It proved very instructive, asking around to other art historians, what they consider to be the central issue or issues in our field. "The material turn," "world art history," "questions of form," "digital humanities," "the expansion of visual materials—what is our field?" That’s from colleagues. Ask my graduate students, and the answers were differently focused: “are there any jobs?” “How can I best prepare myself for a path that might fork toward academia or curatorship?” “Are our disciplinary bounds too rigid?” I cite these very pragmatic questions because we need to take this always present reminder of precarity—the precarity of the future of our profession, of the humanities, of our universities—as something that reverberates underneath all of our questions. It underscores the importance of forming alliances—whether inside and outside our own institutions, or engaging with everything that can be lumped together under the heading of "public humanities"—as well as interrogating the objects of our own scholarly inquiry. Indeed, negotiating the interplay of exchanges between specialist and generalist, and translating from one register of concerns to another, is something with which all of us must be engaged.
Negotiating the interplay of exchanges between specialist and generalist, and translating from one register of concerns to another, is something with which all of us must be engaged.
These days, my own work is very interdisciplinary, transatlantic, and stretches from the 19th century to the contemporary. But I began as a scholar of 19th-century British painting and literature. This was territory to which I returned in the summer of 2015, giving a keynote talk at a conference hosted by the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies, at the University of London. The topic was "Arts and Feeling," a title that pointed both to an easy acceptance of interdisciplinary study within the humanities (speakers addressed painting, sculpture, literature, music, and in many cases, their interactions) and to one important area of inquiry over the past fifteen years or so: the nature, operation, and representation of feeling, affect, and emotion. I chose to talk about one very familiar painting, John Everett Millais’s Autumn Leaves, a painting explicitly associated with feeling since it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856.
Thinking about Autumn Leaves represents something of a return to my scholarly roots, and therefore provides an obvious place to ask what’s new and where might we be heading. This is a consciously solipsistic choice on my part, since it throws out a side question about what draws us, as individuals, to our particular objects of study and our investment in them—something that often amounts to more than the history of our cultural and intellectual formation, but is very hard to name. Ostensibly, too, I was returning to a format that I’d found very fruitful for generating ideas in the past: a close contextual reading of an individual mid-Victorian painting (Flint 1989, 1996). However, the changing shape of art history, and of cultural history more broadly, over the past couple of decades meant, I found, that I was framing both questions and answers in a way that departed from my earlier work in some usefully symptomatic ways.
Critical assessments of Autumn Leaves have understandably centered on the problem of how to analyze its patent appeal to the observer’s emotions and sensibilities. In the first wave of revived critical interest in the Pre-Raphaelites, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, this expressiveness was primarily discussed in terms of subject matter: a general evocation of mortality and transience achieved through depicting girls on the edge of puberty, day fading into night, summer’s passage into winter, time illusorily held still, as exemplified by a falling leaf suspended in motion on the basket’s edge; the barely visible man raking leaves in the background, behind the shoulder of the left-hand girl. Literary analogues were invoked, from Tennyson, to Keats, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and indeed, I added to this by unearthing (thanks to Google Books) a poem about the picture, itself published by Richard Garnett, of the British Library, in 1859. The assumption was that the mid-Victorians found this an easy painting to translate into language, so long as that language was the formulaic one of melancholic lyric poetry. This approach—reading a work of art alongside literary analogues—is best exemplified by Malcolm Warner’s seminal 1984 essay on Autumn Leaves. More recently, critics such as Jason Rosenfeld (2012), Elizabeth Prettejohn (2000), and David Peters Corbett (2004) have looked much more closely at the expressiveness of Millais’s style—much looser, much less wedded to Ruskinian detail than before—terming it "experimental," prefiguring that of his later landscapes, in turn influential on, say, Van Gogh’s broad strokes. When Corbett asks near the beginning of The World in Paint: "can paint instruct us, tell us truths about the world because, in some manner, it can inquire into reality and thus enlighten us in ways other forms of knowledge cannot?", his question speaks not just to the evaluation of aesthetic qualities, but, importantly, to the material turn in recent art history (Corbett 2004, 12).
