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State Of The Art: The Rossettis

Allison Lee

BY Allison Lee

1st Jun 2023 Art & Theatre

State Of The Art: The Rossettis

Carol Jacobi, curator of The Rossettis at Tate Britain (from April 6 to September 24, 2023) speaks to Allison Lee 

Reader's Digest: How did you come into this occupation? What sparked your passion for it?

I was brought up in Birmingham, which is home to a wonderful collection of pre-Raphaelite pictures. I used to wander into art galleries with free entrance and began paying attention to the pictures on the wall, so you could say that’s where it all started. But it wasn’t until when I went to university that I discovered there was such a subject like the history of art. Once I discovered that, there was no looking back, really.  

RD: Can you walk us through the process of curating this exhibition? Were there any challenges or surprises that arose during the planning and execution of it?  

It was a long process that began before the pandemic. We wanted to showcase new elements that have been discovered about the Rossettis since the last exhibition of their work. There have been a lot of surprises along the way, such as the fact that when Gabriel and Elizabeth were working together, she was often considered his follower, but she was a creative force in her own right and deserves that recognition.

The Rossettis Installation View at Tate Britain 2023 © Tate (Madeleine Buddo)

The Rossettis Installation View at Tate Britain 2023 © Tate (Madeleine Buddo) 

We also thought about how we could view these paintings and poems from the Victorian age through 21st-century lenses; when it came to the poetry, it was challenging in terms of display. Eventually, we devised a way of representing nine poems. If you stand in designated spots within the gallery, you are able to hear the poems narrated to you, which become inaudible once you leave that spot.

This exhibition also allowed us to represent the perspective of working-class women which is not often seen in historic collections of exhibitions.  

RD: How is this exhibition on the radical Rossetti generation different from your past curations?

The entanglement between words and images has been a challenge and an opportunity to try my hand at different approaches to exhibition curation. What we’re dealing with here isn’t just a collection of paintings, but a set of lives that took place. It is the most biographical exhibition I have took up so far. So much happened through the Rossettis’ lives—Gabriel led two avant gardes against mainstream art, Christina exceeded expectations as a successful poet, Elizabeth exuded talent beyond her age.

"These were people who were constantly pondering the purpose of art and chasing after that purpose"

This exhibition is different because you get a glimpse into the artists beyond the paintings and you can see the influence that they had on each other, how their styles evolved. These were people who were constantly pondering the purpose of art and chasing after that purpose, so it was vital that we showcase their story right.  

RD: What drew you to curate an exhibition on the radical Rossetti generation? Do you see this movement of challenging the traditional and creating what is truthful reflected in today’s society?

The Rossettis’ story is just a fascinating one with so much to unpack—be it their lives or art. What was most striking is their desire for a new kind of art form that was authentic, raw and based on lived experienced rather than rules. I think this speaks volumes to something all of us are still struggling for today.

"What was most striking is their desire for a new kind of art form that was authentic and raw"

We try to find ways to obtain the truthfulness and authenticity of life that we so value, and there is no denying that the Rossetti generation popularised this way of thinking and pioneered the search for art that could transport and transform us. Today, I see this mirrored in the world-building that happens in computer games and anime, where the landscape is expressive and can very much take you to another place.

RD: Does the exhibition challenge or reshape our understanding of the Rossetti generation? How so? 

The exhibition explores the Rossettis lives from a deeper level and, in each room, you’ll find something you were not expecting. The general conception of the Rossettis is heavily dominated by Gabriel’s later works, and we wanted to assemble everything together to present a panorama of their lives.

The Rossettis Installation View at Tate Britain 2023 © Tate (Madeleine Buddo)

The Rossettis Installation View at Tate Britain 2023 © Tate (Madeleine Buddo)

For instance, the exhibition features Christina’s career alongside Gabriel’s, which has never been seen before despite their closeness and support for each other. Additionally, it showcases Gabriel’s earlier works, which lay the foundation for his later works that we have come to be fond of. There are also little easter eggs around the exhibition such as one of the wallpapers being inspired by the wallpaper Gabriel had designed for his and Elizabeth’s room. It features floor to ceiling apple trees on a dark blue background, and you can see apples and stars alternating in the branches.  

 RD: What are the hallmarks or highlights of a Rossetti piece?   

The hands. Gabriel was absolutely fascinated with body language. Before the Rossettis, there was a conventional way to pose people as well as maintain facial expression. Gabriel was never a stickler for the conventional, so he took to looking at real people to inspire his portraits and realised unusual body language that weren’t commonly depicted in paintings.

"Gabriel was never a stickler for the conventional"

Gabriel’s paintings capture the motivations, desires and feelings of his characters through their hands, telling a story on their own. These positioning of hands convey a physical and emotional connection between the viewer and the painting. At the beginning, you are looking at relationships of people encased in the frame; at the end, it is you who now has a connection with the portraits.

RD: What did you learn by spending so much time with the exhibited pieces throughout the curation process?  

There were so many new stories I wanted to tell through this exhibition. The most important one was an idea from someone I worked with; everyone thinks of Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ famous work, and we wanted to free her from that painting. I’m quite pleased to say that we have succeeded in rebranding Elizabeth as not just a model, but an artist in her own right.

Other than that, it’s a very colourful exhibition with love at the centre of almost every piece. There is love between siblings, love between parents and children, and love between, well, lovers. I think this is something we all need at the moment, given that we’ve been a little cut off from each other given circumstances of recent years. Everyone could always use a little reminder of love. 

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