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Cultural historians generally posit a radical break between the Victorian and the Modern periods. This break was scripted by the Modernists themselves – “on or about December 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously quipped, “human nature changed.” A few revisionist historians have recently challenged this periodizing tendency. But for the most part their studies “use modernist approaches to locate modernist values” in Victorian authors and artists, Teukolsky writes, using “deep close readings of canonical texts to locate moments of formalism, self-consciousness or neo-Kantian philosophy” or else by emphasizing formal or painterly experimentation in the world of late-Victorian painting.
Teukolsky promises early on in The Literate Eye that her own challenge to the periodizing tendency will be different – that she will “outline a continuity between the aesthetic values of the Victorians and the Moderns” not “by analyzing the formal qualities of high literary or visual artworks” but by addressing instead “the cultural history of aesthetic judgments, focusing on the diverse body of Victorian writings devoted to interpretation of the visual arts” (6). More particularly, she promises to trace the origins of “the formalist aesthetic” underwriting modernist cultural judgments back into the Victorian period, where it can be found, in nascent form at least, in the writings of John Ruskin, Walter Pater, William Morris, Oscar Wilde and others, as well as in the discourse about art generated by and around the Great Exhibition of 1851.
One of the great virtues of Teukolsky’s culturalist approach to Victorian writings about art is the new and unexpected light it throws on canonical figures like Ruskin and Pater. Thus the early volumes of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, generally seen by scholars as promulgating an original theory of landscape painting’s spiritual beauty, become in Teukolsky’s reading “a verbal fantasy of visual exactitude” (47), reflecting Ruskin’s immersion in eighteenth-century theories of the picturesque as well as developments in natural science, photography, psychology, and optics. Similarly, in Teukolsky’s account, Pater’s infamous calls for intense subjectivism in matters of aesthetic judgment reflect a more general commodification of art in the mid-Victorian period. And when viewed in the context of controversies generated by the Grosvenor Gallery and the Whistler-Ruskin trial in the late 1870s, Pater’s subjectivist aesthetic appears the rallying cry for an avant-garde collective and the “intellectual focal point for a utopian political culture” (136).
Teukolsky aims to show too how a “Darwinian discourse of aesthetics” (151) informs socialist theories of design at the fin de siècle. But this claim is less successful, for though Teukolsky correctly detects the evolutionist strain in decadent writings about art (a strain reflecting the importance of Herbert Spencer and of William Clifford, in the late-Victorian period, as much as of Charles Darwin directly), she overrates the importance of Darwin for Morris’s and Ruskin’s writings and underestimates the importance of botany in Victorian design theory of the 1840s and 1850s, when it drove such works as A.W.N. Pugin’s Floriated Ornament (1848), Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851), Christopher Dresser’s Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Manufactures (1857), and the final chapter of Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament (1856).
But the central thesis of Teukolsky’s book – that a modernist “formalist aesthetic” originated not in the twentieth century, with Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg, but rather evolved progressively throughout the Victorian period – is more problematic. For one thing, Teukolsky is not the first to make this argument. Her neglect of Alf Bøe’s From Gothic Revival to Functional Form (1957), Nikolaus Pevsner’s Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (1968) and Ernest Gombrich’s The Sense of Order (1979), not only makes her thesis sound more revolutionary than it is, but also results in a missed opportunity to broaden her argument insofar as these earlier scholars found Victorian origins for modern ideas of form, not in the discourse surrounding painting and sculpture (upon which four of Teukolsky’s five chapters are based), but in the immense body of Victorian writing surrounding design and decoration. Thus, Teukolsky gives little attention to Gottfried Semper’s Concerning the Formal Principles of Ornament (1856), to the debates of the 1850s about “conventionalizing” representation, or to the “general principles in the arrangement of form and colour” which Owen Jones added as an appendix to his The Grammar of Ornament (1856), in which the modernist notion of “significant form” can arguably be said to originate. Teukolsky nicely teases out the formal preoccupations of Victorian writers who criticized fine art, but she underestimates the importance of the immense body of semi-governmental and pedagogical discourse associated with the South Kensington Museum, the national Schools of Art and Design, and the figure of Henry Cole in particular. Her historical account of form’s origins is premised narrowly on the most self-consciously literary or fine of Victorian writings about art.
