The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

30 March 2011

Hop the Twenty Third - Eccentricity, Art and Portraits

Marion Martin, Irritating Crowds, Eccentric Turner! Royal Academy Exhibitions, and the Unrecognised Joys of Not Seeing Art

We understand J.M.W. Turner to be ahead of his time, and typically think of him as misunderstood during his own time. Admittedly in the reviews which appeared in the papers, he did seem to be represented in a negative way. However, when understood as evidence of social environments and contexts rather than reviews of the objects themselves, perhaps we can come to a new understanding.

The Royal Academy, Turner recognised, was central to his artistic life, and for most of his artistic life he exhibited there. In the 1830s and 40s, when he became ever more abstract, he was already established as an artist. He had, even then, been described as 'the Greatest Master of His Age' - but soon after, he was thought to be living on his past reputation, mad or senile. Why, then, was he still exhibited? Was it because of this past reputation or because of the strange effects which his colouration and use of light began to have in his work? The cricial responses to Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon Coming On (The Slave Ship), an astonishing picture, focuses heavily upon its highly coloured nature and the power which results from this, rather than the social narratives which the image presents. Colour, here, is a raw material, and it is grouped together in the canvases as 'heterogeneous atoms.'

This is evidence of a pure enjoyment of materiality, in a space which was wholly dedicated at least at part, to conceptual and social effects. The RA grew up as a space dedicated to the mind, but the Exhibition became increasingly about a social and material event. Visitors, in the depictions of the events, dominate, and they seem to be gazing not at the inner workings and conceptual understnaings of the mind, but at each other and the physicality of the world around them. The crowd, in these depictions, mingled with the images. Leading on from this, portraits, for the critics, were invasive, almost like the audience, outwith the tradition of ideal art at the time. They became increasingly popular, particularly showing the benefactors of the exhibition, and the display of social status and wealth in the exhibition space. This was the case with George the IV, then the Prince of Wales, who seemed more concerned with exhibiting himself, than engaging with the works on display. It is possible, in portraiture, to heighten the position of the sitter and elevate them into the realm of the sublime - but they can also be satirised and commodified through the same medium.

Turner himself had produced portraiture - notably Jessica from the Merchant of Venice in 1830, and here the stories of Shakespeare, along with the figures in the portrait, become narrated and commodified. Jessica is also looking out of the painting, out of the window, and covered in astonishing jewellry. It is claimed that the yellow background, however, goes some way to proving that the colour could be used as a background, an idea not common at the time. But it does also play with the idea of the religious icon, performing a narrative of faith which elevates the literary character. But it also performs this satirisation, for the golden background also makes comment upon the wealth and material commerce on display at the exhibition itself. Contemporary reviews focussed upon the materiality of the peice and its comical or ironic effect. Material wealth was considered despicable, and the mere depiction of it was considered suspicious in itself. Thus, the critics were open to more than just the representative qualities of the paintings - only enhanced by the idea of the madness or senility of the artist. Thus, the critics could be seen as a way of permitting the critics to focus upon things other than they would normally do.

Criticism is an interesting problem, and an interesting object to be interpreted in itself. The nuances of critique are not always made explicit, partiularly when we are considering historical documents. For the risk lies in taking them literally devalues the power not only of their reading of the objects, but the modern historian's perception of the nature of the critic in the past, considering them as somehow lesser than they.

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