‘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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The Spirit of Enthusiastic Scholarship

This post was contributed by Natalie Fong, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MA Victorian Studies.

As I approached the familiar light glowing from the corner beacon that is 30 Russell Square to attend the Shakespeare and the Senses seminar of Birkbeck’s Arts Week 2013, I felt distinctly nostalgic. It’s nearly 10 years since I first started classes there for the MA in Victorian Studies (2004-2006). I remember the very first meeting in that very building, a room of people of all ages and walks of life, regarding each other excitedly but also nervously – what was to come? Who would complete the challenge of working and studying? I look back at the two years that I studied at Birkbeck with great fondness, as wonderful evenings in 30 Russell Square and Malet Street engaged in lively intellectual debate with clever and witty people with whom I remain firm friends.

Jessica Barrett has already written a comprehensive review of the Shakespeare and the Senses seminar, so I will merely add reflections as an alumna.

It was great to hear three equally engaging, connected yet distinct, papers on the senses (or lack thereof) in Shakespeare’s works:

  • Simon Smith detailing the use of sound in plays (music, clapping, references to music in Shakespeare’s plays), but also the effects of sounds from the theatre on their neighbours
  • Gillian Woods’ expounding of “seeing is believing” through an analysis of The Winter’s Tale, sight and morality (the fears that the theatre’s deception of sight leads to temptation)
  • Derek Dunne’s fascinating deconstruction of the deprivation of the senses in Titus Andronicus – how literal deprivation is also symbolic deprivation (e.g. the silencing of tongues equating to, as well as resulting from, the Roman court’s suppression of free speech)

It was a great privilege to once again be part of the Birkbeck experience, to spend an evening in the presence of inspiring intellectuals (here I pay brief homage to the late, great Dr Sally Ledger, who encouraged me to be a better student and, later, to channel her passion through my own teaching). Bouncing thoughts around during discussion time with people of different ages and cultures, appreciating how pooling our understandings of the talks opened up further intriguing possibilities for study, reminded me again of the fun times my friends and I used to have at twilight tutorials.

It is that we alumni hope Birkbeck can sustain, despite the current climate. Arts Week captured the best that Birkbeck has to offer those who want to receive a quality education while they work. Hopefully the success of Arts Week (judging by the blog posts) will speak clearly to the powers that be of the importance of championing part-time higher education.

As the great Bard himself wrote in The Winter’s Tale: “It is required that you do awake your faith.” Seeing really is believing!

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Theatre Scratch Night—sharing of new student work

This post was contributes by Jennifer Wilson, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Text and Performance.

Birkbeck’s yearly Arts Week brought both staff and students together to watch the presenting of new work devised, written, and acted by students of Birkbeck College. This event was to celebrate the opening of a theatre space, Room G10, which was previously used solely for the purpose of lectures, classes, and workshops. The night opened with a piece by four students from the MA Text and Performance programme. Using Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling, the group intertwined spoken words by Fred and Rose West, two notorious British serial killers. The second part of the evening’s performance showcased 10 excerpts of new plays written by Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing students. The pieces presented were directed and performed by Birkbeck’s own MFA Theatre Directing students. After the final performance, the night ended with drinks, snacks, and lovely conversations amongst everyone; an official “kick off party” for the new theatre space. The future of theatre lies in the hands of the current generation of students and their voice were able to be heard in each performance. A round of applause goes out to everyone involved in Theatre Scratch night. A job well done!

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Victorian Dolls and Material Play

This post was contributed by Emma Curry, a a PhD student in the Department of English and Humanities, working on Dickens’s representations of objects and body parts.

Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week joined forces with the Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies on Tuesday night to host a fascinating and visually-splendiferous talk by Eugenia Gonzalez, on the thought-provoking theme of ‘Victorian Dolls and Material Play’.

Although Gonzalez opened her paper with a quotation from George Dodd, who wrote in Household Words in 1853, ‘dolls are trifles’, Gonzalez’s subsequent presentation went on to show us that in nineteenth-century culture, they were anything but. She began by uncovering the fascinating relationship between many notable Victorian women and their dolls, discussing the collections of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and even the young Queen Victoria, whose extensive assemblage included a number of dolls that she had made and dressed herself. Gonzalez also highlighted the persistent presence of the doll in adult-authored texts, in which writers frequently attempted to theorize the various benefits a woman could acquire from playing with dolls as a child; from the cultivation of more conservative attributes such as nurture, decoration, and the ‘art of pleasing’, to more progressive ideas such as the development of imagination, and even, as Otto Ernst described in a narrative of his daughter’s doll-play, the ‘godlike’ powers of creation and dominion.

In the second part of her talk, Gonzalez moved on to Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, discussing the prominence Dickens gives in this novel to the character of Jenny Wren, the dolls’ dressmaker. Gonzalez highlighted here the connection between doll-play and writerly-play, linking Jenny’s powers to fashion form and imaginatively construct narrative for her dolls with Dickens’s own creative processes, in which characters are similarly constructed materially and experienced as if they are real: indeed, Dickens’s description of having to go and ‘extricate’ Mr and Mrs Boffin from the carriage after the Staplehurst rail crash was a particularly fascinating and pertinent addition here. Through such a focus on Jenny’s imaginative and interpretive power, Gonzalez suggested a reading of the novel as one concerned with materiality, manipulation, and (self-)fashioning, which I found wonderfully revealing and convincing.

The talk was followed by some lively discussion and a very wide-ranging selection of questions, testament to the fascinating and far-reaching nature of the topic. I’ll certainly be returning to Our Mutual Friend with fresh eyes now, and I definitely won’t look at my old Barbie doll collection in the same way again! I’d like to thank Eugenia for providing us with such fascinating and stimulating subject matter, and look forward to reading the completed project!

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