In an age when children were losing fingers while working in textile mills, and coal soot rained on Britain’s cities, a cadre of young artists pushed back against the Industrial Revolution with a rebellion of their own.
The Nevada Museum of Art’s current exhibit, “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement,” showcases the art and objects created by those trendsetters, who set the course for the artistic movements of the modern era. In the second half of the 19th century, three generations of artists and craftspeople upended traditions in visual arts by challenging the changes around them.
“The show is an argument about industry, (and) not just a celebration of industry,” said Tim Barringer, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of the History of Art at Yale University, and one of the curators of the traveling exhibit. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution, he said, filled formerly pastoral landscapes with factories and smokestacks. People could see the mechanization that was taking over their lives.
‘Heaven and hell’
Barringer, who presented a lecture entitled “Dystopia to Utopia” on Zoom for the Nevada museum last month, said during the 1800s, steam power made it possible to flood markets with mass-produced goods made by machines. In the Victorian era, “you could see vast sums of money being made; you could see terrible suffering and inequality – all of the problems that we see in the world now.”
The metal-working city of Birmingham, England, was a blend of heaven and hell, he said. Factories belched fire and spewed blinding smoke while turning out precision-made products. In Halifax, West Yorkshire, thousands of identical carpets rolled out from mechanical looms. Children, hired to poke their tiny fingers into the machinery to clear away tangled threads, were sometimes maimed when the power was turned on too soon.
Things were made fast, using unskilled labor. It was a time of wonders and horror; beauty and cruelty. Artists and craftspeople eventually reacted to the mechanization of their world by creating a more realistic style of painting and illustration. Artisans rejected mass production and created beautiful, useful and decorative objects by hand.
Back to nature
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and champions of the Arts & Crafts Movement offered a radical artistic and social vision inspired by the pre-industrial past. Their work, Barringer said, emphasized the relationship between art and nature, and deeply influenced visual culture in Britain and beyond.
The 145 pieces in the Nevada exhibit, on display until May 30, also pose questions about class and gender identity; the value of the handmade versus machine production; and the search for beauty in an age of industry. Those issues, Barringer said, remain relevant and actively debated today.
The paintings, works on paper, and decorative arts include many that previously were not shown outside the United Kingdom. Through the works of pioneering artists including Ford Madox Brown, Kate Elizabeth Bunce, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, among others, Victorian Radicals represents the spectrum of avant-garde practices of the Victorian period.
These artists’ attention to detail, use of vibrant colors, and engagement with both literary themes and contemporary life are illustrated through a selection of paintings, drawings, and watercolors presented alongside superb examples of decorative art.
Tickets and COVID-19
Tickets to the Nevada Museum of Art are available by advance admission online; a limited number are available for walk-ups. The museum, which is open six days a week (closed on Mondays), requires patrons to wear face masks and will continue to take precautions that patrons should review prior to their visits. Chez Louie, the museum’s café, reopened in March and is taking the same precautions as all local restaurants.
Virtual events on Zoom
Several public programs hosted on Zoom are scheduled in connection with the exhibit. They are free for Nevada Museum of Art members. Pricing for the general public is $10. The lectures and events include:
- “Turning Pages: A Monthly Reading Group,” discusses the novel “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell; 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 13, and Tuesday, May 11.
- “Women and the Arts and Crafts Movement: What Can a Woman Do?” is scheduled at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 22. The talk will cover the role of women designers and artists in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Wendy Kaplan, Los Angeles County Museum of Art department head and curator of Decorative Arts and Design, will explore Victorian women’s leadership in social and economic reform as well as restrictions they encountered that prevented their full participation.
- “Victorian Radicals and the Cult of Beauty ” at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 13, features Melissa Leventon, co-founder of Curatrix Group and former curator-in-charge of Textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Leventon is a specialist in European and American costume and textiles. She will take audiences on a journey into the unconventional creativity of the British Aesthetic Movement, a revolution in fashion and decorative arts.
Shifting Horizons is an exhibition featuring artworks and archival objects that have been gifts to or purchased by the Nevada Museum of Art in the past three years.
Integrating a range of artistic voices, Shifting Horizons is on view at the museum until Aug. 1. From painting and sculpture to photography and video, the exhibition features additions to the museum’s collections which capture the institution’s focus on creative interactions with natural, built, and virtual environments.
Featured artists include both familiar names and those that are newly associated with the Museum, from Laura Aguilar and Bruce Conner to Allison Janae Hamilton and Tony Feher.
The exhibit features work from artists of different styles and backgrounds. For example, Laura Aguilar (1959- 2018), a Chicana photographer, was a pioneer for the Chicanx and queer communities in Southern California in the 1970s. Her work underscored working-class, queer Chicana women in Los Angeles.
Social issues and art
The work of visual artist Allison Janae Hamilton, confronts the brutality of the turpentine industry and the contribution of slave labor in the Southern economy. Works by Aguilar and Janae Hamilton are in conversation with archival materials and/or artworks by Beverly Buchanan, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Stig Broegger, Enrique Chagoya, Bruce Conner, Wilson Díaz, Daniel Douke, Shannon Ebner, Tony Feher, Nicholas Galanin, Mildred Howard, Cara Romero, Michal Rovner, Tavares Strachan, Mickalene Thomas, and Will Wilson.
Shifting Horizons features artworks and objects drawn from four of the Museum’s collecting areas: The Robert S. and Dorothy J. Keyser Art of the Greater West Collection; the Contemporary Collection; The Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection; and the Archive Collections of the Center for Art + Environment. The permanent collection of the Nevada Museum of Art is available to all users online.
Sponsors and supporters
The Victorian Radicals exhibition is a partnership between Birmingham Museum Trust and the American Federation of Arts. It is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Additional funding provided by Clare McKeon and the Dr. Lee MacCormick Edwards Charitable Foundation. Local sponsorship for Victorian Radicals is provided by: Lead Sponsors: Wayne and Rachelle Prim, The Six Talents Foundation; Major Sponsor: Carole K. Anderson; Sponsors: Barbara and Tad Danz, Nancy and Brian Kennedy, Jenny and Garrett Sutton | Corporate Direct; Supporting Sponsors: Debbie Day, Haynie & Company, Pat and Marshall Postman, Kathie Bartlett. Reno-Tahoe International Airport is the exhibition’s Promotional Partner.