What might it mean to historicize feeling?
Initially, in considering the painting and reception of Autumn Leaves, I wanted to give very precise weight to the 1855–56 period. I did so to help bring home the importance of precision in cultural history, to be sure, but, more specifically, to ask what it might mean to historicize feeling. One major question that I had concerned the relevance of the dominant international event of the mid 1850s: the Crimean War. In 1856, Autumn Leaves was exhibited alongside two other major Millais canvases, The Blind Girl and Peace Concluded. The former is a religiously infused visual meditation on sensory factors that may provide compensation for the loss of sight; the latter is an unarguable commentary on current events, with its exact rendering of the front page of The Times for March 31, 1856, just prior to the Treaty of Paris that brought the Crimean War to an end, with toy animals representing the warring powers, and the little girl holding up a dove of peace. Memories of the Crimean War were strongly played upon in this particular Academy show. Another widely noticed work, Noel Paton’s Home, tied in the Crimean War to its domestic impact: it celebrates a wounded soldier’s safe return, celebrates bravery and patriotism, invokes divine benevolence. It is designedly sentimental, but it allows the contemporary spectator to exhale with gratitude and relief.
But when Millais began painting Autumn Leaves, in the fall of 1855, the Siege of Sebastopol had only just ended in early September. As William Howard Russell makes clear in his dispatches for the Times, this was not a time for celebration, but for mourning, for considering the cost of war; for reflecting on the human horror that was exemplified in the "heartrending and revolting" scenes of the hospital at Sevastopol. We know how closely Millais followed events in the Crimea. Holman Hunt was traveling in the Middle East at this time, and Millais’s friend, John Dalbiac Luard, went to the Crimea in October 1855, returning in January 1856. In April of that year—just before the Royal Academy exhibition—Millais wrote home to Effie that he was looking at Luard’s Crimean sketches. The next year, Luard showed a Crimean-themed painting at the Academy, A Welcome Arrival (of a tea chest from home containing supplies turning up in a Sevastopol soldier’s hut), and painted Nearing Home in 1858—the returning wounded soldier nearing British shores, and also possibly nearing death.
What I am claiming is a context for the production and exhibition of Autumn Leaves, and for the emotion that it contains and evokes, that does not separate it from the public events of its time.
What I am claiming is a context for the production and exhibition of Autumn Leaves, and for the emotion that it contains and evokes, that does not separate it from the public events of its time. Rather than approaching these through a set of symbols that may be read according to a neat typological scheme, though, the painting stimulates responses through the creation of an expressive atmosphere. Whilst it has little that’s overtly in common with contemporary depictions of the Crimean War, such images would have been part of the visual culture of these years, transmitted, say, in the pages of the Illustrated London News. Together with topical works shown at the Academy, they hence form part of the visual economy into which Autumn Leaves was introduced and which formed the grounds of possibility for its own reception. The military context, moreover, had a particular regional significance for Millais at this time. Perth, where he and his new wife Effie were living at the time he painted the work, was the home of the Black Watch, the 42nd (Highland) Regiment, which formed part of the Highland Brigade during the Crimean War, saw significant action and suffered significant losses. A number of men from Perth also enrolled in the 93rd Sutherland Regiment that played such a central role at the Battle of Balaclava. The men that remained alive would have participated in the Siege of Sevastopol and experienced the terrible harsh winter: the superficially generic theme of the year’s decline, presaging winter, carries recent and very specific associations with it. The mood of Autumn Leaves very plausibly reflects the widespread British disillusionment with the war, especially because of the mismanagement at the very highest levels of the military command and other accusations of misconduct—or, one might also say, the mood of the public renders this a readily available projection onto the less precise sense of transience and mortality that the image emanates.
