Curating Feeling: Understanding Sentimentality in Victorian Art

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Curating-FeelingExploring the representation of emotion in nineteenth-century works of art, Curating Feeling, organised as part of a wider conference on the Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, offered fascinating insights into the relationship between human emotion and cultural artefacts of the Victorian era.

Influencing interpretation

Curator Alison Smith of the Tate Gallery was the first to speak and got things started by looking into how the ways that artefacts are displayed in a space can affect the ways they are observed and how they make us feel.

Using images from previous Tate exhibitions, Smith talked us through how the layout and colour of the spaces in which artworks are exhibited, as well as the language that is used to describe their history and meaning, can play a part in influencing how they are perceived and interpreted.

She made the point that, whilst it is no longer the curator’s job to care for cultural artefacts, it is their purpose to create a certain mood and to display items in such a way as to tell a story without or over-influencing the emotional effect that they have on the viewer.

Meaning derived from spectator’s own emotion

Next up was University of Warwick Professor, Michael Hatt, who questioned whether it’s possible to curate feeling, arguing that cultural artefacts do not speak for themselves when it comes to the feelings which they convey. Instead, he suggested, meaning is derived according to the spectator’s own emotions, which are projected onto artworks at the time of observation.

Focusing on sculpture in particular, Hatt concluded by suggesting that Victorian examples may at first seem devoid of sentiment, but that what they are really doing is asking the viewer to explore their own emotions rather than telling them what or how to feel.

Curating traumatic experience

Toward the end we heard from Dr Victoria Mills, who shared some of the challenges that she has faced whilst curating the forthcoming exhibition on fallen women for The Foundling Museum (runs 25 Sept 2015 to 3 Jan 2016).

With non-marital relationships being severely frowned upon in Victorian Britain, many of the women in question petitioned to leave their illegitimate babies in the care of the Foundling Hospital, where they would be looked after until they were old enough to work.

The petitions give intimate details as to how the women became pregnant in the first place, some referring to instances of rape, violence and stalking, which, Mills told us, has made choosing which of them to share and how to share them in a respectful way very difficult.

Understanding through that which is not present

Adding to this was Birkbeck School of ArtsProfessor Lynda Nead, who argued that whilst it’s easy to view the women’s petitions as hard evidence of tragedy and trauma, it could be due to their fear of exclusion from society rather than truth that they were inclined to give details of sexual assault to explain their situation.

In a society which disregarded female sexuality and desire, the women may not have felt comfortable sharing information about adulterous or non-marital relationships with men who they were in fact in love with. Nead finished by stating the importance of considering collective emotions when considering the sentiments attached to artefacts from the era, as it may be those feelings which are not present that enable us to better understand.

Raising important questions about the nature of nineteenth-century sentimentality and the factors which affect our interpretation of emotion in artworks from the era, this conference offered fascinating insights into a subject which is becoming a growing area of interest for scholars, and which I am also now keen to learn more about.

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Modelling the blush

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London

Modelling-the-blushWhy do we blush and what does blushing signify? Is blushing simply an automatic, physiological response with roots in our animal nature and evolutionary development, or can we interpret blushes to gain an insight into what is happening below the surface in a person’s mind? And which emotions does a blush betray – shame, modesty, anger, desire?

These were the key questions explored by Dr Paul White of the University of Cambridge in his fascinating paper ‘Modelling the Blush’ at the ‘Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture’ conference held at Birkbeck from 16–18th July 2015.

The conference brought together over one hundred scholars to consider how feeling was stimulated, modified and expressed via art and literature in the nineteenth century and how the Victorians themselves understand their feelings. Dr White is a leading figure in digital humanities and the history of emotion and is Editor and Research Associate on the Darwin Correspondence Project, which has made over 7,500 of Darwin’s letters freely available online.

Bell and Darwin: A physiological view of the blush

White began by sketching how emotion became an object of study in the nineteenth century, particularly within the burgeoning field of physio-psychology, the forerunner of many modern scientific disciplines such as neuropsychology.

