- Medieval versus Victorian versus Modern: Rossetti’s Art of Images
Ever since modernists such as T. S. Eliot misrepresented (or perhaps miscomprehended) the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the intellectual structure of his art—both painting and poetry—has been seriously obscured. The problem is sharply focussed in Rossetti’s connection to Dante and his circle. For Eliot and those who took up his way of thinking, Rossetti had a weak understanding of stilnovista poetry and almost no understanding of Dante: his mind was too sentimental, his emotions too fleshly, his language too loose and Victorian. Yet the judgment that Rossetti lacks intellectual rigor, now widespread, runs against earlier views. Indeed, the argument was mounted specifically to counter certain received ideas, to challenge the programmatic quality of Rossetti’s art, and to contradict Rossetti’s famous commitment to “fundamental brainwork.” 1 As everyone has always known, however, Rossetti’s is—spectacularly—an art of the body. Before 1920 or so people were able to negotiate that basic paradox in Rossetti’s work. Afterwards not.
I’d like to carry us back across the divide opened by Eliot—back to the cultural moment when Rossetti’s work centered the movement that ushered in modernism proper. This reconsideration will ultimately allow us to make a critical return to the subject of modernism. The differentials that separate Rossetti from his immediate inheritors can usefully be seen not as deficiencies in Rossetti or his work, but as forecasts of the critique that postmodernism would eventually raise against the modernist project. [End Page 97]
My argument will extrapolate that foundational concept of Rossetti (and through him, of the Aesthetic Movement in general): “fundamental brainwork.” Drawn from his concern with artistic technique, the word “brainwork” subtly undermines the distinction between idea and act, or theory and method. The “brainwork” of a disciplined artisanal practice organizes the artist’s intuitive and emotional insights. As we shall see when we examine Rossetti’s crucial connection to Dante, the famous declaration in “The House of Life”—“Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor/ Thee from myself, neither our love from God” 2 —expresses exactly what Rossetti has in mind. In this case the terms are—as so often with Rossetti—erotic. 3
Rossetti’s purposes are expressed very clearly in his famous pair of sonnets “Mary’s Girlhood,” written to accompany his first Pre-Raphaelite picture The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. We should recall that the painting was itself a manifesto about art, as one sees in the heated controversy that followed its exhibition in 1849.
When it was shown at the Free Exhibition, the painting’s implicit argument was underscored by the presence of a slip of goldfaced paper he attached to the frame. Two sonnets were written on the golden slip, as follows:
This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect God’s Virgin. Gone is a great while, and she Was young in Nazareth of Galilee. Her kin she cherished with devout respect: Her gifts were simpleness of intellect And supreme patience. From her mother’s knee Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity; Strong in grave peace; in duty circumspect.
So held she through her girlhood; as it were An angel-watered lily, that near God Grows, and is quiet. Till one dawn, at home She woke in her white bed, and had no fear At all,—yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed; Because the fullness of the time was come.
These are the symbols. On that cloth of red I’ the centre is the Tripoint: perfect each Except the second of its points, to teach That Christ is not yet born. The books—whose head Is golden Charity, as Paul hath said— Those virtues are wherein the soul is rich: Therefore on them the lily standeth, which Is Innocence, being interpreted.
The seven-thorn’d briar and the palm seven-leaved Are her great sorrow and her great reward. Until the end be full, the Holy One Abides without. She soon shall have achieved [End Page 98] Her perfect purity: yea, God the Lord Shall soon vouchsafe His Son to be her Son. 4
Formally these texts come as...