Mining Romanticism: a New Strike on an Old Seam

It soared to the heights during the early years of the 19th century. Choked by its own populism it suffered cardiac arrest by about 1829, it was resuscitated with mixed success by Baudelaire but was finally dealt the death blow by Courbet and Realism. This is the short story of Romanticism. And yet now with the exhibition Reason and Emotion we have a contemporary Romanticism. Did it ever go away? If so why are we still arguing about this most energetic of phenomenon?
The longer version is a little more complex. Contemporary resonances of many of the key strands of a passion which from its inception was called Romanticism (it was always a self-conscious appellation) abound; artistic sensibilities that are as relevant today as they have ever been. Although the ideas of genius and suffering through art have been discredited, we still have the affirmative notion of artistic vision, and perhaps its most persistent leitmotif - death - continues to haunt the more dramatic side of contemporary art. Perhaps this latter trace is not so surprising given that possibly the most obviously Romantic picture ever painted, Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1828), was a violent orgy of destruction.
The other side to this exhibition, landscape, was a genre revitalized by the Romantics during the 19th century. Landscape is still important today but it has shifted from the lofty notes of the sublime to the earthly sounds of environmental crisis. If this portends meltdown then, as this show demonstrates, the visionary inspiration of landscape persists.
Romanticism was never short on visionaries. Imagination was considered a moral good. Poet and painter William Blake is sometimes mentioned as a precursor and The Nightmare (1791) by Henry Fuseli was an influential work although it soon gave ground to calmer, more landscape orientated work such as Caspar David Friedrich’s The Cross in the Mountains (1807-08), considered by some to be the first key Romantic work. Romanticism did not die, as is commonly thought, with Realism, but took a visionary path with Heidegger’s notion, inspired by the German Romantic poet Hölderlein’s epic poem Germanien, of a `return of the gods,` the gods here being those pagan entities that animated ancient landscapes and that were pushed aside by the dominance of a transcendent God. Philosopher Alain Badiou, a critic of Heidegger’s `hermeneutic Romanticism` sees in it the saturation of Romanticism generally during the 20th century with this obsession with more earthbound gods. He also decries a closure of vision through what he calls the `formalist-Romantic` (more of which later).
First, before getting on to the relevance of Romanticism today and its critique, a slightly longer history.
Romanticism’s influence was spectacular during the early 19th century, much more so than the Enlightenment had been during the previous one. It emerged at the end of the 18th century with a group of writers who associated themselves with the literary criticism of brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel. It made grand claims: art alone was capable of truth and represented all that was unique. It saw itself as the moral conscience of its age, taking up causes against slavery, poverty and worker abuse. In this respect it always claimed modernity beside antiquated classical ideas. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that the Romantics were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Although later the Romantics’ compulsion for destruction and their preferred individualism made them poor revolutionaries, during the early years they associated themselves with radical revolutionary movements.
Poetry reigned supreme, but painting, particularly landscape painting, was also very important and prioritized above both sculpture and architecture because it had greater power of illusion. Among the literary luminati of Romanticism were the writers and poets Pushkin, Stendhal, Hugo, Byron, Shelley, Keats and later Baudelaire. Painters most associated with it have included Blake, Turner, Constable, and Goya, but especially the Germans Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge and the French coterie working around Théodore Géricault (who at one time was considered the leading painter of the Romantic movement) and Eugene Delacroix. Composers Beethoven and Grieg occasionally come under the star of the movement. Several of the works in the exhibition make specific reference to Romantic painters and musicians.
The movement is often marked out as an attack on Classicism. It broke with tradition, particularly with overly structured composition and dogmatic formal classical values such as clean lines and rhythms in painting, and it abhorred academic finesse and excessive order. In some ways, like many of the works in Reason and Emotion, its images are unpictorial. Romantic spontaneity was a virtue, so unlike classical art that was beholden to patronage and the placed, finished work, meaning that the sketch had great value in its own time. Illustration - evocative and associative - also had a place in Romanticism: Victor Hugo was a brilliant storyteller as both writer and illustrator. However, to portray Romanticism as anti-classical is a mistake. While Pushkin and Stendhal styled themselves as Romantic writers, Byron and Hugo rejected the label, as did Delacroix in painting. Goethe even went so far as to call Romanticism a disease.
