By Brenda Clough
This weekend I went to the National Gallery in Washington DC to see Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848-1900. A thrilling and gorgeous exhibition, with much of the material on loan from the Tate Museum in London. It is going to move from DC to other US cities, so seek it out if it comes near you. It’s a fantasy writer’s dream book.
There are many many things that could be said about the Pre-Raphaelites, but I am going to focus on the thing that struck me yesterday. It is that the artists of this school were not turned on by what rings the chime of modern artists. Look at the women on any current batch of books, comics, magazine covers, or movie posters. What do you see? Tits and ass, if I may be plain. The eye of the modern artist is profoundly focused on women’s chests and women’s crotches.
This cannot be news to anybody, and has surrounded us for so long that we assume it is the way things have always been. Have a look, however, at the image at the top of this post. What is the focus of this particular painting? No boobs and butts here. Having surveyed a hundred or so paintings from these guys, let me lay it out for you. The Pre-Raphaelites were profoundly interested in necks, hair and feet. The sweep of a swanlike neck, the angle of a jaw — that’s what they thought was hot. The neck and jaw are in the vast majority of these works, lovingly delineated over and over again, usually excessively pale on a darker ground so that it pops right out at you.
And feet! Even if every other part of the Lady of Shalott is backlit or in shadow, somehow a ray of sunshine hits her feet, which are bare, perfectly arched, and not afflicted with bunions, hammer toe or dry skin. Perseus fights the dragon on black rocks in full black armor, but mysteriously he is barefoot. Or, more precisely, he is wearing the winged sandals of Hermes, but they are strapless, sole-free, and essentially invisible, so that we may admire the white shapely feet, glowing like milk glass against the dark background. It is an unmissable theme, almost fetishized.
And hair, for a Pre-Raphaelite, has to be like in the rock musical: long, straight, curly, ragged, blonde, red, or brunette, as long as it’s vastly abundant. Hair that would be almost impossible to manage in real life, hair that calls for a brigade of maids to comb, dress, wash, and pin up, hair that fills quadrants of paintings and is long enough to form a coverlet — that’s what is painted in exquisite detail.
Bosoms and butts held no interest for these gentlemen. Venus, the red-clad woman in the painting, is flat-chested and wearing a high-necked gown. She would never make it onto the cover of a fantasy novel today without implants.
I can only conclude that what is erotic to the modern eye has nothing to do with the turn-ons of the past. And that says to me that things can and do change. Today the flat but sassy chorine has to go and buy herself a fancy pair. A hundred and fifty years ago she might well have been shedding her shoes and lifting her chin up. What will we think is hot, a hundred years from now?