Don’t be quick to dismiss them. Rossetti’swomen were more than pre-Raphaelite poster art: they smacked of grand passions. By Waldemar Januszczak
So, according to this ancient consensus, Mr Rossetti was an odious, half-good ladies’ maid. My own view, however, is that anyone who inspired this much grumbling from such an array of Victorian Geldofs must have something unusually effective going for him. We have here an artist with the rare ability to pierce British society’s aesthetic armour. For better or for worse, Rossetti (1828-82) got under the skin. So, before we proceed an inch further, let us salute this rare talent for penetration. Bravissimo, Dantissimo.
The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, that excellently Victorian provincial treasure store that so grandly flanks the station approaches to Liverpool, has decided to mount a comprehensive defence of Rossetti with the largest-ever selection of his output. It has been arranged in a typically prosaic Walker Art Gallery manner: thoughtfully, unpretentiously, with a hint of underfunding. My kind of show. It has two stated ambitions, which are to prove, first, that Rossetti could actually draw and paint (don’t laugh — a large chunk of the Rossetti insult book would consist of disparaging comments about his supposed lack of technical prowess), and, second, that his late work, which is usually held to be hugely inferior to the pictures of his prime, does not constitute a falling-off. Indeed, it includes some of his best art.
I suppose these are radical propositions if you happen to be one of those sad sorts who cares about the minutiae of Victorian artistic reputations. For the rest of us, for us big-picture types, what matters here is that this is an opportunity to encounter most of what Rossetti did and to decide upon its final value. A problematic reputation has jumped onto the scales. Yet the first conclusion the show forces you to reach is that matters of artistic reputation are distinctly low on Rossetti’s own agenda.
As if to emphasise his core seriousness, the show opens not with the spectacular, lantern-jawed beauties of his prime, but with clusters of fragile drawings and glowing watercolours from his earliest days. Among these is an exquisite set devoted to the vulnerable Elizabeth Siddal, the little seamstress and part-time artist’s model who was passed between the pre-Raphaelites before Rossetti claimed and married her in 1860. Siddal was the one, of course, who was soon to die of a laudanum overdose, and into whose coffin Rossetti was to throw his poems about her, only to have them disinterred, so notoriously, some years later. It is one of the stories everyone knows about him.
Rossetti watched Siddal obsessively when she was alive. Contemporaries commented upon it. And the show proves it with this wall full of moving and spidery tracings of her sitting, fidgeting, thinking. Whatever supposed shortcomings Rossetti reveals in his grasp of anatomy as he witnesses his beloved wasting away are more than made up for by the sheer compulsiveness of his observation. He cannot take his eyes off her. The more ill she grows, the more often he returns to her bedside. I swear you can hear a clock ticking away.
It is immediately clear that this guy, this crazed, imprac- tical, wretched dreamer, was one of those rare artists for whom the partition between art and life was never thick enough to achieve a proper separation. The show ahead turns out to be chiefly and overwhelmingly about love: burning, besotted, unbalanced, unreasonable, Italianate love. Superficially, the new Dante resembled the other pre- Raphaelites — Millais, Deverell, Burne-Jones — with his nostalgic preferences for damsels and dragons. But at his core level, where it counts, he was a Van Gogh, a Munch, a Soutine. Not as good as any of them, sure. But just as fiercely in touch with his own volcano, and as reluctant to ignore it or to make something cool and polite out of it.
Rossetti’s tragedy was that he was stuck with a set of pre-Raphaelite interests in medieval schlock that no amount of deeper psychological ambition can rescue from all charges of ridiculousness. Even as the show floats initially among the Guineveres and the Lancelots, it cannot help betraying a hard-core imagination at work. Has anyone done any work on Rossetti and the occult? Among his early drawings are various spooky concoctions of sign and damsel that appear to take us directly to tarot-land. A couple of years after Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven, Rossetti had already discovered it, and was illustrating it with half-mad neurotic imaginings, set prematurely in the Freudian hinterlands of paranoia.
Knowing this, you enter the exhibition’s central hall, and its most glorious stretch — the one ringed in every direction with full-colour Rossetti women, unsmiling, big-haired, cherry-lipped — tipped off usefully about his essential weirdness. Rossetti never exhibited most of the pictures gathered here. He avoided exhibitions and worked behind his own doors for a small group of private patrons. It remains difficult to know what to make of this staring gauntlet of toxic beauties. Not one of them, for instance, is sexy. Even Venus Verticordia, the glowing redhead holding a wobbly arrow, who, unusually for a Rossetti woman, poses topless, is profoundly unsexy. Almost all the deadly beauties are surrounded by cascades of flowers: yet when did so much gorgeous vegetation ever appear so infertile? What makes them extra-unsettling is the obvious fact that the models are real people rather than archetypes. They share a family resemblance, and Rossetti goes time and time again for melancholic square-jaws with their hair down, but, unlike the girls from rent-a-damsel favoured by the other pre-Raphaelites, we are never in any doubt that we are encountering real presences here. His 1860s mistress, Fanny Cornforth, surrounded by gorgeously painted blue tiles, poses chunkily for The Blue Bower; as if to emphasise her reality, an adjacent glass case contains the actual pendant she wears around her neck in the picture.
This same glass case shows us Jane Morris’s wedding ring, given to her by William Morris and worn by her in a doomy adjacent fantasy. It is a curious sensation to encounter these real women, mythologised and doted over and ruminated upon mystically, with such obsessive regard for their detailed truths. The final stretch of the show is devoted almost exclusively to Jane Morris. One of the many smart moves the exhibition makes is to include a series of photographs of Morris, posed by Rossetti, from which we see that, with her frizzy black cascades and her Frida Kahlo-like monobrow, the unlikely Morris looked exactly as Rossetti painted her, over and over again, through 20 or so largely interchangeable pictures, as if he had embarked upon some sort of voodoo ritual aimed at possessing her. These are not paintings about the women in them, they are paintings about the hold these women had on him.
It might well be that Rossetti was a stiff draughtsman, a dotty visualiser, even that, as the poet George MacBeth once put it: “Rossetti, dear Rossetti/I love your work/But you were really/A bit of a berk.” Nevertheless, any man who loved his women as fiercely and as unreasonably as this cannot, in the end, be a bad thing.