Art: And forgive them their trespasses

    Pre-Raphaelite Vision proves the brotherhood really could paint. So, does Hunt's scary Scapegoat really work, asks Waldemar Januszczak

    When you have found a painting silly and ugly for the whole of your adult life, then come around a corner in an exhibition, see it again and are KO’d by it, find yourself gibbering with exaltation at the sight of it, feel like crying, even, at its missed remarkableness — when this happens to you, then tough questions obviously need to be asked of yourself. Am I too old? Have my standards plummeted? Was the alcohol still in my system? Am I turning into Paul Johnson? This was the weird fate that befell me as I toured Tate Britain’s transfixing sample of pre-Raphaelite nature paintings. The whole show is affecting. A revelation. But it was encountering The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt, that unhinged me and left me temporarily gaga, with a clear and severe attack of Stendhal syndrome.

    The Scapegoat usually hangs in that peculiar art gallery near Liverpool built on soap millions and surrounded by dinky utopian cottages: the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. To my shame, I have not visited this soapy utopia for more than two decades. In all this time, I have not seen Hunt’s masterpiece in the flesh, or, to tell the truth, given the damn thing a thought. As I remembered it, it was a lurid and ludicrous outpouring of high-Victorian melodrama, the pictorial equivalent of a Meat Loaf single, and therefore best forgotten.

    I don’t know how much you know about Hunt, but in my book the man was a buffoon, a creepy and at best half-sane religious oddball who boasted the full set of Victorian inadequacies: sexual, behavioural, religious, political and mental. We should feel sorry for him, really. The poor clown spent most of his career tortured from all directions by the rapidly modernising England he lived in, disapproving of his world to the point of mania, and beyond. This was an unusually angry and unusually righteous fanatic. But when he looked at something with those mad religious eyes of his, it certainly stayed looked at. His eyes were an instrument of torture. My evidence for this is The Scapegoat.

    Of course, all the pre-Raphaelites were disapprovers.

    Disapproval made them. The very naming of the brotherhood was an act of disapproval. By siding with those who came before Raphael, these mid-Victorian YBAs were attempting to reverse through the entire process of civilisation by actively disapproving of 500 years of reason and progress. One of the spookiest paintings in Tate Britain is Hunt’s ugly 1853 display of woman-bashing, The Awakening Conscience. We’re in a plush Victorian living room. A kept woman who has seen the error of her filthy ways rears up off the knee of her wealthy male master like a cat that has had its tail stood on. If Ian Paisley were a painter, he might aspire to pictorial finger-wagging of this crudity and gracelessness. Yet it is this unreasonableness that caused Hunt, in The Scapegoat, to go further than anyone else would have gone in his crazed creative effort. Look at that cowering goat. The shudder. The dread. The fear. Don’t tell me you can’t feel it. Call the RSPCA. This poor beast is petrified.

    Hunt’s most renowned painting, The Light of the World, is to be found everywhere in the margins of lowbrow Christendom, in every church corridor and on every Sunday-school wall. It shows Christ abroad at night with a lantern, knocking on an ivy-covered wooden door that has not been opened for far too long — nudge, nudge — and is marginally preferable to the ghastly Awakening Conscience because it is set outdoors and filled with proof of Hunt’s obsessive attention to natural detail. Delightfully exact ivy. A thoroughly scruffy wooden door. The painting is as tall as a wine bottle, yet it took him three years to paint, because Hunt would work on it only during a full moon: these were the specific light effects he was after.

    It is unfortunate, really, that excess familiarity has tamed The Light of the World and made it appear so thoroughly banal today. It, too, had a revolutionary heart — of sorts. But the ultimate problem with Hunt is that he couldn’t paint people. His figures always let him down. The figure of Christ in The Light of the World is as standardised and insipid as a C of E bookmark, and completely undermines the manic naturalness achieved in every other corner of the painting. This inability to be as convincing in their figures as they are in their backgrounds is the central dilemma of the pre-Raphaelites. And the reason Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature, at Tate Britain, is as exciting a show as it is is that the backgrounds are what the display is interested in.

    To reach Hunt’s petrified goat, painted in what is now Palestine in 1854, on the banks of the Dead Sea, you need first to run a gauntlet of miraculously accurate pre-Raphaelite landscape details, many of which will take your breath away. At the start of the show, Tate staff hand out magnifying glasses, and as you Sherlock Holmes your way around the thistles, the brambles, the butterflies, it quickly becomes obvious that the pre-Raphaelite inability to resist the temptation of the figure was an aesthetic tragedy. If only they had stuck with their backgrounds, what a landscape movement we would have had. This is impressionism before the impressionists, symbolism before the symbolists, and even, in some of Hunt’s more lurid outdoor colour stretches, fauvism before the fauves.

    And then there is The Scapegoat. Its original story is outlined, tersely and cruelly, in Leviticus 16:10-34. The Israelites, on the day of atonement, choose a goat to be their “scapegoat”. They confess all their sins to it, fill it with their wickedness, as it were, then send it into the wilderness. “And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited,” warbles the Bible, on this excellent escape strategy for sinners. When the atonement was complete, the red wool attached to the scapegoat’s horns was supposed to turn white. Note: it hasn’t done so yet in Hunt’s magnificently furtive and creepy evocation of the moment.

    Hunt set off for the Holy Land for the same reasons that he painted The Light of the World in the moonlight: for accuracy. He wanted to produce a Bible painting soaked in the actual light of the actual Bible landscape. He had already learnt, before he left England, that the real world is highly coloured, even its darkest stretches, and his pre-Scapegoat views of the English coast pulse already with a fantastic luminosity. But English luminosity and Palestinian luminosity are luminosities of a different order. Hunt is not making up the purple and yellow migraine-throb of this empty desert horizon. It’s what he found there.

    What he actually did was to arrange an expedition out of Jerusalem to the far end of the Dead Sea, to a place he called “Oosdoom”, the site, it was said, of ancient Sodom. The salt had caked the mud. The bones of those animals that hadn’t made it out of there poked up through the white crust. What a weird and anxious landscape it was. Only brigands, run-aways and murderers ever came here, and the best-known photograph of Hunt at work on The Scapegoat shows him cradling a rifle in his non-painting arm. He also kept a pistol under his smock. For week after week, he camped out on these fatal shores, getting that light right. The story is that he got through several goats as well, perfecting the fear in their eyes and catching the tousled mattness of their fur. Back in Jerusalem, when he still had not got it, Hunt stood the goat in a tray of salt-caked mud he had brought back from “Oosdoom” and tortured it some more, till it was right.

    Thus, the colours of the land throb with psychedelic urgency, and the Bambi cortex of the brain takes an almighty emotional hammering. With no people in the picture to worry about, Hunt is free to convey the charged, dark, miserable meanings he is after with the landscape alone, and the look on the face of his sad, shuffling beast. It’s there because of you. The sins it carries are yours.

    Coming across The Scapegoat in this show is an amazingly confrontational experience.