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Gillen D'Arcy Wood, The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760–1860

Thursday, May 15, 2003 - 11:26
Gillen D'Arcy Wood, The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860. New York: Palgrave, 2001. vii + 273.  Illus.  $55.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22654-3).

Reviewed by
James Robert Allard
University of Toronto

The Shock of the Real is the latest in a string of recent texts that explore the often conflicted relationship between late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century popular visual culture and literary Romanticism.  In an effort to explore that conflict in greater detail, Wood reads such popular and influential phenomena as David Garrick's peculiarly "visual" acting technique, public art exhibitions, panoramas, the installation of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, and the emergence of photography against the elitist complaint--made most tangible in Coleridge, but present in the writings of many of the canonical authors of the period--that "visual representations intended to deceive the viewer into mistaking them for the real thing, are not pleasurable but 'disagreeable'" (4).  More than just disagreeability, though, Wood argues convincingly that what Coleridge and his contemporaries experienced was the sense of shock occasioned by skillful deception: whereas "in 'a work of genuine imitation, you begin with an acknowledged total difference'" that produces "a Work of Art," in "a real Copy . . . . Not finding the motion and the life which we expected, we are shocked as by a falsehood. . . . In short, the same pictorial effects of similitude produce pleasure in a work of art, but shock and disgust in a sub-artistic 'real Copy'" (4).  Wood then goes on to explore the different results of that shock effect on both the popular imagination and the sensibilities of the cultural elite and suggests that not only were the effects different, but also that the differences themselves only served to magnify the sense of shock: "The shock of the real discloses its double value: for the 'vulgar crowd' it represents a thrilling novelty, while to the discerning eyes of the cultural elite it effects a 'disenchantment'" (4).  Lurking in the background on nearly every page of the text is Wood's contention that "the late Georgian fascination for replicating the visible world . . . constitutes the template of our own popular tastes and expectations in visual culture in the new millennium.  This includes the sometimes violent minority reaction against visual culture, for which, I suggest, Romantic aesthetic ideology continues to provide the conceptual vocabulary" (222).  With an eye fixed not on diagnosing and "curing" the continuing fascination with visuality and spectacle--and, ultimately, the by now tired culture wars--but on exploring the roots of that fascination and the ubiquity of the conflicts, Wood proceeds with a set of perhaps surprising juxtapositions that at once manifest and illuminate the very "shock of the real" he wants to discuss.

Wood announces early that his "methodological approach is interrogatory" (7), and his study is guided by two fundamental questions: "Why were Romantic writers so prominently represented among the minority opinion that disdained the rise of popular visual media in late Georgian England?  What stake did the Romantics have in actively, often virulently [sic] opposing new forms and forums of visual representation?" (6).  Each chapter, in turn, addresses a range of questions, some broadly philosophical (e.g., in chapter 5, "What metaphor of Greece did the Elgin Marbles produce: truth and beauty, or psychosis and death?") and some quite specific (in chapter 1, "What was Lamb's objection to Garrick's statue in Westminster Abbey?") in terms of the kinds of answers they elicit (7).  Though the questions cross quite a number of disciplinary and theoretical boundaries, Wood remains standing on solid ground: "Taking the long view of Romanticism as an historical period, The Shock of the Real finds answers to each of these questions in a century-long conflict between the literary elite of late Georgian England (and, briefly, France) and a booming recreational industry in visual media" (8).  To walk that battleground, Wood reads the notion of the "real"--an (aesthetic) production--through Roland Barthes and the notion of "shock" (the fall out from the "reality effect") through Walter Benjamin.  He notes, however, that his "use of the term the 'real' will not be strictly Barthesian" (11) and that his conception "shock" is not entirely derived from Benjamin, but that "[e]ach subject will bear its own particularly inflected definition" (11-12), and in that flexibility lies one of the study's greatest strengths.  Early in his introduction, he points out that while he frequently appeals to a number of the major twentieth-century theorists of visual culture (perhaps Barthes and Benjamin more than any others), his study owes a far greater debt to the work of scholars such as Richard Altick and John Barrell, and that he "preferred a historically descriptive, even at times anecdotal approach, to a densely theorized study" (12).  As he points out in defense of his "catholic application" of the notion of the "real," "I present no defence except that I have used the idea of the 'real' only insofar as it is useful" (12), and, thus, far from untheorized, Wood's text takes what it needs from a variety of critical and theoretical tools in order to read a fascinating range of "texts" and phenomena, and we can see from the brief chapter-by-chapter synopsis that follows just how productively far-ranging the study is.  In the interests of space, I treat only the first two chapters in some detail and provide sketches of the remaining three.