This is not the only problem affecting Teukolsky’s thesis. For she sometimes uses the terms formalist, modernist, and art for art’s sake interchangeably, with little sense of the distinctions that exist between and within them. Her subtitle suggests that her principal preoccupation is with periodization (Victorian/Modernist). But for Teukolsky Modernism is more or less synonymous with its “formalist” manifestations – with Fry and Greenberg, rather than with Bauhaus or the Frankfurt School, for instance. Although she endeavors to mitigate this effect, at the end of her chapter on Roger Fry, by reminding us that “the formalism of Fry and Bell seems to be one of the more antiquated strands of modernist theory” (233), the identification of “modernism” with “formalism’ underwrites her book’s neutral-sounding subtitle, and it rears its head again in the coda to her chapter on Ruskin, in which Ruskin’s “modernism” is said to lie partly in his invocation of “linear form” as “a way of escaping the error and pitfalls of individual perception” (63). At other moments, form operates as a synecdoche for “art for art’s sake” or “aestheticism” too, as in Teukolsky’s references to Swinburne’s “flagrant formalism” (106), Pater’s “formalist aesthetic” (136) and to the way Pater’s “art-for-art’s sake formalism was appropriated by modernism” (146). The cultural narrative delineated by Teukolsky is partly an effect of her own critical language, and one comes away from The Literate Eye missing the rich, dialectical notion of form underwriting the work of critics such as Fredric Jameson, Theodor Adorno, and the Russian Formalists.
Those dialecticians found form to possess a vitality and an urgency – an “implicit critique and restructuration of our habitual consciousness” (Jameson, Marxism and Form, 1974, p. 374) – that it lacks here. And they also made apparent the political interests served by their criticisms. Teukolsky’s study, by contrast, begs questions about the larger terms on which she judges Victorian and Modern concerns to be continuous. She finds other revisionist histories too steeped in the preoccupations of high Modernism. But by the same token, her book is constructed to affirm some of the values that, by her own account, Modernism overturned in order to affirm its own cultural legitimacy. She explains that art and literature of the modern period shed any dominating concern with “narrative,” “explanatory text,” and “didactic content” – with qualities that the Victorians had deemed literary. But Teukolsky’s “outline [of] a continuity,” as well as her desire “to historicize aesthetic judgments” and to demonstrate that “aesthetic value is constructed by cultural factors” (21) re-enshrine precisely those qualities – qualities that motivated much of the Victorian discourse about art, as she points out, and to which Whistler (whose writings on art are barely considered here) more than any other single Victorian objected.
It is this hidden endorsement of Victorian values, as well as Teukolsky’s frank skepticism about Modernist cultural projects, that ultimately spoils the promise of balance implied in her subtitle (four of her five chapters are given over to subjects generally classed as Victorian). Teukolsky writes dismissively of Modernists’ “most extreme… experiments,” in which matters of traditional literary concern were dispensed with so that language itself “became an image” (235). But Victorian poetry is highly pictorial, and language was “an image” for mid-Victorian illuminators – for Henry Noel Humphries, Owen Jones, and William Morris – no less than it was for the medieval illuminators and rubricators who inspired them. Such obvious continuities make problematic Teukolsky’s focus on art writing as the site where formalism emerged, just as they point to limitations in Teukolsky’s notion of formalism itself. One can imagine an alternate version of Teukolsky’s narrative being written, under the title The Visible Word or ThePerceptive Hand, in which Modernism’s embrace of language or paint as a material, perceptible entity constitutes the grounds for rethinking the commitments of a host of different Victorians.
In the final event, then, Teukolsky’s primary focus on Victorian art writing is both the virtue and the limitation of her ambitious book. Despite her goal of accounting for the Modernist project, The Literate Eye will appeal to Victorianists more than to Modernist scholars, yet even some Victorianists will lament that poetic and fictional modes of art writing remain unexplored here or that Teukolsky treats art “writing” by virtue of the “art” it addresses rather than by virtue of what Jameson terms its “inner form.” For “art-literature can be said to reckon the whole value of its own creation itself into the process” as Jameson remarks: the deepest subject of the very best art writing is distinct from its “ostensible or manifest content” and is “the writing of a certain kind of sentence, the practice of a determinate style” (Marxism and Form p.409).
Nicholas Frankel teaches English at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Oscar Wilde’s Decorated Books (2000) and Masking The Text: Essays on Literature and Mediation in the 1890s (2009) and the editor of The Sphinx, by Oscar Wilde, with Decorations by Charles Ricketts (2010) and The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (2011). His essay “The Designer’s Eye” appeared in RaVoN 54 (May 2009).