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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:48

The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: So here we are looking at William Holman Hunt's "Claudio and Isabella" from 1850 in Tate, Britain. This is 1850. So it's two years after the formation of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So we've got real, pure pre-Raphaelite style here. SPEAKER 2: Not just style, but in terms of subject matter, also, right? SPEAKER 1: How integrated text and image are here, that there's text on the top of the frame that has Claudius's line, "Death is a fearful thing." And Isabella's, "And a shamed life, a hateful." SPEAKER 2: And then below, in a beautiful kind of Medieval script, "Measure for Measure." SPEAKER 1: The Shakespeare play that this is from. And so what's happening, is that Claudio has been arrested, a little bit under false charges, for impregnating his mistress. SPEAKER 2: Though they're engaged. SPEAKER 1: Right. Claudio's sister, Isabella, is about to become a nun. And the man who's arrested and imprisoned Claudio, has said, well, maybe if your sister agrees to sleep with me, maybe I'll release you from prison. SPEAKER 2: And she refuses to give away her virginity. And remember, she's about to enter a nunnery. SPEAKER 1: Right. She's very chaste, she's very devout. This has been interpreted as the moment when Claudio appeals to Isabella to save his life. And she refuses, although there are somewhat differing interpretations about exactly what moment this is. SPEAKER 2: I think there's ambiguity even in his reaction, right? But what's interesting for me is that Hunt has chosen this really high-pitched moral moment, where we don't know which way it's going to go. And in a sense, we have to ask ourselves, how would we act in that moment. SPEAKER 1: It's that key moment, a thing that pre-Raphaelites love to do, that totally pregnant moment. When I'm looking at that back light and I see that cherry tree behind them, that's in bloom. And then did you notice what's between them? SPEAKER 2: There's that little spire of a church. SPEAKER 1: Right that kind of rose between them. And so, you can't really blame Claudio for asking his sister to betray her chastity and her vows, because he's going to die, and give his life up for nothing. And you can't blame her, either, for not wanting to do what she's asked to do. SPEAKER 2: And look at the way that he's portrayed her, the look of concern on her face-- SPEAKER 1: And sympathy. SPEAKER 2: --is extraordinary. She's got her hands over his heart. SPEAKER 1: She's comforting him. SPEAKER 2: There's this tremendous sense of responsibility that she feels. SPEAKER 1: And I'm noticing how close everything is to us, these two figures. That wall of the prison behind. And actually, I think , Hunt visited a prison in order to paint it directly from life. SPEAKER 2: There's an incredible amount of attention and detail in the rendering, even of the insignificant. I mean, that's what's so extraordinary is the focus is not simply on the hands, it's not on the face. In fact, one could even argue that the face is somewhat de-emphasized. Claudio's face is in shadow as it looks at us, which is a really interesting choice. He's in front of a brighter window. SPEAKER 1: Yeah, they're back lit, which is very strange. SPEAKER 2: It's extremely unusual. But what that means is that there's a very, very even light throughout the entire image, which allows our eye to meander down both their bodies, beyond the hands, down his legs to the shackle. And then, as much attention is lavished on the chain, on the boards of the floor, on the brick that is exposed in the window frame. SPEAKER 1: On the moss that seems to be growing on the stone. SPEAKER 2: Look at the vividness of that stone in back of the lyre. I mean, you can really see the age and the wear. SPEAKER 1: All of this is this idea that the pre-Raphaelites have of not using academic formulas, and this return to nature. And a return to the Renaissance primitives, the pre-Raphaelites. SPEAKER 2: So before Raphael. SPEAKER 1: Right, looking at northern Renaissance painting, looking at the history of art before things became kind of so easy and formulaic. And when artists were, in a way, discovering nature for the first time again after the Middle Ages. If we look at the color, it's nothing like we would see in Royal Academy paintings before the pre-Raphaelites. SPEAKER 2: The purple of his velvet leggings, the red of his velvet and fur-lined tunic. And then what I find most extraordinary is the color of her presumably white robes. There's no white in any of that. SPEAKER 1: No, there's blues and greens and yellows and golds. This is a kind of depth and intensity of color that would never have been possible before the pre-Raphaelites. SPEAKER 2: So what that does for me is it creates a kind of visual parallel to the intensity of the emotion that's being represented here. And in the sense of the emotional dilemma that's being presented here. SPEAKER 1: Yeah. [MUSIC PLAYING]