Given such ambivalence it was inevitable that the movement, which had always lacked coherence and unified intention, would fragment still further. However, there was no coup de grace: for some it was considered gone by 1829 simply because it had become too popular and the term over, not under, used. Gustave Courbet’s The Studio of the Painter (1854-55) which critiqued the style of production of the Romantics, still had many Romantic traces and traits. Nevertheless, the Romanticism that represented a retreat from orthodoxy was now seen as a retreat from life. The core ideals of Romanticism never really went away though. Baudelaire called for its reassessment on the grounds that because it had been so influential there must still be something of value in it.
Reason and Emotion works in the spirit of Baudelaire: it recognizes the undimmed flame of artistic sensibility and emotional authenticity, the continuing importance of landscape, and the immeasurable power of art to make the image into something strange. All of the artists in the exhibition make some connection with these three Romantic traits.

Two of the works in the show allude, if not to the demise of Romanticism then to its entropic and otherworldly nature. It is a realm where formal outcome is beyond the artist’s control and in which coldly logical artistic aims are folly and conceit, often poised on the edge of an abyss.
In A Sense of a Beginning Munan Øvrelid films plaster busts of Friedrich Schiller moving preciously, and precariously, along a conveyor belt as if in parody of an auction viewing before they fall off its end and are smashed into smithereens on the floor whereupon the fragments are swept up, placed back on the conveyor, and dashed into smaller fragments until we are left only with white dust pouring into dark space. A commentary from Schiller’s On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry parallels this shattering critique of orthodox classical representation and culture. Instead Romantic artistic expression is ethereal and ineffable; at its most powerful it is a sublime that cannot be mediated precisely through culture. Left with the spraying waterfall of powder, we sense the sublime rather than discern its shape.
Katie Paterson’s E.M.E (Earth-Moon-Earth (4’33’’) sent a morse-encoded radio message to the moon - actually four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, an interval bracketed by call signals - redirecting John Cage’s work. The transmission bounces back and hundreds of thousands of miles later is recorded back on earth, albeit some of it is lost in the craters and soft dust of the moon. In a previous work Paterson launched Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the same journey. That was a grand Romantic gesture, a grand tour that syncopated an important Romantic symphony, leaving one with a sense of melancholy and loss. Cage’s silence is not a vacuum but as a conceptual work it negates Romanticism’s extravagant expressive form. E.M.E (4’33’’), re-sounds Cage’s work, makes it travel and records the journey in postcard form: it re-inscribes his work within a Romantic frame even as it points at the ultimate absurdity of all Romantic gesture.
The word landscape has several connotations, one of which is linked to the word `escape.` Something, of course, escapes in Paterson’s communication with the moon, and there is also transformation in Guy Allott’s landscapes that depict tunnelled-through trees framing verdant mountain scenery. They evoke a paradox of escape and control in the sense that the drive westwards in, for instance, North America was a forging ahead, but also a shaping of the landscape. As in Øvrelid’s work there is a tension between nature and culture. The awe inspiring scenery, already framed in our minds by Ansel Adams, must be seen in the context of a modification of landscape, a nuance particular to the Romantics who had great interest in the natural sciences. This sculpturing of (land)scape perhaps has some affinity with the Old English word sceppan or skyppan meaning to shape. However, the wilderness, inherently romantic and wild, will always retain an otherness. In much contemporary Edenic sci-fi, such as James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009), there is a tension between the organic and the machinic at the core of environmental concern, but in earlier representations, particularly during the 1960’s, for instance Lost in Space, landing-rockets were simply bizarre and quietly surreal visitors. Allott’s romanticist landscapes remain unviolated by the appearance in some of his works of escapist space travellers in their toy-like rockets.
By contrast representations of landscape and its materiality in Randi Nygård’s book sculpture/installations, are unruly and uncontainable. Each work consist of two tangentially related books, for instance an art history monograph of Caspar David Friedrich and a text book on mineralogy in Growth and Movement: Friedrich and Minerals. They seem to explode out of their covers. Pages from each book are bound together so that content from each become proximal - one page this, one that - and then they are cut out along the lines of shapes and forced outwards and upwards creating tangles of Romantic illusion and dry illustration. In a Romanticist sense knowledge cannot be contained or summarized in logical order and this is particularly evident in another of Nygård’s ‘book’ works, Creative Lighting Digital Photography Tips and Techniques/A Color Atlas of Photosynthetic Euglenoids.
