Rachel Teukolsky. The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780195381375. Price: US$35/£22.50[Record]

  • Nicholas Frankel

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  • Nicholas Frankel
    Virginia Commonwealth University

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 …