In the nineteenth century, the new experimental physiology of scientists such as Charles Bell sought to understand the blush in terms of the central nervous system and the dilation of blood vessels. In his Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806), Bell observes that the face contains ‘a peculiar provision of nerves, which are entwined around the vessels, and give them a susceptibility corresponding with the passions of the mind […]. Hence the sudden blush, and rapid change of colour upon slight emotions.’

Expression of the Emotions Figure 21Charles Darwin was similarly fascinated by human emotions, particularly their evolutionary and adaptive functions, and in 1872 he published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, which is lesser known than his more famous works but equally engaged with the descent of humans from animals.

Darwin observed and noted the physiological expression of emotions in his own children and began collecting and commissioning pictures and photographs of infants, children, animals and people interred in asylums in an attempt to analyse the universal facial expressions and bodily gestures of particular emotions.

For Darwin, the blush is the ‘purest’ physiological response, an involuntary, reflex action of the nervous and circulatory systems whereby increased blood flow brings a red tinge to the cheek and elsewhere. Darwin was interested in the animal origins of facial gestures and he describes blushing as a uniquely human, but relatively late evolutionary development, firmly aligned with sexual desire and sexual selection – hence its prevalence in the (amorous) young.

The blush as a vehicle of narrative

Conversely, though, the blush has a narratological function and it operates as a literary device and as a vehicle of narrative, which raises it above a purely physiological understanding.

For centuries, the blush has been understood as an authentic external expression or register of inner feeling, including innocence and purity of heart. For all this, it remains ambiguous. Throughout the eighteenth century, it was the novel that provided the main vehicle for exploring the blush’s multiple meanings. White focused on a fascinating moment in chapter 15 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) when Elizabeth Bennet observes an unexpected meeting between Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy:

Elizabeth, happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour; one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat – a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? – It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.

Here in miniature, then, is the mystery of the blush and the ways in which it spurs us to narratological analysis and speculation. For Austen, the blush is a mark of sensibility, of finer feeling and the ability to respond sympathetically to complex emotional and aesthetics influences, and reading it accurately enables and registers an empathetic identification that is key to social intercourse and human bonds.

Sensibility was a hugely influential idea in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and White went on to consider how skin is a register of sensibility in portraiture of the time.

Narration vs physiology

The Victorian novelist George Eliot was immersed in the latest scientific research of her day, including the evolutionary theories of Darwin, but in her lesser-known historical novel Romola (1862–63) she explores the blush in narratological terms. Set in Renaissance Florence, the novel follows the titular hero as she navigates the intellectual, cultural, religious and political tumults of fifteenth-century Italy.

Eliot focuses on the unhappy marriage between Romola and Tito, a duplicitous, bigamous political manoeuver who betrays Romola’s godfather to his death and fathers two children with a secret wife. In chapter nine, Tito discovers that his adoptive father has been enslaved, but, after comparing his filial duties to his youthful ambitions, he decides against a rescue attempt. However, as he tries to inwardly assert ‘that his father was dead, or that at least search was hopeless’, Tito is unable to repress his ‘inward shame’, which shows in ‘blushes’.

Eliot thus converts the instinctive blush mechanism into narrative; although Tito is unobserved by any character in the novel, the narrator and the reader ‘see’ his moral failings betrayed by his physiological response. For Darwin, though, whatever feelings or narratological meanings are attached to the blush by humans are immaterial and he prioritises the physiological response.

Dr White finished with the fascinating observation that, although the mechanisms of the blush are understood by contemporary scientists, there is still debate on the question of why we blush: you can Google ‘Why do we blush?’ to get a taste of the lively discussions that are still ongoing.

