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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 immediately into “The Birth ofSin”, to “Sinpursued byDeath”, and then the “Lapland Orgies”. All are presented as if on the same narrative level, even though in the poem the second two are flashbacks retold by Sin and the fourth a simile. The energy of Satan’s meeting with death, his heroic Michaelangelo-like body and the raised sword are carried across to the equally heroic figure giving birth to Sin and then to her similar posture in the pursuit by Death. Similarly “Satanbursts from Chaos” is followed by “Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis”, the excuse for which is the brief simile in Paradise Lost. The viewer will merge them as two views of Satan’s journey through chaos: they are the same size, both use the same light and dark contrast, the same colouring of the rocks, and Satan’s elongated body stretches across the following works as well. Thus we read exhibitions from picture to picture in the way we read a narrative, or, better, the way we read a film. Yet the two experiences are surely quite different. I might respond that it is not a kind of filmic montage that controls the sequence, but rather the paintings succeed each other simply because of the position of their originals in Paradise Lost.
The book began life as an Oxford thesis, and retains a few traces of its origin: it “wishes to challenge” someone else’s “periodization”, while “Fuseli’s investment in literature was hardly hegemonic”, whatever that means. It could have been more thoroughly reconceived for a wider public, with a brief introduction on Fuseli, describing the whole story of the Milton Gallery, the early rivalry (1791) between publishers to get hold of it, its financial failure and the results. At one point, for example, the author refers to “one of Fuseli’s sadistic women” without further explanation, though the point has obvious relevance. Anyone who saw the “Gothic Nightmares” exhibition will have seen several instances of those, but none of such Fuselis are among the Milton representations. So we learn nothing further about them. We do not even see Fuseli’s furious comment on Samuel Johnson. In the margin of the snide remark that “we read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation”, Fuseli scrawled “I DO NOT”. (The quotation is in the Tate catalogue, as is a fine discussion by Marina Warner of Fuseli’s women). We do, on the other hand learn much fascinating information about the exhibitions from which the gallery emerged, and how they were reviewed at the time. And we are treated to many highly detailed discussions of the theory of how to set stories or events before the eye of a spectator who may or may not have read the original book.
The book does not signal loudly enough that at least two of the paintings have been rediscovered only recently. “Satan starting at the touch of Ithuriel’s Lance” was thought lost until it surfaced in the collection of Rudolf Nureyev (a juicy fact in itself) and was then bought by the Stuttgart gallery where it can now be seen. It is reproduced in exciting colour in the Tate catalogue, but in sombre black and white here, and too dark. In fact the Tate exhibition and Calé’s book were in preparation at the same time, she is thanked in the Acknowledgement to the catalogue, and her book is listed as “forthcoming” in the bibliography.
The first chapter of the book assesses the impact of exhibitions on the reading public. It looks briefly at Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery and Bowyer’s Historic Gallery, all of which had considerable success, unlike the Milton Gallery, and the first two of which moved from Cheapside to Pall Mall as a result. Private galleries competed with public institutions like the Royal Academy, which were the product of “civic humanism”. And together they rivalled all those “Ship Loads of dead Christs, Holy Families, Madona’s” (Hogarth’s turn of phrase) that had earlier been flooding the country from abroad, mostly Italy.
The book’s second chapter is about the relation of the exhibition world to the culture of anthologies and abridgement of classics. And though it has nothing to do with her subject, in spite of a valiant effort to make the connection, one of the book’s delights is a comparison of Richard Bentley’s wonderfully silly efforts to free Paradise Lost from what he regarded as the interpolations of an editor behind the blind Milton’s back with the evangelical John Wesley’s highly tendentious Extracts of Paradise Lost. Thus four of Fuseli’s pictures derive from similes that Wesley cut from his simplified version, and they are among those many passages that disturb or even counteract the larger meanings of the poem. Thus Wesley cut the fairy elves from the dream of the “belated peasant” at Paradise Lost I 783, leaving only an apparently seamless text about the giant’s sudden transformation to dwarfs. Fuseli, however, let his imagination play via an allusion to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as in the marvellous Shepherd’s Dream at Tate Britain, so that he “turns the matter of Hell into the texture of fancy”. When he projected the same scene for the gallery, he was nonetheless going to give it the elaborate title Figures from a simile in allusion to the contracted form of the Spirits assembled in the new raised Hell of Pandaemonium. That would certainly have anchored the picture to the text, almost as if he was afraid to let it fly off on its own. And indeed the peasant’s dream of fairies evokes an entirely different world from the Hell that dominates the narrative, initiating what Geoffrey Hartman called a “counterplot” within the poem.
Wesley similarly cut the simile about the night-hag and the Lapland witches “lur’d with the smell of infant blood” (II 662-4); Bentley called it “trash”, and was mainly worried about “young and credulous Female Readers”; but Fuseli builds an entire and remarkable painting out of it. In Milton’s text the hell-hounds generate the idea of the Night-Hag, then the Lapland witches, then the smell of infant blood. But Fuseli reverses the order of centrality. The hell-hounds are barely visible, like the Night-Hag, in the background. At the centre is a naked child on a table and the Lapland witch bends over it, looking backward as if checking to see if she can go ahead with her meal. Almost none if this, unfortunately, is visible in the book’s illustration. One can just make out the two large hands bottom right, and the weapon they hold, a sharp blade that will presumably be used on the child at any moment. Calé is wise enough to ask whose hands are these, and her notion of sequential visibility gives her a surprising answer. The weapon is the one Satan brandished against Death, and the Lapland orgies picture is actually a witches Sabbath. We are still part of the Satan and Sin sequence, and therefore still in the world of parody. By an inverted Eucharist the community feeds on its offspring. The Lapland witch is in the posture of a Madonna. This may be little more than Protestant satire against Rome, but it so clearly evokes “The Nightmare”, the main source of Fuseli’s fame, that it also overlaps with Gothic horror. The visual links provide quite another way to read than the orderly sequence of illustrations the Gallery might have been in other hands, and indeed was in the rival paintings of Richard Westall that appeared in Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery of 1797 and 1799. The episode is not even in the narrative at all, merely in a simile that has by now left the plot behind to remind the reader of the effect of Satan’s success in the wider world and in the future.
