he long reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) became known as the Victorian era of British history. For Britain, it was a time of domestic peace, economic and colonial consolidation, general progress and advancement of national self-confidence. Alongside the great changes in society which gave rise to continually increasing social tensions, moral values, based on ethic and supported by religion, were established afresh and came to form the spiritual environment of the growing middle class. Searching for parallels in Slovene history, the Victorian period can be compared to the Biedermeier and its long-lived endurance. Within a similar time span, and in similar economic and social circumstances, art production began to prosper both in Britain and in the Slovene lands, and the hub of things shifted to the sphere of bourgeois culture.
It was, therefore, most inviting when about two years ago Professor Paul Crowther and Mojca Oblak addressed themselves to the National Gallery of Slovenia and proposed to present their collection of Victorian art to the public for the first time. The core of the collection consists of works by artists who were members of, or associated with, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (formed in London in 1848). Their programme was to abandon established academic practice – which was particularly influential in England owing to the power of the Royal Academy of Arts – and turn to nature for inspiration. They wanted to revive the style of the artists prior to Raphael.
Professor Crowther received his PhD from the University of Oxford and was later a Lecturer in History of Art there. He is Established Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and the Co-Director of the Values and Identities group in the Moore Institute for research in the humanities.
He contributed all the texts for the present exhibition catalogue. His passionate research into the background of artworks, the context of their origin, iconography and significance has led him to important findings which shed new light on many aspects of Victorian art. He has found an illuminating common denominator for stylistically most diverse works of art of the discussed period. According to him, what they have in common is the genre-like presentation, irrespective of whether the artists depicted scenes which are traditionally regarded as genres or painted motifs from history, mythology, the Bible or even landscapes and portraits. In this way, they moved away from generalizing academic idealism, from ideal beauty in a formulaic sense, by focussing on beauty as truth to nature. So, for example, they painted prominent historical personages in moments and settings which were far from being heroic or dignified, thus not in the time of their great historical deeds but in moments of loneliness, emotional excitement or distress. The significance the Victorian era ascribed to minute observations of reality and its precise reproduction in the visual arts was the common denominator which undermined the authority of academic hierarchy of motifs and suited best the needs of the middle class. The exhibition numbers 153 works by forty-six artists of the Victorian era. The specific trait and the surplus value of the Crowther/Oblak Collection, which is continually added to, lie in the fact that it echoes the interests and philosophical background of the collectors and is also a source of their scholarly research and ongoing artistic activity. An inseparable component of the Awakening Beauty project is also the art production of Mojca Oblak Crowther, who finds inspiration for her own creativity in this collection. The artist has developed a fruitful relationship to tradition, considerably surpassing a mere gaze and acting as a stimulus to new art practices. Hence it is fair and right that the present exhibition does not split up what is inseparably united.
We, who work in the National Gallery of Slovenia, feel sincerely obliged to Professor Crowther and Mrs. Oblak Crowther for their confidence and readiness to share part of their life with us and the public. I would like to express warm thanks to all authors and co-authors who participated in the preparatory works for the exhibition and the two versions of the exhibition catalogue, the English and the Slovene ones. The head of the project, Dr. Andrej Smrekar, had to solve many a difficulty and was assisted in this by the co-translator of the original texts, Alenka Klemenc. Professor Ranko Novak took care of the graphic image of all printed materials, including the catalogue, and also staged the exhibition. However, our thanks go in the first place to all visitors to the National Gallery who appreciate our efforts to keep the door of the Gallery widely open for them and to make their visits first-hand experience of the vast spiritual horizons for which we strive in our work. We believe that everyone who will pay proper attention to the works presently exhibited will find new realms opening up for them and become aware that a part of the world that merely seems to be far away is in fact close to us. Works of art of past times invite us to make a stop and ponder on today and on tomorrow.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014.
Last modified 24 November 2014