The first chapter, "Theater and Painting," examines what Wood calls "the formation of modern celebrity culture" (8), as played out in the long careers of actors Garrick (treated here as an archetype of the modern celebrity, "famous simply for being famous" [46]) and Frances Abington (treated here as a similar archetype, as one who becomes famous almost solely because of the ubiquity of her portrait).  At the core of this chapter is the familiar notion of Romantic anti-theatricality, and Wood begins by rehearsing the most familiar of the Romantic complaints concerning the state of the theater in the period and pointing out that "the Romantics' negative attitude to stage representation contradicts the plain fact of their enthusiastic attendance at and voluminous commentary upon the theater of the early nineteenth century" (20).  But one of the strengths of Wood's analysis is his willingness to allow such contradictions to stand; he argues that "[t]o illuminate these contradictions inherent in Romantic antitheatricality is . . . a more productive critical strategy than to attempt to resolve them," particularly since "[t]he relationship of Romantic authors to the Regency stage describes a pattern of ambivalence [that] signifies the literary elite's attitude of fascinated distrust toward the variegated and spectacular forms of visual culture emerging around them" (20).  Drawing on this familiarity and skillfully using these contradictions, Wood argues that the elitist complaints about the theater were less about substance than about style by reading Lamb's attacks with Garrick's on- and off-stage performances and Sir Joshua Reynolds's portraits of Abington with "the theatrical possibilities of personal identity" (50).  More specifically, Lamb's concern was more with Garrick's (and, by extension, Abington's) relation to the contemporary marketplace than with their treatments of Shakespeare and other masters of the drama: "The intensely visible nature of his dramatic performances in turn transformed Garrick's person, particularly his face, into a marketable 'image' able to be reproduced and sold through a multitude of subsidiary visual media" (25).  In short, Shakespeare, for example, becomes a vehicle for Garrick's (and Abington's) fame and not the other way around.  As Wood summarizes, "[t]he historical significance of Garrick's acting style [and Abington's ever-present portrait] is not that he introduced visuality to the eighteenth-century stage . . . but that he brought a realistic visual technique to literary drama," and, in making spectacles of themselves, Garrick and Abington help to inaugurate and popularize a "theater of spectacle" (45).

Wood continues with this notion of spectacle in chapter 2, "Prints and Exhibitions," which treats "the two principal agencies of the new commercial art market--print reproduction and public exhibitions--with a view to explaining the anxieties that the marriage of art, mimesis, and the marketplace inspired among the Romantic literary elite" (69).  The first part of this chapter reads in Reynolds's lectures to the Royal Academy ("the so-called Discourses on Art") "a sub-textual argument against the art of engraving [which he] perceived to be antithetical to the ideals of the newly founded Royal Academy"--despite the fact that such a rejection runs counter "to Reynolds' practical management of his own career, for which he, like all Georgian painters, depended on the successful commercial marketing of prints" (9).  On the one hand, as President of the Royal Academy, Reynolds took it as his personal mission to develop a truly British School of painting, one that "represented aristocratic, Tory interests, and, in its neo-classicist curriculum and elitist system of self-governance, looked to the continental academies, particularly the French, for its model" (74).  On the other hand, Reynolds was a direct and "conspicuous beneficiary of the booming commercial print trade to which the Academy was ideologically opposed" (71).  We see a similar situation in the case of Benjamin Haydon, "one of the new breed of commercial academic painters" whose immense paintings were designed specifically for public exhibition, and the second part of the chapter reads Haydon's career as a signal instance of the "growing popular taste for . . . 'spectacular realism'" (9).  One of the most interesting sections of the chapter is Wood's attempt to answer the linked questions, "Did the Royal Academy ultimately succeed in giving birth to the longed-for British School of painting?  And to what extent did the officially maligned print industry determine the outcome of that mission?" (79).  Ultimately, Wood concludes, for "the connoisseurs on the Continent [still the arbiters of taste, as the mandate of the Royal Academy makes clear], the print was the British School," and, while this situation may not have been Reynolds's ideal, the "mass production of copies of British paintings served . . . to create a fashion for British art inspired not by the originals themselves, but a cult of prints only" (82).  Perhaps even more than the theater, the visual arts dramatize the conflict between "the highbrow, literary idealism of the English cultural elite" and the emerging popular marketplace (9), and, perhaps because of the familiarity of this situation in the theater, Wood's reading of Reynolds, Haydon, and popular taste stands, in my mind, as the book's strongest chapter.

