“Surely, the reason he [Dante Gabriel Rossetti] never completed Found is because he knew it was awful.”

– Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 2023

This is the sort of criticism which shows precisely why art critics need to wake up! The notion that Dante Rossetti had any amount of self-doubt in anything is so laughably wrong that it could have been written by someone who had no idea who the Pre-Raphaelites were and who was just making a blanket statement about most people. My favourite story about Dante is how he painted murals in the Oxford Union at cost (a noble gesture surely?) but because none of his team had painted on walls before they didn’t prep it properly and the paint started falling off the walls after about a month. And this is the man who gave up on a painting with several studies and preliminaries and with a poem about it? I don’t think so…

But, let’s agree with the view that it’s “awful”, because, well, it is. It features swathes of nothingness and what there is is mostly centred on human figures which look more like someone has drawn a scene from Shrek after a long game of broken telephone.

You’ll be pleased to hear, then, that this is my favourite exhibition that I’ve been to in the last year. And not just because I’m slightly obsessed with how funny Dante’s life is! Rather, my praise is best summed up by the first room. The room features ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’, a painting by Dante for which his sister Christina sat and surrounding it on all walls are prints of her poems. The poetry is brought into the gallery as visual art; it is on a par with the paintings. Or is it? There are spots on the floor which, if you stand on, will play a recording of the poem being performed. It is a form of sonic art too. In the first room we get visual art, literature, and music, and all merge into one.

Pieces throughout the exhibition feature poems on the frames (designed and written by Dante himself) or, more uncommonly, on the painting itself, as is the case with ‘Proserpine’ where the Italian sonnet on the painting is translated by the English sonnet on the frame, mirroring how the sitter, Mrs Morris, has been translated from reality into art.

This continues with book art on display such as the famous frontispiece for Christina’s ‘Goblin Market’ and Rossetti’s illustrations of Poe’s ‘The Raven’. The exhibition is very well curated… until the last room. This last room is about ‘legacies’ and seems to be a jumble sale of random other art that Tate Britain found behind the sofa and have put together to somehow claim the Rossettis are still relevant. So what if they’re not politically relevant? They’re still interesting. The move to make everything politically relevant has plagued a lot of the humanities and arts recently and is, in my view, misguided. It is obviously nonsense too, as if they wanted to do a proper anti-capitalist Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, they would’ve done William Morris. The artists therefore clearly came before the theme. What would have worked better is focusing on what I call the Rossetti Gesamtkunstwerk and then look at the ‘legacies’ of their work in later media, such as with Holst’s music to accompany ‘A Christmas Carol’, a poem exhibited in the first room. But that, perhaps, would have been too radical for the ‘Radical Romantics’ exhibition. Expanding what a gallery is for is too threatening to the established holier-than-thou view of the art world to other art forms. Now that would be anti-capitalist to put “low” art with the immense monetary value some of these paintings hold, despite them being “awful”.

Poet Simon Armitage says that the word ‘poetic’ just means more something than other somethings of the same something. But here we might apply the word accurately. Some of Dante’s paintings are literally poetic because they feature painted poems. This is the real form of poetic painting and Dante knew it. And it seems like the curators knew it too… until they finished the first room when they promptly forgot about it.