About the Romantic Circles Gallery

About the Romantic Circles Gallery


The Romantic Circles Gallery (RCG) is committed to a wide-ranging investigation of romantic visualities.  We invite a rich array of approaches to this topic, from questions asked and emerging in art history to thinking about how visual objects occur everywhere in Romantic texts as well as images.  We understand visuality across many platforms, from what has traditionally been described as artworks, to ephemera, works on paper, paper itself, books, and visual artifacts that take in fields of inquiry beyond what we once thought of as art.  The Romantic Circles Gallery responds to the exciting disciplinary challenges that accompany thinking about visuality as a multiverse of forms, dispositions, scenes, and cultural sites. We identify these cultural and material remains as ‘force fields” that collectively signal the character of the visual.

The Gallery features curated exhibits that present a group of digital representations of visual objects that in some sense cohere, perhaps as representations of a type of visual object, a technique, a cultural form that takes in visual artifacts, or some other collection of visual evidence that is persuasively focused and presented.  Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari, we think of the exhibits within the Gallery as rhizomatically linked to each other, to other features of Romantic Circles, via the searchable database that has been and will continue to be built from the data collected for each image and exhibit. Each gallery exhibit groups 10 object images under a specified rubric, usually conceptual and/or material. Going forward, the Gallery exhibits invite multiple approaches to the complex and vibrant character of Romantic visualities, a plural name for plurality of objects and approaches.  We invite viewers to ask the kinds of questions about these exhibits that their curators also ask. What happens when different sorts of images are collected under a rubric? What kinds of thinking does a particular exhibition encourage, and what are its blind spots? For example, a search for items with the keyword “sublime” will yield a dozene or more items, ranging from images of hot air balloons, Vesuvius, icebergs, Pompeii, exploration and, looking beyond existing exhibits, likely much else. Perhaps our understanding of the sublime will profit from our attention to these visual differences; these images return us once again to the question of the relation of the material to the intellectual sublime. We cordially invite viewers to propose permanent exhibits. So that the Gallery and its exhibits offer consistent and richly developed categories for searchable keywords, we have developed metadata protocols for exhibit curators. Information collected for these metadata are built into the database so key features of the exhibits are easily searchable.

In the beginning, we decided that the Gallery might best work as a pedagogical experiment. Who better to think about the implications of Romanticism than students immersed in understanding its contours and reach? The exhibitions were developed by students in Theresa Kelley’s and Jill Casid’s seminars at University of Wisconsin-Madison. We offer here two examples that indicate the kinds of provocation we hope to enable through the Gallery. Joanna Lackey’s exhibit of images from Guidebooks of the Ashmolean and British Museum Collections foregrounds the very problem of collection. Who is the audience for the collection, and what fears do the imagined audience generate? How does one discipline or educate that very audience, especially when in the case of the British Museum, entrance was free? Lackey notes a pervasive concern with objects that lie at the boundary of nature and culture, and she questions what the artist Jan van Rymsdyk sought to achieve in combining these monstrous objects in single illustrations. While the contextual information highlights key arguments that may be helpful for understanding these images, the overall goal is to raise problems, not imbed the objects in a pre-given cultural surround. She helps us to see the degree to which the generation of objects was in part to encourage wonder, even if that wonder was collectively disciplined. She brings to bear Daston and Park’s study of wonder, which considers how wonder was managed by theology and science. To this end, Lackey considers the depicted viewers in these images, and notes that they imply constraints for actual views. Thus, for example, the view of the Ashmolean museum shows a scholar, dressed in cap and gown, and similarly well-dressed viewers, hinting at the requisite gentility expected of audiences.

In Katharine Wells’ exhibition of the flâneur and flâneuse, she highlights the aesthetics of self-display as “casual” observers are captured in romantic era images. These images participate in the cultural mapping and fracturing of the artist, and in the kinds of observation that artists engage in. Simultaneously for visual display and consumption, these images function both as contextual markers and as narratives that shape context. She suggests what is gained by seeing them in terms of both production and consumption. Although the flâneur has been much studied as a figure within romantic culture, less is known about images of this figure, and Wells seeks to foreground this visual imagery so as to open up questions we thought had been long settled. Such questions include: is the artist to be understood as a thinker or practitioner or mere observer? What is the artist’s relation to commodity culture, and how does the depiction of the artist seek to settle the subject’s right to look at the objects to be mastered? Are flâneurs the objects of reverence or ridicule? How, for instance, are we to read the blue stockings of Rowlandson’s antiquarian spectator?

Whether viewers are looking at the Romantic Circles Gallery for the first time, creating their own exhibits, or plotting new exhibits for our consideration, we welcome all.

Theresa Kelley and Jacob Leveton 
Co-editors, RC Galleries
April 2020