Looking back, over the seismic shifts of early-20th-century art, the Pre-Raphaelite painters of 19th-century England seem guilty of every crime of retrograde aesthetics: They were sentimental and traditional, treacly and decorative. They were obsessed with willowy ginger lads and lasses languishing in historical dress-up, and lavished attention on hyper-precise details of wallpaper, costume and foliage.
One of the most anticipated exhibitions this season, at the National Gallery of Art (Feb. 17), will take a new look at all that, and argue something else: that the Pre-Raphaelites were in fact part of an avant-garde movement, more unruly in their colors and design than they are given credit for, and keenly alert to the social conditions and rapidly changing world of Victorian England. The exhibition mixes art and design, and is likely to be a crowd pleaser.
Other highlights of the National Gallery season are a major exhibition of works on paper by Albrecht Durer (March 24) and a glitzy show of art, design and costumes from the Ballets Russes (May 12). The latter will be a sexy spectacle, with the National Gallery raising the ceiling of its East Building galleries to accommodate two huge theatrical paintings, one a curtain based on a design by Picasso, the other a backdrop designed by Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova. The Ballets Russes intersected with many of the major artistic currents in Paris, and it toured throughout the world, playing an outsize role in disseminating visual, musical and choreographic styles. The exhibition will be one of the rare National Gallery shows to include a substantial multimedia component, with visual material punctuated by music and film.