Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites at National Gallery review: a fascinating if sometimes slightly far-fetched exercise in comparison

Rachel Cunliffe
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Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

The unifying theme of Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is, at first, hard to understand. What does the fifteenth century Arnolfini Portrait of a merchant and his wife have to do with the vibrant and passionate forays into human emotion and romance that define the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites? The answer, according to this exhibition, is twofold: mirrors, and naturalism.

The Pre-Raphaelite artists shunned the classical formality and theatrical poses popular since Raphael in favour of the unstaged natural world. Like Van Eyck, who painted the Arnolfinis mid-conversation, Rossetti, Millais and their cohort delight in the sense that the viewer has caught the figures off-guard, chancing upon a snapshot of their lives, rather than witnessing a carefully choreographed composition.

And the effects are breathtaking. Millais’ Mariana stares at the ceiling in contemplation, entirely unaware she is being viewed. Meanwhile Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, which features a courtesan rising from the lap of her lover, catches its subject in the exact moment at which she realises the error of her ways and decides to strive towards a purer life. The expressions on both women’s faces, illuminated by shafts of sunlight, are mesmerising.

The second link is easier to trace. The Arnolfini Portrait displays a prominent convex mirror at its centre, which reflects the scene back at the viewer, adding an extra layer of depth. Mirrors – both convex and otherwise – feature heavily in the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, and even influence their subject matter. It’s no coincidence how many fixate on the Arthurian legend of the Lady of Shalott: a woman cursed to see the world only through a mirror and weave its reflection, who eventually cannot help but look directly at Sir Lancelot, shattering the mirror and dooming herself to death as a result.

Holman Hunt’s version shows the Lady tangled in the yarn of loom beneath the vast, cracked mirror, which reflects Sir Lancelot riding away, while Waterhouse’s catches her at the second at which she decides to look at Lancelot, and seal her fate. In both, the drama of the narrative is matched by the vivid brilliance of colour and human expression.

Meanwhile, the exhibition is itself lined with mirrors, including one owned by Rossetti, which allow viewers to see both the artworks and themselves in a new light.

It’s a small show, and at times it’s hard to follow the lines of influence linking the works together. The paintings, however, are stunning, so even if the art theory isn’t always convincing, it’s still worth a quick visit.

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