Welcome to the terrordome

by Victoria James

“Terror” is much on our minds these days. Whether we believe that terrorist activity has made the world a more dangerous place to live, or condemn the “war on terror” as a mere cover for U.S. President George W. Bush’s political ambition, the concept of terror has saturated our daily life.

The British philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-97), too, placed terror at the heart of his age’s zeitgeist, writing, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as terror.” But, the writer continued in his 1756 essay, “Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful”: “Whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.”

During Britain’s Georgian and Victorian eras, “terror” wasn’t an omnipresent threat, or a political slogan: It was the ultimate thrill. Terror was more than fear, it encompassed a whole range of emotions. It was intimidating, yet also awe-inspiring; it was the preserve of both God and Nature; it hovered gloomily not only over ruined abbeys and Gothic castles, but also over mountains and waterfalls. The creed of those who got their kicks from terror was Romanticism.

Now showing at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Chuo Ward, Kobe, is an exhibition of more than 100 works from the Victoria and Albert Musuem, London, titled “The Romantic Tradition in British Painting 1800-1950.” This comprehensive display does a much better job of capturing the Victorian sensibility than the sensationalist “Victorian Nude” exhibition, on tour from London’s Tate Gallery and now showing at the nearby Kobe City Museum (see upcoming review in The Japan Times, Feb. 23).

Nature was the chief repository of terror, beauty and sublimity, and landscape is perhaps the only genre in which British artists can claim supremacy over their Continental counterparts. A related achievement was their success, during the 18th century, in establishing watercolor — hitherto regarded as inferior to painting in oils — as a dynamic and popular medium.

Landscapes — radiant watercolors by J.W.M. Turner and brooding oils by John Constable — are at the heart of this show, perfectly capturing the elevated sense of nature expressed by the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

“I have learned to look on nature,” wrote Wordsworth in “Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey,” (1798) “. . . hearing oftentimes/The still, sad music of humanity. . . . And I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime.”

That exaltation finds visual form in Turner’s glowing, sun-struck canvases “St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall” and “Holy Island, Northumberland.” The “sad music of humanity” resonates through Constable’s “Hove Beach,” which depicts a solitary individual standing on a stormy seashore, and “East Bergholt Church and Churchyard,” with a thickly painted lowering sky (the human figures at the center of the composition are brushed on so thinly as to be near invisible). Britain’s unpredictable weather, a national joke, is transformed by these two artists into a capricious elemental force that evokes both fear and awe.

The popular fiction of the time — works such as “The Castle of Otranto” (1764) by Horace Walpole, “The Mysteries of Udolpho” (1794) by Anne Radcliffe, and William Beckford’s “Vathek” (1786) — tells of otherworldly happenings, blighted fates and untimely ends. Though plenty of works showing here take such themes as their subject — Henry Fuseli’s “The Fire King,” Francis Danby’s “The Enchanted Castle” — not a few of the artists themselves led eventful lives worthy of inclusion in any Gothic romance.

John Robert Cozens — represented by two works in the first gallery, one the disquieting and oppressive “View from Inside a Cave” (1778) — lived it up on the Continent with dissolute millionaire Beckford. Constable once commented that Cozens was “all poetry, the greatest genius that ever touched landscape” — but the talented watercolorist went mad and was confined in the insane asylum of the celebrated royal physician Thomas Monro, where he later died.

Monro himself was a dedicated art collector, and an early patron of Turner and Thomas Girtin, Turner’s exact contemporary (the two would often collaborate on commissions from Monro). Girtin died young, at age 27, causing Turner to observe that “If poor Tom Girtin had lived, I should have starved.” Girtin’s potential is amply demonstrated by four of his works shown here.

For those members of the Japanese gallery-going public not yet sated with Pre-Raphaelite art, one exhibition room holds canvases by the usual suspects: John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Holman Hunt. The warm coloration and sensuous textures of these works are undoubtedly attractive, but the subject matter (there are more elfin maidens here than in a “Lord of the Rings” movie) is repetitive. For those who’ve seen it all before, backtrack for another look at two artists it’s hard to get enough of — Aubrey Beardsley and William Blake.

Beardsley’s sly, elegant pen-and-ink drawings are as original as the Pre-Raphaelites are generic. The standout here is “How King Arthur Saw the Questing Beast.” It’s impossible not to become engrossed in this intricate, ornate drawing — a perfect example of the work of an artist whose distinctive style was already fully realized by the time of his death in 1898, at age 26.

And then there’s William Blake. Visionary and, some said, lunatic, Blake read poetry naked in his garden, conversed with angels and wrote vast reams of prophetic (and near unreadable) poetry. Best known for the more accessible verses in his “Songs of Innocence and Experience” (1789-90), most notably “The Tyger,” Blake simultaneously inhabited both the turbulent, filthy London of his day and private, radiant realms of vision and revelation.

His artworks — watercolors and engravings, powerfully drawn and delicately colored — are like nothing before or since. They are surpassing expressions of terror — and transcendence. The six works shown here are representative, though none, save perhaps “The Virgin and Child in Egypt” (1810), is outstanding among his prolific output. Nonetheless, it’s a joy to see them showing outside England.

Every curator of a Pre-Raphaelite show, and every cash-hungry venue that hosts one, should be obliged to follow up with an exhibition of Blake and Beardsley by way of expiation. Until such enlightened policy becomes the norm, this is a satisfying, well-rounded look at one of the high points of British cultural history. A commendation to the directors of the recently opened Hyogo museum for choosing this solid, unpretentious show over the titillating but superficial charms of The Tate’s “Victorian Nude.”