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If art made before the era depicted in television’s Downton Abbey might seem a bit distant, the Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement show opening Friday, Oct. 11, at the San Antonio Museum of Art will hold some surprises.
As a reflection of what’s happening today, pre-Raphaelite art and design is actually about hip young British art stars, small-batch brewing, the Etsy online handicraft market, and even IKEA’s affordable design. So declared William Keyes Rudolph, chief curator and curator of American and European art, who studied the era while pursuing his doctorate, and is delighted to have the artworks in San Antonio.
“This has been nothing but pure pleasure for me,” Rudolph said of installing the widely touring exhibition, co-organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Birmingham Museums Trust. “This material is dear to my heart, because I actually did study it very intensely when I was a graduate. It’s a wonderful return to a previous scholarly interest.”
Artists of the Victorian era, which began in the mid-1800s and ended in the early 20th century, wanted to change the world, Rudolph said. Dissatisfied with how the art of their teachers failed to address the industrial revolution causing sweeping changes in their society, they rebelled.
“What happens with the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood is that their rebellion takes off beyond their wildest dreams, they suddenly become overnight art stars, and they change the British art world over the course of their careers,” he said. The effects of the resulting Arts and Crafts movement, which opposed industrial mass production and inspired a return to handicraft and artisanship, are still being felt today.
Among the best known of the brotherhood is William Morris, whose wallpaper and textile designs remain popular as stationery, upholstery, and even block-printed wallpaper, which is still available upon request via the Morris & Co. design archives.
Other names, like jeweler George Frampton, painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Kate Elizabeth Bunce, sculptor Thomas Woolner, metalsmith John Hardman Powell, and stained glass maker Edward Burne Jones might be less familiar.
Nonetheless, the styles of these makers have endured in subsequent design movements such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and particularly in the recent trend toward craft objects, local sourcing, and affordable design, Rudolph said.
Describing San Antonio as “a city of artists,” he said, “I would hope that our young artists in San Antonio will be inspired to see historic connections between some of their impulses and the impulses of an earlier generation of artists, and maybe it will inspire them to [see that] you can change the world through your art.”
Though bright colors feature in many of the 150 works on view, the subject matter underlying the beauty confronts social issues of the day, such as the plight of sex workers, labor issues in an era of growing mass production, and how to we deal with poverty, all issues we face today, Rudolph said.
One primary goal of the Arts and Crafts movement was to make artisanally crafted objects not only beautiful and functional, but accessible and affordable. Though this paradox of handicraft and affordability was never quite overcome – Morris & Co. block print wallpaper runs at $327 per roll and up – that beauty and function can coexist was key.
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“Everything you’re going to see in the show actually works,” Rudolph said. “The clocks still tick. the clasps still work, … the tea service could be used. It is actually all functional,” he said. “And that was part of the ethos – they weren’t making things that one couldn’t use, they were making beautiful things made by hand that they thought should be part of daily life.”
As the show wraps up around 1910, Rudolph said viewers will sense the readiness for a new generation of makers to step up.
“What happens if you try to change the world and you’re successful?” he asked, suggesting it might be time for San Antonio’s makers to make their move.
Victorian Radicals opens Oct. 11 and runs through Jan. 5. Museum visitor information is available here.