Exhibition review: The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The BBC2 bonk-buster Desperate Romantics presented the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as a story of sex, drugs and seduction. Arrogant, young and full of laudanum, it was a wonder that amid all the bodice ripping anyone had any time to paint at all.

The Pre-Raphaelites have suffered from their popularity. Teenage girls of a romantic persuasion tend to identify with the beautiful dresses and the copious hair of the female models, whilst Andrew Lloyd Webber is a collector. Now the Ashmolean has launched, as its first major exhibition in its new temporary exhibitions centre, The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. It brings together over 140 pictures from the Ashmolean's own Pre-Raphaelite collection, along with international loans. The serious scholarship goes a long way to reclaim the Pre-Raphaelites from the lid of the chocolate box and to remind us that, in their day, their art was radical, vital and, yes, beautiful.

Italy's culture and landscape was a source of inspiration to the group, who met at the London home of John Everett Millais in September 1848, with the intention of altering the course of British art. The close study of nature was their credo. Their champion, John Ruskin, had written in Modern Painters, published in 1846, that artists "should go to Nature in all singleness of heart...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." The name Pre-Raphaelite was chosen to exalt Italian work before Raphael, who was considered the epitome of the classical style by the Academy, and in order to signal their determination to defy convention and the supremacy of history painting. In fact, if they had been better informed about early Italian art they would probably never have chosen the label, for an interest in the Italian primitives had become almost conventional by 1848.

In the early years the Brotherhood chose Italian subjects for their paintings. Yet apart from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who grew up in an Italian speaking household, their knowledge of Italy and its literature amounted to little more than a faux medievalism acquired from English poets such as Keats and Browning. Unlike many of their continental contemporaries the members of the brotherhood did not spend time in Italy. There were no mechanisms to study there and most did not have parents who could fund a Grand Tour.

Rossetti, arguably the most influential member and the most ardently Italian of them all, never actually went there, perhaps afraid that the real country would fall short of the one he had constructed in his imagination. Millais and his wife did visit in 1865 as tourists, while Holman Hunt ended washed up in Florence and Naples on his way to the Holy Land because quarantine restrictions put pay to his travel plans. Ruskin, on the other hand, visited Italy when he was 14, and over the next fifty years no fewer than fifteen times.

Ruskin was a passionate conservationist who believed that Europe's architectural heritage was being irretrievably destroyed by inappropriate "restoration". The exhibition includes many of his painstaking studies of the buildings at risk. Also included are the little known and rather wonderful designs by Burne-Jones for the American Episcopalian church in Rome, an invitation that was the culmination of a dream he had had for much of his life.

It is also strong on the associates of the Brotherhood. Holman Hunt's pupil, Edward Lear, lived in Rome and painted landscapes, while Frederic Leighton, another sometime resident of Rome, learnt the art of landscape painting from Giovanni "Nino" Costa, an ardent patriot who founded a new school that become known as the Etruscans.

Gradually the term Pre-Raphaelite was to evolve from meaning a Ruskinian "truth to nature" to a more sensual celebration of the Venetian masters of the High Renaissance, such as Titian and Veronese. During my visit, it was the wall of Rossetti's women - his Aurelia and Monna Vanna and his languid study for La Pia de'Tolomei, based on the model Jane Morris - that attracted the most attention. Full of emotional and sexual suggestion these voluptuous, eroticised images will always be what, for most people, define the Pre-Raphaelites.

Until 5 December 2010

THOM ATKINSON
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Lionel Shriver's new novel creates a whole world – but can't quite grasp its inhabitats

Like Shriver's previous offerings, The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 takes on a difficult topic: this time, American debt.

If your son takes a bow-and-arrow set to school and kills nine of his classmates, how do you know how much responsibility you bear for his actions, if any? If you have been living frugally for decades so that you can retire early to a tropical island and, just before you do so, your wife is diagnosed with aggressive and terminal cancer, do you have an obligation to spend your entire savings to prolong her life by a couple of months? If your brother is morbidly obese and the best chance he has of losing the 200-odd pounds that will save his life is for you to leave your husband and teenage stepchildren and to live with him, monitoring every calorie he ingests, should you do so?

These questions are at the centre of three of Lionel Shriver’s previous novels, namely: We Need to Talk About Kevin (her eighth, which brought her worldwide fame in 2003 after nearly two decades of writing in obscurity), So Much for That (2010) and Big Brother (2013). Shriver is fascinated by how we make sense of our responsibilities to and for those around us. She explores this theme through the psyches of her main characters as they confront extreme personal circumstances that chime with contemporary American socio-political issues: mass shootings, the health-care system, the obesity epidemic.

In The Mandibles, she takes on the US economy (Shriver is an American, although she lives in England). The book opens 13 years in the future, with the collapse of the dollar and America defaulting on its national debt. The president – the country’s first Latino head of state – forbids capital over $100 leaving the country and citizens are required to hand over to the government any gold they own, down to their wedding rings. This all takes place against a background of environmental change, an ageing population, racial tension and widespread unemployment, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work.

Shriver’s powers of invention are considerable and, combined with a dark sense of humour, have often provided relief from the bleak subjects to which she is drawn. In So Much for That, for example, the cancer-battling wife renames the drugs she is prescribed: marzipan for lorazepam, Attaboy for Ativan, and so on.

The future setting of The Mandibles allows Shriver’s inventiveness full rein. “Awesome” and “cool” are out of date; the kids say “malicious” and “careless” instead. No one uses smartphones any more; they use “fleXes”, a device that can be folded to any size and is “so thin that, before the distinctive bright colours of its second generation, some folks had thrown theirs away, mistaking the wads in their pockets for tissues”. No one reads novels any more, either, but a post-crisis economic treatise called The Corrections gets a lot of attention. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state of the publishing industry is one of the most fully imagined aspects of Shriver’s future.)

Most members of the Mandible family aren’t prepared for how quickly – and how much – the economic crisis will change their lives. They have all been assuming that when their 97-year-old patriarch, Douglas, dies, the family fortune would filter down to his son and daughter and then to his son’s children and grandchildren. But the crisis wipes out the Mandible money and Douglas and his dementia-suffering second wife are forced to move out of their high-end care home and in with his son, Carter.

Carter’s two daughters struggle with the situation in their own ways. The richer of the two, Avery, has to adjust to no longer being able to afford extra-virgin olive oil, while Florence, for whom olive oil has long been a luxury, resigns herself to feeding her family cabbage and rice for every meal. She does the weekly shopping as soon as she is paid: as a result of hyperinflation, prices can rise steeply in a single day. When both Avery and her husband lose their jobs, they have to leave their house and take up residence with their teenage children in Florence’s already overcrowded home.

The Mandibles asks us to consider how we know what we owe to our family and our community and what counts as fair when all of the structures around which we have built our lives become unstable. There is an impressive thoroughness to Shriver’s imagining of the consequences of full-scale economic collapse. This thoroughness, however, makes the novel feel psychologically flat.

The character to whom she devotes most time is Florence’s son Willing, a teenager at the beginning of the book. An economics autodidact, he has a preternatural ability to judge just how things will get worse and to prepare accordingly.

Another Mandible insists that things will get back to normal. Another gets involved in the black market. Another reinvents herself as a model of altruism. Different characters react to catastrophe differently but the way in which Shriver moves between so many of them and has them make so many difficult decisions in difficult circumstances makes her engagement with each feel cursory. She creates a whole world but not quite whole human beings. 

The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is published by Borough Press (400pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster