Romantic Circles Blog

"Crossing the Channel" exhibition

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Andrew Elfenbein of the University of Minneapolis writes to tell us about the exhibition that just closed (September 7) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism. It was organized by Tate Britain in association with the MIA and travels next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (October 8, 2003-January 4, 2004).

This exhibition has a declared mission to inspire “a renewed consideration of British Romanticism as a cardinal force in the evolution of French art” (catalogue). Although the curator, Patrick Noon, sometimes suggests a model of “interchange” between French and British, the exhibition itself is mostly unidirectional in its premise that British art “saved” French art. It opens with a bang: two rooms devoted to Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. . . . [cont'd]

The first room contains other examples of shipwreck paintings (including J. M. W. Turner’s Disaster at Sea) and some of Géricault’s studies. The second has only one painting, but that’s all it needs: a nineteenth-century copy of the original Raft of the Medusa, now too fragile to travel. According to the catalogue, it contains detail no longer visible in the original itself; the copy has, unnervingly, become more original than the original. Although a copy, it has “aura” in spades. The painting is displayed at ground level (evidently in imitation of its installation in William Bullock’s Egyptian hall), and its sheer size and isolation make it at once hypervisible and overwhelming. Viewers huddled nervously at a safe distance, afraid of what might happen if they got too close.

The next rooms, “Literature and History,” have an immediate payoff for literary scholars, a wealth of paintings based on literary subjects, including, for example, Camille Roqueplan’s Equinoctial Tide, illustrating Scott’s The Antiquary; Richard Parkes Bonington’s Knight and Page, illustrating Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen, and the same artist’s Quentin Durward at Liège; Ary Scheffer’s The Dead Pass Swiftly, illustrating Bürger’s “Lenore”; Delacroix’s Combat between The Giaour and Hassan and Colin’s The Giaour Contemplating the Dead Hassan; and a small version of Delacroix’s famous Death of Sardanapalus. Although the catalogue parallels Byron and Scott as equal inspirations for French painters, it struck me that they called for rather different responses. While Scott was famous for his picturesque descriptions, it is usually quite difficult in Byron’s Turkish Tales to know just what is going on visually. For fans of the Gothic, the exhibit features a range of spooky monk-paintings, including an intriguing one by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard (the son of the more famous Fragonard). This painting seems to illustrate a scene from a novel or melodrama, but no one has been able to identify it. Since Spenser is a cottage industry in my house, my partner and I also hugely enjoyed William Etty’s Phaedria and Cymochles on the Idle Lake, a fantasia in feathers, which would make a wonderful gloss on Keats’s Spenserianism. The exhibition also includes rooms devoted to images of everyday life (including many horse paintings); the rise of watercolor; and landscape painting; the watercolor room in particular has many more paintings based on literary subjects, such as Delacroix's creepy Lucy Ashton's Bridal Night.

The exhibit concludes with a miscellaneous gallery of famous images, including Horace Vernet’s Mazeppa and the Wolves, illustrating a poem that the nineteenth-century artists found considerably more interesting than academic critics have. The cornerstone of this room is Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey, which the accompanying note suggestively positions for the French as a replay of the death of Marie Antoinette. (My partner and I also had a good discussion about the extent to which the necklace held by one of the female attendants functions as a kind of crypto-rosary, a standard image in portrayals of the death of Mary Stuart.) Yet the image that drew me most was John Martin’s The Deluge, because it took me back to a memorable class I attended in graduate school, in which the day’s subject was the sublime and the central exhibit was to have been a slide of Martin’s painting. The projector collapsed, and the instructor, undaunted, proceeded to sketch the entire Deluge on the blackboard and lectured with dazzling, improvisatory élan--a flood of dark and light.

Andrew Elfenbein

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