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  • Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain by Amy Woodson-Boulton
  • Jan Baetens
Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain by Amy Woodson-Boulton. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, U.S.A., 2012. 288 pp., illus. Trade, ebook. ISBN: 978-0-804-77804-6; ISBN: 978-0-804-78053-7.

Few subjects seem more outdated, less "modern" (in the narrow, art-historical sense of the word), so distant from today's questions on museum studies, than the topic so masterfully examined in this book. At the same time, though, few books manage better than this work to highlight the great relevance of their subject for contemporary historians, estheticians, city planners [End Page 501] and museum-goers. In this robustly scholarly and committed study, Amy Woodson-Bolton examines the role and place of art museums and more generally the museum movement in the three major "regional" centers of late 19th-century industrial Britain: Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. For good or for bad reasons, Victorian art itself and the Victorian approach to art as a kind of middle-class and pragmatist reinterpretation of the romantic ideal of "beauty and truth" have been scornfully discarded as parochial and moralizing kitsch by almost all modern and modernist movements during the 20th century (it has only been in a couple of decades that this kind of art has gained new interest). However, Woodson-Boulton's book demonstrates convincingly how the challenges faced by the newborn institutions (the three museums were established between 1867 and 1883), the paradoxes of their incredible public success (each of them attracted audiences comparable to the crowds that visit today's blockbuster shows) and the sharp debaters surrounding their fundamental choices and references can teach us a lot about many contemporary ideas and discussions on art, museum management and education.

In the absence of any centralized art policy in 19th-century Britain, but also in the absence of any museal institution as we understand it nowadays, the almost simultaneous birth of art museums in major industrial cities in Britain was anything but a coincidence. Social reformers and promoters of art, with John Ruskin as their most influential spokesman, found each other in the widely shared conviction that art had a specific role to play in an industrial society. Its goal was to display beauty in order to heal the viewer suffering from the ugliness and difficult living and housing conditions of an industrial environment. This display of beauty had to occur in a place meant to become the public equivalent of the private home (a place of peace, quiet, warmth and regeneration) of which most viewers were deprived. Art, in such a perspective, is then defined by its subject: The beauty of art is less the beauty of the work's materiality as such than that of the subject it represents (and this subject is always nature, more particularly nature seen as inherently beautiful, created by God). Art, in other words, was seen as a window on the world, and this window could only be inviting and compelling if the subject on view did also tell a story (for it was believed that only the story could help make sense of the representation). This fundamental assumption explains first of all what kind of art was on display in these Victorian city museums: realist art, contemporary art, British art. There was no room for formal "thickness," exotic (Catholic) themes or motifs, and definitely not for old masters, since works of that kind were incapable of functioning as transparent windows: What they showed was less the world than themselves, in their opaque materiality, and moreover the public had forgotten most of the stories behind them. Second, Victorian assumptions about art also explain how these works were put on display in the museal space: not as items belonging to an underlying grand narrative of "art history," but as a heterogeneous collection of items, some of them "artistic," some of them "industrial," some of them "arts and crafts" and all of them supposed to regenerate the body and mind of the spectator. Finally, such an approach to art also explains why museums were considered necessary and why city councils agreed to spend (much...


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pp. 501-503
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