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Greg Elwell, Research Editor
By Greg Elwell
October 15, 2018
History is written by the victors, the saying goes, which means that what we read as fact sometimes can be distorted through the lens of those who made the history.
Even now, in a time dominated by self-cataloguing of one’s every thought and action via social media, we hear the cries of “fake news” and a general mistrust of information. I wonder if, in two hundred years, our ancestors will look back at this era through our news, our tweets, or our art.
That thought kept returning to me as I walked the halls of Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement, the newest exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, which showcases British visual art from the second half of the nineteenth century bumping up against the Industrial Revolution.
Is the art a mirror held up to the time period? Or is it a reaction and a reckoning to a changing world?
The Industrial Revolution was the seismic shift that propelled the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Morris, and the Arts & Crafts Movement. It pushed to dive into historical paintings, before the Renaissance “corrupted” art. They used modern innovations and retreated into the painstaking art of handicrafts.
Taken as a history lesson, Victorian Radicals is fascinating. I have a tendency to view history in a vacuum. It is time out of time. But this collection, organized by the American Federation of Arts and Birmingham Museums Trust, forces viewers to connect the dots. A single painting can be admired, absorbed, dissected, and examined in deep detail, but taken as a whole exhibit, you begin to understand better how the artists were influenced by the changing world around them and how their reactions to the world influenced it right back.
One of the first pieces I saw, and one I instantly loved, was a celery vase/comport made by Belmont Glass Works in Birmingham. Not only is it a magnificent piece of glass, the story behind it helps transport you to a time when cutting glass was considered complex. (Bonus giggles for learning that celery was “newly fashionable” in the Victorian Era.)
The Champion, oil on canvas by Charles Lock Eastlake. From the collection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Though not a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood piece of art, Charles Lock Eastlake’s The Champion is an example of the precisely mannered “establishment” art they fought against. It is also, it should be said, a lot of fun to look at. The face of the knight preparing for a joust is gorgeous and extremely intense.
Keep the painting in mind as you delve further into this collection. Remember the rigid composition of the figures and then compare it to lovely, but jam-packed Street Scene in Cairo (The Lantern Maker’s Courtship) by William Holman Hunt.
The Lantern-Maker's Courtship, oil on panel by William Holman Hunt. Creative Commons License.
In addition to the stylistic differences, I like how OKCMOA doesn’t shy away from pointing out that some great art is made by people on the wrong side of history. Hunt’s work is detailed and rich but also derisive of a foreign culture he doesn’t completely understand.
Many themes will resonate with visitors as we’re still seeing them in the here and now. The Stone Breaker by Henry Wallis is a potent critique of the way the poor were harnessed as a slave labor force in Victorian England and a scathing indictment of those left behind by industrialization. It sounds familiar, right?
For much better insight than I can provide, consider taking one of the special exhibition tours ($15 for members, $25 for non-members) through the gallery. More info on the exhibit and links to sign up for tours can be found here.
For an extremely in-depth discussion of the exhibit, much of which have never been shown outside the U.K., set a reminder to attend Arizona State University professor of art history Julie Codell’s Dec. 5 talk titled Being a Radical Artist in Victorian England.
The museum has been on a hot streak ever since Matisse in His Time: Masterworks of Modernism from the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and we are all the beneficiaries. If you haven’t been in a while, get to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and check it out.