Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Lucy Snowe as art critic, Part 2

2) The Art Gallery

In this section, Graham and Lucy's friendship develop, and he takes her to art galleries. Before then, she speaks favourably of him and his mother, who are cheerful and can overcome troubles easily, unlike herself.
There are human natures, bland, blowing and genial,within whose influence it is as good for the poor in spirit to live, as it is for the feeble in frame to bask in the glow of noon ... They liked to communicate happiness... they did it instinctively.
Graham takes Lucy all round Villette, and proves to be a good, kind, devoted doctor, more benevolent than his mother. But here Lucy says he was not perfect.
A god could not have the cruel vanity of Dr John, nor his sometime levity. No immortal could have resembled him in his occasional temporary oblivion of all but the present ... In the first, the public [view of Graham], he is shown oblivious of self; as modest in the display of his energies, as earnest as their exercise. In the second, the fireside picture,[private view of Graham] there is expressed consciousness of what he has and what he is; pleasure in homage, some recklessness in exciting, some vanity in receiving the same. Both portraits are correct.
He is, in short, both good and bad, a liberal and benevolent man, but shallow of some inner vision. This was true of George Smith, Charlotte Brontë's publisher, and her acquaintance, Sir James Kay Shuttleworth. Both did public good, but were both shrewd and often manipulative businessmen. Graham's levity is reflected in the fact he likes to laugh at and make snide remarks about Lucy's later suitor and lover, Paul Emmanuel, who is deep and loving and generous, though less charming and successful, and most importantly, loves Lucy for herself above others. Graham could never appreciate Lucy's less attractive points for herself, whereas Paul learns to.
Sir James Kay Shuttleworth

Lucy remarks she has no head for science, but instinct inclines her to art. (Unlike Graham, a doctor and scientist). She likes to visit the pictures alone. Interestingly she also says she is bad and awkward and conversation.
In company, a wretched idiosyncrasy forbade me to see much or to feel anything .... I never yet saw the well-reared child, much less the educated adult, who could not put me to shame by the sustained intelligence of its demeanor under the ordeal of a conversable, sociable visitation of pictures, historical sights or buildings, or any lions of public interest... In the commencement of these visits,  there was some misunderstanding and consequent struggle between Will and Power. The former faculty exacted approbation of that which it was considered orthodox to admire; the latter groaned forth its utter inability to pay the tax; it was then self-sneered at, spurred up, goaded on to refine its taste, and whet its zest. The more it was chidden, however, the more it wouldn't praise.
Lucy here is condemning popular taste in art. Unlike other educated people, who can speak freely and easily on art, she can't, because being with others knocks her out. This is despite the fact she is a true connoisseur of art and has better feeling, depth and taste than most critics. Her difference in perceiving art also separates her from the rest of the world.

She observes that good pictures are rare, and that the artists often paint pictures according to their whims, rather than imitate nature or truth (and Charlotte believed art should imitate nature, just like the early Romantics did). Some portraits of complacent-looking women are not as "goddess"-like as they seem to think they are - Lucy is criticising the admiration of fine-looking women who are not wonderful within, because this is a false view of the woman. It is a condemnation of the public who must worship women for their beauty, rather than look at vision and truth in art. The pictures which are realistic and convey expression are preferred - it is clear she wants genius, life, vision and truth. This is why Charlotte admired Wordsworth.
It seemed to me that an original and good picture was just as scarce as an original and good book...And yet there were fragments of truth here and there which satisfied the conscience, and gleams of light that cheered the vision. Nature's power here broke through in a mountain snow-storm; and there her glory in a sunny southern day. An expression in this portrait proved clear insight into character; a face in that historical painting, by its vivid filial likeness, startlingly reminded you that genius gave it birth. These exceptions I loved: they grew dear as friends.
The main focus of this chapter, however, is on The Cleopatra, a painting admired by critics, and considered "queen of the collection."
It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed. Very much butcher's meat, to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids, must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch, why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. 
by Sir Lawrence Alma- Tadema, a Pre-Raphaelite.

