Tag Archives: painting

John Ruskin

Stones of Venice (1851-3)

Nature of the Gothic: The Gothic not defined by any single feature, but according to the relationship between features. He gives six categories, the removal of the majority of which will result in the edifice not being gothic (but what about half, one wonders?):

  1. Savageness
  2. Changefulness
  3. Naturalism
  4. Grotesqueness
  5. Rigidity
  6. Redundance

He performs the mode of seeing the whole in all of its parts in relation by doing a virtual bird’s eye tour of Europe, past and present. There is a carelessness of spectatorship that matches the carelessness, the savageness of the mode of construction:

Let us stnad by him when with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild an wayward as the northern sea. (174)

The idea is that there is a freedom granted to this crude workmen: the gothic recognizes even in small things, the value of the individual soul. The Gothic is constituted by imperfect fragments united into a coherent whole. It is, in other words, a political genre of architecture. Rusking even admits that such perfection (the perfection of imperfection) requires waste: it’s the cost of freedom. He comes out with his aesthetic dictum: “No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of the misunderstanding of the ends of art” (183).

We can also seen in his description of active rigidity and particularly Adornian moment:

the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and stiffness to resistance, which makes the fiercest lightning forked rather than curved, and the stoutest oak-branch angular rather than bending, and is as much seen in the quivering of the lance as in the glittering of the icicle. (194)

In other words, an erect penis.


Modern Painters (1860)

Definition of the Greatness of Art: that which conveys the greatest number of the greatest ideas to the spectator. A strange adoption of utilitarian language–a system that he elsewhere severely critiques, such as in Unto this Last. Contrast this to Pater: Ruskin is not into pleasure, and that’s why it’s absent from this definition: Pater in Renaissance lifts from Hegel (spirit in sensuous form) and adds Hellenistic, sensuous pleasure…and this is a reaction against Ruskin, Newman, Carlyle.

Pathetic Fallacy: Ruskin argues that this fallacy originates in the artistic mind that is too weak to control emotions. So there are three types of artist: the one sees but does not feel; the one who feels and therefore cannot see correctly; the one who sees correctly despite his feelings. However, Ruskin goes on to argue that when the fact becomes so great…it must disorder the senses of the poet. Not that language becomes insufficient to the event, but a disordered form of language becomes appropriate….BUT, NO event is beyond language…This is therefore a fourth type, but really only different in degree from the second type. Ruskin’s essays often mark out these numerical categories and then go about frustrating them.

Unto this Last (1860)

Mill is an idiot….rips apart political economy, just to say that this could work, yes, but you are forgetting that you do not always have to do things according to material interest, wants to posit moral sphere with vantages from which you can determine interest outside of material necessity…


Carolyn Korsmeyer – Making Sense of Taste (1999)

A more or less empirical approach to the gustatory aspects of taste, with the modest goal of establishing taste as “worthy of philosophical inquiry.” Some of the most interesting themes include the play between inside and outside (with regard to the human body’s boundaries), distance and proximity (with regard to the “aesthetic object”), subject and object (with regard to direction of sensual faculties and objective properties), separation and combination (first assigned to vision the latter assigned to taste), the hierarchy of the senses, the role of gender with regard to this hierarchy, the importance of the everyday (especially with regard to still life painting), and the importance of narrative as a frame understanding food as a process linked to community building and subject formation (though the last goes drastically under-developed).

Chap 3, “The Science of Taste,” notes that eating employs gustatory, olfactory and haptic sensations in a sequence that contain its own narrative of satisfaction (82). Argues, “The description of taste as a sense that directs attention inward and not outward betrays a fixation with the pleasure of the sense and ignores its cognitive dimensions and its roles in discovery and identification” (99). Instead, she claims, “taste points inward and outward simultaneously…its mode of operation requires that its objects become a part of oneself” (101).

Chap 5, “Visual Appetite,” reads a series of paintings, mostly still-lifes, from The Lady with the Unicorn (as progression from sensual experience of world to one in which the senses are transcended in the fifth panel—which means a renunciation of the passions) to the Dutch school (the triviality of the subject material highlights the ephemerality of the terrestrial—things are often decaying—but also the worthiness of the everyday for artistic representation) to Cezanne (in which fruits are decontextualized from nutritive function and forcefully made into aesthetic objects).

