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Waxing Nostalgic
If ever there was a love/hate relationship in the fine arts it would have to be that with regard to nostalgia. The Avant-garde has always hated it with a passion usually reserved for serial killers and mosquitoes. The public, and artists catering to the those having discretionary funds with which to purchase artwork, have a deep and abiding respect for "the good old days" right up there with baseball, football, and ball point pens. The interesting thing is that each generation keeps modernising that which they consider nostalgic, in effect creating the oxymoron, "new nostalgia". But aside from that, there is nothing "new" about nostalgia. It has been around for generations and (love it or hate it) it is one of the most consistent elements in art. A hundred and fifty years ago it reached something of a zenith in England with the appearance of a group of seven artists who dubbed themselves the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood".

As the name suggests, when these guys waxed nostalgic, they didn't mess around. They went back another 250 years to the good old days of Raphael and those artists that preceded him in search of a didactic realism they felt their contemporaries had forsaken. Draughtsmanship and literal colour ruled! And, sweet loveliness ruled supreme! It's almost as if they set out to give nostalgia a bad name. Chief among these was William Morris, the founder of the movement, as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones. Some, like Brown, weren't quite as nostalgic as others. He merely longed for the good old days of Gothic art while others, such as Hunt viewed moral truth and visual accuracy as tantamount to a religion of sorts.

Dante Rossetti was partial to the middle-ages, and his friend, William Morris' wife, Jane Burden, in whom he found the qualities of physical beauty and sad, melancholy that precisely suited his ideal of the medieval spiritual perfection he deemed lacking in that art which was being created during his own lifetime. His painting La Pia de' Tolomei, completed in 1869, uses her as a model and relies on a scene from Dante's Purgatory to probe his own romantic illusions with regard to his friend's wife. Jane Burden also appears in the only painting ever produced by her husband, Queen Guinevere, dated 1858. To an Englishman, nothing is more dear or nostalgic than Camelot, yet strangely, Morris was much more interested in depicting the handicrafts of the era than the tragic story of King Arthur. The entire focus of his nostalgia was against the advent of the "machine age" and the gaudy designs of manufactured household items he found himself confronted with at the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
15 September 1998

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