Today I learnt that my old English teacher Jim Cogan—who nursed me through the adolescence of my writing career, each week insisting I stick only to prose or poetry from now on, and teeming with suggestions, privately dismissive of my classmates as 'little shits', and father to a legendary beauty whom none of us had ever seen—died a couple of months ago. He got a Times obituary and all. Without him Conrad would have looked very different on the page, I can assure you. The distant hoarding is empty tonight, shorn of its commerce and capital, image and word; just black, in a square of light, like the page for Yorick in Tristram Shandy, or a black flag flown at half-mast, for the dead.
My friends and I went to the Millais exhibition at the Tate. Mrs. Roth, who actually likes Millais, did not come, due to a butterfooted accident, earlier in the day. It is just as well. It might have riled her to hear me go on about Millais so. I walked round passively for a while before really venting my opinions. It has been a hard week, dour and pluvious, with crows craking on the rooflight, mordant winds, and a chill springing up in the common room.
I have been sombre, pent-up, pensive, apprehensive, paranoid, frustrate and cantankerous. The usual, yes, but a little more so. I needed something vituperable, and so I found it. Jim would have been proud, possibly.
One's first sight upon entering the show's first room—painted a charming prussian green, by some margin the prettiest shade in the whole show—is a certain 'hideous, blubbering, wry-necked, red-headed boy in a bed gown', and beside him a 'kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing that it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster from the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin shop in England'. That would be, of course, Christ in the House of his Parents. Thankfully, the massed ranks of gapers swiftly obscure the painting, but in doing so, they sadly reveal other canvases of equivalent ugliness—Millais's 'first exhibited work', for instance, daubed in 1846, when the lad was just 16; in technical terms impressive for a man of any age. It is there for contrast, we are told:
In 1848 Millais's art underwent a dramatic transformation when he established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with a group of six other rebellious young artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. This movement was formed in a spirit of opposition to the operatic illusionism that underpinned British academic painting and which characterises Millais's own Pizarro of 1846.So runs the blurb affixed to the wall of the first room, in large letters for the sand-blind, who must be making up a sizable majority of the crowd, and getting their full money's worth. A while ago, Gawain interrogated guidespeak on the matter of Titian. I did not hear guidespeak, nor was I about to shell out 3 quid (and that's on top of an exorbitant nine for the show, with student discount) for an audiobox to tell me what to think; so I will have to rest content to interrogate wallspeak instead. Do you like that word, 'underpinned'?
In the third room, Millais shifts 'dramatically' from pre-Raphaelitism to a 'new manner', here labelled Aestheticism: 'Retrospectively, such works appear to have heralded the inception of British Aestheticism's ideal of Art for Art's sake, anticipating the subsequent work of Rossetti, Whistler, and Albert Moore.' This is, of course, meaningless. How can any painting appear to herald the inception of an ideal, retrospectively or not? Is there really such a difference between the pre-Raph Millais and the 'Aestheticist' Millais? Is it just that his brushstrokes are a bit looser? The first offering in this room, apparently painted with his forehead, is the Eve of St. Agnes, which looks like a Degas that has just died:
With aestheticism goes decadence, I suppose, and third-room Millais is certainly into decay, or I should say, 'transience'. Here is a great Gawainian word—transience. It recurs again and again. Here's what Tate says of Autumn Leaves, an 1856 canvas featuring the facial talent of Millais's new cuñada, Sophie Gray:
The figural composition resembles a Renaissance altarpiece, and the picture has been seen as a rumination on the transience of life. But Millais presents the girls on the verge, not of death but of maturity, to awaken a sense of nostalgia in the viewer.The commatic structure of that last sentence is wrong, I think. It should say, 'on the verge not of death, but of maturity, [so as] to awaken'. It is also unclear just how a scene of girls on the verge of maturity might awaken nostalgia in a viewer—'a sense of' is mere padding—and how the hack can be so damn sure of this 'viewer' in the first place. Wikipedia, incidentally, agrees with 'transience', and uses the same passive weasel-words to assert it:
The painting has typically been interpreted as a representation of the transience of youth and beauty, a common theme in Millais's art.But Wikipedia at least has the grace to use the word 'representation'. Tate has described the painting as a 'rumination', yet another offensively meaningless article of artspeak. Now, Gawain has a 'nothing ugly' policy for pictures on his site. I don't. So let's have a look at the bloody thing:
Does the figural composition resemble a Renaissance altarpiece? Malcolm Warner thinks something similar: 'These gestures on Millais's part towards religious symbolism, along with the hieratic detachment of the girls from one another, and the way the two sisters to the left look out to us as if offering some kind of intercession, gently recall a company of saints in an altarpiece.' The problem with this sort of comparison is that it is impossible to refute.
Transience and mortality are everywhere. Take another third-room picture, Spring (above), painted in the three years following Autumn Leaves, and possibly the least unattractive work on display. If 'Autumn' is about transience—or maturity, or nostalgia, or something like that—then surely 'Spring' should be about fertility and fecundity?
Spring equates Millais's new ideas of female beauty with natural and human mortality. . . Alice Gray posed for the girl on the far right. Above her a scythe acts as a symbol of mortality, and makes plain the meaning of the picture—that human and natural beauty will fade.Aargh—death again! Yet more transience! And the internet agrees:
The girls, relaxing in an orchard of spring blossom, are tasting curds and cream. The underlying theme, however, is the transience of youth and beauty. This is expressed in the fragile bloom of adolescence, the wild flowers and the changing seasons. The scythe on the right indicates the inevitability of death.I want you to consider these statements. For Tate, the scythe reveals the 'meaning of the picture'. Implied is that the picture has a meaning—that it makes sense for pictures to have a meaning, to be 'about something'—and that that meaning is central to the picture's value. In this example, the 'meaning' of the picture is that 'human and natural beauty will fade'. The meaning is a proposition, to which the picture can be reduced. For the online text, from the Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool, transience is not the 'meaning', but rather the 'underlying theme', which is both 'expressed in' and 'indicated by' the surface details. If this sounds either confusing or wrong to you—it is. Both.
