Year 2 ENGL200 19thC. Literature Art Gallery Visit: How Literary Themes Are Mirrored In Visual Art.

Thank you all for your enthusiastic attendance. We began with Brett Whitely- only because he is Romanticism re-incarnated in the late 20th Century. This amazing painting is called “Alchemy” – the ancient art of turning coarse matter into gold (symbolic of the spiritual domain)- and it is a painting of huge spiritual significance despite its seemingly irreligious content. As Whitely says on the painting itself ” The fine art of painting which is the bastard of alchemy, has always been and always will be a game. The rules of the game are quite simple:in a given arena, on as many psychic fronts as the talent allows, one must visually describe, the centre of the meaning of existence”. And here is the centre of the meaning of existence: not only procreation writ large

but also William Blake’s Grain of Sand, observed through a giant magnifying glass by a portrait of the artist himself:

When you go close to the painting… you can actually see in tiny writing, next to a grain of sand stuck to the canvas the words “Blake’s Grain of Sand”…. An extraodinary painting overall which not only borrows ideas from the Romantics but hearks back to the medieval work of Hieronymus Bosch and embeds this all in a recognizable Australian landscape of bush and birds….
We then scurried back from this late- modern Romanticsm to the “Enlightenment” room where we saw some Joshua Reynolds – hated by Blake because of its concern only with “outward things”… and amongs these so-called “Englightened” works we found this little icon of 18th Century respectability:

From here we went in search of some true Romanticism – and found it, of course in the early Australian colonial section which is full of English and European Romantics who were escaping from Europe in droves to come to this untamed, wild, uncontaminated NEW WORLD… which was everything the great Romantics had dreamed about…. so here is Eugene Von Guerard’s amazing image of Australasia (here in the guise of Milford Sound)… presenting nature, untamed, spilling out of the boundaries of the painting frame, dwarfing human beings and filled with the majestic resonances of the great spiritual being that rules over us all!… Long live Wordsworth’s “Beauteous Forms” of nature that fill us with a sense of the divine!

From here we wandered into the Victorian Halls where we found many grand narrative paintings, so popular amongst the pre-film, pre- TV Victorian audiences. As was said many Victorian artists and poets fled from the social realities of the industrial revolution to a world of relative calm in medieval times. Here is the Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown with his magnificent: “Chaucer at the Court of Edward 111”. This is a detail from that massive canvas which celebrated the role of the poet in English society. Shelley’s words “The Unacknowledged Legislators” about the role and function of the poet… is clearly behind the massive celebratory gesture that this painting embodies:

And here is the other side of the Victorian coin (as we will see when we turn next week to Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times”)

Luke Field’s impressive “The Widower” is one of the few paintings in this room which actually looks at the harsh social realities of the day… it was usually the job of the Victorian novelists to do this conscience raising for the rest of society. Here is a rare artist who is asking British society to ask a serious question about whether social and technological advances were serving everyone equally well. The answer was clearly “No”. Most of the Victorian painters and poets tended to bathe in the languid, aesthetic realm of forgetfullness of the present world. I am remembering here Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters” (in Norton)… and here is Lord Leighton’s comparable “Iphigenia”.

This hugely popular Victorian artist cleverly blended escape into a classical world with Victorian moralizing and hints of sensuality. The story here is that this young man stumbled upon the wonderful creature Iphigenia and at sunrise determined to change his -up to this time- wayward ways and become a good, moral upright young man… fat chance he has here with this creature- I should say!
At all events it was an excellent few hours that Leo and I could spend with you – thank you Leo for all your insightful and supportive comments! We now have touched the reality of the 19thCentury artistic world. It is one thing reading it in books, but to see and smell the canvasses that were produced at that time… that is something quite, quite different… as Dickens I am sure would have said… over and out…

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