Sunday, October 17, 2010

Steampunk and the Pre-Raphaelites

(I've actually had this post written in notes and jotted concepts form for over a year now, but I just never got around to posting it!)

Over a year ago, there was a query on a Steampunk costuming group I belong to on Live Journal. The person wanted to know if there was any way she could wear a Pre-Raphaelite / Aesthetic style gown to a Steampunk event without seeming to be headed to a Renaissance Faire. The question prompted a discussion of the Pre-Raphaelites and Steampunk, and I was shocked by the vehement reaction the whole idea stirred in me. Any time I find myself responding to something so passionately and angrily, I like to investigate it further. You see, I've always maintained that although I have a great admiration for the technical and costume side of Steampunk (hence why I'm on the LJ list), it just isn't for me. I love the Victorian era, but I personally prefer my Victorians with fairies, myths, and Romance, rather than with cogs, steam, and technology. My response to the question of melding the two stirred in me a sort of psychological "turf war"...."Stay away from my Brotherhood with your goggles and cogs!!"

So what do the Pre-Raphaelites and Steampunk have in common? The straightforward and initial answer I thought was "absolutely nothing: They are anathema to each other." The Pre-Raphaelite code of life was for art to reflect nature. Nature is romanticized. In the Steampunk code of life, technology is transformed into art. Technology is romanticized. It doesn't get a lot more dualistic than nature vs. technology.

However, upon further contemplation, and after I talked with a friend about my knee-jerk reaction and she commented that "Steampunk is the Arts and Crafts Movement of today", I had to admit that the issue wasn't as black and white as it appeared. The two philosophies do have some similar ground, especially in the Arts & Crafts movement founded by the Brotherhood's second-generation member, William Morris. I still may wholeheartedly object to the idea someone mentioned on Live Journal of William Morris being a father of Steampunk. To me, that would be like saying Ann Coulter is the mother of Democrats. But I must admit, the two movements...William Morris' Arts & Crafts and modern-day have more in common than one may at first think. This is, of course, highly ironic, since Steampunk is all about technology, and technology and industry were what Morris most hated. But still, both genres feature....

-A Nostalgic look back at the past. Both philosophies despair at certain aspects of what was for them "modern" life, and instead look back at what was for them "simpler" times, attempting to blend that romantic era with modern existence. For William Morris, this was the medieval times, but the fashions of that era were still reinterpreted for the modern Victorian man and woman (Aesthetic Movement clothing). Similarly, the tools, furniture, and handiwork of the medieval times were created by Morris using some technology not found in medieval times, and with an end result that often reflected the Victorian aesthetic as well as the medieval. For Steampunk aficionados, the Victorian era of William Morris is the simpler time that is romanticized. Modern technology is re-conceived in the context of a time when people still wrote each other letters with ink and paper, there was still a code of etiquette followed by almost all of society.

-A respect for the handmade. This is, in my opinion, the area in which the two philosophies most successfully converge. The Arts & Crafts movement was founded on the concept of distain for the mass-produced, shoddily made items that were a hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. And Steampunk (when it's more than just buying a Nerf gun and spray painting it copper) is all about creating something by hand, with a nostalgic and old look. As Bruce Sterling says in his guide to Steampunk, "The heaviest guys in the Steampunk scene are not really all that into 'steam'. Instead, they are into punk. Specifically, punk's do-it-yourself aspects, and its determination to take the means of production away from big-mind-deadening companies who want to package and sell shrink-wrapped cultural product."

Ironically, William Morris created a style so successful in his times, that there were many a mass-produced, shoddily made copy of his work. Similarly, Steampunk has reached such heights of success, it is easy to obtain an entire Steampunk-style ensemble made from industrial hands. But the soul and heart of both philosophies emphasize the craft of hand-made items.

-Recycling. William Morris was the father of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. He felt that many things became more beautiful through the wear and tear of the ages. Steampunk is also about taking bits and pieces of old items...old clothes, old watches, old bits and pieces once discarded, and transforming them into something new, so that we can see their beauty again.

-A movement across multiple disciplines that began in the arts. For Arts & Crafts, it began with Pre-Raphaelite art. It then progressed to concepts of anti-industrialization and homemade goods, as well as dress reform and romanticized philosophies. With Steampunk, it began in literature (the works of authors like H.G. Wells etc), and progressed across philosophy and both event costuming and daily wear, home interiors, etc.

-A fear or concern for what modern society has become. This similarity is by far the most ironic, as I briefly mentioned above. William Morris expressed his concern for modern society by a deep-rooted distain for modern industrialization and modernization. On a Steampunk message board online, someone wrote, "I'm holidaying in Edinburgh for a few days and large parts of it are incredibly steamy. However, if I chose one [Steampunk landmark], it would have to be the Forth Bridge. Opened in 1890, it is said that William Morris described it as 'the supremest specimen of all ugliness', confirming for me its Steampunk credentials!" Many Victorian landmarks specifically despised by William Morris now, to us, seem simple and romantic. These locations that are hold-outs from Victorian industrial technology make perfect backdrops for Steampunk photo shoots...and ironically are simultaneously the areas that would have made Morris violently ill to see.