All of these sentences are easy to glide over. Tate and Lever want you to read them like this: 'Spring, Millais, female beauty, natural and human, mortality, scythe, symbol, mortality, meaning, human and natural, beauty.' The gawker, one of the middles taking a cultured day off from her nine-to-five, and probably nodding along to the voice piped in from the audio-tour—a voice, no doubt, using words like 'beauty' and 'meaning'—smiles contentedly that she has decoded the symbolism and enriched her spiritual life with beauty and meaning. She is fed her pabulum, and moves on. Every time we go to a gallery, we are fed this pap, over and over again, and hardly notice it. We start talking pabulum. We talk of beauty and meaning, and of themes; we say that paintings are about things, or rather some paintings, good paintings—we like the paintings of which we can say that they are about things—we flatter ourselves—we perpetuate pap.
But if we actually read the bloody sentences, and think about how the words relate to ideas, and the ideas to each other, we should begin to realise how little these sentences mean as propositions. 'Spring equates Millais's new ideas of female beauty with natural and human mortality.' I defy you to get any sense—let alone any good sense, and let alone something true—out of that.
At times the cant reaches grotesque levels. Room Five is the most ghastly of all rooms, not only in this exhibition, but in any exhibition, in any museum. The Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's has nothing on it. They have banned smoking in enclosed public spaces; I move to ban Millais's 'Fancy Pictures' in all public spaces, enclosed or not. Avert your eyes, for here is one:
And here—oh, you've been waiting for this, you damned cynic—is the blurb:
In taking on a genre widely perceived to have degenerated into something rather trite and whimsical, Millais sought to elevate it by imbuing his child subjects with a sense of mortality. Emblems suggesting the fragility of existence such as flowers, birds and bubbles were common in these works, and models were often posed as philosophers lost in thought or contemplating the beauty and transience of the natural world.If only Millais himself had been imbued with mortality at an early age. I ask you, if a flower is now shorthand for the italicised phrases, then there a god's lot of philosophical gardeners out there. I could only think of the poor children pressed into service as Christ, Ralegh, leaf-bearers or, god forbid, philosophers.
My companions in torture, who in fact loved every minute of it, and tolerated my contempt with good cheer, thought that perhaps I might be saying that Millais is 'sentimental'. The word is initially appealing, but does not get us very far. If I am, as I claim, a formalist, why should I object to sentiment? If a formalist, it must be pure form—rosy cheeks, luminous outlines, soft focus, pastels—that offends me. But then: is my objection to this form arbitrary? Or is it, rather, a response conditioned by long association of that form with the sentimental? Genuinely, I am not sure. Occasionally I see things I almost like: the cavalcade of receding profiles in Isabella, the Ernstian foliage in Ophelia, or the Rorschach tree-silhouettes poking up above the horizon in Autumn Leaves. But these details are always, always, ruined by context: the incessant brightness and over-modelling of Isabella, the structural flaccidity of Ophelia, and the clashing purples and reds, cold and wan, of Autumn Leaves.
And curiously, I love the actual Pre-Raphaelites; why should I like one and not the other? Are they very similar at all? I suggested that one of the advantages of Renaissance altarpieces (for example) is that one doesn't need to worry about meaning or themes, let alone transience. A picture of Christ taken down off the Cross is just that—it is not about anything. This frees us to concentrate on form. Towards Raphael start appearing problem paintings whose meaning is very much under discussion—the Grand Boojum being the Primavera. But the vast majority of the religious and secular painting of the Quattrocento wears its 'meaning' on its sleeve. And that 'meaning' is never transience—not until the Seicento. It is a tremendous relief.
Pre-Raphaelite works revived medieval and early-Renaissance art and featured a deliberate naivety in composition and a psychological intensity which insisted on the quirks and specifics of human physiognomy.We're back to the first room now. The presentism is obvious: Quattrocento composition must be 'naïve', just as its artists are 'primitives'. But whence cometh 'psychological intensity'? Is the century before Raphael noted for that? I think of it as an era of flat arrangements and elongated figuration, miniaturist style, perspectival experiment, the sweet and tasteful soft, classical erudition, sinuous lines, colours glowing subtly on an understated ground—all this I saw in the Siena show at the National, and none of it do I associate with the PRB, with its chunky figures, plain light, garish jewel-tones and cloy. Millais was an artist of undoubted technical ability, but no warmth, and no confidence. In the 1870s he started painting the sort of academic pompiage his 1848 self hated, but Tate is on hand to save his reputation:
As well as expressing the persona of the artist, gestural brushwork also communicated his identification with an Old Master tradition in painting epitomised by Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt.Everywhere we turn, his reputation is saved. It is to be saved. He can do no wrong: even the bucketworthy tableaux of Room Five are 'elevated' by 'a sense of mortality'. Here he is richly allegorical: there he paints for 'non-specialists eager for drama, characterisation and narrative'. He winds up painting landscapes, full of 'celebrations of autumnal scenery and light, and unresolved narratives'. I wonder if there is transience somewhere in that autumnal light. Millais clearly wanted it all—and the Tate has given it to him. We should be refusing this, we few, no less strongly than we refuse the junk shored up against Britain each year by the Turner Prize. Let us have some pride in our cynicism.