- Frederic Leighton: Death, Mortality, Resurrection by Keren Rosa Hammerschlag
Keren Rosa Hammerschlag’s Frederic Leighton: Death, Mortality, Resrruection, follows recent reassessments of Leighton’s art, which are part of the scholarly revival of Victorian art over the last four decades. What Hammerschlag adds to the studies on Leighton is her argument that death was an overarching theme in Leighton’s work, and that his work contains competing gothic and classical sources, uneasily yoked in his mission to resurrect the past from fragments and ruins. Hammerschlag defines gothic, in Leighton’s case, as distorting the past to express anxiety over the present, rather than a direct influence of medieval sources. For Leighton, antiquity’s glory was beyond reach; recasting it in painting only underscored its loss and the subsequent decline of art. Loyal to the Royal Academy of which he became President, Leighton was also among the Aesthetes in the anti-Academy Grosvenor Gallery 1877 opening exhibition. Exhibiting in both places exemplified the tensions in his work: Academic and Aesthete, conventional and experimental.
Hammerschlag problematizes the divide between avant-garde and academicism that now dominates scholars’ near-obsession over whether Victorian art was modernist. Methodologically, she writes a “counter biography,” to focus on decentered parts of his paintings. She embraces feminist and queer theorists’ explorations of the contradictory masculinities Leighton negotiated, despite a paucity of theorists cited and her own unsystematic, speculative psychoanalysis (8). Leighton’s procession paintings resonated with Victorian funeral processions, spectacalized by the Duke of Wellington’s 1852 funeral and by funerals of the poor or of children in Social Realist paintings. His paintings combined idealized figures with realistic bodies marked by age or disability, infusing melancholy even into wedding procession subjects about which Hammerschlag suggests rich connections among images of women and animals and Leighton’s literary sources.
Hammerschlag coordinates Leighton’s history paintings depicting Old Masters in deathbed scenes with theories of melodrama applied to his classical and biblical death subjects, and then with his resurrection subjects from biblical, classical (for example, Persephone), and historical narratives. She explores Leighton’s aestheticization of death and reads his sexual “daemon” through his depictions of serpents and snakes that Hammerschlag loosely associates with his fear of female sexuality, the pleasures of “Aestheticism itself,” the unconscious, and masturbation (7, 90). Victorian critics, who regularly used gendered terms like “manly” and “effeminate” (the latter commonly applied to Edward Burne-Jones’s muscular-less male figures), described Leighton’s figures as effeminate or androgynous. But that does not make Leighton effeminate, especially given the polymorphous eroticism of all his figures, regardless of gender. Hammerschlag links his compositional serpentine lines to snakes. But William Hogarth advocated the serpentine line in the eighteenth century as a line of beauty, perhaps a source for Leighton’s compositions. And what about the role of his sources in German music and poetry: Felix Mendelssohn and Johann Goethe? If Leighton’s masculinity was in crisis while “masculinity is always in crisis,” how was Leighton distinct from other artists, like Burne-Jones? [End Page 537]
Leighton described his inherited nervous condition, and his foremost biographer narrated a manic-depressive description of him. Yet, Leighton’s condition is not diagnosable. Hammerschlag’s speculative over-reading of a photo of Leighton holding a sculptural female nude while looking toward or at (it’s unclear) his own nude male sculpture as masturbatory does not illuminate Leighton’s sexual orientation. The women’s trancelike states in The Garden of Hesperides (1892) may reflect mesmerism and hypnosis, as Hammerschlag asserts; some references to neurology and psychology relegated to footnotes would have been better in the text, such as the attenuated links among neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, artist Jules Dalou, and Leighton.
Leighton attempted “to elevate the real, lived, working-class bodies of his female models to the immortal beauty of marble Venuses of Greek Antiquity,” but representationally “broke them into pieces,” drained of blood (115). Critics, like Algernon Charles Swinburne, did not see this elevation, but attacked the figures for their wax-like pallor and unbridled flowing...