All entries for June 2006

June 21, 2006

From Aestheticism to Modernism and back again, an article by Elizabeth Prettejohn

Writing about web page

Although Prettlejohn points out that her move to recognise the ‘concealed continuities’ between Victorianism and modernism is by no means new, her recognition of the similarities between different paintings so rarely considered in parallel, as well as her integration of the overlap between Aestheticism and Modernism, is very revealing. For instance, she draws a link between Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850) and Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Aries(1888), on the basis of their shared perception of ‘perspective construction.’ Her approach, she suggests, is ‘revisionist’ in the sense that she is more like the historian who rescues the maiden (that is, Victorian art) ‘from the evil modernist dragon or sea monster’ rather than the modernist historian who writes of heroes vanquishing over ‘the reactionary Victorian past.’

Her very illuminating article is worth reading for an insight into the not so very decisive cut between ‘Victorianism’ and ‘proto–modernism’ in art as well as literature. In addition to looking at the similarities in the form and structure of the paintings that are categorised as belonging to the two eras, she also considers questions of ‘aesthetic emotion’ and ‘effeminacy’ as well as outlining the origins of representational arts in early portraiture. The artists she considers include Whister, Picasso, Klimt, Burne–Jones, and Leighton. An unusual combination but not one as irregular as it at first appears.

Is the ‘long–nineteenth century’ over yet? she concludes. Her arguments have certainly convinced me to think hard about how to answer this pertinent question.

June 20, 2006

Interpreting the Bible through the Arts

Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, Saturday 17th June 2006

Mark’s Gospel through the Arts: A Test Case? Dr Christine Joynes

Why use the Arts to read Mark?

  • The Biblical text is DYNAMIC rather than static and therefore its interpretation is a journey of discovery. The arts can open up the text and bring various events together for dramatic impact, making them seem simultaneous. The example that was given was Picasso’s ‘Salome’ which depicts the events as told in Mark 6:14–29. In this, Salome is shown to be dancing to Herod whilst, simultaneously, the head of John the Baptist is presented on a plate. Her pose in the painting is provocative, suggesting her position as a seductive temptress. Other depictions portray her as an innocent victim.


  • Exploring the interpretation of the Bible in the arts highlights the involvement of the self and the formation of consciousness in the act of hermeneutics. In Biblical interpretation, Chris argued, we recognise our own situation as individuals and move on to form our own identity. This idea is most apparent in paintings of Biblical scenes which include landscapes familiar to the artist.
  • The interpretation of the Bible through the arts can help us to understand the ‘other’ since our horizons become enlarged and we overcome elitism. Of course, the opposite can also happen whereby the arts can impose a rigid interpretation. Examples of this can be seen in paintings which depict a white Jesus in a colonial context.
  • The arts can highlight neglected elements of the Biblical text. The example that was given was of Mark 1:2 which speaks of John the Baptist as a ‘messenger’ in one translation and as an ‘angel’ in another. Seventeenth century iconic depictions of John with wings allow us to read the text in a new way.

Chris went onto discuss readings of Mark’s passion narrative through the arts. What I found most interesting was the consideration of the various interpretations of Jesus’ cry of dereliction upon the cross. In music as well as painting, this moment has been associated with Jesus’ baptism. The juxtaposition of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the end can be seen in Dali’s famous depiction of Jesus and the cross, as well as in the music of Golijov.

From Biblical bit part to devotional diva- scriptural sources and the development of Marian imagery, Dr Cathy Oaks

This talk focused primarily on medieval imaginings of the biblical text. I found the discussion of symbolism and typology partially illuminating and helpful to my research and considerations of Pre– Raphaelite paintings. Below are some examples of the symbols that were discussed:

  • The image of a book served as a domestic token of wisdom. In the New Testament apocrypha, Mary is said to been educated in the Temple before her marriage to Joseph. The symbol of a book is an indication of her worthiness and of her grounding in Old Testament scripture.
  • The tree of Jesse (from Isaiah 11:1) is often depicted in medieval depictions of the Annunciation. This was to typologically link it to the Immaculate Conception.
  • Gabriel’s baton in pre–thirteenth century depictions of the Annunciation links him to the pre–Christian tradition of Mercury carrying a baton.
  • The Lilies– in early paintings there were nearly always three. As well as relating to Mary’s chastity, they could also be seen to be representative of the Trinity.
  • The Apocalyptic woman (from Revelation 12:1). An image of this woman was adopted to represent the doctrine of the virgin’s Immaculate Conception.
  • Unicorn iconography. The unicorn is a symbol of virginity and has often been shown to depict the Virgin Mary. Dr Oaks spoke of a painting which depicted the unicorn as residing in the Virgin’s lap. In this, the unicorn served to represent Jesus’ mortality. The mirroring between the iconography between the iconography of Mary and the iconography of Jesus was a significant feature of medieval art. Often, panels depicted various scenes in sequence with the various paintings containing similar iconography.
  • Joseph with his head in his hands– this pose prefigures the pose of John at the crucifixion.
  • Mary holding the baby Jesus’ foot– the reference to his feet has come to symbolise Christ’s humanity.
  • The Throne of Wisdom (from 1 Kings 10:18–20). Mary has often been typologically read as sitting upon the throne similar to that of Solomon.
  • Especially in the fourteenth century, images of the angel Michael weighing souls on scales were popular. In many depictions, Mary’s mercy is portrayed as she interferes with the weights
  • The serpent serves an allusion to Mary’s position as the second Eve who crushes the serpent beneath her.

William Blake and the New Testament, Dr Christopher Rowland

‘You say that I want somebody to elucidate my ideas. But you ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the ancients consider’d what is not too explicit as the fittest for instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Esop, Homer, Plato. Why is the Bible more Entertaining and Instructive than any other book? Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination, which is Spiritual Sensation and but mediately to the understanding of reason.’ (Letter to Trusler, Keynes edition, 793–4).

Dr Rowland began his talk by speaking about Blake’s hermeneutics, drawing attention to his idea that ‘what is not too explicit’ is the ‘fittest for instruction’ since it allows the individual imagination to engage with the Bible. He moved on to speak about the twenty–two engravings Blake undertook in 1826, illustrating the Old Testament book of Job (click here to view the whole sequence).
The second illustration, ‘Job and his Family’, can be seen exemplify Blake’s own complex and imaginative system of theology. By juxtaposing image and text, and framing his illustration with words from the New Testament, Blake acknowledges deep levels of meaning implicit in the Job narrative. Also, by including images such as the instruments hanging on the tree, an image that is derived from the Psalms, he interprets the book of Job within the framework of the Old Testament as a whole.

Blake’s painting, ‘The Nativity’ further exemplifies Blake’s idiosyncratic theology. In this, the baby Jesus appears as a spiritual and celestial child, more akin to the early theories of deitism which asserted that Christ only ‘appeared’ human than to the popular nineteenth–century conceptions which emphasise his humanity. Also, it is interesting to note how Blake links the visitation with the nativity, showing both events simultaneously. The light coming in at the window seems to be deliberately ambiguous and perhaps Blake’s intentions of letting the imagination come to the forefront in Biblical interpretation was realised when, at the end of the end of the talk, the delegates debated what or who it represents.

Blake, The Nativity

After highlighting the schema of Blake’s inter–textual and typological approach to the Bible in various other illustrations, Dr Rowland introduced Blake’s painting, ‘The Last Judgement’. He highlighted the movement of the people going into the Inferno or purgatory and then back out into the light and argued that this illustrates the transformative process of Judgement. He also made a case for Blake’s vision of judgement as being in the here and now, rather than just being something that will happen in the future.

Last Judgment

Poetry and Truth, Revd John Drury

This talk focused on Herbert’s poetry collection, The Temple, which he published in 1633. In this, the poems are arranged in a manner which reflects the entry into, and the architectural framework of, the holy place and emphasises the nature of the Temple as a place of exchange and reciprocity between the believer and God. Herbert argued that the working out of a true poem is the working out of a true life, and hence seems to invite autobiographical readings of his work. ‘The Alter’ was among the many poems Drury drew our attention to.

This poem exemplifies the ideas of reciprocity, exchange, and sacrifice. It also highlights Herbert’s use of Biblical typology as it alludes directly to the imagery of Exodus as well as Hebrews and 1 Corinthians.

Drury’s talk has certainly encouraged me to look at the work of George Herbert in more detail and consider the inter–relations of his work with Christina Rossetti as well her contemporary, Isaac Williams whose work The Cathedral was partially modelled on Herbert’s The Temple.

June 12, 2006

Hair Stories and Fairytales

Writing about web page

Whilst I was putting together my paper, I came accross this wonderful site full of stories, poems, pictures and even tips about hair….