So the irony is, as I've mentioned, Steampunk is responding to modern technological society by returning to an earlier era when technology was newer and more romantic, while Morris responded in his era to the technology Steampunkers adore by...returning to an earlier era of handmade production in medieval times that he deemed more romantic. Steampunk and William Morris both dealt with the same question. Their answers to that question just varied as widely as nature and technology can. Again, Bruce Sterling's article put it succinctly and accurately: "The Industrial Revolution has grown old. So machines that Romantics considered Satanic now look romantic." "Successful steampunks are not anti-industrial as Ruskin was. They are digital natives and therefore post-industrial."

This brings me to a quote from a novel I read last year and reviewed here at TBN. "She hadn't fully appreciated this aspect of history before now. The further back the story went, the more possible it was to give it a romantic glow that blurred the edges and made the awful more palatable. Though she had been through all the documents, read the letters and poems, examined the paintings, somehow that was different than the cold, stark, black-and-white typeface with an accompanying photo on page A2." There is a comfort in the patina of time...a comfort that takes away both the dirt and disease of the medieval times for Morris, and the grime and disease of the Victorian era for us today.

So I have to look again and re-analyze my knee-jerk reaction to the idea of Steampunk and the Brotherhood coexisting. Steampunk does still seem rather trendy to me. I still maintain that for some people who dress in Steampunk gear, they are simply following the newest costuming and cultural trend. But to assume that the majority of casual trend-jumpers within the trend represent the whole, or the underlying philosophy, is unfair, and to be blunt, rather prejudiced. After all, every cultural hobby or interest has its own degrees of passion and hangers-on, just as many people who say they love the Pre-Raphaelites may only see it as pretty pictures of fantasy women to put on their wall. Many people have no knowledge at all of underlying Pre-Raphaelite philosophies or stories.

The idea of the Lady of Shalott sewing cogs into her tapestry and floating down the river in a steamboat may still make me violently dizzy with its paradox, but I am willing to admit that the two movements both arose as a response to fear and/or concern for what (for each era) was modern society. In the end, the two movements are not the same, but are more like sister philosophies with similar origins, but opposite personalities, born a century apart.

Addendum: The images in this post were Photoshopped by me, with stomach churning the whole time. ;)

The Truth is in the Dirt

The new music video from the stunning red haired model-now-musician Karen Elson has a very Pre-Raphaelitesque feel to it. And it's quite a lovely tune too.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

National Gallery of Art Exhibit

Thanks to Maggie for giving me the heads-up on another exhibit of interest to us! The National Gallery of Art will have an exhibit starting on October 31st. The title is The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting 1848-1875. Of course it will feature work of Julia Margaret Cameron and the photographic portraits of Janey among other things.

And speaking of which, Under the Ivy's Tumblr just recently featured this lovely altered artwork based on one of those photographs of Jane Morris, by Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blackwell Exhibits

Many thanks to Bryony Whistlecraft for sending along this link. Anyone lucky enough to be in England, there's an amazing exhibit going on right now (for another week only!) at Blackwell: The Arts & Crafts House. I hadn't heard of this location before Bryony called it to my attention, and now of course I have another P.R.B.-related stop to make on my "someday dream" tour of England.

The William Morris: A Sense of Place exhibit is going on through October 17th. The exhibit includes "designs, textiles, books, samples, and personal artifacts" of Morris'.

Their next exhibit, Aspects of the Arts & Crafts Movement, will run October 25 - January 3 2011, and features the work of cabinet-maker Arthur Simpson.

My favorite exhibit, however, was the recently-created LawnPaper environmental installation outside the Blackwell estate to coincide with the William Morris exhibit. Environmental artist Steve Messam created patterns in the lawn at Blackwell to mimic William Morris wallpaper patterns. Absolutely beautiful, and a brilliant idea!

Friday, October 8, 2010

These things of the soul that are real...

(Detail from The Wizard, click to see larger)

But it was a later paragraph that struck May particularly, and she marked it lovingly. As so often in Burne-Jones's letters, it conjures up images from his paintings, but particularly a painting he worked on throughout his last years, The Wizard, which portrayed an aging man, recognizably Burne-Jones himself, showing a young girl a magic mirror, in which you can see ships on a stormy sea. The paragraph my great-grandmother marked seems to me to offer the most perfect promise of love, shelter, and protection for May as she looked back on her past sadness and joy, and prepared herself for what now lay ahead. see May, it is these things of the soul that are real, and the only real things in the universe---and the little hidden chamber in my heart where you only can come is more real than your little bedroom---if you can believe it---I will furnish it for you---such a couch for your tired soul to lie on, and music there shall be always, soft and low, and little talks when you are refreshed---news of the outer world---when you are rested and can sit up and stand I'll open a little magic window and you shall choose what land you will see and what time in the world---you shall see Babylon being built if you like---or the Greeks coming into Greece---or the North Sea tossing and full of ships, or the piety of ancient France, plaintive notes of ancient Ireland, kings of Samarcand, Nibelungen terrors---all I have raked with greedy hands into my treasure house since I was a mean wretched looking object of ten till now---into that room with the magical window none has entrance but you.

From May and Amy, last page

Friday, October 1, 2010

Mermaids on Etsy (Waterhouse)

My husband and I are planning a little vacation to Key West, so warm oceans and mermaids have been on my mind. A recent search of Etsy brought forth these treasures from the deep.

The above two stunning creations are both from Etsy vendor Beadedbear, and are hand-beaded works of art. Absolutely mind-blowing!

Also lovely, these earrings from Etsy vendor Poppenkraal.

And of course, the incomparable Etsy vendor Baba Studio.