Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

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At Tate Britain, until 13 January

Victorian Britain, we know now, was one of capitalism's great success stories. Britain industrialised and came to dominate the world economically and politically. At the time success seemed far less certain to Britain's rulers. Revolution broke out in France in 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871: it might do so in Britain. The educated classes had believed that the Bible, central to their ideas, was literally true: in 1859 Darwin's Origin of Species implied that it was not. Britain was the world's first industrial superpower, but could such a society last?

These uncertainties meant that the Victorians - or those with the leisure to do so - debated almost every aspect of their society. What should they think about religion, about art, about women or about the poverty which industrialisation had unleashed on such a massive scale? The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the most successful Victorian art movement, was founded in 1848, a year when revolution broke out across Europe. Tate Britain's exhibition makes the debates and diversity of Victorian society very clear.

The paintings constantly refer to change and conflict. The conflict can be psychological: a shepherd neglects his flock while he tries to seduce a country girl; Ophelia, from Shakespeare's Hamlet, drowns in a picturesque stream. Discussion of the role of women is sometimes more explicit: in Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience a "kept woman" suddenly realises that she can no longer live this way. Social struggles are also directly reflected in paintings such as Ford Madox Brown's Work: respectable workmen in the centre of the picture dig the road, while a barefoot street trader and some bourgeois ladies pass on one side, aristocrats are on horseback, and intellectuals look on.

The Pre-Raphaelites' attitude to painting was itself contradictory. At one level they were highly realistic: they went into the countryside to paint trees and plants with photographic accuracy at a time when paintings were usually created indoors. But they frequently used this photographic realism to depict scenes full of symbolism: in The Awakening Conscience the woman's situation is echoed in an unravelling tapestry and a cat playing with a bird. This combination of realism and moral purpose could be controversial when applied to religion. Millais's Christ in the House of his Parents shows the holy family as ordinary people, with wood shavings on the floor. Charles Dickens complained that Mary resembled a hideous alcoholic.

Social conflicts also lay behind the Pre-Raphaelites' interest in medieval topics. Their medievalism echoed that of the art critic John Ruskin, who believed that medieval society had been organically whole in a way that industrial society was not. The socialist writer and craftsman William Morris made this criticism of capitalism explicit, rejecting mass production in favour of hand-crafted furniture and textiles, on display in this exhibition. Yet the medieval could also become an escapist fantasy which did little to challenge accepted values.

This is a splendid exhibition, including some of the best Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Their accessible beauty shouldn't lead us to dismiss artworks which reflect a society as complex as our own.