Christina Rossetti and the Power of Hair

Writing about web page

On 27th–28th May I attended a brillant conference at Stirling University entitled 'Fashioning Fiction. I've come home with lots of issues to think about and books to read.

In my paper I considered how Christina Rossetti engaged with the various manifestations of her hair–obsessed culture as she worked with complex Biblical representations which highlighted the incredible power women’s hair could have for good and for evil. I also discussed the way in which she drew on a variety of texts and paintings to acknowledge that, as well as serving as a weapon or a veil for the righteous, angelic woman, hair can also serve as a snare, a web, or a noose for the wicked scheming woman.

I focused primarily on three sonnets:
The World (Composed 27 June 1854, published in Goblin Market, 1862)

By day she wooes me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she wooes me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But thro' the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

From ‘Monna Innominata: A Sonnet Of Sonnets’ (published in A Pageant and Other Poems, 1881)

"I, if I perish, perish"—Esther spake:
And bride of life or death she made her fair
In all the lustre of her perfumed hair
And smiles that kindle longing but to slake.
She put on pomp of loveliness, to take
Her husband thro' his eyes at unaware;
She spread abroad her beauty for a snare,
Harmless as doves and subtle as a snake.
She trapped him with one mesh of silken hair,
She vanquished him by wisdom of her wit,
And built her people's house that it should stand:—–
If I might take my life so in my hand,
And for my love to Love put up my prayer,
And for love's sake by Love be granted it!

Babylon the Great (published in The Face of the Deep, 1892, and Verses, 1893)

Foul is she and ill–favoured, set askew:
Gaze not upon her till thou dream her fair,
Lest she should mesh thee in her wanton hair,
Adept in arts grown old yet ever new.
Her heart lusts not for love, but thro' and thro'
For blood, as spotted panther lusts in lair;
No wine is in her cup, but filth is there
Unutterable, with plagues hid out of view.
Gaze not upon her, for her dancing whirl
Turns giddy the fixed gazer presently:
Gaze not upon her, lest thou be as she
When, at the far end of her long desire,
Her scarlet vest and gold and gem and pearl
And she amid her pomp are set on fire.

Art Objects

4 out of 5 stars

Over the weekend I read Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson and found it so dense with ideas I thought I’d share a few.

The first section of the book offers a living, dynamic, two–way approach to the arts and to artists. Winterson shares with us her love for new art and discuses the fluidity of the exchange of emotion between artist, painting, and owner (herself). Her discussion made me think of Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours which charts a moment in the life of an author (Virginia Woolf), reader (Laura Brown), and character (Mrs Dalloway). The triangles of exchange in both cases facilitate a deep exploration of the process of becoming and highlight the importance of the arts in the creation and re–definition of a selfhood. Strong texts, Winterson claims, ‘work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists.’
It is their prerogative to enter into other realities that enables them to have such a transformative impact on us. Winterson repeatedly reminds us not to fall into the trap of recognising no reality but our own. The fact that people often misquote their favourite texts, she writes, comes from their own desire to find the reality of themselves reflected rather than allow themselves to become lost in the total alien world of the book.

It seems to have been the Victorian ‘realists’ who introduced this criterion of truth to life into their study of the arts and denied art as art. Winterson speaks of the ‘revolution in taste’ and the reaction against Romanticism in the mid to late nineteenth century. She claimed that whilst the male poet suddenly found himself at odds with the poetic tradition he inherited, the Victorian women poets benefited from the collapse of the ‘unmasculine’ Romantic sensibility.

The women poet, unlike the majority of the women novelists, accepted her mantle of Otherness gracefully. She would lead the mind to higher things. She would direct mental energies towards emotional and spiritual contemplation. LEL, Felicia Hemans, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, each accepted the distinction of the poet as poet. The particular struggle of Tennyson, how to be sensitive in an age that disliked sensitivity in men, was clearly not a problem for a woman. (p.30)

Winterson suggests the freedom the Victorian women found which enabled her to work her own form within the authority of tradition, cleared the ground for the contribution of women to Modernism. The primary focus ‘Art Objects’ is on the Modernists and their approach to depicting the reality of life in their own terms. Modernism, she argues, was an attempt to return to an idea of art as a conscious place, ‘a place outside of both rhetoric and cliché.’ Winterson clearly admires the poets who write a ‘living language’ in a pitch beyond everyday speech. Hence, her appreciation of TS Eliot becomes only too apparent.