Whereas nature as an image or category can be considered explicate (it unfolds meaning), landscaping, the practice, is implicate - everything folds into everything else - time, experience, life cycles etc. The otherworldly outcomes of quasi geological processes of folding bring to mind the fantastical landscapes of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crystal World and other works in the exhibition suggest this kind of enfolding to make trembling new worlds. Rebecca Partridge’s large, extensive photorealist landscapes fold into micro geometric ones. Inner power and outer calm suggest each other. What she describes as an “aesthetic continuum” also correlates with the idea of Romanticism as an immanent trajectory between the infinite and the finite. Her Sky Paintings, inspired by landscape views from aeroplanes displace the Romantic landscape into another sphere, and to another scale, suspended between different consciousnesses. The experience of great height here, although not vertiginous, has a kind of poetic scope to it, the kind of ecstasy that the pilot writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry describes in Wind, Sand and Stars.
Sarah Jane Gorlitz and Wojciech Olejnik work with the concept of an indefinite other, here in the form of the intangibility of landscape. Their stop-motion animations when the horizon…shore offer us a sense of a pulsing horizon and an ebbing and flowing at ocean’s edge that we cannot fully grasp. The stop-motion animation plays with our perceptions of the near and the far. It is rendered on paper in a way that, like a Venetian blind alternating light and dark, mimics the action of the waves inducing a trance like state that is neither here nor there, definite nor indefinite.
Mamoru Tsukada’s Love Transformer, a plexiglass image inspired by the dynamic and restrained energy of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, also hovers between finitude and something infinitely bigger. The architectural facades reach for heaven but the damned mortal descends into hell. This work marries the gothic, quite literally through the neo-gothic forms in the photograph taken from Gaudi, a Romantic obsession with death with its fraught tension, and the conceptual energy of Duchamp’s work. As Tsukada himself states, this is a kind of “diagram of energy.” As such it issues forth the Romantic energy inherent in worship, death and love.

All of these unfolding experiments have conceptual and, in the artist’s execution of them, practical affinities with that supreme other of Romanticism, the sublime, and a very 20th century, environmentally aware understanding of its devastating consequences: ruin, decay, entropy. The new horizons glimpsed in the exhibition might be thought of in the Romantic tradition of making the image strange, playing with the idea of profound enigma.
In this last section I would like to turn to the critique of Romanticism and to ask what aspects of it remain relevant today.
One criticism, not entirely unique to Romanticism, is that the artist and the work itself are a dead-end in our inquiries into truth. Truth by contrast, Alain Badiou claims, emerges out of artistic configurations composed through the event. Another criticism, more directed towards Romanticism, is that it has an obsession with finitude - cruelty, body, suffering, sex and death; an “aesthetic diagram of finitude” that simply reproduces established forms of knowledge. Badiou’s critique, essayed around his `Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,` focuses particularly on what he calls the formalist-Romantic which creates a black and white gridlock in which creative impossibility (Romanticism) is locked into an embrace with possibility (Formalism - in the 20th century everything is possible formally). This gets in the way of new more crafted possibilities and what he calls precise and finite `summarization` which works with the infinite, rather than mired in the finite world of embodiment, closure and irreversible darkness. The alternative is the production of `new infinite content` - new light - artistic practices that are not on a trajectory towards occluded finitude which leave no trace of lightness and vision.
This, of course, is a very specific critique not of Romanticism per se but of its role in a broader impasse. Romanticism itself still resonates strongly, and affirmatively within art practice for better or for worse. Some facets simply never went away: artists’ sensibility; the idea of immediate emotional authenticity; spontaneous responsiveness; intuition; mortality; the body; the ruin; the ruin of the body, and so on.
There are a number of other characteristics of Romanticism that seem to have particular relevance for our specific times of crisis. Spiritualism, a popular diversion during the 19th century, is needed now more than ever. Romanticism invented the idea of a self-referential art practice, taken to extremes in our times. The notion that the expression of the artist and the thought of the critical thinker are entangled is another thread leading back. The Romantics interest in the natural sciences should surely inform our relationship to our landscapes: it will take vision and imagination, not just rationalism, to address the catastrophe of environmental despoiling and degradation. Maintaining artistic integrity before market forces is another Romantic legacy.
Reason and Emotion, Landscape and the Contemporary Romantic is infused with the spirit, controversies, and energy of 19th and 20th century Romanticism. It maintains its integrity but moves it somewhere else; a strange but considered take on a hugely dramatic subject.

© Simon Harvey 2012