Chap 6, “Narratives of Eating,” reads the dinner scene in To the Lighthouse as a moment of alternative cognition—spurred on by food. Curiously, she forgets that Bourdieu wrote about such ordering scenes, having taken care of his critique early on. Unfortunate.

In general, Korsenmeyer cannot let go of the cognitive function as the central ordering faculty of taste and eating. She ignores the potential for things like body memory, or really any sort of Phenomenology (as conceived in the Husserlian tradition in France) of taste and digestion. A useful historical resource but ultimately unsatisfying. Also, her readings of art and literature are under-developed, mainly ways of exposing the persistence of certain historical prejudices against or for sensual cateogries.

Great bibliographic resource:

Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California, 1993)

Roland Barthes, “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986)

Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Tranformative Philosophies of Food (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992)

Luc Ferry, Homo Aestheticus: The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age, trans. Robert de Loazia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Voltaire, “Goût” in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie

Robert Browning – Poems

“My Last Duchess,” from Dramatic Lyrics (1842) – A poem about the violence of making art. Told in heroic couplets. The Duke is entertaining a Count who is trying to arrange a marriage with the Duke and his daughter. Walking through the palace, he shows him a painting of his latest wife: My Last Duchess. She was “too easily impressed” with other men’s gifts, ranking them with the Duke’s gift of “nine-hundred-years-old name,” and so he “gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together”–that is, he order her execution and subsequent (?) transformation into a work of art. “There she stands / As if alive.” All this story is told in a highly aesthetic situation–the Duke has created a special little room and curtain and bench form which viewers can aesthetically be impacted (“impressed”?) by the painting. The “aliveness” of the poem is conveyed through the “spot of joy” that mimics the involuntary blush that betrayed her enjoyment of the men’s advances: the question is where the excess is located: is the it the excess that characterizes life (that which goes beyond mere life) or the excess that characterizes art (makes it living). These converge in a painting that is predicated on the death of the represented object. In Duke’s words: “Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint . Half-flush that dies along her throat.” What does do is convert this dying “half-flush” into an artistic “full-flush” that cancels that violent life and death. Thus, in My Last Duchess, Browning is laying out the stakes of art’s relationship to life: a theme that EBB will take up in a more positive manner, by attempting to write a Verse-Novel that refuses to kill anything  by its formal inclusiveness. In the process, she kills the poem with a novel–but that’s what’s necessary for preserving the poem as a poem.


“Porphyria’s Lover” (1836, published in Dramatic Lyrics, 1842) – 5 line stanzas, rhyming ABABB. Porphyria visits her lover and, with startlingly agency, puts his arm around her waist, and makes his cheek lie on her shoulder while her yellow hair is “displaced” “o’er all.” The lover discovers that Porphyria “worships” him, and the transfer power follows from the declaration of possession:

That moment she was mine, mine, fiar,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.

The unprovoked violence connects with the violence inherent to the act of painting (and all forms of representation) in “My Last Duchess,” even to the extent of a blush appearing appearing “bright beneath my burning kiss.” In the last stanza, the time of narration converges with the time of the story: “And thus we sit together now,” which implies that the writing of the poem has taken place while her head is on his shoulder (reversal of agency). The last line: “An yet God has not said a word!” is a giddy, childlike rupture of guilty consciences, disjunctive with the rest of the poem. Yet it draws a contrast with the violence of speaking for someone else–that is, free indirect discourse. The agency of the first part of the poem is therefore qualified by this final outburst. God has no said a word, but the artist’s imposition on the object of representation bears a guilt that cannot be exculpated within the sphere of art.


