The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, and: Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850-1900 (review)
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Victorian Studies 45.2 (2003) 355-358



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The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, by Kate Flint; pp. xvi + 427. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000, £45.00, $75.00.
Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850-1900, by Deborah Cherry; pp. xvii + 268. London and New York: Routledge, 2000, £48.00, £14.99 paper, $90.00, $23.95 paper.

Although different in content and methodologies, both of these landmark books are the products of wondrously synthetic research and intelligence, and Victorianists in several interdisciplinary fields will learn a great deal from each. [End Page 355]

Kate Flint centers her arguments on the deliberately ironic blind spot of Victorian writings about the visual. She postulates that the Victorians' panoptic society represented a means of control, making the invisible more visible and coping with the vast increase in stimuli occasioned by inventions like the camera and the stereoscope. In a dazzling array of ideas about seeing, specularity, and spectatorship, she displays her own acute panoptic awareness with wide-ranging examples of the technology of vision, such as hot-air balloon surveillance, photography, and magic lanterns.

Chapter 2 provides a highly original examination of the paradoxical nature of dust as a carrier of disease, scientific property, and symbol of class distinctions, among other meanings. Flint is far from making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill—or dusty accretion—and offers an astonishing lineup of dust-generating meanings, from the scientific (stardust), to the aesthetic (arsenic in some green-colored wallpapers) and the social (colonial bacterial dust in India).

In Chapter 3, "Blindness and Insight," Flint's exegesis of John Everett Millais's Blind Girl (1854-56) probes hitherto unmined layers of the protagonist as a blessed Virgin type, an embodiment of inner vision, and a trope of feminine helplessness and society's spiritual blindness. Chapters 4 and 5 are more literary. "Lifting the Veil" is a foray into the realm of medical invasion of the female body. "Under the Ice" reveals how the Victorian imagination tried to comprehend a glacier's ironically huge unseen identity, often represented as a monster, womb symbol, or cave. Flint is never on thin ice in her solid insights about John Brett's Glacier of Rosenlaui (1856) and William Dyce's Man of Sorrows (1860) as paradigms of the relationship between science, religion, and art.

While Chapter 6 excavates subterranean environments, Chapters 7 and 8 will especially tantalize art historians, although one might wish these were more firmly connected with previous sections. Chapter 7 moves beyond physiological sight to encompass the intellectual, critical, intuitive, and the didactic. Flint begins by suggesting—though not everyone will concur—that the Victorian critic's role "assumed an unquestioned continuity between the world represented and the world inhabited by the reader. [...] [this constituting] a [...] 'refusal to take art as art'" (169). Yet not all artists were as avant-garde as Whistler, and indeed they deliberately aspired to produce narrative art with accessible meanings that clearly related to viewers' very Victorianized lives.

Chapter 8 chronicles how earlier criticism assumed works of art were merely novels in paint and accordingly borrowed language from fiction, and later, poetry. Flint offers an engaging digression into gambling themes, including works by Robert Martineau, William Orchardson, and William Powell Frith. She heralds William Holman Hunt's Awakening Conscience (1853-54), due to its classic, almost metonymic Ruskinian interpretation, as an ideal example of the perils of relying on reviews instead of looking at pictures.

Chapter 9 is slightly anticlimactic, shifting back to the value of surface qualities and employing the mirror motif and post-Lacanian speculations about Edward Burne- Jones's Mirror of Venus (1873-77). Chapter 10 scrutinizes a different aspect of visualizing: hallucination, which Flint persuasively links with scientific interests as well as with the ascent of the notorious "problem picture" and its deliberately ambiguous, open-ended nature. Problem pictures raise the spectre of the "democratization of art criticism [...], in which each spectator is granted their own interpretive license, and the subjectivity...


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