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The Horror, The Horror at Manchester Art Gallery

Jonathan Schofield is appalled but fascinated by dead babies and fallen women at the Holman Hunt exhibition

Written by . Published on October 22nd 2008.

The Horror, The Horror at Manchester Art Gallery

HOLMAN Hunt (1827-1920) was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), four young men who in 1848 decided, as is the way with young chaps, that they knew best and everybody else was wrong.

Influenced by the writer John Ruskin, they wanted paintings to talk directly to the viewer without artifice or sophistry. They wanted ‘genuine ideas to express’, they wanted 'truth to nature'. The rot, they thought, had set in with Raphael in the 1500s, hence the name of the group. This to them was when painting had lost its simplicity and freshness.

But whilst others of the fraternity, John Everett Millais in particular, eventually grew away from these ideals, Hunt ploughed on, mingling shocking colour and cloying symbolism throughout his life. With him the devil is in the detail. Or rather the Saviour is. Hunt painted as though the eye can focus on everything all at once, as though we have some type of divine clarity of vision.

The reason for this is straight forward. Sometime in the early 1850s Hunt got God in a big way and never let go.

Pictures such as The Awakening Conscience, The Hireling Shepherd, The Shadow of Death, The Scapegoat and The Light of the World, lay it on thick. The colour, the drama in the pictures, all tell a tale of the devoted Christian’s relationship to the world – or at least as Hunt saw it.

The first of the above paintings was commissioned from Hunt by Manchester millionaire Thomas Fairbairn, who was, naturally, a non-conformist and thus liked nothing better than a good moral message as long as it included a pretty lady. Fairbairn provides a happy link with last year’s blockbuster at Manchester Art Gallery as he was a prime mover behind the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.

The Awakening Conscience shows the exact moment when a fallen and kept woman realises she’s messed up: that a life of God-fearing domesticity and motherhood has passed her by and she must start afresh in the Lord’s glorious light - as seen streaming through the window. (Although if you wanted to be cheeky, the expression on her face might just as well be, “Thank Christ I’ve avoided all that, now back to bed, Albert.”)

In irreligious 2008 though, the most accessible work comes with the portraits or in subjects shorn of Christian meaning, or at least with it dampened. This is the case with Manchester Art Gallery’s very own Hireling Shepherd which can be read as a simple country scene of a lusty shepherd and his lass, without delving into its message about the Church of England abandoning its flock. The intensity of the portraiture is captured on this unfinished work, below, of his fellow PRB member Dante

These works are completely overwhelmed by the religious paintings: some of which are truly hideous. Nauseating.

The Triumph of the Innocents, in which the babies slaughtered by Herod are waking from death to rude chubby health made me and my viewing companion queasy. We had to sit down. The Gallery should hand out sick bags.

The slaughtered children, weirdly irradiated with inner eternal life, walk through a gaudy night accompanying Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus on the Flight into Egypt. In an age of high infant mortality, the re-born innocents must have seemed a message of hope. The painting also hints at a fashion for spiritualism throughout society: the belief that the dead were just a good psychic medium away.

But today The Triumph of the Innocents looks like a grotesque curiosity, better suited for a gift shop in Lourdes and weeping pilgrims.

As a commentator and tour guide in Manchester I’ve studied my Victorian ancestors. I think I know them from the inside, the minds of those men and women: their free trade movements, their melodrama, their belief in the British way, their unbelievable strength, their terrifying certainty.

But looking at Hunt’s intense works makes me doubt this. They seem like creatures from another planet.

Maybe I’m at fault. There is nothing of our practised ‘aren’t-we-bloody-clever’ ironic detachment about art with Hunt. He meant his works to be understood by both the art-savvy and the casual passer-by. He wanted the moral and popular content to be equally stressed.

Yet now it’s hard to catch that moral or intellectual note in his works. The Triumph of the Innocents appears as mawkishly emotional as any contestant kicked off X Factor but with religion worked in.

His was also a species of art that disgusted many of his contemporaries. It was partly revulsion at Hunt’s drilled in symbolism that drove a wedge between the best artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and popular opinion. Hunt would have been appalled at this and even more appalled that by the end of his life his earnest, moral allegories in oil were yesterday’s news, an artistic dead end.

Of course he might have comforted himself with his ratings. Painting such as The Light of the World were celebrities and went on a world tour – it's been called the most travelled artwork in history. By the time it returned to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1908 it had been seen by an estimated seven million people.

So given these comments, is the exhibition worth visiting? Absolutely. It opens a window not only into Hunt’s strange mind but also affords a view over an aspect of Victorian and Edwardian mentality that is somehow still with us and somehow utterly alien. Whatever your reaction it makes for a memorable hour or so.

But you might want to take some medication. Whisky should do it. In fact seeing these pictures half-drunk might be the only way they make sense.

Eighteenth century wit Dr Samuel Johnson always had the best lines: “I had rather see the portrait of a dog that I know, than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.” You might feel the same as you tipsily wander away from Manchester Art Gallery.

Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite vision runs from 11 October 2008 to 11 January 2009 at Manchester Art Gallery. It’s free of charge. The Gallery is open six days and closed on Monday.

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5 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

A RealistOctober 22nd 2008.

Not my cup of tea, we need some new art galleries in Manchester that have something a bit different to offer.

Princess ChunkOctober 22nd 2008.

A Realist-if you want something radically different to MAG, Castlefield Gallery's your answer!

Craig HansonOctober 22nd 2008.

Good write-up really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the show, this is about a man who as good artists should do pursued his calling with both dedication and passion. He never gave up. As a Christian I love the moral content. And I love the quality of painting. Well done Art Gallery in bringing us this.

AnonymousOctober 22nd 2008.

They should learn how to display the art works, in particular, the lighting.They show sometimes some of the important paintings on the top floor, but the lighting were so poorly arranged say from ceiling, we cannot appreciate them their original beauty. It is very sad.

Sam DeeOctober 22nd 2008.

I hated the show, I didn't much care for the way it had been set out either. Those walls are too pale. But the paintings are hideous yet as the article say fascinating. So much energy spent on that perfect detail. The weirdest painting is one of an Egyptian lady with a green pot with a sinister chip like a red lipped grin in it. What is going on there?

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