“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” (published in Dramatic ROmances and Lyrics, 1845)

Unlike “My Last Duchess” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” which employ highly intricate rhyming schemes, this poem, spoken by the bishops, is told in iambic pentameter, unrhymed, blank verse, a more traditional vehicle for dramatic monologue. The Bishop wants to arrange his tomb to be better, more monumental, then Old Gandolf’s tomb of onion stone–but he fears that his inability to oversea all the particulars will end in a product that is as disappointing. But above all the poem is about identifying difficulty of identifying the line between life and death:

For as I lie here, hours of the dad night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s-work

In other words, the Bishop is readying himself for death be being dead, taking on the qualities of the dead stone that is supposed to memorialize his life. Of course, this confounds the whole idea of the monument, which is suppose to represent a life. Living in order to die short-circuits the aesthetic. Does the aesthetic convey a life or a death?


“Fra Lippo Lippi” (from Men and Women, 1855) – About the ability of daily artistic practice to sustain an individual life (and along the way, perhaps, the life of the object the subject is representing).  Fra Lippo Lippi, who has penchant for drinking and sleeping with prostitutes, is picked up one evening by some authorities and tells his story: abandoned by his parents, he gets by on eating rubbish and, when taken in by a cloister, learns to paint. He is clear that he became a painter, and continued to become a better painter because of hunger:

Soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger pinch.

He refines his craft so well that some townspeople declare: “it’s the life!” The priests declare that his job is not to be a realist–“Faces, arms, legs, bodies like the true”–but to “paint the souls of men.” He has violated, in other words, the ban on graven images. He asks the question: “Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flesh?”–a question inherited from The Winter’s Tale: what fine chisel has cut breath? But he is unable to “unlearn” the “value and significance of flesh,” and stages a defense of mimesis:

For don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have
perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted–better for us.

He then proceeds to take the connection between hunger and art full circle: “To find its [life’s] meaning if my meat and drink.” The narrative frame closes with his release by the authorities. He returns to the cloister and the poem finishes with a “Zooks!” one of those Browning interruptions that somehow capture that which escapes the formal structures of the poem: there’s an uncontrollable quality to the language and bodies that populate these poems.



Charles DIckens – David Copperfield (1850)

David Copperfield (son of D. Copperfield the elder, who dies) is born to Clara. Against Miss. Peggotty’s and Betsey Trotwood’s wishes, Clara marries Murdstone, who along with his sister, “kills” Clara (and her second baby) and leaves David to fend for himself in London. The first 15 chapters include his initial disciplining (Salem House, etc.), including his friendships with Steerforth and Traddles, his lodging with the insolvent Mr. Micawber; but he runs away to his aunt’s place and eventually lands, through the help of Wickfield, in a comfortable school in Dover under the tutelage of Mr. Strong. He meets Agnes, the boring lady whom he’ll evnetually marry (after Dora dies). He battles with Uriah throughout for his good name. Steerforth seduces his childhood friend Emily (part of the Peggattoy family living on the boat at Yarmouth) and then abandons her. her whole family will move to Australia to escape the disgrace. Steerforth drowns in a shipwreck. Micawber indicts Uriah for stealing from Wickfield. Mr. Dick, a simpleton, solves the martial problems of Mr. and Mrs. Annie Strong (who almost had an affair with a sailor/childhood friend). David marries Agnes in the end and has a bunch of kids. The book closes with a scene of writing.

Memory: Can be read as critique of Wordsworthian mnemonics. instead of recollecting in tranquility, we could take the Wolf Man paradigm (David bites Murdstone and wears a beware of dog sign around for a while), which claims that memory is constantly being made according to the psychological demands of the present. Perhaps connect this to Peter Brooks argument.

Time: The tense oscillates between past and present. The “Recollections” are done in the present, but are describing past scenes. The compresses the affective registers of experience and writing. Recollections could be thought of as a way of compensating for experience that could not be previously ordered by the phenomenological subject. So he narrates in the “present tense” as a way of patching over the inability of the past tense to contain various affective experiences such as an engagement with Dora, etc. The book also dramatizes those times when the past tense is breaking down without the solution of the retrospect. When he is drunk, the phenomenological subject is split, which double the spilt between the narrating subject and the narrated. Given this, we could talk about how time solves a spatial (identity) problem.