Tony Tanner says, in his introduction to the 1970's Penguin edition that this portrait is an "extreme version of the physicality of the bourgeouis world. She is mere matter, a great lump of stuff, a commodity," just like the beautiful women in other pictures. I suspect we might call the art "kitsch," the way people think Thomas Kincaid is beautiful, but the colours are too garish and lack meaning. It seems cultured, because Cleopatra is a historical figure, but people are only admiring the materialism in the picture rather than any historical significance. Her fleshiness is a common Victorian metaphor, to symbolise decadence, sensuality and materialism compared with thin heroines, who represent spirit and childlikeness (because innocence was worshipped then). Lucy's obsession with Cleopatra's laziness could be a criticism of wealthy bourgeouis women who were materialistic, with no aim or vision in life.
She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material—seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery, she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans, perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets, were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch, and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalog, I found that this notable production bore the name "Cleopatra"
by Sir Frank Dicksee. Opulent and not much covering. No wonder Lucy disapproved. Other Cleopatra paintings typically feature nudity.

Also the comment on Cleopatra's garments is interesting. Despite having so much fabric, the gown doesn't cover her body properly. This might symbolise waste, or more likely, an attack on materialism. Cloth is viewed only as a fashion (perhaps it is used to make some exotic-looking folds) rather than a necessity, to cover oneself up. It is also indecent by Victorian standards, and therefore the Cleopatra is objectified as a sensual object. Tony Tanner surmises that Lucy Snowe is against "sexual display and opulent excess," and more.
It is a vision of the unsubstantial, physical world run riot, a world preempted by a swollen chaos of body, material and things - substance unsouled to the last degree. 
It is the sensuality of the picture that appeals to the critics, rather than the meaning and soul behind it. (One of the reasons why Dante Gabriel Rossetti's pictures were condemned by critics, he was fond of sensual female portraits too).  It is not just the immorality of the woman in the picture that repels Lucy, but the fact it represents body and surface over soul. The garments are not only indecent but signify vanity. Luxury, gluttony and indecency are typical values associated with the aristocracy in the 19th century, and later the upper-middle class socialites. The vases and goblets, on the other hand, are metaphors employed by Lucy for pots and pans. It is not some mere distant past involving strange crockery she is looking at, but she is comparing that picture with the real world of pots and pans, domestic items of her own era. The Cleopatra would not make a good housewife, with her tardy housekeeping. It is also ironic that such a banal materialistic picture should have such the grand name of a historical figure.
Une almé by De Beifve. Thought to have been the original for the Cleopatra, though it is a slave-girl rather than a queen in this picture. Charlotte Brontë may have employed artistic licence. It caused a stir when first exhibited in Brussels because it was oversexualised.
We can see that this Cleopatra has something in common with Ginevra Fanshawe, who longs for luxury and wealth, and has a lot of flesh, unlike the thin, childlike, spiritualised Paulina de Bassompierre. Though Ginevra seems to be better than the Cleopatra.

The picture does have good points, according to Lucy, having little details well-painted, but on the whole, meaningless and "claptrap." (Reminds you of the Pre-Raphaelites). She focuses her attention on some natural scenes instead, smaller and less noticed, but more true to nature. (Which reminds you of the Victorians preferring solid Wordsworth to exotic Byron, but Charlotte was a fan of both. In later years she mentioned Wordsworth more often. In the Romantic era, the opposite was true: Byron outsold Wordsworth. To like Byron was considered flashy, and to like Wordsworth was considered to have true taste. Both poets have survived, but Wordsworth has a better reputation. Also, consider that nowadays respectable old paintings tend to be either religious, allegorical and historical scenes with power, or landscapes. Pre-Raphaelites that focus mainly on sensuous women fare less well than pre-Raphaelites who depict emotional scenes from history or literature).
wild-flowers, wild-fruit, mossy wood-nests, casketing eggs that looked like pearls seen through clear green sea-water, all hung modestly beneath that coarse and preposterous canvas.
Lucy is interrupted by M. Paul, who scolds her for looking at the Cleopatra (because it is indecent and no woman should look at it) and recommends to her attention a set of pictures showing four stages in a woman's life. He is also shocked that she is alone in the gallery, as back then it was proper for ladies to walk around accompanied. But then Lucy has been left there by Graham, who has work to do, and is quite friendless otherwise. Paul also expected her to have been brought there not only by Graham, but by Mrs Bretton, because a woman walking round with only one man might be perceived to be loose or encouraging him. But there is nothing in that, because Graham does not fancy Lucy. This reflects Charlotte's walking around London accompanied only by George Smith, which might have seemed scandalous to some, but it was business for him. Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey that she would not be afraid to follow him to China, because he was decent.

