When there’s a there there…

Provocative statement from In Ruins by Christopher Woodward:

“This Picturesque way of seeing is arguably England’s greatest contribution to European visual culture.”

Woodwards book is a meditation on various ruins, and at this point in the book he is trying to argue for a shift in their meaning during the beginning of the 18th century. He argues that the notion of the picturesque – that nature could be seen as a picture and that people could then organize natural settings to mimic pictures as deriving from the changed english attitude toward gothic, (as opposed to classical) ruins. He then suggests that the picturesque’s influence can be felt in things like Olmsted’s designs for urban parks and Marie Antoinette’s “english gardens” at Versailles. Of equal importance would be the ways in which the American West came to be both depicted and colonized through painting and photography. The ruin in the landscape is a hallmark of Romantic art, of course, and Woodward is saying that such a subject would not have been thought picture-worthy in itself before the period he is describing. I feel most provoked by the notion that this is an english invention, since I note that the 17th century marks a period of increasing contact and fascination with the far east, and the ideas os landscape as site for meditation seem to me to be similar to attitudes in Chinese art. The post colonialist in me notes that the period under examination is one of increasing imperial activity, and that it is easier to claim owner ship of a patch of land when you see it first as a picture, not as a location where someone else may already live and might have different ideas about what is to go on there.

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  1. Also there’s the particularly English attitude of sentimental nostalgia. Doris Lessing describes it (approximately) as: emotional is sadness after hitting a dog in the street after swerving to avoid hitting two old ladies; sentimental is killing two old ladies while swerving to miss a dog, and seeing it as a necessary sacrifice.

  2. interesting

    I thought Gothic novels and the early English interest in the sublime were more about describing visceral responses rather than categorizing the pictorial- doesn’t that get left to Ruskin and his contemporaries? When Reynolds and his contemporaries fall all over Moro and Ricci their enthusiam is as much about the Italian painters as rightful heirs to Michaelango as it is about new visions in landscapes. For the early gothic writers landscapes and ruins are a trigger for lavish descriptions of hither-to socially unacceptable emotions and experiences than anything else. Many of those gothic novelists (and writers of 18th century English travelogues) never visited places remotely similar to the landscapes they successfully wrote about.
    Also seems to me that the two most influencial English language exports of the gothic, the “forged” Ossian poems and Scott’s novels were more important as subject matter on the continent rather than as spurs to new forms of pictoral representation.

    In a very real way the English gothic and the sublime were a triumph of feeling and imagining over seeing.

  3. Re: interesting

    I think that Woodward’s point here is that the feelings that were celebrated in the name of the sublime were experienced in relationship to “views” and particularly views that contained ruins. In this he’s charting the change in attitude towards England’s gothic abbeys – the churches and monestaries appropriated by Henry the 8th – from despsied haunts of catholic blood suckers to repositories of historical meaning and a unique sense of “Englishness”. I’m oversimplifying – but he is talking about the transition from finding such ruins in the landscape – to garden designers and architects deliberately constructing them in the landscape in order to provide just those views that would summon forth feelings of awe and terror. So perhaps were more in the realm of Turner and Fuselli here than that of Reynolds.
    In any event, I have my own questions about Woodward’s reading of all this.

  4. Re: interesting

    I think that Woodward’s point here is that the feelings that were celebrated in the name of the sublime were experienced in relationship to “views” and particularly views that contained ruins. In this he’s charting the change in attitude towards England’s gothic abbeys – the churches and monestaries appropriated by Henry the 8th – from despsied haunts of catholic blood suckers to repositories of historical meaning and a unique sense of “Englishness”. I’m oversimplifying – but he is talking about the transition from finding such ruins in the landscape – to garden designers and architects deliberately constructing them in the landscape in order to provide just those views that would summon forth feelings of awe and terror. So perhaps were more in the realm of Turner and Fuselli here than that of Reynolds.
    In any event, I have my own questions about Woodward’s reading of all this.

  5. It all begins with Charwadgi

    The English contemplation of the sublime in the novel is mirrored in their admiration for the sublime in landscape. Walpole wrote Otranto, true, but he was also building a ruined gothic folly on his estate so as to provide a visual and temporal spur to contemplation. Similarly Beckwith constructed his own gothic follies, first at his estate in England, then a second in Portugal where he was hiding to avoid sodomy charges back in Merry Olde.

    I would not want to consider Scott as a great gothic novelist – he’s too Presbyterian. While early novels were written by the English, the truly interesting ones were written by the Anglo-Irish: Stoker, Le Fanu, Maturin, et al. I think these writers had greater access to castellated ruins – the Irish landscape is littered with ’em – but they all share that obsession with Roman Catholicism that only a Protestant, surrounded by mysterious ethnic Papists, can truly bring to the page. Too there is an obsession with blood(lines), the question of national identity, of political legitimacy, and illegitamcy (you bastard!)

  6. Re: It all begins with Charwadgi

    I guess it’s mostly a cart/horse thing. I had thought that the gothic and sublime were somewhat belated responses to the new ways of seeing and depicting the world- they were useful indications that the change was well underway.

    I chose the Scott novels and Ossian poems because of their broad dissemination and how much they appear in art, music and literature on the continent in the 19th century.

  7. Re: It all begins with Charwadgi

    Certainly they are complementary responses to a host of changes occuring in England and its empire. The Industrial Revolution and the fact of Empire itself both bring about a taste for the exotic, a questioning of national identity, and a revisiting of the classic rus et urb conflict (hence these faaaaaaabulous follies in the middle of the country).

    The interesting thing about Scott is that his work means more out of his native land than in it. Yes, Donizetti does him to death. And certainly the chivalric ideal became an idee fixe in the antebellum South. I’m unfamiliar with the effect Ossian has(d) on the continent, but the poems loom prominently in the Celtic Twilight across the Irish Sea.

  8. Re: It all begins with Charwadgi

    The interesting thing about Scott is that his work means more out of his native land than in it.

    That’s the thing about the early gothic. It quickly took on a life of it’s own

    Continental dissemination of Ossian happens very fast. The poems were incredibly popular and for the first half of the 19th century it almost seems that everyone who thought themselve literate had to comment on them. Portraying people weeping over Ossian is a touchstone of early romanticism: Goethe, Klopstock, Rousseau all do it. The poems provide lyrics for Schubert. Ossian’s heroics strikes a chord among monarchs and their courts and among early nationalists. Napoleon commissioned Igres’ “Dream of Ossian” and took the poems with him on his Moscow campaign and into his first exile. Rumors even credited his rereading of certain passages for his resolve to escape.

  9. Re: It all begins with Charwadgi

    Oh dear, I completely forgot Goethe – and I’ve read everything he’s written. And what Schubert lyrics I know are by Goethe or Schiller. I just don’t recall the Ossian lyrics, nor do I recognize or remember other references to him, though it is easy to imagine him fitting in to all the artists you cite.

    In a former life I worked for American Airlines, and we pushed European tour packages one season. That year the East was opening up for serious tourist invasion and we featured a Slavic Capitals Tour or something similarly named. The trip included transportation within Russia and its neighbors, but because of the dodgy nature of the air traffic control there at the time, most of the travel was done over land. Towards the end of the tour the weary travellers were to schlepp two days by bus from Moscow via Minsk to Warsaw. Hard time driving, nothing to see, nothing to visit, nothing to do – just wide open vast nothingness to traverse. The copy writers were desperate to make the bus trip sound interesting and they came upon this description : “Follow the path of Naploeon’s historic retreat from Moscow.”

    No doubt the Intourist tour guide was to lecture the audience about Ossian…

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