Stephen Cheeke, Transfiguration: The Religion of Art in Nineteenth-Century Literature Before Aestheticism

Stephen Cheeke, Transfiguration: The Religion of Art in Nineteenth-Century Literature Before... DR CHEEKE teaches at Bristol, where no doubt he has had plenty of chances to see Henry O’Neill’s painting ‘The Last Moments of Raphael’ (1866), in the Bristol Museum, and reproduced here, where the dying Raphael gazes towards ‘The Transfiguration’ which he has painted. This work by Raphael, which attempts to put divine metamorphosis alongside the ugliness of life below, with the sufferings of the epileptic child, is the subject of a chapter here. And as a theme, this attempt to break out from an uncomplicated Christianity, seen as an issue in the sixteenth century, and discussed in the nineteenth, runs through the book, which declares itself to be about ‘the sin of idolatry and the poetics of transfiguration’ (2). It is a difficult and complex study, very learned, and making wide references, often very nuanced, and often very rewarding, with a particularly good chapter on profound ‘self-divisions’ (202) in Pater, who was, according to Edmund Gosse as quoted here, ‘not all for Apollo, not all for Christ’. Its theme is the decline of acceptance of Christianity in the nineteenth century, and the replacement of attention to this by a ‘religion of art’, which begins in the early nineteenth century—there is a good discussion of the origins of the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ (46)—and by the end of the century, more narrowly, perhaps, a ‘religion of beauty’. That phrase is taken from Robert de la Sizeranne’s Ruskin et la Religion de la beauté (1897), discussed in the Introduction. The four authors principally discussed here are Ruskin, Browning, D. G. Rossetti, and Pater, but there is much too on Hazlitt, and his visit to the Louvre in 1802, where so many Italian masterpieces were to be found as a result of Napoleon’s depredations; and similarly, Arnold often appears in discussion, with the charge put against him, as quoted from T. S. Eliot, that his writings on religion argued that ‘Religion is morals’ (taken as a reductive account), and that ‘Religion is Art’. Eliot, with Cheeks following him only at a little distance, finds this a degradation of both philosophy and religion. The question that Cheeke is interested in is not easy to paraphrase, but it might be thought of as a discussion of Keats, not much mentioned here, and the meanings of his ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Why was beauty—increasingly to be identified with the Pre-Raphaelites—to be seen as an indispensable accompaniment to truth, and what was implied when the ‘truth’ of Christianity—to which this study seems to cleave—was let go: why did beauty retain its traditional forms, and not become re-thought itself? Cheeke quotes lengthily from Proust’s account of Ruskin, which notes in the latter an ‘idolatry’, which derives from Ruskin’s desire to present what he thought of as beautiful as true, so that ‘he was forced to deceive himself about the nature of the reasons that made him adopt them. Hence there was … a continual compromising of conscience’ appearing with ‘moral doctrines’ espoused by Ruskin ‘in which affirmation is not wholly sincere, as they are dictated by an unavowed aesthetic preference’ (9). And Cheeke notes how the Proustian criticism implies ‘an unconscious at work’ which ‘troubles and undermines the subordination of beauty to truth’ (11–12). It is a pity that Cheeke does not pursue this question of an unconscious further than this, especially as he is so good, in the chapter on Browning, on the nineteenth-century’s ambivalence about Renaissance art, with, in Raphael. He notes Raphael’s absorption of the pagan-classical alongside commitment to Christianity as this had been visualized in earlier art, so much that Ruskin can say, in his letter to The Times of 1851 that the Pre-Raphaelites ‘draw either what they see, or what might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent’, as artists since Raphael did not, ‘but sort to paint fair pictures, rather than represent stern facts; of which the consequence has been that, from Raphael’s time to this day, historical art has been in acknowledged decadence’ (89). The issues implied here, including the point that truth in the form of ‘facts’ must be considered non-fair, so that truth cannot be beauty, run throughout this book. They show, for instance, in the way that Rossetti could be accused of being Christian-like in his imagery while not believing it; this brings in the question of the artist’s necessary relationship to a modernity which in truth was further down the line towards religious agnosticism than perhaps Cheeke’s study cares to acknowledge. Much analysis in the book is very useful, although the discussion of the Raphael ‘Transfiguration’, for all its acuity, seems overly tentative: it could have expanded on its comments on Nietzsche’s analysis of it, as someone outside the English tradition; and if the unconscious had been considered further, Freud’s ‘Dora’ analysis, interested that Dora sat for two hours in front of the Sistine Madonna—a Raphael painting which Cheeke also reproduces and discusses—might have been valuable. In comparative terms, which Cheeke is well up to, given his discussions of Proust, Mallarmé’s wrestling with beauty, but without any shadows of Christianity, might have been worth pursuing. Not until he gets to Pater are the significances of the debate fully made plain as being about ‘modern’ ideas (as Pater thought the Mona Lisa was the embodiment of the ‘modern idea’), and there the associations of Paterian ‘indifference’ with homosexuality are raised (198) but too lightly for the word to convey its full complexity in Pater. Cheeks is provocative in many ways, but the arguments seem occasionally nostalgic, and leave the sense that the given writers are too much casualties of their age and thinking to change the terms of a debate which made Christianity (Protestant in persuasion, often Catholic in sympathy) to set the terms for the nineteenth-century thinkers represented here. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Notes and Queries Oxford University Press

