When we first envisioned the Romantic Circles Gallery, we hoped to develop a representative sample of Romantic images of visual culture that were expertly curated and displayed. That goal met with several difficulties and some other opportunities. Our effort to included representative works of Romantic visual culture was complicated by uneven permission protocols (some archives and museum happily give digital permissions, others are barred from doing so), costs of images and fees for use, and, importantly, the development of other online venues for exhibiting visual culture such as Artstor, made images available, but often with little or no contextualization. Other digital archives of images offered by institutions that own them are not typically available for our use. Other challenges included developing software for data collection and incorporation, then figuring out how to manage the labor needed to contextualize each image by conducting careful archival and critical research, not to mention allied questions about where context ends and begins. The challenge that has become an opportunity is the very open endedness of ‘visual culture’ as it has emerged in the last decade, in contrast to the comparatively tidy demarcations of traditional art history. In fact, it is our hope that the Gallery will be responsive to new disciplinary energies that are emerging in art history as well as literary studies. In our contemporary critical moment, as the field of Romanticism has shifted from canonical cores to wider sets of interlocking literary and cultural remains that are as much ‘force fields” as definable segments, the very notion of what is exemplary or representative is far too problematic to stage in a fixed set of images.
We have chosen instead to offer, as a prototype, several thematically defined portraits of Romantic visual culture, to invite to create similarly curated and developed exhibits, with their own topics and sets of images. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari, we think of the exhibits within the Gallery as rhizomatically linked to each other, to other features of Romantic Circles, as well as contributing to the behind the visual scenes database that has been and will continue to be built from the data collected for each image and exhibit. Where we had thought to create a single, representative set of Romantic images, we now make the question of representativeness the problem for each curator to consider and resolve. The larger goal of this new protocol is to offer a series of interlocking, self-reflexive exhibits that probe what it means to collect certain images under a certain rubric and, considered collectively, offer multiple prospects into the complex and vibrant visual culture of Romanticism. In doing so, we recognize the consequence of the shift to web 2.0, where users become empowered to dictate content. Our larger goal then is to encourage the use of Romantic visual culture to expand thought about the field. We invite viewers to ask the kinds of questions about these exhibits that their creators have asked: What happens when different sorts of images are collected under a rubric? What kinds of thinking does a particular exhibition encourage, and what are its blind spots? Thus, a search for items with the tag “sublime” reveals 63 separate items, ranging from images of hot air balloons, Vesuvius, icebergs, Pompeii, and exploration. Perhaps our understanding of the sublime will profit from our attention to these visual differences; indeed these images return us once again to the question of the relation of the material to the intellectual sublime (Vine 2002). Does the material enhance or abject the sublime? As this instance suggests, the Gallery is already a fully searchable database and the filters on the main Gallery browser for Creator, Medium, Creation Technique, Style, and Date represent queries mounted on the fly. In future versions of the Gallery, we hope to expand this feature, perhaps eventually allowing viewers to input their own filters. Finally, we invite viewers to propose permanent exhibits they might create. More about that process in our “Invitation: Creating New Exhibits for the RCG.”
So that the Gallery and its exhibits would express uniform standards of contextual information, we developed a protocol of data fields for each image based on Dublin Core. To tackle the problem of labor, we decided the gallery might best work as a pedagogical experiment. Who better to think about the implications of Romanticism than students immersed in understanding its contours and reach? The exhibitions were developed by students in Theresa Kelley’s and Jill Casid’s 2009 seminars. Other images and metadata are available for incorporation in new exhibits.
Let us proffer two examples that indicate the kinds of provocation we hope to enable through the gallery. Joanna Lackey’s Gallery of images from Guidebooks of the Ashmolean and British Museum Collections foregrounds the very problem of collection. Who is the audience for the collection, and what fears do the imagined audience generate? How does one discipline or educate that very audience, especially when in the case of the British Museum, entrance was free? Lackey notes a pervasive concern with objects that lie at the boundary of nature and culture, and she questions what Rymsdyk, the artist, sought to achieve in combining these monstrous objects in single illustrations. While the contextual information highlights key arguments that may be helpful for understanding these images, the overall goal is to raise problems, not imbed the objects in a pre-given cultural surround. She helps us to see the degree to which the generation of objects was in part to encourage wonder, even if that wonder was collectively disciplined. She brings to bear Daston and Park’s study of wonder, which considers how wonder was managed by theology and science. To this end, Lackey considers the depicted viewers in these images, and notes that they imply constraints for actual views. Thus, for example, the view of the Ashmolean museum shows a scholar, dressed in cap and gown, and similarly well-dressed viewers, hinting at the requisite gentility expected of audiences.
In Katharine Wells’ exhibition of the flâneur and flâneuse, she highlights the aesthetics of self-display as “casual” observers are captured in Romantic period images. These images participate in the cultural mapping and fracturing of the artist, and in the kinds of observation that artists engage in. Simultaneously for visual display and consumption, these images function both as contextual markers and as narratives that shape context. She suggests what is gained by seeing them in terms of both production and consumption. Thought the flâneur has been much studied as a figure within Romantic culture, much less is known about images of the flâneur, and Wells seeks to foreground this visual imagery so as to open up questions we thought had been long settled. Such questions include: is the artist to be understood as a thinker or practitioner or mere observer? What is the artist’s relation to commodity culture, and how does the depiction of the artist seek to settle the subject’s right to look at the objects to be mastered? Are these flâneurs, the objects of reverence or ridicule? How, for instance, are we to read the blue stockings of Rowlandson’s antiquarian spectator?
Whether viewers are looking at the Romantic Circles Gallery for the first time, creating their own exhibits on the fly, or plotting new exhibits for our consideration, all are welcome.