Dionysus - by Simeon Solomon:
Solomon, Dionysus (Private Collection)

Prettejohn introduces her subject matter with her usual clarity. The premise of this article is Pater’s writing and whether it can be considered as a work of art. This thinking is in the context of the broader collection of essays which seeks to understand art ‘after the Pre-Raphaelites’ and is part of an involved examination of Aestheticism and its ambiguities and intertextualities.

Having instantly set out her parameters, Prettejohn introduces the term ‘intertextuality’ which is a main motif of her article. It is not the original appearance of a motif (which would be a complex task in itself) that is of interest, but its repetition and the significance of that repetition is what ‘creates the sense of group identity’ that interests Prettejohn.[1] Prettejohn offers Venus as an example of a motif which is readily repeated, and she then demonstrates an alternative – Simeon Solomon’s Dionysus (presumably one of two watercolours produced by Solomon), a figure Swinburne discusses in an 1871 article, and which is also perhaps resonant of Wincklemann’s enthusiasm for Villa Albani bas-reliefs, and Pater’s essay of 1867.

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Robert MacPherson photo of Bacchus Villa Albani (1860s, Getty Museum)

Prettejohn sees Pater’s public writerly engagement with Solomon’s work as a step outside of convention, a brave move even. For, as we know, Solomon’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal conviction of sodomy in February 1873 and ultimately in repudiation by many of Solomon’s friends. Pater’s discussion of a Solomon work, albeit Pater did not name Solomon, was inevitably fraught with risk and condemnation. Nonetheless, he does and he creates a discussion of Solomon’s work as being a modern representation of Dionysus. Prettejohn sees The School of Giorgione (1873) as ‘a coded intervention into debates about contemporary art’.[2] It is at this point that Prettejohn introduces the term ‘intertextual network’, a term that is key to unravelling Pater’s writing, and leads to a better understanding of Aestheticism itself. It is also at this point that Prettejohn discusses the Victorian ‘homosexual code’ which, due to its obvious criminality at that time, offers a visual code, a cloaking device, perhaps even a distancing or circumvention of the homoeroticism within Solomon’s work. Rather satisyfyinly though, Prettejohn also suggests that ‘the homoerotic network was not segregated from non-homoerotic references’ and we have to consider these codes carefully.

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Solomon, Bacchus (1867, BMAG)

There visual ‘coded intervention’ are then further unravelled as Prettejohn discusses the code of homosexuality and its role in criss-crossing images by Antinous, Michelangelo, Sodoma, Leonardo, by Victorian artists like Solomon, as well as Pater. This is the type of ‘intertextual network’ Prettejohn is referring to, and it is the choices made by the Victorian artist in celebration (or exploration, or consideration etc.) of figures such as Dionysus (the Greek Bacchus), that create a code, a criss-cross, an ‘intertextual’ group identity. Prettejohn is also careful to stress that these criss-crossing references could be extended indefinitely, and mere artistic or social connections were not enough to consolidate or have significant meaning. The ‘multiple intertextual references within a work of art elaborate its content rather than suppress it’.[3]

Pater was often considered Conservative and yet his range of interests is ‘novel’ and eclectic – or ‘bizarre to many of the first reviewers of The Renaissance’. [4] It is precisely Pater’s ignoring of canonised masters in favour of more novel figures (e.g. Botticelli) that is significant. However, his interests were congruent, down to the level of minute detail, with the interests of the painters associated with Art for Art’s Sake and Aestheticism.

Prettejohn observes that one of the key points in Aestheticism is its habit of referring to other works, which is against the general perception of Aestheticism as being a move towards ‘pure’ form and what Peter Burger’s theoretical description suggests with his view of ‘art becoming the content of art’.[5]

Prettejohn offers an alternative position to ‘pure form’, one which is both intriguing and creates a new space with which to interpret works of Aestheticism. Her term of choice, clunky as it is, is ‘double distancing’.

