23 May 2013

Morris and Mayday

Since the month of May opens with Mayday and a flurry of international attention to workers, it seems a good month to reflect on William Morris and his work.  On seeing newscasts of workers marching in Munich and elsewhere on Mayday, I thought back to the May 1885 issue of Commonweal,* which demonstrates Morris’s commitment to causes that still animate May Day celebrations around the globe.  

The May 1885 issue included two writings by Morris: Part 3 of his serial poem The Pilgrims of Hope and the article “Unattractive Labour.”  In the first, the protagonist and his life partner stand on London streets watching the parade that honors soldiers marching off to war with flags unfurled and music playing.  In Morris’s poem the shops and faces lining the street attract even more attention than the blaring sounds and colorful sights of a parade: “The gaudy shops displayed / The toys of rich men's folly, by blinded labour made” and “Worn feet, grey anxious faces, grey backs bowed 'neath the load.”  As Part 3 concludes,

War in the world abroad a thousand leagues away, 
While custom's wheel goes round and day devoureth day. 
Peace at home!--what peace, while the rich man's mill is strife, 
And the poor is the grist that he grindeth, and life devoureth life?

Morris makes no attempt to heroize workers here, and in fact unsentimentally has his protagonist note the filth and stench of those who “from the lairs they had lain in last night went up in the wind.”  “Unattractive Labour” opens with the barren ugliness of most workers’ houses, in contrast to those of the wealthy able to spend enough to beautify their environments.  In Part 3 of Pilgrims of Hope, Morris both vividly evokes a scene and theorizes it, seeing in the common sight of a martial parade a microcosm of an entire system of capitalism hand in hand with an imperialist state.  Similarly, in “Unattractive Labour” he quickly turns to exposing the larger social and economic structures underlying what might at first seem a trivial point.   

For workers’ unadorned homes are “but one of the consequences of wage-slavery. Until that wage-slavery was completed and crowned by the revolution of the great machine industries, there was some attractiveness in the work of the artisan. There is now none, or next to none and the reason why the ornamental wares above-mentioned are so adulterated is because the very ornament itself is but a part of the machine labour, made to sell and not for use whether it be done by human machines or non-human ones.”  Thus the sole hope left is “The hope of revolution, of the transformation of civilization, now become on the face of it a mere corruption and curse to the world, into Socialism, which will set free the hands and minds of men for the production and safeguarding of the beauty of life.” 

Ever the artist as well as the revolutionary socialist, Morris ends his article by tapping the potential power of this pairing:  “to my mind the unattractiveness of labour, which has been the necessary outcome of commercial industry, will have played a great part in this revolution; the price which commercialism will have to pay for depriving the worker of his share of art will be its own death.”  The world has not followed the path Morris foresaw; but his vision of beauty as so radical a human need and social force that it can remake the world remains a powerful one.  And the beauty of Morris’s own socialist poetry and example of his life are reminders that art and social justice can indeed be joined. 

Linda K. Hughes 

05 May 2013

The William Morris Society visits the National Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Bocca Baciata (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
On Saturday, April 20 a group of 12 dedicated Morrisians traveled to the National Gallery in Washington to view Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900 on a tour led by Diane Waggoner, Associate Curator in the Department of Photography and in-house curator for this exhibition. The show originated in London last fall at Tate Britain, where it was titled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. It will be on view at the National Gallery through May 19.

The exhibition was designed as a follow-up to the first major show devoted to the Pre-Raphaelite movement (also held at the Tate) in 1984. The curators of the current exhibition set out to address the substantial scholarship inspired by the earlier show, a goal achieved with great success. The inclusion of decorative arts, photography and work by female artists are just a few of the aspects of the movement brought to light by recent research and placed on display in London and Washington.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Danis Amor (Tate), the central painted panel that once adorned the cupboard
doors of a settle made for William Morris when he lived in Red Lion Square, London
Dr. Waggoner led the group through the sumptuously displayed exhibition, which is divided thematically into thematic sections: Origins, Literature, Salvation, Nature, Beauty, Paradise, and Mythologies. The first gallery includes John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (Tate), the painting which raised the critical call to arms when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 for its gritty genre-like depiction of a religious subject. It was this painting that goaded Charles Dickens’ scathing review in his weekly magazine Household Words. Also in this gallery, the rarely seen Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night (Private Collection) is not to be missed. From this tour de force opening salvo, visitors are overwhelmed with one Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece after another.

The “Literature” section includes the Rossetti diptych, Salutation of Beatrice in Florence and Salutation in the Garden of Eden (National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa) hanging alongside the same artist’s Dantis Amor (Tate), thus uniting three panels from the cupboard doors of the settle originally made for Red Lion Square and now in Red House.

William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th1858 
(Tate), an example of Pre-Raphaelite technical brilliance.
 “Salvation” is a visually incongruous mix of paintings selected to hammer home the close relationship of faith and morality during the Victorian period. Religious images, such as Ford Madox Brown’s compelling Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (Tate) hang across from images of modern life. These scenes of contemporary London include Rossetti’s Found (Delaware Art Museum), the depiction of a young countrywoman fallen on hard times, collapsed at a London street corner, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past (Tate), depicting a prostitute in her room just after the departure of a client.

The gallery devoted to “Nature” includes William Dyce’s technically brilliant Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th, 1858 (Tate) which captures with microscopic accuracy the rock formations of Ramsgate and commemorates the historic passing of Donati’s comet. Also not to be missed in this gallery are two similarly detailed paintings of the outdoor world from the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead and Millais’ The Blind Girl.

The gallery focusing on the theme of “Beauty” includes Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (Tate), Bocca Baciata
(Museum of Fine Arts Boston), and Lady Lilith (Delaware Art Museum) representing a triumvirate of Pre-Raphaelite stunners – Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and Alexa Wilding. Throughout the exhibition sculpture and photography associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement enrich our understanding of the influence of this group of artists utilizing varied media and methods. Also included in this gallery are photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron and sculpture by Alexander Munro.
A caricature of William Morris by Edward Burne-Jones, from Jones's
North End House visitor's book. (Mark Samuels-Lasner Collection),
displayed in the companion show, "Pre-Raphaelites and the Book."

The extent of this cross-pollination concept is further demonstrated in “Paradise,” the room following, devoted to the decorative arts. Here a chair from Red House (The Arming of a Knight, Delaware Art Museum) shares space with embroideries, tapestries and Kelmscott Books, including TWO Chaucers! 

And speaking of books, also on view at the National Gallery is a small “perfect marvel” of an exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites and the Book. The exhibition includes volumes of Rossetti’s poetry, wood-engraved illustrations by several Pre-Raphaelite artists, and materials related to the Kelmscott Press. Beautifully illustrated Kelmscott books are displayed alongside Morris' elaborate ornament designs and his own manuscript illumination. The works in the exhibition are drawn from the National Gallery of Art Library and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library.

Margaretta Frederick
Chief Curator of the Delaware Art Museum
Curator of the Bancroft Collection