Names: David has a bunch of names given to him by other characters. This diagetic naming  is different from early phase, marks transition to Bleak House and Mutual Friend. Dick lives up to his name Richard–fulfills its potential.

Novelistic Convention: David is constantly imagining himself as the hero in a romance…but again, it’s unclear whether this imagining is taking place in the temps de recit or the temps d’histoire. Is this a continuation of Romanticism or a laying bare of its mechanism?

Sleep: Moments of falling asleep are crucial psychological moments, interesting in terms of the capacity fro dreaming (backwards and/or forwards)

Homosexual bonds – David is constantly described as effeminate (by both characters and critics), and he fulfills many of the domestic roles of a Victorian female heroine. Further, Steerforth acts as a threat that needs to be fully repressed as perverse (unweidly and therefore expendable) for David to move from Dora straight to the boring Agnes. On top of all this, his aunt treats him like the girl he always wanted him to be.

Autobiography – Compare to JS Mill in terms of the Bildungsroman.

Foils, repression, subjectivity – Littimer and Heep, two doubles of David (infact, productions of his unconscious) need to be produced by the social-text in order to adequately effect David’s consolidated ego. Int his way, the prison becomes a synecdoche for the text (even if that very social system–its ineffective at change) is what Dickens wants to bring under critique.

Imbedded Critiques, excised characters – Micawber (sorta like Skimpole in Bleak House) is used to critique the Victorian system of capital that constantly excises him. other unassimilable character (Steerforth, Rosa Dartle, Heep, Annie) are let fall, killed off, showing the embarrassment of a fictional writer attempting to uphold bourgeois norms–but also, at the same, registering the sensitivity to passions that, however muffled, live in these pages.

Mr. Dick is a case of trauma that runs into desire that is no longer bound to the original loss. Condensation and displacement becomes goods in themselves.

Oscar Wilde – Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

The young and beautiful Dorian Gray becomes Basil Hallward’s artistic muse. Lordy Henry meets and corrupts him with his deacadent cynicism. Dorian wishes that he will never age, and after some time, the Basil’s portrait begins to shown the signs of his age. He falls in love with Subyl Vane, gets engaged, but when she fails to act well in front of Basil and Lord Henry, he withdraws his offer and scorns he. She commits suicide. Dorian becomes increasingly decadent but never ages. Rumors spread about his infamy. Basil comes to give advice. Dorian show him the now gruesome portrait before violently murdering him. Dorian calls his friend Campbell to melt the body down…and threatens to reveal his “secret” if he does not. He goes on an opium binge outside of London. He encounters James Sibyl, who tries to kill him, but is fortuitously shot during a hunting outing. Dorian can’t bear his guilt, vowing to be good, he tries to slash the portrait but is found, a withered old man, stabbed to death.

Time/Portrait/Narrative – One way to frame Dorian’s fear of aging is a fear of narrative in general. Couch within a broader discussion of portraiture around the turn of the century. Commitment to static, non-literary form begins usurp 19th-century forms of plotting. Contrast with James’ Portrait of a Lady and Joyce’s Portrait/Stephen Hero. Also, the form of the novel is epiphanic, a collection of moments, strung together by social episodes, letters, etc….the formalities requires by the social and plot itself. One can see both deteriorating.

Actor/Spectator – Several times, Dorian suddenly becomes a spectator rather than actor in his own affairs. Read this as a perfected and perverted form of Smith and Hume’s early development of the impartial spectator. What does it mean to be entirely impartial to your own and other’s actions? Couch within discussion of decadence and aesthetic distance.

Art/Life – Dorian conceptual categories are dominated by theatrical and literary clichés, which mediate his relation to both himself and to others. Sibyl exhausts her potential by performing, consecutively, all the Shakespearean heroines. Simialrly, Basil represents Dorian in a variety of poses, dressed up as Hellenistic, Roman, etc..

More broadly, Paterian, Jamesian and Huysmanian ideas about relationship between art and life surface. Is art a separate sphere? What is the harm of making one’s life into a work of art? Wilde’s philosophically rich aesthetics foreshadows discussion of modernist aesthetics of autonomy in works like Portrait/Hero, Tarr, Eliot-Pound-Hulme-Ford essays, etc.

