Brotherhood of Romantics: Neptune in Pisces Redux
|Daydreaming by DG Rossetti|
London 1848: capital of the largest empire the world has ever seen, a city where the rich live in lace and cream and fripperies, children work as chimney sweeps and bootblacks, where the streets run with sewage, and where everyone is – more or less – for sale.
Just as today – the great planet Neptune has returned to the oceans of its own sign Pisces. Surely a time when the planet of the imagination, dreams and visions would express itself through the collective most powerfully.
One September evening right in the very heart of this teeming, moiling metropolis, three young men were lounging around talking about art. One of them, John Everett Millais, whose parents’ house it was, brought out a book of engravings of medieval frescoes.
The discussion he had with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt that night led to the forming of the first self-consciously avant-garde art movement – the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – and would influence public taste for the rest of the century.
The three artists were drawn together by their desire to challenge the establishment. That book of engravings showed them what they had to do. They had to go back to a purer art, something less academic, something true to nature, something far more real. Something before the, as they saw it, dead hand of Raphael.
The Pre Raphaelite Aims
- To have genuine ideas to express
- To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them
- To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote
- Most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues
Their first public shows were in 1849, by which time there were, officially, seven of them. By 1852, they were the darlings of London. By 1853, the Brotherhood was dissolved.
The Pre-Raphaelites were young and sexy in the 1850s, scandalising and thrilling London society with their messy liaisons, their erotic art and their re-imagining of the feminine. Before Rossetti and friends, no one thought red hair or a heavy jaw was sexy, much less no corsets.
|This painting by Rossetti|
shows a soldier
rescuing a prostitute. One of the few
contemporary scenes he ever painted.
By the next decade, the avant garde had become the establishment – as it always seems to. Their ideas and their work dominated popular taste for the next 60 years or so.
So what, if anything, do the Pre-Raphaelites have to tell us about Neptune in Pisces?
I’ve been pondering this thought all week. What is Neptunian about the PRB? Here’s one word – escapism. They showed their contemporaries a richer, more beautiful, more spiritual fantasy world; a world a million miles away from the filthy London streets. The Pre-Raphaelites seduce with beautiful visions. Even when they attempt to show something real, it becomes hyper-real, a vision.
|Lizzie Siddal caught a cold from lying in the bath while|
posing for this painting. Her dad threatened to take the painter
John Everett Millais to court until he paid the doctor’s bill.
In the best pictures, the painting is so sharp, it’s surreal; the colours are so clear the paintings sing. The PRB were trying to make the canvas look as if it was lit from within. (One of the most famous works is, of course, Light of the World, which is here in Oxford.) They wanted to do away with the sludgy browns of “old master” painting and replace them with jewel like colours. To achieve this they painted on a wet white ground which required great technical skill.
Although wedded to nature, they were not interested in realism per se, like some of their contemporaries across the channel. They painted ballads, fairy tales, fables. They painted many, many women. They turned prostitutes and shopgirls into visions of feminine glamour, in the fullest and most magical sense. Glamour – that is another one of Neptune’s words. It means casting a spell.
And there is another word that works here: beauty. Neptune is the higher octave of the planet of beauty Venus, who exalts in Pisces.
So I wonder who right now is making art that transports us; art that is like a vision; art that is beautiful? Are there three young artists chatting tonight in Beijing or Tangiers plotting to bring beauty back to the world of art? Wouldn’t that be delightful.
Now there are many ways of looking and learning from the past – and I know I’ll be coming back again to find out how Neptune in Pisces last time around can tell us something about what to expect this time around.
To see what I wrote about the Year of Revolutions (1848) and its astrological parallels with the Arab Spring (2011) click here. To read what I wrote about the discovery of oil and Neptune in Pisces click here.
One last thought, the Victoria and Albert Museum has just opened a major exhibition on the Aesthetic Movement, daughter of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their slogan was: “Art for art’s sake.”
There are no coincidences in astrology.