There’s one more indication that Millais had the Crimea on his mind. On October 23rd 1855, his friend, the caricaturist John Leech, wrote him: "You should come to town, if only to see a collection of photographs taken in the Crimea. They are surprisingly good; I don’t think anything ever affected me more. You hardly miss the colour, the truth in other respects is so wonderful" (Millais 1899, 1: 270–71). I haven’t yet found evidence that would suggest that Millais traveled to London that autumn and saw Roger Fenton’s 350 Crimean photographs, nor, for that matter, those that were shown by James Robertson in London in December of that year—although he would have been highly likely to have seen the photogravures after Fenton’s pictures that appeared in the Illustrated London News. I want, though, to consider, just for a moment, why Leech might have found the photographs so affecting. Reviews of the Pall Mall exhibition commend the portrayal of the war for being highly instructive: the images are celebrated for their documentary value, not for their emotional impact.
Since Leech’s comment suggests an emotional response that goes beyond praise for topographical accuracy or recognizing the portraits of known individuals, we’re left with a not unfamiliar critical problem: how to address possible affective reactions of the past our current position as viewers whose sensibilities and ways of looking have been developed, at least in part, through the work of later writers. For example, there is, inescapably, what we may now term a Barthean melancholy attaching to each individual in Fenton’s many portraits. These inevitably depict someone who was alive at the moment of taking the image but who will be dead in a greater or shorter length of time, and who are certainly now no more. Especially with these military scenes, these soldiers may well be no longer alive even at the time that the photographs were first exhibited. The cumbersome nature of photographic equipment in the mid-1850s means that we’re not responding to these works in relation to the questions of trauma and ethics that have dominated late 20th-century and early 21st-century discussions of photographic reportage of carnage and warfare. What we do have, though, are representations of the scale of the Crimean operation and of the unforgiving bleakness of the terrain. Whilst some of the portraits are relatively formal, both the size and scrubbiness of many of the horses and the tired, or wistful, or anxious, or troubled expressions on many faces also give the lie to war’s grandeur. Seen en masse, these faces, these individual lives carry a cumulative effect of human vulnerability and mortality. At the same time, something of war’s emotional toll is expressed more metaphorically: through the barrenness of the landscape with its heaps of rocks, its refusal to offer up any relief to the eye, its graveyard, and, indeed, its by now iconic cannonballs in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Taken as a whole, Fenton’s is, indeed, a photographic style that has analogies with Autumn Leaves in how it achieves its emotional impact. It depends on the poignancy of individual faces set against a terrain that is indistinct enough to work on the spectators who bring their own feelings to the image.
The interplay between image and viewer, as always, is a two-way one, dependent both on perception and projection. What’s so significant about Autumn Leaves, and about a reading that attempts to construct as full a historical context for it as possible, is that it perfectly exemplifies this at a stylistic as well as at a thematic level. If the connection between formal elements and the feelings of the beholder was to become axiomatic within aesthetic criticism later in the century, we here see Millais’s experimentalism—an experimentalism that is, all the same, very firmly connected to the conditions of interpretative possibility within the visual culture of its moment.
So why was this not a paper that I could have written twenty years ago?
In purely practical terms, there’s my reliance on big data and search engines to help me find reviews and to locate other materials. Despite the caveats we may all have about the unreliability of Google algorithms, it was far easier to do some rapid searching about, say, Scottish regiments online than it would have been if I’d headed to a library in Southern California. But much more to the point, what was once done four volumes at a time in the British Library’s Newspaper Division in Colindale could now be executed far more rapidly and efficiently online in newspaper and periodical databases containing scanned 19th-century materials. I’m fortunate to be at a well-heeled university that subscribes to almost all of these, and so partakes of an extensive digital archive: this also makes transnational studies of a work or artist’s reception far more easy to pursue. At the same time, of course, my advantages bring home that widening gap between differently funded institutions and institutional positions that we all have an obligation to address.