It seems sad that Paul should expect Lucy to go around in public against her true self, because she is solitary and he expects otherwise. Paul's presence here is important, because we get a picture of how people perceive Lucy's strangeness in being alone. And apart from critiquing art, it is important we see Lucy in the gallery, because we see her alone in public, amidst crowds of others. It is not merely because she choose to be alone, but she cannot help it. Were this a domestic novel, set only in houses, Lucy being alone would be normal, because she has no family. But showing her in public emphasises her friendlessness. It is also amusing that a decent quiet mortal like Lucy is thought to be outrageous and indecent by Paul Emmanuel. It shows that the world perceives strangeness as something to be shunned or criticised, despite the fact the strange person has done nothing immoral or improper, just as Charlotte was told off for being unfriendly in Brussels.

The pictures Paul encourages her to look at are " flat, dead, pale and formal"
The first represented a "Jeune Fille", coming out of a church door, a missal in her hand, her dress very prim, her eyes cast down, her mouth pursed up—the image of a most villainous little precocious she-hypocrite. The second, a "Mariée", with a long white veil, kneeling at a prie-dieu in her chamber, holding her hands plastered together, finger to finger, and showing the whites of her eyes in a most exasperating manner. The third, a "Jeune Mère", hanging disconsolate over a clayey and puffy baby with a face like an unwholesome full moon. The fourth, a "Veuve", being a black woman, holding by the hand a black little girl, and the twain studiously surveying an elegant French monument, set up in a corner of some Père la Chaise. 
The language here is surely too strong? But I see her point. The first young girl is an ideal of society - a young religious girl, and Charlotte Brontë sees through the prim pose as a hypocrite, because how many really prim young girls were there in 19th century Brussels? They were according to her boisterous flirts. (Precocious in this context would mean sensuous or sexually mature). Imagine seeing an attractive model being painted in that pose: it seems unlikely that such a girl would be genuinely prim. The second is a married woman in a pious pose, which annoys Lucy, possibly because she is presumably Catholic, and Lucy dislikes Catholicism.  These females are said to be "angels", because they represent some 19th century ideal of women, like the Angel in the House. Lucy treats all these pictures as real women.
 What women to live with! insincere, ill-humored, bloodless, brainless nonentities! As bad in their way as the indolent gypsy-giantess, the Cleopatra, in hers.
This is the opposite of the ideals they are supposed to represent: innocent young girl, pious married woman, doing mother and widow. It seems harsh to judge a mere picture, but if you think about it, the purpose of judging pictures is to judge Life. Lucy is judging real people by looking at the pictures. The reality of most women is far from the sacred spot they are assigned.  Then the whole diatribe about why art should be real finally makes sense: Lucy takes each picture she mentions as a reflection of Life. Does this mean the artists she despises in these pictures have really depicted life as it is, since the women in their works are as awful as women in real life? Not exactly. They depict idealised women, but Lucy interprets this as wrong, and corrects their assumptions for us. They are empty and lifeless shadows.

Lucy and Paul talk, and he asks her about her holidays. She had to look after a "cretin" (I think a disabled person?) called Marie Broc, who was disliked and rude to Lucy. She says it was terrible to be alone with Marie Broc, and Paul accuses her of being a coward, and there are women who could nurse others well.  Lucy points out could he do it himself? She happens not to be one of those heroines. It is significant that Lucy had to nurse this cretin, because Tony Tanner argues it reflects how Lucy might potentially degrade into. It also shows Lucy has no one else better to be her associate during the holidays, and the only person fit to be her companion is this rude "cretin." Which means Lucy is cast into a lower lot of society, making her position seem even lower (socially) than those of her fellow-teachers, who at least have relatives and friends to go to. Lucy is with a nobody, and therefore she is like a nobody. She is not the equal of the others.

