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In this book, Bullen suggests the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood created an avant-garde strain which was later joined by poetry and literature. The aim of this book is to examine the interaction of word and image, with particular attention given to how it merged into aestheticism. The period covered by the book is 1850 – 1880. Bullen’s framework and interpretation pivots around Pre-Raphaelite bodies being a focus for both public and private pleasure, and as the blurb mentions it delves into Catholicism, cholera, and psycho-sexual diseases.

The acceptance and rejection of Pre-Raphaelite visual works depends largely on a small body of critics’ interpretative writing. Bullen’s work is not just situated in perception theory but in anthropology, sociological theory and feminist criticism. This moves the criticism away from artistic influence toward gender, power, and the nature of human desire.

Bullen is interested in temporal evaluation of the object (art criticism) and locating the objects within its historical and cultural context (as one would for Dickens). He also takes into account the totemic powers of religion, politics etc. (although less so). These approaches define acceptance and show that (critical) responses are not aesthetic in origin. Bullen’s work is situated in the contemporary unease of the body as it is distorted; the language of art criticism comes under stress here.

The main points are as follows:

  • Distortion – Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents…

Language from discourses that aren’t aesthetic, some resonating theological or even pathological meanings / interpretations.

  • Re-inscription of flesh in paintings through fallen women, flawed women. Female bodies are used as a vehicle to express between bourgeois control and libido, Bullen uses the poem ‘Jenny’ and the painting Bocca Baciata by Rossetti to discuss this issue.
  • Flesh and spirit. Self-debating with the self – interior monologue is desirable but dangerous. Bullen seeks to examine the private world, and the issues surrounding the self.
  • Public world. The ‘Fleshly School’, the androgyny of Burne-Jones and poetry of Swinburne (or the poetry of his poems).

Bullen considers the hostile criticism of Pre-Raphaelite works drew upon a number of discoursal centred languages of religion and its more Hebraic extremes. Here he refers to Cherry and Pollock as he builds on their work (in preference to Clark and Berger). Religion is less of a feature of this book, rather Bullen draws on sexual, political responses to the body.

Bullen suggests the variable and complex roles assigned to women, e.g. she ‘is’ and ‘is not’, she ‘has’ and ‘has not’. Woman ‘both is, and is not, accessible; she both has and has not a penetrative phallus’. Bullen also refers to Fazio’s Mistress, as part of his consideration of the mirror as a reflective device for these issues, or rather their ‘inanimate surface’ permitting a controlled reflection.

In amongst the thread of these gender, feminist, social readings, Bullen also stresses the pictorial, e.g. he notes Sir Charles Bell’s analysis of body language in The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression influenced the Pre-Raphaelite delineation of heads.

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J.B. Bullen The Pre-Raphaelite Body Fear and Desire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)

Pre-Raphaelitism was the first avant-garde movement in Britain. It shocked its first audience, and as it modulated into Aestheticism it continued to disturb the British public. This interdisciplinary study traces the sources of this critical reaction to the representation of the body in painting and poetry from the work of Millais and Morris to that of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. The book also explores how reactions were conditioned by such late nineteenth-century anxieties as fear of cholera and hatred of Catholicism, fascination with the fallen woman, horror at the `shrieking sisterhood’ of emancipated women, and even the terror of psycho-sexual diseases.