Approaching art historical methods from this practical angle gives me the opportunity to flag the importance of the global turn and the growing preoccupation within Art History with the global circulation of culture.
Approaching art historical methods from this practical angle gives me the opportunity to flag the importance of the global turn and the growing preoccupation within Art History with the global circulation of culture. This preoccupation has many strands, from a recognition of the demands and different values contained within multiculturalism, through a recognition of the trade routes and the printing, publishing, and distribution networks that enable the spread of styles and images, to the less desirable features of this global turn. As Aruna D’Souza has put it:
the question of globalizing art history is being asked from some of the loci of neoliberal globalization: our universities’ calls for more internationally focused courses, more collaborations with foreign institutions, and more satellite campuses in new financial and cultural capitals . . . are propelled both by some of the same desires that lead to outsourcing, offshoring, searches for new markers, and fantasies of a frictionless movement of (cultural) capital across a flat world. (D’Souza 2014, xix)
Continuing the theme of the global in relation to the Digital Humanities more broadly, I’m intrigued by the potential for art historians in the kind of work that Franco Moretti has pioneered in literary studies in "distant reading." For example, I’d love to see what would emerge from a computer-generated quantitative analysis of the catalogues of the 19th-century Royal Academy and other exhibitions, including the circulation of art works at World Fairs, and, on a yet broader scale, correlating these with reviews. This raises questions about how to tag one’s data, of course: paintings and sculptures are not books; huge stylistic differences can lie behind the same title: Portrait of a Woman or Landscape with Cattle. And as I was working on those photographs and other images of the Crimea, I also conjured up the possibility for a Crimean photography mapping project along the lines of the work that’s being done mapping the John Henry Parker collection of photographs of Rome (Harris et al. 2015). By geotagging these images and placing them on an interactive map that also showed battles and troop movements—one, too, that could slowly scroll through time—we could learn a good deal about the relationship of early war photographers to place and action. This is the kind of project that could be done collaboratively within an institution or alternatively employ crowdsourcing, and I mention it so as to signal, however briefly, the potential of Digital History within art history.
This posed questions about the location of feeling: do we see it as emanating from the artist, and/or from within the subject matter, and/or the style of representation, and/or the spectator?
But my main focus here was sparked by the generative potential of the topic of "arts and feeling," speaking to the importance that cognitive questions have had in the humanities over the past couple of decades, coupled with an emphasis on studying the human sensorium. The fact that this conference encompassed music as well as art, but also saw these forms as engaging each other, brought home how vision, as a bodily function, can’t be separated from the impressions received through the other senses, through the interaction of the material world out there with the materiality of the body. Tim Barringer’s keynote, "Emotion and Englishness: Music, Art and Expression in late Victorian Culture," was a very good case in point. For me, this posed questions about the location of feeling: do we see it as emanating from the artist, and/or from within the subject matter, and/or the style of representation, and/or the spectator? Moreover, considering Autumn Leaves in the context of the mid 1850s, I was concerned, as I’ve said, to explore the historicization of feeling: how might we understand it through terms that were available then to describe or comprehend emotional impact? How useful are the analogues that were provided in other media, and how might we hypothesize with any confidence that feeling that has been produced or intensified by specific circumstances?
Necessarily, the discussion of feeling keeps returning one to the interlinked problems of registering emotion and affect. In the case of Autumn Leaves, the words that keep returning are "melancholy," "nostalgia," "loss." Affect: something that it’s hard to put a name to—one knows that one is having some kind of somatic reaction as a result of contact with something outside of oneself and that whatever is happening is not necessarily taking place at a conscious level. Moreover, one’s emotions, feelings, or perception of affect are not, or are not fully subject to volitional control. We may be able to explain or rationalize them retrospectively, but such rationalization generally carries with it a sense of inadequacy, of being supplemental to these sensations, and finding that language can never be entirely adequate in conveying that original impression. We show ourselves to be expressive subjects when we write or speak of feelings, but we also engage in a complex process of mediation: do we choose to try to clarify and explain or to find an equivalency in our own language whereby we might hope to re-evoke our own feelings in our readers?
