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[...]"

Installation view: The Rossettis, 6 April - 24 September 2023. Tate Britain, London. Copyright: Tate (Madeleine Buddo)

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.

Installation view: The Rossettis, 6 April - 24 September 2023. Tate Britain, London. Copyright: Tate (Madeleine Buddo)

After this point in his career, artworks are treated differently as their respective practices become more refined. Artworks encased in gorgeously ornate golden frames are, however, accompanied by supporting information on the more unglamorous parts of the artists' lives that are vital to gaining a fuller understanding of the work. This includes biographical detail that Christina worked in a refuge for sex-working women at a time where Victorian attitudes looked down upon such women as "fallen". Earlier in the exhibition pamphlet we learn that the siblings who did not become notable artists were working as carers, teachers, and clerks. It would have been interesting to learn of their creative pursuits alongside these careers, especially as having an "ordinary" day job alongside art-making is increasingly common in the twenty-first century. 

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight's Spear, 1856. Copyright: Tate. 

As more information on the family comes to light, it is at this point in the exhibition that we are introduced to Gabriel's partner and eventual wife, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, who is referred to by her birth ('maiden') surname throughout. On the back of Dante Gabriel's 1859 painting, Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed), the following was written by the artist: "the kissed mouth loses not its freshness, but renews itself like the moon". This is a tantalising example of the ways in which Gabriel loves intensely, arguably madly, at various times in his life. Something that proves almost amusing is how the waywardness of love, lust, devotion, whatever you want to call it, is conveyed through the exhibition. When Gabriel was painting and alluding to literary or historical figures, he would place faces and bodies of those he knew into the scene, so that they were holding hands or embracing. Perhaps his own form of manifestation?

Recurring themes of death and loss appear almost in conversation with the intensity of love. Alas, lines and energies of true love are not broken by death. The two emotions, falling in love and mourning, feel so neighbourly and intense, that it forces the viewer, over 150 years later, to expose these connections in their own feelings and relationships. Whether it is Christina, in her poem Remember, "Remember me when I am gone away / Gone far away into the silent land / When you can no more hold me by the hand / Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay", or Gabriel's 1864-70 impassioned painting Beata Beatrix, using Dante Alighieri's Inferno as an allusion to the despair felt at the death of his wife Elizabeth, a mere two years after they married. Exhibition panels refer to the Victorian themes of death and illness, at a time without a National Health Service and a life expectancy half of that today. The Rossettis ultimately found ways of bringing death to life, and vice versa, exuding a vibrancy into either mourning or an otherwise darkly despairing scenario. The alchemy of desolation into beauty is something that presents itself repeatedly across Tate Britain 's exhibition space.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874. Oil on canvas, 125.1cm x 61cm. Tate Britain, London.

Even in an institutional setting showcasing nineteenth century artworks, a contemporary audience can't help but love a bit of gossip as a way of feeling close to both artists and subject matter, and as the exhibition rolls to a close, the 'Obsession' room showcases the fruits of his "friendship" with Jane Morris (nee Burden) the wife of artist, designer and socialist activist William Morris. Today, his relentless image-making of Jane would be considered beyond the flattering and towards harassment, but here we could assume there was a degree of consent involved (although I would still love to have seen William Morris' response to the sheer number of works!). This eighth section of the exhibition is filled with Jane's face, and were it any less formalised, they would be seen as the stunningly ornate scribblings of a stalker. This in itself tells us how we view dysfunctional behaviour and illuminates the classism involved in challenging relationships and setups. "As it's in a museum, let's not think too critically on the matter!". Three paintings can be found across the 'Obsession' room's east wall: Mnemosyne, The Blessed Damozel, and Proserpine, and they all have, you guessed it, Jane in the starring role, playing the part of each character. It's messy and chaotic in practice, behind the pristine aesthetics of Gabriel Rossetti's incredible skill. This is where the team at Tate Britain have done a fantastic job; where some institutional shows seem to have fallen into tunnel-vision in order to leave no stone unturned in their research, The Rossettis brings its audience together across nations (the artists had Italian parents but resided in England), and cultures (from Pre-Raphaelite influences to the Aesthetic movement), there is appeal to be found across a wide range of demographics, without losing sight of the immense talent and passions of this family. 

The Rossettis. 6 April - 24 September 2023. Tate Britain, London.

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