Culture Reviews: ‘The Pre-Raphaelites’ & ‘What Joe Orton Saw’

The Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain is sub-titled Victorian Avant-Garde, although the Pre-Raphaelites did not reflect contemporary bourgeois capitalist society in Britain but hearkened back to the early Italian Renaissance of the 1400s.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848, the year of Revolutions and of the publication of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. British industrial capitalism was booming, free trade was triumphant, the Great Exhibition showcased Britain’s superiority as the ‘workshop of the world’ but the antagonisms between the capitalist class and working class were becoming visible. Dickens and Mrs Gaskell, and Engels in the Condition of the Working Class in England, described the poverty of the working class, but the Pre-Raphaelites rejected the machine age of modern industrial capitalism, believing beauty and spirituality had been lost, and wanted to provide an alternative to the materialism of the age.

The Pre-Raphaelites brought a realism to biblical subjects such as Millais’ portrayal of the ‘holy family’ as working class in Christ in the House of His Parents which shocked bourgeois sensibilities. Holman Hunt evoked bourgeois sexual guilt when a woman sees the error of her ways in the Awakening Conscience.

Ford Madox Brown portrayed a young couple sailing from the White Cliffs of Dover in the Last of England, which highlighted the fact 300,000 people emigrated in 1852, and in Work he showed labour as a noble and sacred duty in capitalism. In contrast, the Stone Breaker by Wallis depicts the exhausting toil of an agrarian worker. Holman Hunt painted a portrait of industrial capitalist and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites, Thomas Fairbairn, who had tried to smash an early trade union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, in 1852.

This exhibition also includes the decorative arts of William Morris, Philip Webb and Burne-Jones which covers furniture, stained glass, textiles, carpets and tapestries depicting Chaucerian themes. Morris’s ‘medievalism’ revived older forms of production in protest at the cheap, mass produced goods of capitalist society, and a desire to have “attractive work” in producing objects. Later Morris, with Eleanor Marx and others, founded the Socialist League, a forerunner of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The Pre-Raphaelites are in stark contrast to the ‘realism’ in French painting in the same period where Millet depicted Woman Baking Bread, and Courbet portrayed the Stone Breakers (a work admired by Proudhon), and the Origin of the World which depicted a woman’s genitalia (John Ruskin would have fainted). Interestingly a friend of Rossetti called Bell Scott painted an industrial scene in Iron and Coal. However this is overshadowed by the mammoth productive forces of industrial capitalism in Menzel’s the Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops), a picture which adorns the cover of the Penguin edition of Marx’s Capital Volume 1.

Marx identified the popularity of Greek art as stemming from “the childhood of human society where it had obtained its most beautiful development”. Did the Pre-Raphaelites yearn for the adolescent phase of human history?


What Joe Orton saw

Joe Orton’s 1969 play, What the Butler Saw, was recently performed at the Vaudeville Theatre in London and starred Omad Djalli and Tim McInnerny. This farce by “the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility” attacks petty bourgeois morality, sexual prudery, marriage, hypocrisy, conservative values, authority (“Accept your condition without tears and without abusing those placed in authority”), religion (“reject all paranormal phenomena. It’s the only way to remain sane”), psychiatry, and the police. Orton, influenced by Artaud, celebrates anarchy, the Dionysian pleasures of poly-sexual gratification and nymphomania, and delights in sadism, transvestism, ‘madness’, incest, gender identity confusion, and the base human appetites of lust for money and power.

What the Butler Sawhas echoes of Sophocles’ tale of Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta, the ‘madness’ of Caligula, and the Carry On films. Orton wrote critically of the film, The Marat/Sade: “Let’s look at mad people. At queer people.” Interestingly, in his play there are no ‘lunatics’ just doctors, and he parodies the traditional Freudian psychologist. Freud was the bourgeois psychiatrist and defender of capitalism who went from an emphasis on Eros to Thanatos. It is only with Reich do we get psychoanalysis with Marxism and the development of psycho-sexual health for the working class. The 1960s saw a radical shift in psychiatry with the use of LSD therapy and the RD Laing ‘anti-psychiatry’ school. Fromm in The Sane Society identified the contradictions in capitalism between ‘having’ and ‘being’, and the need for a sane socialist society. Orton writes: “You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational”.

Orton had no time for the ‘work ethic’ (“I resented having to go to work in the morning”), adopted a Nietzschean outlook (“reject all the values of society”), and disliked bourgeois capitalist society, writing with echoes of Reich that “sex is the only way to smash the wretched civilization, the only way to infuriate them, much more fucking and they’ll be screaming hysterics in next to no time”. He pungently added: “the old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul”. Orton also perceived the contradictions of bourgeois liberalism noting: “I don’t like the sort of liberal that is reactionary underneath”.

Orton satirises Britain’s ‘popular’ wartime leader Churchill who died in 1965. In 1967, Hochhuth’s play Soldiers implicated Churchill in the 1943 Sikorski crash. This member of the capitalist class is also responsible for miners killed in Tonypandy, anarchists burned to death in Sidney Street, 150,000 war deaths in Gallipoli, millions of deaths in the Bengal Famine of 1943, half a million deaths in Allied bombing of German cities, threats to machine gun strikers in the 1926 General Strike and the gassing of Kurdish rebels in Iraq in 1920.

In the 1960s the Lord Chamberlain would not allow Churchill’s phallus at the end of the play, so it was replaced with his cigar.

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