The Rossettis at Tate Britain
Love Cannot Halt Death, But Death Cannot Halt Love.
There are plenty of institutional museum exhibitions in London at the moment, as there always are, but what does it take to not only appeal to a contemporary audience, but to make yesteryear's endeavours feel fresh and meaningful in the times we're living in?
In true museum fashion, the Tate presents The Rossettis. Each room is thematically curated, and complemented by a haute colour palette, with richness and more pallid tones to suit the engagement and stimulation of the surrounding works. Interestingly, the first room we encounter, 'Poet', is a muted grey, which certainly does not spark the imagination, but this turns out to be smartly executed, as the space is filled with text and sound, namely the poetry of the eponymous family's youngest daughter, Christina. This is noticeably a serious crowd-pleaser, as the powerful poetry fills the walls and the audience's ears, with readings of the poetry emitting from concentrated speakers, so as to solely cover the spot below. Of course, this isn't exactly perfect, and a full room can feel a little overwhelming with the chatter of visitors as well as the reader's voice coming from different parts of the space. Happily, the overriding take-away is the emotional impact of the poetry, both filled with heart and a telling authenticity. From 1860's No, Thank You, John, Christina writes:
"[..]I have no heart? - Perhaps I have not;
But then you're mad to take offence
That I don't give you what I have not got:
Use your own common sense[...]"
The following rooms do not follow a laboriously chronological order, instead truly enveloping the audience into the ways in which the Rossettis (introduced as Maria, Gabriel, William and Christina, but mostly focusing on the artistic and personal pursuits of Gabriel and Christina) flourished in their creativity, and were romantic to the point of distraction. We see this predominantly in Christina's poetry, and Gabriel's later use of Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris in his paintings. In addition to serious talent in the fields of poetry and painting, it is the compelling romantic dilemmas and dramas that keep the audience engaged in a way that is rare for an institutional show.
The first glimpse of romance, either clandestine, sordid or committed, can be found in The Bivouac After the Ball, an ink drawing by Gabriel from 1845, who by this time was making art as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Raucous nineteenth century London provided young Gabriel a direct view of misdemeanour and the like, and these early works were produced when he was only seventeen years old. It shows a man and woman, either in a state of lust or intoxication (or both) outside a front door, him holding a long pipe, her smoking a cigarette. The desire here is two-fold: not only are the intentions of the couple clear, but as a viewer we cannot help but enjoy the element of voyeurism, and we are desperate to know who these people are, and what happens next.