Small Pleasures: seeing Dante Rossetti’s portraits up close.

It’s been a long time since I went to the Holburne Museum in Bath. So long that they’ve added a whole new extension to the building. It’s a wonderful space for viewing art. The pieces, whether they’re paintings, photographs, ceramics or silver spoons, are presented with flair.

Today was one of those Sundays that has just enough sunshine to lure you out before it rains on you for just long enough to tell you that you’re not in charge of the universe. What better way to use it than by going to a pretty museum to see world-famous art up close and personal.

In my youth, way back in the last century, I fell in love with the pre-raphelites at about the same time that I fell in love with college rock bands like ELP and Yes and fantasy novels by Katherine Kurtz and for the same reasons- they were pure stylish escapism.

My musical tastes have moved on, I still love Katherine Kurtz but it’s more nostalgia than escape these days, and while I still love the vivid colours and extravagant style of the pre-raphelite paintings, these days, they remind me more of 80s New Romantics than 70s college rock.

It’s one thing to look at an image of a painting in an art book, it’s entirely another to stand in front of it in a gallery and give it your full attention. When they’re in front of you, you have the chance to connect with the painting in a different way.

Today, it turned out that that way was fun but not particularly reverent.

The more I learned about the pre-raphelites, the more I wondered what the models that they were so obsessed with, thought of the men who painted them again and again and who, each time, transformed them from real women into fantasy objects, closer to fae than human. I also wondered what the women looked like before the artists turned them into who they wanted them to be.

At this exhibition, i finally saw one of the women before she’d been deified by the artist’s imagination. Here’s the image.

I think it’s wonderful. I can feel this woman’s presence. What artist wouldn’t fall in love with those eyes?

To produce this image, it seems to me that Rossetti must have seen the woman in front of him very clearly. And then he did his pre-raphelite thing and turned her into this:

I know this photograph is a little rough. I’ve put a more professionally produced image below but I wanted to share what I actually saw. Stepping a couple of paces from one image to another I was reminded, rather bizarrely perhaps, of Dorothy being swept up from a black and white Kansas and dropped into a technicolour Oz.

The next image that caught my attention was really spectacular. Sadly, my photograph of it is not spectacular. Here it is:

It’s a gorgeous image. It’s large and bold and demands your attention. I spent quite a long time looking at it (although obviously not enough time taking a proper photograph of it). I wish I had an image of the woman in this painting as she was in her day to day life. It seems to me that the hair and the eyes must be real.

As I looked at the painting, I wondered what Rossetti would have done if he’d been in his prime in the late twentieth century (it’s so weird to use that phrase about decades that I lived through) I imagined him doing covers for concept albums in the seventies, or airbrushing models for the cover of Vogue in the eighties.

I was very glad we went to see the exhibition today. Rossetti’s art has power in it. It pushes into my imagination on its own terms and says: LOOK AT THIS. And I’m glad I did look. The thoughts Rossetti’s work trigger may change over the years as my own context and expectations alter but I can’t imagine standing in front of one of his canvasses and going “Meh, it’s OK I guess”. or “And his point was?”. I stand there and wait to hear what it going to say to me this time.

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