The Ontario Art Gallery’s new curatorial practices are challenging to those of us who’ve had a sensible middle school education in art history. Years of studying visual culture has helped me silence my internal philistine, but when I am daunted, thrilled, or over-stimulated by the AGO’s eclectic thematic groupings, I can hear the voice of my ten year-old self asking why we can’t just look at the works of art in chronological order. I suspect William Holman Hunt would understand the Gallery’s novel curatorial vision and would disapprove of my inner philistine, since neither Hunt’s paintings nor the AGO’s exhibit, Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, are bound by chronological dogmatism.
Never one for directional dogmatism, I had a hard time finding the exhibit. I passed through a doorway when I caught a glimpse of the lantern Holman Hunt designed for The Light of the World. On my left was The Light from 1853, on my right was The Light from 1900. With no mention of the Pre-Raphaelites, the next items in the exhibit were Hunt’s Middle Eastern coats from the 1840s, followed by photographs, shoes, The Afterglow in Egypt and Isabella and the Pot of Basil. It was only in the next room, where Millais and Rossetti’s work hung between The Awakening Conscience and the door, that I realized that I had meandered through the exhibit from the wrong end.
Time and space are telescoped in Hunt’s work, just as they are in many of the galleries at the AGO. Hunt loved historical detail, but occasionally strayed from exact historical realism. For example, in Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus the embroidery on Proteus’ sword hilt comes from a different period than the embroidery on Sylvia’s dress.1 Hunt wasn’t averse to collapsing geographical regions either, as he did when he depicted a Surry shepherd in a smock from Suffolk in The Hireling Shepherd.2 He did not let strict realism impede his moralizing interpretations of history and literature. Hunt’s telescoping is successful: even though I saw it from the wrong end, the collapse of time and space, of history and fantasy in Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision kept my inner ten year-old philistine at bay.
Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision ran at the Art Gallery of Ontario from February 14 to May 10, 2009.
1 Linda Parry, “Textile Background: Cloth and Costume,” Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, eds Katherine Lochnan and Carol Jacobi (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008), 63.
2 Parry 64.