‘The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860’ Review
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‘The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860’ Review
An exhibition challenges the notion that Romanticism stood in opposition to reason and scientific method
‘A View of Snowdon From the Sands of Traeth Mawr’ (1834), by Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding.PHOTO: YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART
New Haven, Conn.
What are we to make of Romanticism? More important, what has Romanticism made of us? The West’s major historical eras should not really be labeled B.C. and A.D., but B.R. and A.R.: Before Romanticism and After.
Do you want to know about the nature of the modern state? It came into being in the 19th century. How about concert halls, symphony orchestras, natural history museums, even restaurants? Primarily creations of the Romantic era. What about the idea that childhood is a remarkable stage of life (“Apparell’d in celestial light”—Wordsworth)? Or that living “closer to Nature” makes you both more innocent and more authentic? Or that artists are prophets and art is self-expression? What about realizing that biological species evolve? Or that a political revolution can be carried out in the name of “rights”? What about thinking of society itself as a corrupting force, abetted by technology and commerce? Even a certain kind of self-conscious individualism came into being.
Nearly every aspect of public and private life was transformed between 1760 and 1860—which may be taken as the high century of European Romanticism. Isaiah Berlin called Romanticism “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West.” Its influence has been so deep, we scarcely notice how its suppositions and interpretations color our thought—or how strangely too, in recent decades, it has turned into mannerism.
Despite its influence, Romanticism has stubbornly resisted definition, perhaps because we are still immersed in its aftershocks. We come to understand it mainly from its poetry, music and art, which still haunt the modern mind. All of this provides a very good reason to visit the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven to see “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860.”
The exhibition immerses us in Romanticism in just one of its incarnations: the visual arts, largely of France and England. A joint effort with the Yale Center for British Art (which is closed until next spring for a major restoration), the exhibition gathers more than 300 paintings, sculptures, medals, watercolors, drawings and photographs mainly from the two museums’ collections (German Romanticism, unfortunately, is not represented). Here are William Blake, John Constable, Honoré Daumier, David d’Angers, Eugène Delacroix, Henry Fuseli, Théodore Géricault, Francisco de Goya, John Martin and J.M.W. Turner, united to portray a movement that wasn’t a movement and a style that wasn’t really a style.
The exhibition’s effect is a bit like the remarkable Romantic landscapes on display. In Turner’s “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” (c. 1831-32), for example, an anemic sunrise struggles to pierce ominous clouds above rough seas; a sooty trail from a steamer’s smokestack blows toward Scotland’s renowned cavern (a cave also paid tribute by Felix Mendelssohn in the “Hebrides Overture”). But the dark smoke grows diffuse as bright light breaks through, illuminating the volcanic rock. How are the contrasts of this painting—the dark and light, the natural and the industrial, the revelatory and the obscure, the sense of possibility and the foreboding of doom—held together? How do we make sense of the opposing forces at play? Or of a world that, far from seeming stable and secure, is shifting, churning, evolving into something unknown?
Look around here and ask the same of these works, which together give a sense of Romanticism’s shifting, churning world. The curators—an accomplished team including Elisabeth Hodermarsky (prints and drawings), Paola D’Agostino (European art), A. Cassandra Albinson (paintings and sculpture), Nina Amstutz (postdoctoral researcher) and Izabel Gass (graduate research assistant)—challenge the notion “that Romanticism stood in opposition to reason and scientific method.” The Enlightenment, they point out, enshrined the powers of reason, while Romanticism is usually portrayed as rejecting it. They suggest instead that Romanticism actually embraced reason, extending its reach by revealing “features of mind and experience the Enlightenment fell short of capturing.” The exhibition’s title, “The Critique of Reason,” alludes to Kant’s scrupulous analyses of how the mind comes to know itself and the world.
The galleries are organized not chronologically, but thematically. In each section, label copy and selections nudge us to think about the Romantics as rationalists. In one section, “Nature: Spectacle and Specimen,” we see James Ward’s writhing skeletons as well as anatomical studies by George Stubbs, who then fleshed out creatures’ bodies in paintings. “Distant Lands, Foreign Peoples” surveys the Romantic fascination with exotic and remote cultures. In other sections, Romantics become critics of society, personalize religious belief, portray grand landscapes, bring personality into portraiture and elevate the status of the sketch.
But when we look at Delacroix’s illustrations for “Faust” or Ward’s skeletons or Turner’s landscapes, it isn’t the power of reason that affects us. These images do not rationally order the world so much as acknowledge its elements of disorder. In some cases—Blake, for example—reason is even seen as an obstacle to understanding. This is more of a break with the Enlightenment than an extension of it. The Enlightenment affirmed that reason could regulate and explain the world, even perfectly govern human society. That idea turned out to be mistaken. (In fact, Isaiah Berlin thought the Enlightenment’s excessive confidence in reason ultimately led to the 20th century’s totalitarian ideologies.) Look around here, though, and it is plain that for these Romantics, perfection is not to be had. This is partly a recognition of the mind’s intractableness and irrationality, and partly a sense of the world’s complexity and unpredictability. The Enlightenment vision was of a static world; the Romantic was of a dynamic one, beyond formulaic understanding.
This is one reason for the effect of Romantic landscapes, in which the human is dwarfed by surroundings. The power of some paintings here—like Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding’s “A View of Snowdon From the Sands of Traeth Mawr” (1834) or Turner’s “Upper Fall of the Reichenbach: Rainbow” (1810)— is that before nature’s forces, reason comes to feel its own inadequacy, its inability to comprehend the whole. The sublime stymies the mind. At the same time, the mind takes pleasure in its rational powers. Romanticism reveals reason’s limits while still—as the exhibition recognizes—paying it tribute.
Today Romanticism survives in a debased form, as a series of elemental and exaggerated attitudes, turning a complex vision simple: Reason has its limits? Then let us distrust rational distinctions by embracing feeling over fact and dismantling assertions of truth. Society is a source of evil? Then let us more fully court the “natural” and attribute extraordinary wisdom to pre-modern cultures. The world is dynamic rather than static? Then let us give less regard for tradition than for novelty.
Isn’t it Romantic?
Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large. Write to him at Edward.Rothstein@wsj.com and follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.