Elevating Materialism

In 1873 when William Holman Hunt exhibited The Shadow of Death, The Saturday Review commented that the painter's intention "is to elevate materialism by mysticism, and to make even the accessories of an inanimate realism instinct with spiritual symbolism" (36 [6 December 1873], 728). Despite the writer's phrasing, which suggests that symbolism can be poured into a picture like a dose of castor oil, he is essentially correct: a major part of Hunt's concern with this painting, as with his other major works, was to create a modern pictorial symbolism that would solve the problems he found inherent in realistic styles. Employing typological (or prefigurative) symbolism, William Holman Hunt attempted to create an art that could marry realism and elaborate iconography, fact and feeling, matter and spirit.

Characteristically, Hunt, who was always trying to test the capacities of painting, attempted an art that demanded both an immediate emotional response and one that was meditative and analytical. In fact, a large part of this painter's interest for the twentieth century comes from his refusal to relinquish any aspect of painting: he wanted to create an art that would be simultaneously intellectual and deeply moving, popular and appealing to an elite, objective and subjective. He wanted, like Dickens, to have a mass audience; and yet he wanted to revive iconographic traditions which would make such a mass audience difficult, if not impossible, to acquire. Similarly, he wanted to revive the capacity of painting to convey important truths of mind and spirit at a time when the existence of these truths was in dispute and the very notion of artistic referentiality had begun to seem problematic. Increasingly, artists of the past century have tried to solve the difficulties created for painting by doubt and disbelief with an art that makes no reference beyond itself. Placing black squares on a black ground may not say anything true about anything beyond the way we perceive in a specific context — but then it does not say anything false either. The painting of William Holman Hunt, in contrast, makes explicit, detailed reference to both material and spiritual worlds; for he refused to accept the loss of belief, the cultural fragmentation, and the sheer lack of confidence that made the Victorians the progenitors of the modern age. Considered in the context of Pre-Raphaelitism, then, he was the arch conservative who, for all his bitter hatred of the medieval revival, came closer to creating an art suited to the Middle Ages than anyone else. His art stands at one pole, while that of Rossetti and Burne-Jones stands at the other: whereas they created an art that strove to move beyond subject, art that concentrated either on conveying mood or creating abstract pattern, he held firmly to the older conceptions of painting.


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Last modified December 2001