Paul does reply, however, that the Cleopatra is a fine woman, but he would not want her to be a wife, sister or daughter. Which shows his idealised expectations of women - he admires a pious woman who can nurse cretins, and recommends Lucy to see at the supposedly pious pictures. This gallery is a way to show these qualities in him, which we would otherwise be ignorant of, because at this stage Lucy and he are not friends. Lucy spots Colonel de Hamal (Ginevra's admirer) who admires the Cleopatra, is perfectly charming to his friends and titters. He is conventional in tastes, he is refined and gentlemanly, and he is shallow. It is unlikely that Lucy would see him elsewhere, as she doesn't go out much and they are not acquainted, so the gallery enables Lucy to study his character.

At this point Dr Bretton enters. Which means both Ginevra's suitors (Graham and de Hamal) and Lucy's loves (Graham and later Paul) are all in the same room together. Graham has interesting things to say of art to her, and Lucy likes to communicate her thoughts to him,
I always liked dearly to hear what he had to say about either pictures or books; because, without pretending to be a connoisseur, he always spoke his thought, and that was sure to be fresh; very often it was also just and pithy. 
 Graham disapproves of de Hamal and of the Cleopatra, which proves his taste is better than de Hamal. He says that he does not like the voluptuous type, but Ginevra is superior to that Cleopatra and so is his mother. He calls Cleopatra a mulatto, a derogatory term then. (This is ironic, because Ginevra is voluptuous and his mother is probably portly). Which means, Graham does not like the idea of the fleshy and sensual (because it is associated with decadence and indecency) and yet in reality he is in love with a voluptuous woman (Ginevra). But mulattos were typically perceived as more exotic and sensual and less respectable than white women.  Is this an attack on men who think they like sweet, innocent, spiritual girls, and yet in reality will fall for the sensual woman?  Graham has referred to Ginevra as an angel, yet she is fleshy and materialistic and far from spiritual. But Graham is seen in a good light, because despite being emotionally shallow, he is intellectually and artistically acute.

However, he laughs when Lucy tells him about Paul making her see different pictures. We see a less sunny side of Graham, who laughs at eccentricities and piousness. It shows us that Graham is unable to appreciate that side of Lucy too, pleasant though he is. Lucy is partly at fault for gossiping to him. But she resents Paul's strictness, whereas Graham is amused by Paul's strange behaviour. Lucy takes him more seriously. Now Lucy and Graham are friends; later Lucy and Paul are compatible and Graham takes less notice of her; Graham's ridicule of Paul shows that they will never be part of the same circle, and because Lucy is Paul's beloved, she is not part of Graham's circle. Despite being clever and good, Graham cannot appreciate others' idiosyncrasies; he is liberal and intelligent and worldly, but in a sense, narrower than the strict, religious Paul, who can at least see Lucy's depths.

Why a gallery? Why not paint people from life in some other scene, a party for example, where characters interact with each other in a social setting, rather than an aesthetic one? It solves the problem of Lucy's views on art and Life, and also Lucy being quiet, would not attend a party. She hardly goes out and would otherwise have no opportunity to study these characters (she wouldn't be invited in the first place). To show her isolation she must be in this less personal setting.  It is her way of studying people and Life, on impersonal terms, as she can hardly get to know people (apart from Graham and Paul). At a party she would be one of them on a society invitation list. At a gallery she is apart, with no mutual acquaintances to introduce them, emphasising her isolation from society. It is ironic too, that in a gallery where the figures do not imitate life well, she herself observes Life accurately, and therefore in a way is an artist of character in the background, her talents undisplayed on the walls. Lucy, no painter, is a better describer of reality than these masterpieces.

It reminds me of a scene in Shirley, where Shirley Keeldar criticises male authors for not writing realistic females, and thinks she should write an article saying so.
I'll prove that in a magazine paper some day when I've time; only it will never be inserted: it will be 'declined with thanks,' and left for me at the publisher's.
Truth is not appreciated or exhibited, whereas lies and glamour are shown and admired. Note that the art in the fête is moving (acting), whereas still-life and portraiture is discussed in the gallery. Lucy Snowe has moved from jesting and flirting (active behaviour in society) to looking at paintings (looking at passiveness and inertness in women). In the first, people are expected to be lively to be accepted; in the second, women are expected to be sensual or alternately pious and passive to be accepted. The latter especially is a contradiction with the first, no? This exposes society's unrealistic ideals.

To be continued ...

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