Rachel Teukolsky, The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

The  Blurb:

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 analyses 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 Eye offers 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.

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In this extremely brief reflection, I am intending to only look at the correspondingly brief section of this book on Pre-Raphaelitism, ‘Pre-Raphaelites Exhibiting Time’. This is merely indicative of my interest, rather than the book itself and it is unfortunate that upon reading this you may be left with a rather skewed view of a book that is well considered, or to paraphrase the blurb ‘meticulously researched’.

My own interests are self-declared as being related to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and as such I have spent much time reading about and looking at their art. Having had this book recommended to me by someone with a modernist theoretical approach to art history, I was expecting great things. Ironically, this person had actually skipped over the Pre-Raphaelite pages as being extraneous to their own subject area. So, when I came to read the section, I was going in cold with no recommendation.

The overriding view upon completing the reading was that I learned nothing new. Yes, the book was well written and the detail was well observed, by if we are just looking at the contribution to Pre-Raphaelite scholarship, then really the work offered absolutely nothing new.

Now, this is not a complaint about the book, and Teukolsky’s objective was not directly related to Pre-Raphaelitism but it was hugely disappointing. To clarify, Tuekolsky’s aim within The Literate Eye was to examine the continuity between Victorian art writing and Modernism, in particularly examining the flow rather than ‘the break’ as is often the case with scholarship. Teukolsky’s interest lies in the shared interests in form, realism / fascination, and avant-gardism.

This being the case, I would have expected more concentrated time to have been spent on the avant-garde nature of the Pre-Raphaelites. Instead, we are met by a series of oft-quoted comments: Dickens, Ruskin, Wornum etc. This is the reason or my disappointment, although the Pre-Raphaelites are merely an addendum to Teukolsky’s premise: a ‘have’ to be mentioned, rather than ‘want’ to be.

Teukolsky chooses a wonderful Punch caricature, The Genteel View of the Papal Aggression¸ top open with. The drawing shows ‘a diminutive angry painter, bearded and bereted, shaking a fist in front of a medieval painting’.[1] Teukolsky says the sketch suggests the ‘speaker is both an aristocrat and an artist’, although she doesn’t qualify the aristocrat comment. She uses this caricature as a means of entering into the subsequent premise of this section (which I may add is never clearly drawn or indicated) which is to position the Pre-Raphaelites into a landscape (for want of a better word) of Gothic resistance, ‘No-Popery’ / anti-Catholic (even rioting which is only implicitly mentioned). It is curious that Teukolsky mentions Wornum rather than Wiseman in this instance (of whom an effigy was set fire to in Bethnal Green). Nor does Teukolsky mention Charles Kingsley who wrote the anti-Catholic novel Hypatia (1853). She does mention Anna Jameson and positions her as someone who writes not with a religious approach but an ‘aesthetic’ one, due to the implied resistance to the Puginesque Gothic as exemplified by the Medieval Court of the Great Exhibition (1851). Teukolsky also mentions Stephen Bann in this context as someone who has studied ‘the detailed visual resurrection of historical scenes – scenes that were often Catholic, Gothic, and monastic’ as evidence of early Victorian delight.[2] This is surprising, she claims, as it conflicts with the negative press the Pre-Raphaelites received in the early 1850s.

John Everett Millais Lorenzo and Isabella 1848–9
Millais, Lorenzo and Isabella (1849, Walker Gallery)

It is here that Teukolsky seems to repeat and revisit so much that has been heard before. The attacks, the vituperous, vicious and entirely unjustified responses to Pre-Raphaelite works like Millais’, Lorenzo and Isabella (1849, Walker Gallery). We traverse over the ground already well-trodden by J.B. Bullen in the 1990s in The Pre-Raphaelite Body (1998): by that, I am referring to the surgical language used to discuss (criticise) the bodily constructions of Pre-Raphaelite figures. You won’t be surprised to learn that Millais’, Christ in the House of his Parents (1849, Tate) also gets a mention in relation to Punch’s parody, ‘Cooper’s Surgical Dictionary’.

The whole section, note – not chapter, proceeds along in this manner. Teukolsky isn’t claiming this is new or ground breaking and merely uses this to position her broader ideas, and as such I reiterate you must accept that to be the case.

The context of Dickens’ response to Millais’ painting, or Ruskin’s language of Theophanous naturalism and opposition to mere imitation, is related by Teukolsky to the Victorian relationship to the scientific and to the political. In particular, she relates the Pre-Raphaelite bodies to the fear of moving backwards both artistically and religiously. This is exemplified by the Wornum quote she, and Bullen also, use when he wrote how he wanted the Pre-Raphaelites to ‘persevere, but in the spirit of world artists, not ascetic fanatics’.[3] Teukolsky then gives time to Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and his view, which prevailed long into the twentieth century, which saw ‘objects as inseparable from their moral history and the material circumstances of their production’.[4] It is this which seems to be at the heart of what Teukolsky is exploring and the conclusion, or exploration (which is unclear as no goals are established at the outset, is that best established in the very last paragraph: ‘ultimately, Ruskin, Pugin, and the popular Punch cartoons all demanded a very different kind of looking than did the Pre-Raphaelites’.[5]

This section in The Literate Eye is subsequently fleshed out in ‘Victorian Eclecticism: The Birth of Kitsch’. The aim of that section is to establish an alternative critical narrative to the one we are most comfortable with: that Ruskin ‘fuelled the Gothic craze’.[6] And so the book continues…

Images via Rachel Teukolsky, The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Amazon, and Tate

[1] Rachel Teukolsky, The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 91

[2] Teukolsky, The Literate Eye, p. 92

[3] Ralph Wornum, ‘Modern Moves’, p. 271

[4] Teukolsky, The Literate Eye, p. 97

[5] Teukolsky, The Literate Eye, p. 97

[6] Teukolsky, The Literate Eye, p. 98