- The World in Paint: Modern Art and Visuality in England, 1848–1914
The very dates in the title of David Peters Corbett's book The World in Paint: Modern Art and Visuality in England, 1848–1914 are significant as they promise a text that spans the virtual moat between two seemingly opposed art worlds, the world of those Victorian 'fools in old-style hats and coats' (Philip Larkin) and the world of radical modernist proto-abstraction, 'phallic in its flamboyance, its sexuality, and its studied neglect of . . . duty, decency and social decorum' (Lisa Tickner; quoted 240). The choice of dates is deliberate; Corbett wishes to unsettle our received notions of periodization and to go beyond the [End Page 129] often-posited watershed of 1910, the date of Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibition in London that introduced the Edwardian public to the works of Cézanne and van Gogh.
The World in Paint attempts to connect the concerns of the late nineteenth century to those of the early twentieth, and the concept Corbett uses to achieve this feat of stitching together such seemingly disparate phenomena as Pre-Raphaelite painting, academic art, Charles Ricketts's illustrations for Oscar Wilde, the Camden Town Group of artists and Vorticist proto-abstraction, is the concept of 'visual unmediation'. This is a term coined by Corbett 'to describe the major trope through which late-nineteenth-century artists sought to express the dream that the visual can diagnose and communicate realities about the world.' (17) Unmediation here refers to the belief, or perhaps more accurately, the hope, that painting could be made to offer up direct, immediate knowledge of and access to reality, unmediated by the interference of any representational vehicle. To rephrase this in semiological terms, we might think of unmediation as a desire to eliminate background static from communication and to bypass the signified in order to move straight from the signifier to the referent in the real world. As Corbett rightly stresses, such a project can only ever be a fantasy (18) but it can be a highly productive fantasy, as the remainder of his book goes on to show.
Corbett begins his visual journey in the early 1850s, with one of the keystones of Pre-Raphaelite painting, William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853–56). This painting celebrates the visual surfaces of the world in the almost hallucinatory detail with which each leaf, each yarn of tapestry, each strand of hair is delineated. John Ruskin was struck by 'furniture so carefully painted, even to the last vein of the rosewood' and 'the very hem of the poor girl's dress, at which the painter has laboured so closely, thread by thread' (39). In The Awakening Conscience, the material world of inert objects speaks and becomes replete with meaning. Ruskin read a tragic story in every one of the minutely-elaborated elements within this painting, a story of modern immorality and uprooted vulgarity, a story of 'fatal newness' (39).We might ourselves seek meanings beyond morality and Ruskin in the insistent and intense physicality of Hunt's painting. For example, the cast-off kid glove in the painting suggests that the man will soon also cast off his kept mistress; at the same time, the glove is a literal garment, its yellow leather meticulously delineated, its splayed fingers and upturned cuff are a corporeal index of the hand that wore it. These are not the old metaphysical and symbolic meanings but new empirical meanings, tied to social circumstance and material realities: this is a [End Page 130] semiotics of matter. Finally, and this is the point Corbett focuses on, an object such as the glove draws attention to the very matter of art. In Corbett's account, that matter is not only the obdurate materiality of modern life but also always the matter of painting, the touch of pigment to...