Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Why Victorian Art?" - Part 2

The work you see here is Ophelia (1851-2) by John Everett Millais (Tate, London), an icon of Victorian painting. The subject is the doomed heroine of Shakespeare's play Hamlet, who has gone insane, killed herself, and floats down a river clutching the flowers with which she is identified. This picture relates not only to England's rich literary heritage, but has come to speak to the psychology of adolescent girls who suffer from societal pressures about their looks and feelings. (For more on Ophelia in art and literature, see Kimberly Rhodes' new book Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture; for a psychological discussion, see Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia). This picture's haunting beauty epitomizes Pre-Raphaelite painting at its height, with incredible, hyperrealized details in the flora, not to mentioned Millais' desire for accuracy by having his model Lizzie Siddal lie in a bathtub of water to capture the true essence of her appearance as a floating corpse. This work is just one of Millais' most powerful and successful works from the 1850s.

I use this picture to continue my ongoing discussion about Victorian art. Last Friday, February 6th, we hosted the symposium "Why Victorian Art?" at the CUNY Graduate Center. You will recall my previous post ("Why Victorian Art?" - Part 1) in which I gave a description of the symposium and a listing of the speakers and the titles of their talks. The symposium was a success. We had a full house throughout the morning (it was standing-room-only at one point) and the afternoon was nearly full. After Kevin Murphy, Executive Officer of the Art History Program, welcomed the guests, I gave a brief introduction. In my talk I nuanced (in very post-modern fashion) the idea of the symposium: why ask why?; what is Victorian?; and what is art? Our final speaker of the day was Elizabeth Mansfield (New York University) who asked another question: "What is Victorian Art?" Weaving in ideas and quotes from many of the talks given earlier in the day, Mansfield queried whether the word Victorian itself was partly to blame for its disregard from American academic discourse. Since World War I, we have lived in what she called an "age of irony" in which sentimentality has come to be seen as kitsch. Thus, the idea of "Victorian" has resulted in misconceptions and altered perceptions. She argued that Victorian painters believed sentiment was tied to art, works whose subject and meaning have been lost in our modern age. She suggested some of the reasons why this happened, among them the rise of a new taste in rationalist abstraction over emotional narrativity, the criticism of the Bloomsbury group, the rise of psychoanalysis, and so on. She pointed out that rather than assume that the declined appreciation of Victorian art comes from outside Britain, in fact this conscious attack against it came from within the United Kingdom itself. Despite this modernist tendency, however, a strain of romantic sensibility always permeated British culture, but as a result Victorian art remained popular among the masses while modernist strains flourished among the academic elite. Her talk generated many illuminating responses from the audience, including parsing the differences between sentiment, sentimental, and sentimentality (which mean different things), and discussing examples of visual irony that were popular during the Victorian period, such as in the caricatures of Max Beerbohm. I concluded the symposium by pointing out that perhaps the greatest success of the day was that we had not answered the question "Why Victorian Art?" but in fact discovered how many more questions there were, a welcoming sign of ongoing academic discourse in the making.

The talks throughout the day were engaging and informative. More importantly, they covered so many different areas that it demonstrated how large the idea of Victorian art is and how much more work is needed in the field. I have asked one of my co-organizers, Paul Ranogajec, to write for this post a synopsis of the day's events. His report appears below.

"Why Victorian Art?": A Report
by Paul Ranogajec, CUNY Graduate Center, PhD Student

The symposium “Why Victorian Art?”, organized by Roberto C. Ferrari with the assistance of Margaret R. Laster and myself, proved to be an exciting and thoughtful day of discussions and idea-sharing. For earlier generations of critics and art historians, the complexity and Janus-faced nature of the Victorian period were incomprehensible. Modernists sought to exclude the sentimentality, narrativity, naturalism, classicism, and forthright backward-glancing that was central to Victorian art. As a result, British art in the nineteenth century has been overlooked and undervalued as compared to the trajectory that French art took from David to Delacroix, Courbet to Cézanne—i.e., the progressive march toward modernism. Although an event that asked “Why Victorian Art?” cannot completely or unproblematically do what its title implies it can do—that is, answer the question of why studying Victorian art today is important—the formal talks and numerous informal discussions helped to raise new and important questions and provided much fodder for further studies. The presentations spanned a range of topics, from well-known artists like Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais to underappreciated forms of handicraft.

