Luisa Calé. Fuseli’s Milton Gallery; ‘Turning readers into Spectators’. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. ISBN: 978-0199267383. Price: US$99. [Record]

  • Neil Forsyth

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  • Neil Forsyth
    Université de Lausanne

Luisa Calé’s book sets out to reconstruct the Swiss painter, Henry Fuseli’s “ill-fated” flop, the Milton Gallery exhibited in London in 1799-1800. The book then analyses the Gallery as a reworking of (mostly) Paradise Lost. This is an important and scholarly study, and will interest anyone concerned with Milton’s immense influence, as well as those who saw the splendid exhibition at Tate Britain in 2006, “Gothic Nightmares”, several of the items in which came from Fuseli’s Milton Gallery. Unfortunately the book is best read alongside the catalogue of that show, since the reproductions are of poor quality black and while, and are even then incomplete. Perhaps one should not expect much more from this Oxford Monograph series that mostly publishes theses, but in this case OUP has missed a great opportunity. Not only does the book tell us a great deal about Fuseli’s Milton, but it explores the intellectual background that the exhibition catalogue could not do in such detail. Calé’s book begins with Eisenstein’s comments on Milton in The Film Sense. He marks up a few lines from Milton’s “War in Heaven” as if it were a shooting script, taking Milton words as instructions for visualization and using the various enjambements (“the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another”) as clues to the links between shots or montage, exactly as he did for the visual and auditory rhythms of Alexander Nevsky. I have always thought the Eisenstein passage was the best riposte to T.S. Eliot’s vulgar insistence that Milton never allows us to see anything because he was blind. It now turns out this notion has a long and fascinating history, going back via the exhibition culture of eighteenth century London all the way to Lessing’s 1766 Laocoon, where Milton’s blindness is what challenges the supposed primacy of the visual over the verbal. Lessing was influenced by Burke’s treatise on the sublime, which he intended to translate. If he did so, it was never published and has not survived, but what he learned from Burke was the separation of verbal from visual experience. Poetry works through the emotional impact of sounds, not through the debased Aristotelian tradition of “poetic images”. Poetry, said Lessing, is an art of time and painting is an art of space. Painting can represent actions, but it does so by placing bodies next to each other. By extension, as recent theorists of art history have begun to acknowledge, juxtaposition of paintings in a gallery also stretches the space of a separate painting beyond its frame. The viewer is an active participant: she imbues a body in one painting with an energy that is carried over to the next. This is where Eisenstein comes into Calé’s argument. Pictures viewed in sequence can activate “continuity of vision”, a phenomenon that “motion pictures” depend on, and which was well known already in the eighteenth century. It is what accounts for the apparent trail of a meteor across the sky, or the light we continue to see briefly after closing our eyes. Newton had identified it in his Opticks, Goethe’s experiments with colour had invoked it, and Fuseli’s friends Joseph Priestly and Erasmus Darwin wrote about it. Thus juxtapositions of pictures in sequence are what allowed the Milton Gallery to have a different function from other more static collections. Fuseli’s energetic elongated forms seem to want to move on beyond the frame. Blake exploits the same effect for his Night Thoughts, and even some of his Milton pictures, but Fuseli was the master. “SatanencounteringDeath, Sininterposing” leads …