At the center of "The Panorama," chapter 3, is what Wood identifies as Wordsworth's "negative response" to the spectacle of the panorama in Book Seven of The Prelude, where "the poet of nature confronts the commodification of natural landscape in a popular visual form" (9).  In that confrontation, we see most explicitly the "crisis of Romantic idealism in the emergent visual culture of modernity" (10), and Wood offers a detailed analysis of the crucial passages from Wordsworth's poem in the context of the popularity of the panoramas of the West End.  Chapter 4, "Ruins and Museums," explores the British Museum, "with a special view to its status as symbol and repository of Hellenic ideals" (10), and offers readings of Keats's "British Museum poems" (the sonnets "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles," "To Haydon," and, especially, the Hyperion fragments) and of "Lord Elgin's unhappy career through the suggestive imagery of Byron's anti-Elgin poem, 'The Curse of Minerva'" (10).  Perhaps appropriately, the marbles themselves dominate this chapter, particularly in light of Wood's argument that "public access to the Parthenon sculptures transformed both the aesthetic and political implications of Hellenism" (122-23), and, as we have seen, the issue of "access," of publicity, and of display, go to the heart of the issues Wood raises.  Finally, the first and most extensive part of chapter 5, "Illustration Tourism Photography," links readings of the "popular and lucrative industry" of book illustration and "the emergent medium of photography" and grounds them in "the emerging Scottish tourism industry," all of which are embodied by the "fact that both [J. M. W.] Turner and the photographic pioneer Fox Talbot illustrated the works of Sir Walter Scott within a decade of Victoria's coming to the throne" which then "presents an extraordinarily instructive opportunity, never before grasped, to uncover the tensions between the two visual media and their relation to literary Romanticism" (11).  The second part of this chapter, to my mind the least effective section of this otherwise engaging and tightly focused study, moves to mid-nineteenth-century Paris to examine "the Romantic backlash against the supposed 'realism' of the photographic image with a reading of Baudelaire's jeremiad against photography in his 1859 Salon" (11).  Wood does argue that it is "by specific design that this revisionist study of Romanticism and visual culture chronologically ends with Second Empire Paris and photography, where surveys of visual-cultural modernity from Benjamin to MoMA have begun" (15)--a move he suggests better "illuminate[s] the largely unwritten pre-history of our millennial visual age" (15)--but this section of the study still feels somewhat tacked on and even outside of its already immense scope.  Nevertheless, and though I still think the second chapter is the strongest in the book, the deft handling of so many apparently disparate elements in this chapter (especially the first section) marks it as one of the study's strengths.

My only complaint about this otherwise engaging and rewarding text is that Wood tends to overemphasize the connections between Romantic visual culture and our contemporary scene.  He states in his introduction that "[a]t the genesis of this book lies [his] desire to explore prefigurations of modernity . . . in the visual culture of the Romantic period" (5), and he notes in his conclusion that he set out "to present a history of the Romantic period debate over visual and verbal media" (219).  But what may start as such a history becomes, in some spots, an exercise in comparing Romantic-period phenomena to contemporary ones.  Wood sees Reynolds's repeated efforts as a portrait painter marking him as "a forefather of the modern paparazzi" (66), suggests that "commercial Romantic painters thought 'big' for the same reasons movie houses today advertise the size of their screens" (95), and claims that the effect of the panorama is "exactly that Benjamin will later find in twentieth-century cinema" (118), and so on at a number of points throughout the text.  Such observations, while, to degrees, certainly true and necessary to acknowledge, sometimes seem to be the point of Wood's discussion to such an extent that they tend to detract from the clear impact and undeniable importance of his claims about Romantic visual culture.  Similarly, Wood is undoubtedly right to state that "[t]he problems faced by a literary sensibility in a visually saturated cityscape . . . are more than familiar to us two hundred years later" (220), but it is precisely because of their familiarity that Wood's repetition of that connection becomes, at times, cumbersome.  Had Wood relied on that familiarity more--that is, allowed the statement of his aim to trace the origins of certain contemporary conflicts back to Romantic conflicts between visual and literary culture to stand on its own, unsupported by the constant reminders--the connections would have been just as visible and would likely have had an even greater impact.

This is not at all meant as an attack on Wood's study or its goals; on the contrary, I want to suggest that in so vehemently insisting that the questions he asks are relevant to us in the early twenty-first century, Wood fails to realize that their relevance and his study's invaluable contributions to Romantic Studies are immediately obvious and manifest throughout.  Near the end of his introduction, Wood, alluding to Lessing's Laocoön, promises that "The Shock of the Real helps illuminate our millennial anxieties over the aesthetic values of text and image through a study of their original estrangement in the century after Lessing's unilateral declaration of the superiority of the word" (13).  Despite his sometimes intrusive insistence on connecting Romantic culture to "our millennial anxieties," Wood delivers what he promises.  The Shock of the Real makes significant contributions to all aspects of Romantic Studies, with neither an express desire (yet again) to "rescue" more traditional literature and literary study nor an effort (yet again) to argue for the inclusion or recovery of non-traditional "texts" and approaches in the face of tradition, but with a healthy respect for both tradition and innovation, a sense of reverence for neither, and an eagerness to get on with the work.  This is an important and timely study which scholars of Romantic visual, theater, and popular cultures--not to mention all who read the works of the authors so deeply affected by those cultures, whatever the authors' feelings about them--will find an immensely useful and thoroughly enjoyable read.