‘Spectacle and the Sublime: Romantic Visuality and Contemporary Exhibition Culture’

This post was contributed by Luisa Calè, Course Director of MA Romantic Studies

The Birkbeck Eighteenth-Century Research Group and the Nineteenth-Century Forum welcomed Tate Curator Martin Myrone, who inaugurated Arts Week in the Birkbeck Cinema to discuss Spectacle and the Sublime in Romantic period exhibition culture and the curatorial work involved in recreating its spectacular possibilities today.

Locating Romantic pictures involves confronting the physical sites and practices of an emerging exhibition culture. Representations of the Royal Academy Exhibitions in 1787 and in the Microcosm of London in 1808 show us crowded interiors in which pictures hanging wall to wall and floor to ceiling required spectacular effects in order to stand out against their neighbours.

Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, exhibited in 1782, shows the sensational ingredients that turned Fuseli into the painter of the sublime and the supernatural. The exhibition Gothic Nightmares (2006) recreated the gothic pleasures that Fuseli’s supernatural activated amid a range of visual spectacles, including the moving image spectacle of the phantasmagoria. From sensational tales of terror to visual entertainments that pioneered the moving image, exemplified in a dark room at the heart of the exhibition, where Mervyn Heard reconstructed the haunting effects of the phantasmagoria from historic slides animated with contemporary technology.

Romantic moving images are also central to the light and sound show Tate Britain commissioned for the exhibition of John Martin: Apocalypse (2011-12). Martin’s religious sublime comes alive in this installation of the triptych: The Plains of Heaven , The Last Judgement, and The Great Day of his Wrath start moving illuminated by a play of projected lights punctuated by music and voice-over scripted with words taken from the Bible, the exhibition pamphlet and contemporary reviews. This contemporary animation recreates the sensational appeal of the pictures’ tour across England and the United States in the 1850s and 1860s.

Click for a Curatorial Walk Through the Exhibition, and Martin’s discussion of The Apocalyptic Sublime in the Age of Spectacle.

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