For the most part, however, Fuseli edits out of his pictures and their titles anything that might delay the poem’s action. Even Eve’s dream, a moment when the poem marks time while she tells Adam about the nightmare and he offers psychological and philosophical commentary, becomes in Fuseli’s reworking a dynamic abridgement of her narrative, focusing on the words his title quotes: “Forthwith up to the clouds/ With him I flew…” and “Suddenly/ My guide was gone, and I, methought, sunk down, / And fell asleep” (Paradise Lost V 86-92). And the painting itself represents Eve in the dynamic moment of the “Forthwith”, escaping from her sleeping self, horizontal at the bottom. Fuseli now omits the whole of the central part of the poem, so that the very next painting becomes Adam’s dream of Eve’s creation from Book VIII. He thus invites the spectator to read a new sequence, and to discover instantly a relationship the poem deliberately makes more subtle. In fact Fuseli’s Gallery turns now away from its initial focus on Satan to the human pair and the uncertain “negotiations of male and female agency”. Calé shows brilliantly how, with the pairing of the two dreams, Eve is no longer for God in Adam, that notorious crux that made even Bentley wince so that he corrected it to God and Adam. Instead she looks up at Satan, while Adam is bent on Eve rather than upwards from his sleeping posture towards the intervening God.
One interesting section of the book reads the painting — “Satanencount’ringDeath, Sininterposing” — in contemporary political and theological terms. Fuseli’s main patron was the dissenting Liverpool banker William Roscoe, and the new project was also funded by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, who expected a publication of prints taken from the gallery paintings and engravings, with Milton’s text to be edited by William Cowper. The poet’s depression and descent into madness prevented the edition ever getting very far, though it was eventually published in 1810, edited by William Haley. These commercial influences, not forgetting the Unitarian context of Joseph Priestly, account for the absence of representations of God or heaven, and that the only Trinity is this hellish parody. Now Milton was himself an outspoken opponent of the Trinity, and it has never seemed convincing to me to argue, as did Balachandra Rajan in a famous essay, that there should be only a hellish parody in the poem of something absent from its heaven. Calé is more convincing when she follows John Barrell’s idea about “Imagining the King’s Death” and argues that Fuseli’s representation of Death with a crown is potentially treasonous. The figure is not very clear, and this ambiguity enables Fuseli the radical nonetheless to become, in the very year of the exhibition, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy. Indeed the reception of the Milton Gallery with its evident investment in British cultural heritage had helped him to this position, over the objections of those who still thought of him as a foreigner.
The idea of a physical reaction in the viewer leads Calé to challenge the widespread notion of the disembodied and detached gentlemanly spectator of the eighteenth century. And indeed one important source of her new perspective is feminist, in particular challenges like those of Mary Wollstonecraft to accepted and male- (even Milton-) dominated practices. The tension between Fuseli and Wollstonecraft as readers of Milton and each other puts Eve at the centre of interest. Wollstonecraft is as divided as many have been since, including Fuseli himself, between the seductive Eve and the idea of conjugal happiness based on rational conversation that the poem offers. Female spectators in turn were expected to be seduced by the heroic figure of Satan, “bold, daring and majestic” as the True Briton’s reviewer put it, and thus to enter into the action of the poem. Burke had gendered the sublime and the beautiful, and that, as Saba Bahar sees it, is what led Wollstonecraft to deny that Fuseli could produce “an Eve to please me”. It is true that Fuseli’s Milton Gallery reproduces that Burkean opposition, but I missed a discussion of the Fuseli who is left out or suppressed by the requirements of illustrating Milton.
The problem for Fuseli was, and has remained, that his sublime easily turns into the ridiculous. Fuseli himself had hoped for the financial success of his exhibition through the erotic appeal to women of his heroic Satan, and indeed the Morning Herald publicized it as “Fuseli’s Devils”. Maria Edgeworth, reacting to this sexual provocation, has a libertine hero promise to perform the part of Fuseli’s serpent; Gillray too offered some fine caricatures; the True Briton talked appositely of Pope’s “art of sinking in poetry”, and says the “wild distortion seems more like burlesque than sublimity”. When the National Gallery opened in 1824, Fuseli’s works were the only ones excluded from the founding collection of Julius Angerstein.
There are, however, two problems with the book’s highly provocative use of Eisenstein. One is that she might have made use of Tom Gunning’s work on Eisenstein’s “montage of attraction”, because he shows clearly how the concept emerged from nineteenth century spectacles. The other problem, perhaps not serious, is that Fuseli himself did not represent the war in heaven at all. As we just saw, he skips from Eve’s dream to Adam’s and omits all of Raphael’s mini-epic in the middle of the poem.
The book also discusses several items that are not illustrated, such as Thomas Banks’s Shakespeare Between the Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting which embellished the entrance to the Shakespeare Gallery and which, we are told “participated in the iconography of street signs”. One would like to check that for oneself, especially in view of the argument about the importance of commerce to this new world of art galleries, and the visual continuities from one painting to another of which the book makes so much. Nonetheless these are minor cavils: the book deserves to be widely read, both by Miltonists and by students of Romantic painting.
Neil Forsyth is Professor of English at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.
A shorter version of this review is to appear in the Times Literary Supplement.