The question of our response to the arts in personal, somatic terms, its place within scholarly inquiry, and the relationship of our individual responses to modes of writing about our objects of knowledge—the intersection of scholarship with creative ways of expression—is central to current work. I tend to side with the caveats about the limits of neuroscience in explaining art that are expressed by Alva Noë. See, especially, his new book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Noë 2015). But we must consider the work that can be done at the intersection of the creative and the analytical. Take the central, long narrative poem in Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis, which won the National Book Award for poetry (November 2015). Lewis’s poem consists "solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present." In its eighty pages—words, and spaces—it says more about the representation of black women throughout history than does a great deal of analytical art criticism (without which, nonetheless, the poem itself would not exist) (Lewis 2015, 35). Sometimes creative work is the medium best suited to perform intellectual and emotional labor, and I invite us to think of the place of mixed-mode writing and, by extension, multimedia work, in our own scholarly inquiry and teaching.
Sometimes creative work is the medium best suited to perform intellectual and emotional labor, and I invite us to think of the place of mixed-mode writing and, by extension, multimedia work, in our own scholarly inquiry and teaching.
Finally, I found that my very understanding of what constitutes "visual context" has shifted significantly over the past twenty years. Most notably, my reading of Autumn Leaves was dependent, at least in part, on introducing photography into the equation and by asking the question: how does feeling differ—if, indeed, it does differ—when it’s stimulated by a painting and when it’s stimulated by a photograph? I see the range of materials that I consulted as emblematic of the expansion of the traditional contents, the customary canon of art history, but more importantly, and beyond this, as raising what I think is a particular issue around border demarcation and the flexibility of our field. This issue is the relationship of art history to visual studies (or visual culture, or visual history—terms that, in turn, may or may not come loaded with different and distinctive associative baggage for those who use and encounter them). Does everything that we do within art history, concerned as it is with the visual and with looking, belong within visual studies? Or does visual studies, with its frequent emphasis on new, or at least fairly new media—especially film, but other forms of visual communication, from advertising to Instagram—belong in a connected, but separate space, in the same way that art history and history clearly blur a good deal? Or does visual culture’s emphasis on looking, on the activity of embodied sight and on the politics and power of visual forms that are not necessarily and directly somatic (like surveillance), render it something less defined by objects of knowledge, and more by our analysis of the exercise of the eye in a scopic society, one dominated by an endless and constant proliferation of images, and operating, therefore, in the domain of a rather different set of issues that have less to do with the aesthetic?
Indeed—and this final question both loops back to traditional art historical issues and also is crucial to the future not just of our discipline but of the humanities as a whole and to our scholarship and our teaching within them—how do we understand "the aesthetic" today, and how do we connect it to the material objects of our study? How do we historicize aesthetics, and how do we draw out their underlying political and cultural assumptions? What, if anything, distinguishes an "art object" (or, for that matter, a literary one)? Marc Redfield has recently usefully reminded us about "the deeply unstable character of aesthetic discourse," discourse that "not only intersects with many forms of critical and emancipatory thought, politics and practice—some of which, no doubt, feed back all too rapidly into a hegemonic program—but also has an oblique affinity with shock, trauma, jouissance, and other forms of intense experience" (Redfield 2016, 41).
How do we historicize aesthetics, and how do we draw out their underlying political and cultural assumptions?
In other words, it should be clear, I hope, that my version of "the aesthetic" is not one emptied out of ethics or politics. Mine is an argument for the importance of close analysis, yes, but one that makes a claim for an ethics of attention that is essential both to historical and contemporary work. It’s one that uses the importance of deep contextual work not so much in the spirit of a hermeneutics of suspicion, but as a drive to understand the conditions underpinning the production of meaning, whether on the part of artist or spectator.