Concealment – an updated for of 19th-century concealment. No longer the secret that needs to be decoded for the plot to unfurl and become transparent, but secrets become “open” (Sedgewick, ALF)—and they are not benign, rather, they can be forced on others and used for the purposes of manipulation. Further, portraits are concealed, faces, etc…

Sensorium – Lord Henry and Dorian become exemplars of Paterian decadence in their pursuit of bodily sensation. At one point, Dorian, to relive himself of boredom, explores perfume, drapery, etc. in order to satisfy all the senses. Actively unseats vision as the primary mediator of outside world.

Society – Important plot moments are narrated off-scene through dialogue

Henry James – Portrait of a Lady (1881)

Isabel Archer, from Albany, the most intellectual of three daughters (who go largely unmentioned) moves to Europe with her Aunt Lydia Touchett, where she meets her cousins at Gardencourt: Mr. Touchett, an American banker living out his last days, and Ralph Touchett, her consumptive cousin that reamins her closest companion throughout. She also meets Lord Warburton, whose marriage offer she refuses. When Mr. Touchett dies, Ralp gives over his inheritance to Isable, wanting her to be free of amrriage (for instance, of Casper Goodwood, an American suitor that follows her all over Europe. She is accompanied throughout by Henrietta Stackpole, a militantly modern pro-American, proto-feminist journalist who proves to be a great friend despite appearing vulgar at first (she marries Mr. Bantling, a minor character except that he presages uxorious man of the 20th century). Meeting Madame Merle (high in Mrs. Touchett’s esteem), she goes to Italy, where she meets Gabriel Osmond, a aesthetic dilletante (American expat) with whom she falls in love, thanks to Merle’s maneuvering and much to everyone’s chagrin. All goes wrong. She hates her husband, who hates her. It turns out that Merle is his ex-lover, and mother of Pansy Osmond. Isable returns to England despite her husband’s wishes in order to be with Ralph during his final days. They are reconciled. Soon after he dies, Casper Goodwood tries to propose violently. She resists, and the novel ends with her planning to return to Osmond.

Aesthetics: much attention given to actual portraits, but characters are constantly described in explicitly aesthetic terms. There is a danger, as in Osmond’s case, the one takes aesthetic distance to a cold extreme, transforming everyone into objects. Pansy is an extreme case.

Proximity: The desire for nearness, which is ubiquitous, counteracts the aesthetic impulse. Symapthetic characters travel great distance in order to be near to Isabel, the central aesthetic object. She herself moves in and out of her artistic state (wearing a mask at times, and breaking down at others, going near to Ralph in the end, despite her being useless to his recovery.)

Money: Draw parallel with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Will becomes central enabler of evil rather than of good.

Love: Ralph goes on about love in the end, but it fails to rewrite lives devoid of it.

Translation/Original: Isabal is described as on original—unmediated—that is, as pure, in terms of currency.

Imagination: Isabel wants to fill out the limits of her imagination, which is what art does, too.

Life: Isabel is constantly employing this term to stand in for a poorly developed concept of personal freedom.

Suffering – track as plot device.

Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre (1847)

Status of marriage and the legal contract: bound up with the question of intent and meaning. When does a contract hold or not. Compare with Woman in White.

Painting – Jane’s paintings do not have an original in nature. The original is Jane herself, since it is by one of her paintings that her secret is discovered. The painting becomes necessary to the “unraveling” or the construction of denoument. The necessity of the medium relationship. MEDIATION.

“I know no medium: I never in my life have know any medium in my dealings with positive, hard characters, antagonistic to my own, between submission and determined revolt” (341)

Charm – A word that bridges the world of goblins with the world of the drawing room

Tense shifts – shifts into the present at times. How does this work with a narrative that is more or less a diary. How can one write in the moment. Another time in which the static or “timeless” portrait (or just a different temporality) beocmes necessary for the intensity of narrative time itself.

Food – becomes a keeper of time early in the novel