One hundred and seventy years ago on a September day on Gower Street in London, an avant-garde art movement was born as a reaction to, or rejection of what was, at that turbulent moment in time considered to be, too long a period of an academic approach to art as propagated by the Royal Academy of Arts. Led by artists looking to recapture the spirit of the early renaissance period, more realism was called for in what turned out to be more vivid colouring, an almost photographic like approach one could argue.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed initially by the triad – William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, grew to what we could call a British group of seven. Though the formal structure of the brotherhood dissipated a few years later, the movement continued to influence the arts and gather other disciples in several forms including poetry and interior design, evolving right through the late 1890’s with artists such as Frederic Leighton.
What was happening in 1848 that coincided with this revolution in art?
As it happens, in Britain earlier that year there was another revival of Chartism, the working-class movement for political reform. It was also the year of the Revolutions right across Europe, a democratic pursuit – dissatisfaction with political leaders, the quest for more participation in government, appeals for freedom of the press, and the rise of nationalism. Oh, and at the same time Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto.
Coincident was this arts movement, and as Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld point out in the book Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, this era “was recognizably modern: it was marked by dramatic technological and social change, the globalisation of communications, rapid industrialization, turbulent financial markets and the unchecked expansion of cities at the growing expense of the natural world.”
As we celebrate Labour Day this week, I recall one of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings I saw on exhibit at the Tate Britain some years ago, titled Work by Ford Madox Brown. The painting of the manual workers and those on the sidelines walking by or passively watching them work is, as Barringer says in the book, a commentary on the “meaning and value of labour” in the mid-Victorian era during a transition from a rural to an urban economy.
What we describe as labour now has numerous interpretations in a digital age. We continue our search for meaning and value in work as we look to the future with present technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. What is so different from those familiar political, social and economic complexities from 1848? We still have such issues as density in urbanization, wealth and health inequality, a rapid pace of change in technology and in more than several ways, depending on where you live to varying degrees, 2018 is such a year of revolution.
And of avant-garde art movements today?
In the centre of this brief swirl of thoughts, reading from the on-line futuristic news journal Quartz, interactive artist Rama Allen writes: “In 2018, artists work in every media available to them, such as fluorescence microscopy, 3D bio-printing, and mixed reality, further stretching the possibilities of self-expression and investigation. The defining art-making technology of our era will be AI. Working with AI, artists can harness chaos and complexity to find unexpected signals and beauty in the noise.”
Imagine a new Ford Madox Brown version of Work. Workers on the edges of the painting contemplating the meaning and value of work as they watch the robots simulate labour once borne as toil and sweat, task and routine. Speaking of labour of love, it took a decade of work to complete it, and if you stand and study this 1852-63 painting long enough, you will hear a different beauty in the noise without AI.
Back from 2018 to 170 years ago, I’ll whiplash again, ahead to fifty years on from 1848 where comes one of my most favourite quotes I trot out almost every time I hear people today say how radically different our times are. From March 1st 1898, (the year after my grandfather was born), writing in the French artistic and literary magazine La Plume, Adolphe Retté observes:
“We are living in a storm, where a hundred contradictory elements collide; debris from the past, scraps from the present, seeds of the future – swirling, combining, separating under the imperious wind of destiny.”
How recognizably modern indeed.