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Through the looking glass: what the pre-Raphaelites took from Van Eyck

The most radical artists of the Victorian age fixed their gaze on 15th-century Netherlands.

Such was the grip exerted on the arts in Britain by the Italian Renaissance that the first early-Netherlandish painting didn’t enter the National Gallery until 1842. That picture was Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434, depicting Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a merchant from Lucca resident in Bruges, and his second wife. It was sold to the gallery by a Scottish soldier who had acquired it in Spain in mysterious circumstances during the Peninsular War.

The portrait became an object of instant fascination and sparked a scholarly debate that still rumbles on: who are the sitters? Is the woman Giovanni’s first wife or his second? Does the picture celebrate a marriage, a betrothal, a pregnancy – or is it an Annunciation disguised within a domestic interior? The acquisition also sparked an interest in van Eyck, who was widely (if erroneously) thought to have invented the technique of oil painting and whose attention to detail, skills as a colourist and ability to depict light on reflective objects seemed nothing less than magical.

Shortly after the painting was first hung in Trafalgar Square, it was seen by a group of teenage artists from the Royal Academy Schools, which then shared the same building. It had a profound effect on them and in 1848 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt were among the seven founder members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The PRB rejected the idealisation, both spiritual and physical, of the High Renaissance as exemplified by Raphael and, inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait and the work of other “primitives” such as Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Dieric Bouts, looked instead to the close imitation of nature and the spiritual integrity of 15th-century Netherlandish art. The word “brotherhood” was an indication of their wish to emulate the craft traditions of the medieval guilds.

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait

The brotherhood lasted for only about five years but its influence was much longer lived, with second-generation PRBs numbering Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris and its style filtering into the arts and crafts and aesthetic movements as well as the end-of-the-century decadence of Gustave Moreau and Aubrey Beardsley.

A small exhibition at the National Gallery (in conjunction with Tate Britain), “Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites”, seeks to place the Arnolfini Portrait at the head of this family tree and mixes early Netherlandish works with those by the PRB and its heirs. It is a very curious show. It promises to be an examination of the aesthetic shock delivered by van Eyck’s painting and how his minute observation (look at the half-millimetre stubble on the chin of his 1433 self-portrait) and manner of endowing everyday objects – a wooden shoe, an orange – with symbolic significance were taken up by the PRB. It rapidly turns, however, into a study of the artistic afterlife of one thing: the convex mirror that is such a feature of the Arnolfini Portrait.

Mirrors, with their hints of mystery, feature in innumerable PRB paintings, from Holman Hunt’s allegory of moral rebirth The Awakening Conscience (1853) and Ford Madox Brown’s gurning Take Your Son, Sir! (1851-57) to pictures illustrating Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” by Holman Hunt, Elizabeth Siddall and John William Waterhouse (Millais’s sumptuous 1851 painting Mariana substitutes glowing stained glass for a mirror). Rossetti hung so many convex mirrors in his Cheyne Walk house that one visitor complained that wherever he looked he found himself staring back.

The curators then, for unexplained reasons, leave the PRB behind and follow their looking-glass world down the rabbit hole and into the 20th century (bizarrely by way of Velázquez’s Las Meninas – because it, too, has a mirror in it and it once hung with the Arnolfini Portrait in the Spanish royal collection) with paintings featuring mirrors by minor artists such as William Orpen and Mark Gertler. There is no mention, however, of the second most famous convex mirror in art, the self-portrait by the mannerist painter Parmigianino of 1524 – perhaps because he was exactly the type of artist the PRB rebelled against.

This strange mirror fixation is all very well – the exhibition is called “Reflections” – but it leaves little room for other, teased and interesting aspects of Jan van Eyck’s influence. There is only passing mention of the PRB’s imitative use of white underlayers to give their colours greater translucence, and a mere nod to how their formal poses and sharp focus owed as much to the invention of photography as to van Eyck. There is nothing on the landscape backgrounds that are such a feature of early Netherlandish paintings and that became a distinct strand of PRB art in the hands of the likes of John Brett and William Dyce, disciples of Ruskin’s creed of “truth to nature”.

Curiously, the painters of the brotherhood didn’t acknowledge van Eyck’s pervasiveness until late in their careers: it was only as an old man that Burne-Jones recalled that it was while standing in front of the Arnolfini Portrait that he made up his mind “to do something as deep and rich in colour and as beautifully finished in painting”. This beautifully presented exhibition is itself deep and rich in colour but it is also a frustratingly partial examination of the influences that shaped the PRB, and a pale reflection of the show it might have been. 

The exhibition runs until 2 April 2018

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”