Moving on, Winterson discusses the Autobiography of Alice B, published by Gertrude Stein in 1934. Since attending the post–graduate seminar session on ‘Life Writing’ I’ve been thinking about the complexities inherent in the construction of any piece of autobiographical writing. I was therefore interested to read about the criticisms directed at Stein following the publication of her so called ‘memoirs.’ Instead of re–making biography into fiction as Woolf had done in Orlando (1925), Stein, Winterson claims, ‘re–defined autobiography as the ultimate Trojan horse.’

We are supposed to know where we are with biography and autobiography, they are the literary equivalents of the portrait and self–portrait. One is the representation of someone else’s life, and the other is the representation of your own. We shouldn’t have to worry about form and experiment, and we can rest assured that the writer (or the painter) is sticking to the facts. We can feel safe with facts.
Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions yet they fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?’
bq. Bring on the Trojan horse. In the belly of the biography stash the Word. The Word that is both form and substance. The moving word uncaught. Woolf smuggled across the borders of complacency the most outrageous contraband; lesbianism, cross–dressing, female power. More than that, she smuggled her language alive past the checkpoints of propriety. (49–50)

The most uncanny aspect in Stein’s work seems to be the fact that she herself became the fiction and allowed a ‘plasticity’ to self that was threatening and emotive. Are real people fictions? Winterson asks in response to Stein. Well, we understand ourselves through stories but often apply a strict self–censorship that refuses to allow us to enter the imaginative space where we can appreciate art for the Other that it is. Once we understand ourselves as fictions, Winterson suggests, we are freed into a new kind of imagination and are able to understand ourselves as fully as we can. In a chapter based on Woolf’s Orlando, Winterson claims that art enlarges and enables us to see ourselves through metaphor. Metaphor is transformation. It is she writes, ‘the burning bush that both shelters and makes visible our profounder longings.’ (66)

Along with the metaphor of the burning bush, I was struck by Winterson’s insistent use of Biblical imagery in order to discuss art in a variety of ways:
•‘Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield.’ (p. 20)
•‘Art is excess. The fiery furnace, the freezing lake.’ (p. 94)
•‘Like Adam we name our beasts.’ (p. 113)
•‘Against this golden calf in the wilderness where all come to buy and sell, the honest currency of art offers quite a different rate of exchange.’ (p. 139)
In my thesis, I consider the appropriation of Biblical imagery by the Victorians. Interestingly, Winterson’s appropriation could be seen to highlight the central argument of her book. She speaks of the need for a new, living language that is rooted in the past. Like Christina Rossetti, by using the Biblical images and instances in a new way (albeit a very different way!) she achieves what she claims all good art should contain– a fresh approach to reality and tradition. For Winterson, art is the Word. It heals, transforms, links the past to the present and the future and creates a new space in which to exist and escape from the ‘problems of gravity’.

To conclude, Art Objects reveals an exciting realm where the triangle of communication between artist, product and viewer can be transformative if only we allow it to.

June 08, 2006

A Story of Hope in the Face of Adversity: An Article and Study Guide on Memoirs of a Geisha

Writing about web page

Click on the above link to see my article and study guide on Memoirs of a Geisha.

Voice Training

Writing about web page

I learnt many useful skills at the voice training session that I attended recently. Most helpful was the advice to think of each word as you say it. For example, thinking of the colours 'black', 'pink' etc whilst saying them makes my voice sound less monotone.
It was also helpful to learn to stand firm and breathe effectively.
The course was definitely worth attending if only to take away a couple of ideas and to gain an insight into the basics of voice production and control.

Fact or Fiction?

Re–considering the Da Vinci Code after a talk given on it in relation to Bible reliability led me to consider the thin line that exists between fact and fiction in the public consciousness and our possible debt to the Victorians who, it seems, substantially narrowed the chasm between reality and fantasy. The fact that the BBC receives baby clothes when a TV character gives birth and that actors who play villains receive hate mail reflects the phenomenon that perhaps goes back to the nineteenth–century when Dickens received hundreds of letters asking him to spare Paul Dombey and enquiring what characters were up to once the book had ended? It seems that, in our attitudes towards popular novels and TV, we are not so far removed from the Victorian sense of friendship with novel characters such as Jane Eyre or sense of love for Heathcliffe.

June 2006

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