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The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (review)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 203-206 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0012

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The large body of Victorian art literature, some by canonical nineteenth-century literary figures (such as William Thackeray and Henry James) and already heavily mined, provides the focus of Rachel Teukolsky's book. She contextualizes Victorian art writing within an evolving modernist aesthetic in Britain from circa 1840 to 1910. Questioning scholarly commonplaces, Teukolsky assembles "texts, spaces, institutions, and practices that shaped Victorian critical discourse" and Victorians' contributions to "modern Anglo-American aesthetics" (3). Art historians have already argued that Britain experienced a modernism distinct from French modernism, hitherto considered exemplary of European modernism. Yet Teukolsky seems hampered by conventional formalist notions of modernism, and her determination to "illuminate the prismatic complexity of Victorian aesthetic, of which Roger Fry's formalist theory ultimately seems an apt and famous extension" (22), is somewhat teleological (as her use of ultimately suggests) and tends to marginalize the disjunctions, byways, and multiple modernisms otherwise adumbrated in her rich analyses of this vast sea of writings.

Teukolsky links Victorian aesthetic probings with neurology, biology, colour science, and optics, a Victorian "plasticity of aesthetic ideologies" (8). Tracing the increasing importance of the visual in literature—Jane Eyre's ability to draw, Browning's painters' monologues—she combines canonical and non-canonical authors to amalgamate high, middle, and low cultures, intersections made by Victorians themselves. This approach is not new: studying Walter Sickert's paintings, art historians examine music halls and press sensationalism, for example. Teukolsky's assertion that aesthetics is "constructed by cultural factors" (21) is a commonplace; scholars now regularly juxtapose illustration and painting or novels and advertising. Claiming to "historicize aesthetic judgments rather than to revise current art-historical evaluations" without citing these evaluations, Teukolsky sometimes turns art history (where the Victorian-modernism relationship has been explored) into a straw man. Focusing on "the interpretive moves of Victorians themselves" (21), without distinguishing such moves by class, gender, or region, she equates middle-class values with the Victorian.

In chapter 1, on Ruskin's first two volumes of Modern Painters, Teukolsky argues that Ruskin's inconsistencies grew from conflicting eighteenth-century and Lockean epistemologies. Ruskin's new synthesis of botany, anatomy, psychology, and the 1840 translation of Goethe's Theory of Colours initiated the "long modernism" (28). Yoking the picturesque, Romanticism, travellers' watercolours, 1830s travel guides, and the construction of the 1840s "photographic eye" (45), Teukolsky nicely connects Ruskin to changing ideas of subjectivity and objectivity in order to situate him in the intellectual history of the 1840s.

In chapter 2, Teukolsky focuses on texts generated by the Great Exhibition (as does Lara Kriegel in Grand Designs), comparing the Exhibition to other display venues in which people could look but not touch. But exhibition objects were not encased in glass; the Crystal Palace was not a replica of a cabinet but of a greenhouse, Joseph Paxton's specialty. Similarly, panoramas, dioramas, and shop goods were approachable. Dioramas were miniatures meant to be seen up close, and viewers strolled alongside panoramas. Panoramas, the Exhibition, and dioramas did not in practice exemplify a "detached attitude" (73). White marble sculpture does not simply signify a racial category (81), a comment admittedly extended from another scholar's view and without support from Victorian sources. The rich scholarly literature on the Exhibition and the classification complexities that frustrated its planners would have usefully complicated Teukolsky's readings of objects and the Exhibition's reception.

Teukolsky's lack of art historical knowledge mars this chapter. She illustrates negative criticism of the Pre-Raphaelites in 1850 to 1851 with Millais's Lorenzo and Isabella (1849), which was praised in the press. Teukolsky's assertion that the PRB vision was "detached" ignores their intention to express "the power of undying appeal to the hearts of living men" and touch spectators' "inner self " (Hunt 1: 48). Her notion of a "detached" scientific view separated from popular "sentimental" affect does not square with the PRB's stated purposes or with Victorian popular science writers' engaged didactic wonder at the world, described recently by historians of science such as Bernard Lightman.

In chapter 3, Teukolsky cogently yokes Walter Pater's "School of Giorgione" and the Grosvenor Gallery (which exhibited both avant-garde and academic art), exploring...



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