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

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era