The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics

The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics

The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics

The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics

Synopsis

In Victorian Britain, authors produced a luminous and influential body of writings about the visual arts. From John Ruskin's five-volume celebration of J. M.W. Turner to Walter Pater's essays on the Italian Renaissance, Victorian writers disseminated a new idea in the nineteenth century, that art spectatorship could provide one of the most intense and meaningful forms of human experience.

In The Literate Eye, Rachel Teukolsky analyzes the vivid archive of Victorian art writing to reveal the key role played by nineteenth-century authors in the rise of modernist aesthetics. Though traditional accounts locate a break between Victorian values and the experimental styles of the twentieth century, Teukolsky traces how certain art writers promoted a formalism that would come to dominate canons of twentieth-century art. Well-known texts by Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde appear alongside lesser-known texts drawn from the rich field of Victorian print culture, including gallery reviews, scientific treatises, satirical cartoons, and tracts on early photography. Spanning the years 1840 to 1910, her argument lends a new understanding to the transition from Victorianism to modernism, a period of especially lively exchange between artists and intellectuals, here narrated with careful attention to the historical particularities and real events that informed British aesthetic values.

Lavishly illustrated and marked by meticulous research,The Literate Eyeoffers an eloquent argument for the influence of Victorian art culture on the museum worlds of modernism, in a revisionary account that ultimately relocates the notion of "the modern" to the heart of the nineteenth century.

Excerpt

It is… the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and
makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it
becomes a vital portion of our lives, and symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of
what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive.

—Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1890)

Victorian and Modern

In Victorian Britain, critics and essayists turned with a new enthusiasm toward the subject of the visual arts. Art writing became tremendously popular as art spectatorship came to define taste and culture for a growing middle-class audience. This textual fascination in art accompanied other Victorian interests—in the body, in science, in vision, as well as in history, politics, and global conquest. Victorian writers responded to art with a myriad of textual forms: they published treatises on aesthetics, reviews of exhibitions at museums and galleries, volumes of art history, and lectures to amateur societies. John Ruskin conveys the Victorian passion for aesthetic spectatorship when he writes, famously, in Modern Painters iii (1856), “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way… To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.” Nineteenth-century British writers helped to invent an idea new in the nineteenth century, that art spectatorship could provide one of the most intense and meaningful forms of human experience. the “literate eye” of my title refers both to the Victorian investment in aesthetic education and to the more personal subjectivity that was felt to be affirmed by art’s sublime experience.

In this book, I analyze British art writing to present a newly complex vision of Victorian aesthetics. I locate aesthetic history not only in the visual arts but also in the prismatic assemblage of texts, spaces, institutions, and practices that shaped Victorian critical discourse more broadly. Using the methods of cultural history, I argue that Victorian writers contributed to the emergence of modern AngloAmerican aesthetics, especially in the moves toward formalism and abstraction that would come to dominate twentieth-century canons of art and value. Though . . .

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