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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-Johansens 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 paragone debates.
In the second chapter Pater’s 1867 essay on Johann Winckelmann becomes a path into German aesthetic philosophers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Herder and Gotthold Lessing. Pater suggests multiple notions of form, seen as material by Winckelmann but “evanescent and almost formless” for Michelangelo (80). For Pater form is transient and momentary, existing in interactions between the artwork and spectators over time and space.
Among Østermark-Johansen’s methods is quantifying Pater’s words and sounds, e. g., “the moment” is repeated 13 times in 1700 words in his 1873 “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (80), to demonstrate his emphasis on the ephemeral. She also follows topics, artists, and writers independently of their relationship to Pater: for example, her discussion of Winckelmann’s 1764 study of the Belvedere Torso includes nineteenth-century images of it, leading up to a parallel between Pater and the German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand (1847-1921) whose art and writings on form become another lens through which she examines Pater’s “sculptural and textual space” (101).
The third chapter on French aestheticism begins with Théophile Gautier’s 1835 Mademoiselle De Maupin, the subject of a visit among Pater, Sidney Colvin, and Edmund Gosse. Gautier and Charles Baudelaire are “ghostly” presences in Pater’s writings, as his contemporaries recognized (115). The chapter’s theme of a fluid, Ovidian double vision in these authors, in Algernon Swinburne and in Pater’s historically layered readings (e.g., Goethe against Winckelmann) is symbolized by the sculpture Hermaphroditus, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic work in the Louvre, which is celebrated in Swinburne’s poem “Hermaphroditus.” A discussion of Gautier’s view that Ingres synthesizes classicism and romanticism (Pater admired Ingres) segues into analyses of Ingres paintings, the notion of aesthetic strangeness, Swinburne’s study of Leonardo and Michelangelo’s androgynous images, and Baudelaire’s paean to Eugène Delacroix, among a string of references to Charles-Louis Duval, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Hogarth’s serpentine line, among others.
In one section of this chapter, Østermark-Johansen focuses on images of apes in sculpture, two reviews of a sculpture of a gorilla by Gautier and Baudelaire, and nineteenth-century singeries of the monkey as an emblem of lust. In the last section, she examines Baudelaire’s comments on sculpture and his poems on Michelangelo’s hermaphroditic Night. Given Pater’s view that the Renaissance “began and ended in France” (148), she concludes with a brief commentary on the unfinished Gaston De Latour (1888) in which Pater appears to criticize extremes of decadence and aestheticism, while anxiously substituting Victor Hugo for Baudelaire in his revised Romanticism essay in Appreciations (1889).
In the fourth chapter Østermark-Johansen analyzes Pater’s writings vis-à-vis the art of Victorian Aestheticism. Pater was deeply engaged with contemporary art, a friend of Simeon Solomon, and contributor to The Portfolio. Without texts, however, Østermark-Johansen admits that her comments are “associative rather than founded on strong textual evidence” (164). She finds aesthetic correlatives in James MacNeill Whistler’s exploration of whiteness, Henry James’s interpretation of Edward Burne-Jones “through a Paterian aesthetic” (187), and Burne-Jones’s 1875-78 Pygmalion series on sculpture that, in her view, unites Botticelli and Michelangelo.
Østermark-Johansen works within a kind of Hegelianism in which Pater synthesizes all opposites: “Leonardo and Michelangelo, Winckelmann and Lessing, Ruskin and Swinburne, Gautier and Baudelaire” and the “extreme poles of aesthetic painting, namely the works of both Whistler and Burne-Jones” (165). But such mutually exclusive binaries don’t always hold up, as she admits: Pater appreciated Burne-Jones and loved Watteau (whose work she likens to Whistler’s art of understatement); Pater and Whistler shared a taste for “the refinements, the intangible and the suggestive” (175); and on colour Whistler and Burne-Jones were “not all that different” (184).
