Sunday, 29 September 2013

the poet on the chain of art

part two of 
The Character of Light
Figure of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, c.438-432 BC. © Trustees of the British Museum
"Misshapen monuments and maim'd antiques" 
Byron, satirizing English Bards and Scotch Reviewers for gushing over the Elgin Marbles

Keats’ imagination links him to the chain of art, from the realistic details of classical sculpture and drapery in early Renaissance frescoes, to the joyful experienced sensations of Impressionism, the anguished lyrical Expressionism of Munch, and the quietude of abstraction. His multi-faceted poetic personality reflected all life, sensual and intellectual, mystic and realist, neo-classicist and Romantic.

He never wanted to be part of a school or movement. He saw himself as a student of life and art, not a precocious genius: “I cannot speak/ Definitively on these mighty things” he admitted in his Sonnet to Haydon after his first sight of the Elgin Marbles. When he wrote in a letter,“I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty”, he was thinking the same as John Constable, who said“There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”
Constable, View in a Garden with a red house beyond, ca.1821, oil on canvas. 
Copyright © Victoria and Albert Museum

Keats, like Constable, was not a mannerist artist, excluding or romanticising ugly realities; he was trying........
to understand them. He knew he wanted real faces and real emotion in a painting, something "to be intense upon", someone to fall in love with, a women he was “mad to kiss”.

 William Hogarth, The Shrimp Girl, oil painting ca.1740-45. National Gallery. 
Image source: Wikipedia
 "The excellence of every art is its intensity."
(Keats, Letter to George and Tom Keats, December 22, 1817)

These non-idealized faces "swelling into reality"[1] conjure up Hogarth's portraits of the first half of the 18th century, proof that grounded humanism was not incompatible with the scalloped and flounced exuberance of the Rococo.

 Hogarth, Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants, 1750-5, oil on canvas, Tate. 
Image source: Wikipedia
Keats wanted, like Hazlitt, “gusto” in art; the flesh-colour of Titian that “made his bodies seem to feel”.[2] And, beyond sensory description, proved “upon the pulses”,[3] he defined the very moment of traversing conscious and unconscious states, prefiguring Symbolists’ dreams and Jungian abstract expressionism, when, in hypagogic drowsiness, the casement briefly opens on a vision of the innermost mind.

Fuseli, painter of erotic and terrifying personifications of the emotions, was, like Keats, a devotee of Shakespeare and theatre, and as fascinated by the “unlawful magic”of fairies like Lamia, and the malice of “the goblin… [on] the heath”.[4] Constable, too, “felt that the supernatural need not be the unnatural.”[5]

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781. Image source: Wikipedia

Fuseli’s inspiration, like Keats’, came from classical art and literature as well as the depths of his own Romantic imagination, infused with opium. The balletic gestures of his lissom fairies and spirits conjure tragic Isabella “spreading perfect arms upon the air” and the “wooing arms” in Endymion.

Henry Fuseli, The Dream of Queen Katherine, 1781, oil on canvas. 
Copyright © Victoria and Albert Museum

Fuseli’s influence extended over Romanticism and the following Victorian generations; he taught Constable, Turner and Keats’ friend Haydon. The death pose of Henry Wallis’ Chatterton, archetype of Romantic youth’s self-abandonment to Lethe, almost mirrors that of the maiden threatened by narcotic emanations in The Nightmare painted over seventy-five years earlier.

Henry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856. Oil on canvas, Tate. Image source: Wikipedia

The public display of the Elgin Marbles in 1817 shook contemporary neoclassical preconceptions about Classical Greek art. Keats, like the young art student George Frederic Watts over a decade later, was awed by the magnitude of their naturalism. Their simple monumentality permeated Watts’ work until the end of his long life, particularly the recurring figure of Endymion, existing in Keatsian physical and spiritual duality, seen finally, in the 1903 version, lying in golden ecstasy, “rich to die”, ensphered in the light of his imagination.

G.F. Watts, Endymion, 1903, oil on canvas. Collection: Watts Gallery

The Titans in Hyperion are related also to William Blake’s painted giants of passion and reason, muscular gods and angels, influenced by Michelangelo, at war in a universe of clouds, thunder, and orbs of fire, the “Manifestations of that beauteous life / Diffus'd unseen throughout eternal space” that Keats described, translated into watercolour

William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, 1795/c.1827. Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper. Image source: Wikipedia

Keats was awe-struck by the naturalism of the Parthenon’s sculptures, by their evocation of a real society of real human beings, not by their perfection. The damaged condition of the “Phidian freaks”[7] that outraged Byron’s idealized Hellenism enhanced their beauty in Keats’ eyes, because the art that “mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude/Wasting of old Time”[8] carried the sum of human experience with it, the pain and maiming and melancholy as much as the delights. Beauty as the consoling friend to man is not only in the globed peony and dewy musk-rose; it is in the assimilation of suffering, like Apollo’s when he must “…with fierce convulse/ Die into life”.[9]

The deification of imagination
Michelangelo, marble sculpture known as the Dying Slave, one of four writhing male figures intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Musée du Louvre. 
Image source: Web Gallery of Art 
Do I wake or sleep? Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

As Constable said, “imagination alone never did, and never can, produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities”.
Michelangelo, Slave, awakening, marble, 1519-36, Galleria del'Accademia, Florence. 
Image source: Web Gallery of Art

                                   Soon wild commotions shook him...
                                   Most like the struggle at the gate of death;      
                                   Or liker still to one who should ...
                                   ....with fierce convulse          
                                   Die into life....
Keats, Hyperion

The birth struggles of artistic creation, freeing itself from the rock of which it is made, are comparable to death. The truth of imagination once experienced must be tempered by technique, the ensuing battle for balance of power, like the one between impulse and reason, is the story of art and the poetic imagination.

Mundane pains and sorrows, the washing hanging on the line, the kitchen sink, are as vital to art and writing as the greatest loves and losses, the grandest landscapes and lushest nudes. The sublime was made out of rock and hair and skin and wood and sap and egg and insect carcasses.
[1] Keats, Letters, December 22, 1817
[2] ‘On Gusto’, Selected Essays of William Hazlitt, 1778-1830, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, 1930
[3] Keats, Letters
[4] Keats' Review of Kean in The Champion,
[5] C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 282
[6] Keats, Ode to a Nightingale
[7] Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers l.1009
[8] Keats, On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
[9] Keats, Hyperion

"The Character of Light"