The Tate Britain and Shifting Aesthetics throughout 19th Century England

The Tate Britain had some pretty remarkable pieces. I was especially thrilled to see the William Blake exhibit: most of the pieces were really small, and many of them were unfinished sketches–but Blake just has, I don’t know, this aura around him. Maybe I’ve just spent years unwittingly succumbing to all the “visionary”/”prophet” hype surrounding Blake and his work, but I do think of him as an artist with what Flannery O’Connor described as “anagogical vision.” It’s strange. I’m a pretty secular guy, but it’s hard not to feel somewhat shaken when I’m in the presence of Blake’s actual illustrations. Maybe it’s that he’s so committed to his own idiosyncratic interpretations of familiar religious iconography (also like O’Connor in that respect, come to think of it). It resonates with both the part of me that grew up Catholic and the part of me that started to find certain strains of religious orthodoxy stifling and reactionary as I got older.

I also loved the Turner exhibit. I found it especially interesting seeing JMW Turner’s aesthetic evolve over the course of his career. His work clearly comes out of the Romantic tradition, with its focus on nature and the Sublime, but he took that perspective to a number of different places (and through a few different stylistic phases) through the shift from the late Georgian era through the Regency period and onward into the Victorian era. I especially found the later works interesting, even though some were unfinished. He was shifting toward a less concrete style, something almost proto-Impressionistic in its emphasis on ephemeral sensory details over more “objective” representation. This may be a tenuous connection, but it made me think a bit about photography in Levy’s The Romance of a Shop. Daguerre started to introduce his new technology in the late 1830s, which prefaces the shift in Turner’s style by just a few years. Art–and music, and literature–generally grew less representative later in the century, and many have attributed this shift to the ascendancy of photography and cinema. Why try to represent things “objectively” when we have cameras? How could we represent things objectively without cameras?

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One thought on “The Tate Britain and Shifting Aesthetics throughout 19th Century England

  1. I’m so glad you got to see the Blake collection. I love it too. I also love the Turner stuff; he’s one of my favorites. There’s more Turner in the National Gallery. If you’re interested in art generally, you’ll want to go there. It’s spectacular.

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