If you need proof that the nation is ageing just go to a civic art gallery or museum at 11.20 on a weekday. Just three days in on Manchester Art Gallery's blockbuster-esque 'William Homan Hunt & the Pre-Raphaelite Vision' and the gallery is awash with grey heads and bent backs. They crawl around the edges of the exhibition, following the curatorially dictated path, devotedly reading the plaques and texts on the wall. They make me think of decrepit Theseus', who have been told they will escape the Minotaur's maze if they follow the edges and keep turning right.
There seems to be a trend in art viewing at the moment to stand as close as possible to the painting, after of course reading the plaque which tells you the meaning and import of every detail, and waver your head back and forth, as if trying to suck up every detail of the surface. Maybe it an unknowing attempt to bathe your brain in the health giving aura of the work of ART. Anyway, it's pretty annoying for everyone else who stands a respectful three foot back.
The exhibition is actually surprisingly small, but in a compact way, packing a lot of stuff in. Thankfully they have taken a few steps away from white cube-osity, painting the walls rich colours that complement the jewel like tones of which Holman Hunt was fond. Organised along chronological lines, favourite paintings are complemented by objects associated with them, books, engravings and photographs. It's a panoply of Holman Hunt merchandise. It really feels like a showroom, which is probably more appropriate than most would think. Holman Hunt's paintings sit within an unspoken, but undeniable, Victorian context of religious commodities, think Hardman & Co., stained glass windows, Pugin & The Great Exhibition of 1851.
The narrative qualities of all his paintings are alluded to by texts on the walls. However, although it's fun to play name the biblical/Shakespearian provenance, it's pretty clear we still don't really have appropriate tools to talk about these works.
Some old geezer confused matters further, gesticulating to the earliest version of 'The Light of the World' and declaring to his poor wife that this was the "original", a term I believe to be near useless when discussing Victorian art, and especially as an iconic and endlessly reproduced image as Light of the World. It was interesting to see some reproductions and appropriations of the The Light of the World, but I don't think they accurately communicated the sheer mass of reproductions which were made. I'm certain they could have papered half the walls with the knock off versions which have been made over the last 150 years.
Anyway, don't get me wrong, it is an unquestionably beautiful exhibition of works, but beautiful an illustrative and saccharine manner. The paintings are all amazing examples of painterly craftsmanship and iconographical narrative communication, but there has always been, to me at least, a lack of depth to these works. I have never liked the calculated geometry of the woman's faces, massive doe eyes, ruler straight brows and long, almost phallic, noses. A perfect example of why I just don't get the PRB is 'The Triumph of the Innocents'.
The cherubs frankly freak me out. They are not angelic, they are more like the goblin baby in Outside Over There ,they are bugged eyed changeling babies. There is something both magical and stingy about the atmosphere Holman Hunt's boggled eyed, sinewy creatures inhabit. I can fully understand how others might fall in love with these overly perfect renditions, but I find them both oppressive and depressing. The perfection makes them unreconcilable, they lack the forgiving softness of Raphael or Rubens.
Then again, if you like Holman Hunt, and believe that focusing on a painters biography is a good thing, this is just the exhibition for you.
William Holman Hunt & The Pre-Raphaelite Vision is at the Manchester Art Gallery until the 11th January 2009.