When the Seattle Art Museum asked me to be on the advisory committee for its current exhibition, Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement (through September 8), I was initially skeptical, and honestly a little confused. The name itself seemed like a word salad of contradictions. Radical Victorians? That seemed a bit oxymoronic. Pre-Raphaelite? Wasn’t Raphael working in the 16th century, 300 years before any of these artists were born? I also wondered how the exhibition would fare against the institution’s flashier, more diverse, and incredibly popular shows of the past few years including work form Jeffrey Gibson, Yayoi Kusama, Kehinde Wiley, and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Birmingham Museums Trust, Radical Victorians features more than 150 artifacts including paintings, dresses, jewelry, and decorative arts. Rich in saturated color and minute detail, the works sit in bold contrast to the zeitgeisty minimalism and pastel palettes of the past few years. It’s a rather refreshing aesthetic twist, and a veritable feast for the eyes.
It turns out that much like modern-day Seattle with its polarizing social spheres and growing dependence on technology, England in the mid-to-late 19th century was experiencing great change that included social upheaval, and an increasingly industrialized economy. In response, a group of British painters, designers, and makers sought to recapture the spirit of a previous age that placed a higher value on craft, handmade goods, and the relationship between nature and art. The search for beauty amid the growing specter of industry, and the ugliness that accompanied it, was a common thread in much of the group’s work. In 1848, artists William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—the name was a reflection of the group’s preference for late medieval and early Renaissance art that came “before Raphael.” At the outset they strictly painted only what they could see with their eyes (this changed in the 1860s and 1870s), often venturing into forests and fields to capture nature firsthand. Over the years the group grew to include other notable artists and craftspeople including Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones. It may not sound or look particularly radical in our day and age, but at the time, a rejection of the means to provide cheaper goods to the masses (a process that would make industrialists more money) was a bold stance.
“The English Industrial Revolution impacted British society in a very real way,” says Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman deputy director for art and curator of European painting and sculpture. “It brought prosperity, yes, but it also brought slum housing and pollution, and produced a lot of cheap goods that were lower quality. There is definitely a parallel between that and the experience Seattle has had over the past 10 years. A lot of good has come out of it, but there are also mixed feelings and a strong fear that something is being lost when it comes to our cultural landscape.”
I noticed this shift happening when I graduated college a decade ago. I grew up in the Seattle area and went to school at the University of Washington, so I was around as the evolution of our city started to escalate. Around that time there was a growing popularity for handmade goods. From ceramics and lighting to rugs, housewares, and even clothing—if it was “made local,” all of the sudden people were willing to spend extra on goods that would not only last, but were also made by human hands. Small companies such as Ladies & Gentlemen Studio (now based in New York), fruitsuper, and Grain were leading a local design revolution, and in 2015 when T: The New York Times Style Magazine wrote about Dylan Davis and Jean Lee of Ladies & Gentlemen, I knew that it was more than just a passing PNW phase.
In an increasingly digitized world where one doesn’t even have to interact with another human being to get groceries anymore, people are feeling isolated, and as a result, there has been an uptick in the return to craft. Sure, places like H&M and IKEA can crank out collaborations that allow us normal folks to afford something that has a big-name tag (last October H&M did a collaboration with Morris & Co., the descendant company of Pre-Raphaelite textile designer William Morris—the irony of this could not have been lost on the company), but in the end we’re still buying into a system of mass production that’s not only harmful for our planet and the low-paid workers putting in grueling hours manning the machines that make the products, but that devalues the time, effort, and artistry put into small-batch handmade goods.
“I think of the important themes of this exhibition is the impact art can have on the everyday life,” Ishikawa says. “There are so many decorative arts included, it really makes you wonder what it would be like to live with these things. I recently read an article in the New York Times about millennials renting furniture because they relocate so much more than previous generations. It makes you think about identity, ownership, legacy, and tradition—if someone is moving multiple times in their 20s and 30s, what kind of things will they be willing to buy and take with them as they go?”
As someone who has lived in the same area my entire life, I can’t particularly answer that, but I can say that in the past decade of meeting hundreds of designers and artists, learning their stories, and realizing the amount of time, dedication, and practice that goes into crafting each piece they make, I no longer balk at the idea of paying $50 for a candlestick. It turns out that no matter what century you live in, authenticity never goes out of style.
Victorian Radicals runs through September 8. Tickets and concurrent programming here.