There’s a shadow paper underlying this one, however. Suppose I’d not returned to my academic roots, but had focused directly on the global turn in art history, both historical and contemporary? Suppose I’d looked, say, at the 2015 Habana Bienal, a show that sprawled energetically throughout the city, breaking down distinctions between artistic spaces and public spaces, commenting on urban decay and on environmental issues, incorporating communities, bringing art into urgent contact with social concerns in a way that, with the best will in the world, I’d be pushing my luck to argue that Autumn Leaves does today. But the point about the necessity of context is just as strong: in this case, between local reference and the global—especially southern hemispheric—exhibitionary moment. Some art was readily recognizable as political commentary, of course, like Michel Mirabal’s distressed and fragmenting Cuban and American flags, or, more subtly, Arlés del Rio, La necesidad de otros aires, the entire room filled with breathing tubes hanging from the ceiling. Being choked by police or by political or social constraints, or for that matter by pollution (and deep concern for the environment was a frequently occurring theme at the Bienal), is a global as well as a local concern. But some pieces were much more oblique or, rather, were specifically addressed to those who instantly picked up their particular references. Roberto Fabelo exhibited two pieces: a huge cauldron, with workers carrying table forks marching around the rim, and a fork-studded piece, Delicatessen, down on the Malecón—not surreal cutlery, but a reference to hunger in the Special Period and the shortage not just of food but of tableware to eat it with. Indeed, well-known dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote about someone taking a fork from the Malecón sculpture, reminding us that one person’s art object is someone else’s necessity.
And then, considering the events around the 2015 Bienal, I would also have had to engage with the politics of inclusion and exclusion, including the lengthy performance piece masterminded by Tania Bruguera (banned from the Bienal) and featuring some 124 others, including myself: a reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. This was a reading that ended with Bruguera gathering up book and dove (symbol of peace for many, symbol of Castro’s inaugural presidential speech for Cubans) and walking out, to be taken off by members of the Ministry for the Interior (that was the point at which I was forcibly stopped from taking photographs). Things have changed since May; she’s had her passport returned to her and was in the United States in 2016—indeed, she was the keynote speaker at the College Art Association’s annual meeting in February 2016. But art, meanwhile, is still censored in Cuba.
So why swerve away from the 19th century to end with this? It’s a reminder, of a very clear-cut kind, of the inseparability of aesthetics and politics, and exemplary, too, of how underlying questions about representation and power, overtness and indirection, and issues concerning the condition of art’s making and reception, including local and global inequalities, are hardly the prerogative of writing that’s concerned with art of the past. So here are my overarching questions: How do we translate methods and concerns honed on specific earlier contexts into a necessary dialogue with contemporary art? How does today’s global art world help open up questions about the global reach of art and artists in the past? And, linking past and present, how do we best use language to convey, and interpret, the always elusive affective impact of art?
- The full version of this paper is available in Flint (2016).
- Here one needs a more traditional, monographic form of interdisciplinary study to help one think through the issues involved: I’m thinking in particular of Yeazell (2015).
- For a longer appraisal of the Havana Biennial, from which some of these remarks are derived, see Flint (2015).
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D’Souza, A. 2014. "Introduction." In Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn. Clark Studies in the Visual Arts, edited by J. H. Casid and A. D’Souza, vii–xxiii. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Flint, K. 1989. "Reading The Awakening Conscience Rightly." In. Pre-Raphaelites Re-viewed, edited by M. Pointon, 45–65. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
———. 1996. "Blindness and Insight: Millais’s The Blind Girl and the Limits of Representation." Journal of Victorian Culture 1: 1–15.
———. 2015. "Breaking Down Walls at the Havana Biennial." Public Books. http://www.publicbooks.org/artmedia/breaking-down-walls-at-the-havana-biennial.
———. 2016. "Feeling, Affect, Melancholy, Loss: Millais’s Autumn Leaves and the Siege of Sebastopol." 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 23. http://www.19.bbk.ac.uk/articles/10.16995/ntn.774/.
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