Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites review – not worth a look

National Gallery, London
This is a sham of a show comparing the clumsy daubs of a group of mediocre pseudo-intellectuals against great artists such as Van Eyck and Velázquez

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood are the most successful frauds in art history. These mediocre Victorian painters knitted together a pseudo-intellectual style from bits of John Ruskin’s theories, quotations of popular poems and pretentious artistic references. Their very name reveals their heavy handed historicism, as they claimed to rescue the pure art of the early Renaissance from the refined classicism of Raphael. A dusty debate to be sure.

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.
A mesmerising masterpiece … Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Photograph: Thames & Hudson

It was just like the Pre-Raphaelites to claim an affinity for the early-15th-century Bruges master Jan van Eyck. He’s pre-Raphael, all right. Van Eyck flourished in the 1430s and died in 1441, four decades before the birth of Raphael of Urbino. His mesmerising masterpieces are miracles of intricate, eye-fooling realism charged with a strange mystical suggestiveness. His famous Arnolfini Portrait, for example, is both the first really lifelike domestic interior ever painted and seems to deliberately evoke images of the Annunciation.

In principle this exhibition’s thesis – that the National Gallery’s purchase of this masterpiece in 1842 had a seismic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – appears plausible enough. Sure, why not, but why should we care? Yet it completely fails even to prove that case. The paintings chosen do not demonstrate any important connection between Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites. Their coupling looks odd and arbitrary. We might as well be seeing the Arnofini Portrait next to Damien Hirst, Beryl Cook or Quentin Blake as the claustrophobic 19th-century daubs gathered here from the museum store rooms where many of them rightfully belong.

Instead of – as I expected – arguing for some subtle and rich influence of Van Eyck’s realism on Victorian art, the curators are reduced to neurotically fetishising one detail from the Arnolfini Portrait – the round convex mirror on the back wall of Arnolfini’s room, in which we see Van Eyck’s own reflection under the graffiti “Jan van Eyck was here”. It turns out there are mirrors in Victorian paintings, too! The circular mirror in which a new Victorian father sees himself in Ford Madox Brown’s painting “Take Your Son, Sir!” and the use of a similar mirror in a portrait by Edward Burne-Jones thus become purported evidence of an affinity for Van Eyck.

Mariana by John Everett Millais.
Our regional galleries will be cluttered up with this for all time … Mariana by John Everett Millais. Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/Barcroft Images

If anything these paintings reveal that Van Eyck’s mirror helped inspire a fashion for neo-Flemish furnishings in the avidly consumerist homes of the Victorian bourgeosie who lapped up this Pre-Raphaelite tosh and cluttered our regional galleries with it for all time. It’s not that Rossetti and the rest did not look at Van Eyck. It is rather that any influence is totally superficial – a mirror here, an orange there (Van Eyck paints this then exotic fruit with luscious accuracy in the Arnolfini Portrait) – rather than in any way fundamental.

Partial Copy of Las Meninas by John Phillip, 1862. .
The irony is, it’s not a bad copy … Partial Copy of Las Meninas by John Phillip, 1862. Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/Barcroft Images

Disastrously, such Van Eyck quotes as do exist are swallowed among all the other quotes that weigh down this art movement like a sinking Arthurian barge. So we get a whole section on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem The Lady of Shallott, whose image of a medieval woman who can only behold the world in her mirror was repeatedly illustrated by Victorian artists. Hang on, what’s that got to do with Van Eyck? Nothing.

At this point it becomes clear the curators are not that interested in looking hard at paintings. If they did, how could they seriously think John William Waterhouse belongs in the same room as Van Eyck? How could they bear to spend time and effort on the overladen yet empty art of these steampunk dinosaurs – and claim it deserves equal attention with one of the very greatest artists in history?

No, it turns out they’re interested in cultural theory and read somewhere that reflection is a really interesting post-structuralist theme … and to prove that is this exhibition’s true interest, it includes a (quite good) Victorian copy of Las Meninas by Velázquez. Why? Not only is this another famous painting with a mirror in it, but it was famously analysed by the French theorist Michel Foucault in his 1966 book Les Mots et les Choses – so it must be cool.

The exhibition says nothing about this extraordinary artist whose works are so well represented in the National Gallery. But at least one critical truth is told, for the briefest comparison of Velázquez’s miraculous art with their clumsy bolted-together balderdash reveals what a load of Victorian cant still blocks the British imagination like a 170-year-old fatberg of bad taste.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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