Lene Østermark-Johansen. Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4094-0584-9. Price: US$124.95/£70.00.[Record]

  • Julie Codell

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  • Julie Codell
    Arizona State University

Lene Østermark-Johansen’s well-researched, richly digressive study of the meanings of sculpture in Walter Pater’s work expands sculpture’s sphere, embracing “engravings, tapestries, anything woven, all kinds of relief, whether low or high, small or large scale” (3). Beyond specific artworks, sculpture functions as metaphor for Pater’s writing style, mode of understanding history, approach to language, and aesthetics of the ephemeral, and as a concept through which to explore his temporal dislocations between past and present, as well as spatial ambiguities between verbal depth and surface: “the full range of Pater and plasticity” (9). Pater’s sculpture model is the relief, an important genre in the Renaissance and antiquity and revived by the Victorian “New Sculpture” movement. Østermark-Johansen uses recurring themes to connect the book’s long, digressive chapters: the relief with its melding of depth and plane, foreground and background; the palimpsest in which past and present intertextually inscribe each other; interweaving in which Pater combines “genres, periods and media into an eclectic Gesamtkunstwerk uniquely his own” (2); the frayed surface that blurs “the outlines between artwork and surrounding space” and evokes touch (4). She insists throughout that Pater synthesizes opposites: an “inner sight” (2) and techniques of visuality; his romantic strain (individuality, resistance to order or tradition, formlessness, ephemerality) and his classical notions of form, visual order, and traces of antiquity in modernity; European internationalism and the British critics, his contemporaries, who followed Pater’s lead in raising criticism to an art form. To capture all of this, Østermark-Johansen moves her narrative in multiple directions, chronologically through Pater’s works and along “temporal and spatial axes” of Pater’s dialogues with the past (10). The first chapter on the Renaissance paragone, the competition between painting and sculpture famously debated by Leonardo and Michelangelo, begins with a discussion of an oil replica (1891) of a Greek relief by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, an obscure work Pater might have seen in Copenhagen. Østermark-Johansen feels this work epitomizes Pater’s synthesis of poetry and prose, visual and verbal, material and theoretic Renaissance meanings of rilievo, and his own “Andersstreben and ekphrastic passages” (16). What links Hammershøi’s painting and Pater’s Renaissance studies are binaries of movement versus stasis, remembering versus forgetting, and flatness versus depth. Painter and critic share an interest in soft transitions that generate ambiguity and the Michelangelesque non finito in which there is no closure or demarcation between figure and ground. For Pater, the “hybridity of relief” (18) participates in the aesthetics of both painting and sculpture and bridges antiquity and modern painting. The flatness of relief may be said to emblematize Pater’s stratified language, the subject of Østermark-Johansen’s last chapter—sections of which might have appeared earlier to illuminate some points in the first chapters. Østermark-Johansen discusses Giorgio Vasari, a popular figure among the Victorians, and Renaissance theoretical concepts like disegno, or outline. Through his artist-subjects, such as relief sculptor Luca della Robbia, Pater transforms his Renaissance and Victorian sources, particularly John Ruskin with whom he has his own version of paragone. This chapter’s apotheosis is Pater’s 1877 essay on Giorgione, who synthesized Venetian color and Florentine draughtsmanship. Østermark-Johansen argues that Giorgione is a springboard for Pater’s interest in “open-ended webs of painting and criticism” (50). Published near the time of the 1878 trial of Whistler versus Ruskin, the essay embraces themes of weaving, ephemerality, sensuousness in art, and synaesthesia. The chapter ends with another replica, a copy by one of Giorgione’s followers of A Man in Armour, whose mirror-like armor and face that anecdotally resembles Giorgione’s express Pater’s belief that Giorgione’s followers uphold his role as the resolution of …