The first panel session had three speakers: Jason Rosenfeld (Marymount Manhattan College), Kathryn Moore Heleniak (Fordham University), and Richard Kaye (Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center). Rosenfeld discussed the changing reception of Victorian art as seen through exhibitions in Britain and the U.S. His own co-curated exhibition on Millais, a critical and popular success in Britain and Japan, failed to find a home in the U.S., suggesting that American museums still haven’t understood that Victorian artists are popular with the public. Rosenfeld made the bold but compelling claim that Millais, rather than the well-known French Realist Gustave Courbet, was the greatest artist of the mid-century. Heleniak discussed the career of William Mulready, his promotion of his pupil Harriot Gouldsmith, his interest in new subject matter, and his connections to liberal patrons and the burgeoning commercial art market of the nineteenth century. Her paper suggested the value of individual studies of artists through the lens of the changes in British society, economy, and culture in the period. Kaye, a literature professor who also works in visual culture, closed the panel with the most provocative comments of the day. Though he appreciates and admires much about current Victorian art criticism, he criticized what he sees as conservatism. Elizabeth Prettejohn, for instance, was singled out because of her prolific and influential work. Concerned that she and other historians have avoided the tough questions of gender, queer theory, and other socially-responsive theories, Kaye castigated historians of Victorian art for falling back on hagiography and canonization rather than following the lead of historians of French art like Thomas Crow and Linda Nochlin who have pioneered new directions in the social history of art.

The second panel had three speakers: Geoffrey Batchen (CUNY Graduate Center), Talia Schaffer (Queens College/CUNY Graduate Center), and Peter Trippi (Editor, Fine Art Connoisseur). Batchen argued for a new approach to the history of photography that recognizes and analyzes the commercial and market pressures on the photographic industry, as these were businesses above all. He ended by providing a detailed analysis of one particular photograph, The Reading Establishment (ca.1846), showing the production studio of Nicolaas Henneman, who ran the first commercial photographic firm under the sponsorship of William Henry Fox Talbot. Batchen called the photograph the equivalent of the Parthenon frieze, and looked one-by-one at each of the figures in the image and the tasks each was charged with in producing photographs, reminding us that labor was part of the photographic business. Schaffer, a literature professor who also works in visual culture, presented an overlooked aspect of Victorian studies, what she terms Victorian domestic handicraft. Arguing that today the distinction between fine arts and craft is no longer tenable, she looked back to before the well-known Arts and Crafts movement to find the origins of the handicraft movement that has been since pitted against high art. She argued persuasively that Arts and Crafts reformers not only rebelled against industrialization in design and production, but also were opposed to domestic handicrafts. She claimed that modern-day crocheted toilet paper cozies express values first formed in the Victorian period and that we cannot understand them without looking to their origins in the Victorian period. Trippi ended the second panel by discussing the internationally-renowned career of French-born artist Gustave Doré, who was extremely popular in Victorian England, and the challenges in mounting an exhibition of work by him. His talk brought up the question of illustration and its close connection to literature and narrative subject matter, aspects of Victorian art that especially have been maligned by modernist critics. Trippi’s laundry list of objections that museums and critics make to showing Victorian art in the U.S. challenged the audience to directly confront the many biases still existing against Victorian art, both in Britain and America.

The afternoon session was comprised of four doctoral students at different stages of their dissertation: Margaret R. Laster (CUNY Graduate Center), Catherine Roach (Columbia University), Jordan Bear (Columbia University), and Andrea Wolk Rager (Yale University). This session provided a forum for work being conducted by up-and-coming scholars in the field of Victorian art and suggested new avenues of inquiry that might benefit the study of Victorian art hereafter. Laster shared her research on the American Gilded Age collectors Henry Marquand and Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, both of whom were interested in contemporary British art and design. Previous studies of collectors have focused primarily on old Masters and contemporary French art, so Laster’s work is useful in shedding light on the transatlantic interest in British Victorian art and design of the period. Roach discussed her work on paintings within paintings. She primarily addressed the question of why, if the theme of her dissertation could be explored in any context, she would choose Victorian art and not, say, French Realism or Impressionism. She identified a number of reasons for her choice, including her subjective response to the work and the historiographic challenges and opportunities it has given her. Bear argued for a new approach to photographic history that situates photographs within the larger visual cultures of their time. For Bear, this means closely understanding the various means by which photographers attempted not to depict a “truthful” appearance of the world, but to question the meaning of those terms and the meanings of representation itself. His work analyzes composite photographs, series, and collaborations, three previously marginalized aspects of mid-Victorian photography. Finally, Wolk Rager discussed her work reinterpreting the career and legacy of Burne-Jones, one of the towering giants of Victorian art. She dismisses the traditional view of Burne-Jones as an escapist dreamer and asserts his active confrontation with the concerns and themes of modernity. The artist’s vast production in many media was a result of his desire to pursue his artistic vision in as many directions as possible, a method that confirms his modernity and provides a new way of assessing the work of many other prolific Victorians.

The symposium was a complete success. Attendance was better than expected (probably about 70 visitors throughout the day), and audience members came from as far away as Geneva and in the U.S. from places as diverse as Massachusetts and Georgia. The informal chats I overheard or participated in throughout the day suggested that the participants and audience all came away with a renewed dedication to rehabilitating the fortunes of this extraordinary period and its art.

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