The topic of the fifth chapter, Pater and Greek sculpture, attends to Pater’s unfinished essay on Greek myth and to references to antiquity in his contemporaries’ work. She connects his interest in Greek culture, derived from literary sources, with Oxford’s development of an archaeology museum, library, and chair in classical archaeology. Again she follows diverse speculative associations, describing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1860 The Marble Faun, originally entitled “Transformation,” as parallel to Pater’s frequent use of the word and his interest in Praxiteles’ faun. Both writers shared ideas of the “condensation of the elements and the natural world into the human form” (224), an observation which then propels her to consider views on Michelangelo’s Bacchus by Pater, Percy Bysshe Shelley and others, before moving on to Solomon’s work.
Pater focuses on sculpture’s sensuous materiality, not on sculpture as “abstract thought in white marble” (238). He is interested in sculpture’s background in the decorative arts and on chryselephantine sculpture—cedar covered in ivory and gold plates, which contrasts sharply with marble. He is fascinated by Oriental Ionian influences on Greek sculpture and the myth of Daedalus as the first sculptor. Østermark-Johansen explores images of Daedalus, Icarus, and nude male athletes in New Sculpture works by Alfred Gilbert, Hamo Thornycroft and Frederic Leighton. Her chapter culminates in Pater’s view of the Roman copy of Myron’s Discobolus as balancing competing forces of stasis and motion, and a copy of Polycleitus’ Discophorus read through the homoeroticism Victorians attached to Greek culture.
The last chapter is not a conclusion but an application of sculpture’s varied meanings to Pater’s notion of style, writing practices, and attention to his books’ materiality—typography, line lengths, paper, and page layout. Østermark-Johansen opens with a lesser-known semi-autobiographical imaginary portrait, “An English Poet,” and Pater’s essay on William Wordsworth in Appreciations (1874). She argues that Wordsworth and Pater shared a “fragmentary, analytical method … subversive of a Classical unity” (288). Another emblem of Pater’s style, the palimpsest, is taken up in her discussion of Pater’s 1885 novel Marius the Epicurean with its leitmotif of the frieze/procession. She explores Pater’s fascination with dictionaries, scientific studies of the Latin and German origins of English, Gustave Flaubert’s le mot juste, Gosse’s description of Pater’s style as like artesian well water traveled through rock—distilled yet marked by history and geography—and images of Pater’s drafts and published pages.
Throughout this book, Østermark-Johansen goes beyond reproducing works that Pater describes to finding unusual art that she thinks represents his methods, thinking, and writing style. Her interpretations are well-grounded in solid research and years of familiarity with Pater’s work, but she also works by wide-ranging associations and speculations to reconstruct Pater’s mental map, combining closely-read centripetal passages in his writings with a vast array of centrifugal allusions; my citations of these offer merely a hint of the widely digressive yet deeply incisive nature of her observations. Sometimes these trails seem suspect: the call upon the reader’s “own inner sculptor,” which is needed to understand Pater’s “multi-layered words” (105) overextends the sculpture metaphor and is perhaps a bit ludicrous. This book is several books combined—Pater and any of these topics could constitute a monograph. It is clearly a life’s work, the kind of deep study so rare now, and it will delight and challenge scholars of the period.
Julie Codell is Professor of Art History at Arizona State University and affiliate faculty in English, Gender Studies, Film and Media Studies and Asian Studies. She wrote The Victorian Artist: Artists’ Life Writings in Britain, ca. 1870-1910 (Cambridge 2003; paperback 2012) and edited Transculturation in British Art, 1770-1930 (2012), Power and Resistance: The Delhi Coronation Durbars (2012), The Political Economy of Art (2008), Imperial Co-Histories (2003), and co-edited with Laurel Brake Encounters in the Victorian Press (2004), and with Dianne S. Macleod Orientalism Transposed: The Impact of the Colonies on British Culture (1998), now being translated into Japanese (2014).