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The language of mourning

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

“…Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change,
Into something rich and strange…”

Shelley Memorial, Edward Onslow Ford (installed at University College, Oxford, 1893) (Pic credit https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Godot13)

Shelley Memorial, Edward Onslow Ford (installed at University College, Oxford, 1893) (Pic credit https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Godot13)

These hauntingly beautiful words, as sung by the ethereal spirit, Ariel, in William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, tell of the passing of a man from life into death. Rather than describing the process as a simple loss of life, here death is a metamorphosis from a literal state into one less defined, yet no less vital.

Shakespeare’s famous words can be found carved into the gravestone of English romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, which lies in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The former husband of Gothic novelist Mary Shelley drowned on July 8, 1822, after his boat was caught in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia.

Shelley’s life and death were consequently memorialised by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, who depicts his body nude and washed up on the shore. While the white marble statue has been housed ever since at University College, Oxford, it has ever been linked in art history to the Italian gravesite; the physical rendering of Shelley’s death merges with the power of Shakespeare’s words.

It is this interplay between word and image which has long fascinated Professor Hilary Fraser, executive dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She recently shared her fascination at the Sally Ledger Memorial lecture (this year a major component of the Arts and Feeling Conference), held at Birkbeck’s Clore lecture theatre which brimmed with colleagues and peers from the arts and academia.

Her lecture, ‘The Language of Mourning in Fin-de-Siècle Sculpture’ explored the aesthetic response to art, and how writers and critics conceptualise the emotional aspects of it. A stimulating, and at times very poignant presentation, it seemed an appropriate topic for exploration, given the fact the biennial lecture marks the loss – and celebrates the life – of Professor Sally Ledger, a leading scholar of 19th century literature at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway who died in 2009.

Bridging the gap between public and private experience

Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889), Auguste Rodin. (Pic credit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Arpingstone)

Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889), Auguste Rodin. (Pic credit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Arpingstone)

To frame her presentation, Prof Fraser shared her experience of attending the 2006 Royal Academy exhibition of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work. At the time experiencing bereavement in her own life, Prof Fraser had a powerful response to the series of mournful sculptures on display – most notably Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889).

“It was a tremendous exhibition, but I had to walk out,” Prof Fraser explained.

“It made my heart swell too much for me to remain comfortably. Why? Because it spoke to me about my own grief.”

This experience affirmed her research interest in how public monuments can bring forth a private response, and how this sentiment is reflected in critical and poetic responses to sculpture.

During the course of her lecture, Prof Fraser drew on many examples to illustrate this strand of her research, firstly on the writing of Rainer Maria Rilke – once Rodin’s private secretary – who also noted the ability of art to bridge the gap between public and private experience.

Other examples included:

  • Roland Barthes’s thoughts on photography and its link between the “then” and the “now”, much like in sculpture
  • Frank Rinder’s writing on Edward Onslow Ford’s Snowdrift – a sculpture of a dead, or perhaps merely sleeping, female figure which is noted for its haunting realism, serving to strengthen the viewer’s emotional response
  • British aesthete and intellectual Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Paget), who wrote about the ability of art to invoke “the human realities” of what they represent
  • Andrea Carlo Lucchesi’s memorial to Edward Onslow Ford, which stands in London’s Abbey Road; its mournful female figure (a reference to Onslow Ford’s Muse of Poetry) who is seated, not playing her lyre. This direct sculptural reference to Onslow Ford’s comparatively joyful figure in turn evoked within Prof Fraser’s mind such writing as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, and Frederic Leighton’s The Great God Pan

“We respond with our hearts”

In conclusion, Prof Fraser reiterated that, in carrying out her research into The Language of Mourning in Fin-de-Siècle Sculpture, she hopes to affirm the importance of feeling ‘then’ and ‘now’, both in the experience of the arts and in the academic community.

Powerful sculptures like the Shelley Memorial, she said, “break down the distinctions between public and private grief”. And as has been recurrently reflected upon by writers and critics through the centuries, the affective experience of viewing a public piece of work is so often defined by the private experience we bring to it.

“We respond with our bodies, with our hearts and tears perhaps, across space and time,” Prof Fraser concluded.

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