‘Double-distancing’, particularly when from nature gives art a special quality, for example, presenting one’s own ideas (whether art or poetry) via the filter of another’s work of art creates a new space, and is a form of double distancing. It is a sense of mediation and Harold Bloom’s influence is evident in Prettejohn’s thinking here. The notion of a mediator creates new possibilities, or perhaps more accurately in the case of Aestheticism, it creates new ambiguities. Prettejohn applies this idea to Ruskin and water, she describes the process as being one which both veils and unveils, and further relates this to the natural phenomena of clouds.

Prettejohn assesses Pater’s works as Aesthetic pieces because they simultaneously theorise and double distance. They theorise about aesthetics whilst creating their own multi-faceted form of living aesthetics, and this, which is at the heart of the article, is what makes Pater’s essays ‘Aesthetic works of art’.[6] The result of Pater’s writing practice is a new form of prose and Prettejohn remarks that it is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s ‘immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different’.[7]

The example Prettejohn proves is Pater’s writing about ‘moving water’ in Leonardo’s paintings, but recalling the ‘natural’ waterfall in Ruskin’s Modern Painters. There is an artificiality about Pater’s writing but it is self-conscious and part of his process of creating something new. Matthew Arnold and Ruskin are described as ‘frequent targets for such formal metamorphoses’.[8]

At tmes painters associated with Aestheticism acknowledged links and references, sometimes pinning them to frames, or making overt claims in their titles, e.g. the Boccaccian title Rossetti used for Bocca Baciata which was added after the painting was largely complete whereas on other occasions, the refernces were removed (e.g. Rossetti appended a quotation in French to Veronica Veronese (1872) when in fact it was a concoction of either Rossetti or Swinburne’s own writing.

Retitling can also be found in Whistler, whose synaesthesia soon called The White Girl to become Symphony in White, No. 1 (18632, NGA) for example.

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Morris, Tulip (Printed 1955, V&A)

Pater insisted there could be no ‘universal formula’ for beauty, which Prettejohn sees as being a basic principle of Kantian aesthetics: Kant also stresses the impossibility of a ‘universally applicable formula’ for aesthetic judgements.[9] For Kant, the statement ‘this tulip is beautiful’ is an aesthetic judgement, whereas ‘all tulips are beautiful’ is a logical judgement and a logical judgement is not therefore an aesthetic judgement, albeit equally valid on its own terms. Pater restates a Kantian notion in his preface to The Renaissance.

To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.[10]

Prettejohn points out the Kant’s theory creates problems for the notion of the work of art, for claiming that ‘particular objects belong to the category ‘works of art’ is a logical statement of the kind that ‘All tulips are beautiful’ – it presupposes a governing concept about the nature of works of art in general, which is theoretically inadmissible within the aesthetic realm’.[11] The term ‘visual culture’ sidesteps the problematic of the aesthetic by moving into a logical realm where the objects of enquiry can be subsumed under some kind of concept’, e.g. grouping.[12]

An ‘Aesthetic work can lay claim to the status ‘work of art’ on the grounds that it resembles another work of art in some way’.[13] However, ‘there is no single property that Is shared by all the works’. This is the problem, or complexity, of Aestheticism.

‘The most radical implication of this notion of the Aesthetic work of art is its denial of historicity’.[14] In order to tie up her argument, Prettejohn asks, ‘whether we can now have any notion of the Mona Lisa that is untouched by Pater’s description’?[15] Whilst I firmly agree with much of what Prettejohn argues,and her choice of Pater’s Mona Lisa is another example of double distancing, I do think it is an elitist assumption to conclude that Pater’s influence is so broad as to believe it has power to influence the current populist understanding of the Mona Lisa. Now, maybe if Prettejohn had used Duchamp as an example…

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Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q (1919, NGA)

[1] Elizabeth Prettejohn, ‘Walter Pater and Aesthetic Painting’, in After the Pre-Raphaelites Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England ed., by Elizabeth Prettejohn (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 36 – 58 (p. 37).

[2] Prettejohn, p. 39.

[3] Prettejohn, p. 48.

[4] Prettejohn, p. 47.

[5] Prettejohn, p. 48.

[6] Prettejohn, p. 50.

[7] Prettejohn, p. 49.

[8] Prettejohn, p. 49.

[9] Prettejohn, p. 51.

[10] Prettejohn, p. 52.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Prettejohn, p. 53.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

 

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