Tracey Emin may have caused the art world to gasp by exhibiting her unmade bed, but Tate Britain’s autumn exhibition will show that the Victorians got there first.
Designed to expose the “radical” and “shocking” nature of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, the exhibition will bring together works including William Morris’s own bed in its quest to recast the group as Britain’s first modern art movement.
The exhibition spans a half century and will display works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, as well as Edward Burne-Jones and Thomas Woolner, among others.
The Morris bed is sedately decorated with a poem embroidered by his wife and daughter but the Tate’s curator Alison Smith argues that these artists were not simply sentimental Victorians but groundbreaking radicals.
“The Pre-Raphaelites were the first artists to take their canvases outdoors and on location. They shocked the critics but entranced audiences and won commercial and industrial patrons,” said Ms Smith.
“We want to emphasise how radical they were in terms of their technique, their choice of subject, their composition and their engagement with nature,” she added. “You could argue that the Pre-Raphaelite movement is the only time when Britain changed the world in terms of visual art.”
Even though the Impressionist artists painted in the open air and put France on the map as the birthplace of modern art, Ms Smith said the Pre-Raphaelites were doing that a decade earlier.
The exhibition will be based on research carried out since the last substantial Pre-Raphaelite exhibition almost 30 years ago and will explore themes such as the artists’ more modern views on women, class and empire.
The Pre-Raphaelites were driven by a desire to escape the brutality and materialism of the industrial revolution and they believed art could be both spiritual and sensual, romantic and moral.
Their work caused uproar because of their disregard for conventional painting, the brilliance of the colour used, the lack of conventional perspective and their fictitious religious subjects.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde will include works such as “Laus Veneris” by Burne-Jones “Ophelia” by Millais and Hunt’s psychedelic “The Lady Of Shalott”. Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, the country home of William Morris, is lending his bed.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the Pre-Raphaelites in recent years with television documentaries, feature films and a number of exhibitions on various aspects. This is the first to look at them in their entirety,” said Ms Smith.
“It’s the first time we have actually united their productions in fine art with applied art. What made them so radical was they set out to obliterate distinctions between media and make art central to life.”
The exhibition runs from September to January.