of the era — including Ophelia by Millais and The Lady of Shalott by Pre-Raphaelite acolyte John William Waterhouse.
Both masterpieces have roots in the brotherhood but, Ms Jacobi said, the movement’s influence was wide-reaching.
“One of the first criticisms of that were the people in the paintings were ugly,” she said.
“What’s interesting is how within about 20 years the look of some of those women, that they had chosen to be in their paintings, had itself become really fashionable.”
NGA director Nick Mitzevich said the exhibition, which will run until April 28, had been years in the making.
“This is one of the most unrivalled exhibitions [on] the 19th century,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter what your favourite one is, every time you step into another gallery space you’ll find a new favourite.”