Stephen Cheeke, Transfiguration: The Religion of Art in Nineteenth-Century Literature Before Aestheticism

Notes and Queries , Volume Advance Article (2) – May 10, 2018

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Abstract

DR CHEEKE teaches at Bristol, where no doubt he has had plenty of chances to see Henry O’Neill’s painting ‘The Last Moments of Raphael’ (1866), in the Bristol Museum, and reproduced here, where the dying Raphael gazes towards ‘The Transfiguration’ which he has painted. This work by Raphael, which attempts to put divine metamorphosis alongside the ugliness of life below, with the sufferings of the epileptic child, is the subject of a chapter here. And as a theme, this attempt to break out from an uncomplicated Christianity, seen as an issue in the sixteenth century, and discussed in the nineteenth, runs through the book, which declares itself to be about ‘the sin of idolatry and the poetics of transfiguration’ (2). It is a difficult and complex study, very learned, and making wide references, often very nuanced, and often very rewarding, with a particularly good chapter on profound ‘self-divisions’ (202) in Pater, who was, according to Edmund Gosse as quoted here, ‘not all for Apollo, not all for Christ’. Its theme is the decline of acceptance of Christianity in the nineteenth century, and the replacement of attention to this by a ‘religion of art’, which begins in the early nineteenth century—there is a good discussion of the origins of the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ (46)—and by the end of the century, more narrowly, perhaps, a ‘religion of beauty’. That phrase is taken from Robert de la Sizeranne’s Ruskin et la Religion de la beauté (1897), discussed in the Introduction. The four authors principally discussed here are Ruskin, Browning, D. G. Rossetti, and Pater, but there is much too on Hazlitt, and his visit to the Louvre in 1802, where so many Italian masterpieces were to be found as a result of Napoleon’s depredations; and similarly, Arnold often appears in discussion, with the charge put against him, as quoted from T. S. Eliot, that his writings on religion argued that ‘Religion is morals’ (taken as a reductive account), and that ‘Religion is Art’. Eliot, with Cheeks following him only at a little distance, finds this a degradation of both philosophy and religion. The question that Cheeke is interested in is not easy to paraphrase, but it might be thought of as a discussion of Keats, not much mentioned here, and the meanings of his ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Why was beauty—increasingly to be identified with the Pre-Raphaelites—to be seen as an indispensable accompaniment to truth, and what was implied when the ‘truth’ of Christianity—to which this study seems to cleave—was let go: why did beauty retain its traditional forms, and not become re-thought itself? Cheeke quotes lengthily from Proust’s account of Ruskin, which notes in the latter an ‘idolatry’, which derives from Ruskin’s desire to present what he thought of as beautiful as true, so that ‘he was forced to deceive himself about the nature of the reasons that made him adopt them. Hence there was … a continual compromising of conscience’ appearing with ‘moral doctrines’ espoused by Ruskin ‘in which affirmation is not wholly sincere, as they are dictated by an unavowed aesthetic preference’ (9). And Cheeke notes how the Proustian criticism implies ‘an unconscious at work’ which ‘troubles and undermines the subordination of beauty to truth’ (11–12). It is a pity that Cheeke does not pursue this question of an unconscious further than this, especially as he is so good, in the chapter on Browning, on the nineteenth-century’s ambivalence about Renaissance art, with, in Raphael. He notes Raphael’s absorption of the pagan-classical alongside commitment to Christianity as this had been visualized in earlier art, so much that Ruskin can say, in his letter to The Times of 1851 that the Pre-Raphaelites ‘draw either what they see, or what might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent’, as artists since Raphael did not, ‘but sort to paint fair pictures, rather than represent stern facts; of which the consequence has been that, from Raphael’s time to this day, historical art has been in acknowledged decadence’ (89). The issues implied here, including the point that truth in the form of ‘facts’ must be considered non-fair, so that truth cannot be beauty, run throughout this book. They show, for instance, in the way that Rossetti could be accused of being Christian-like in his imagery while not believing it; this brings in the question of the artist’s necessary relationship to a modernity which in truth was further down the line towards religious agnosticism than perhaps Cheeke’s study cares to acknowledge. Much analysis in the book is very useful, although the discussion of the Raphael ‘Transfiguration’, for all its acuity, seems overly tentative: it could have expanded on its comments on Nietzsche’s analysis of it, as someone outside the English tradition; and if the unconscious had been considered further, Freud’s ‘Dora’ analysis, interested that Dora sat for two hours in front of the Sistine Madonna—a Raphael painting which Cheeke also reproduces and discusses—might have been valuable. In comparative terms, which Cheeke is well up to, given his discussions of Proust, Mallarmé’s wrestling with beauty, but without any shadows of Christianity, might have been worth pursuing. Not until he gets to Pater are the significances of the debate fully made plain as being about ‘modern’ ideas (as Pater thought the Mona Lisa was the embodiment of the ‘modern idea’), and there the associations of Paterian ‘indifference’ with homosexuality are raised (198) but too lightly for the word to convey its full complexity in Pater. Cheeks is provocative in many ways, but the arguments seem occasionally nostalgic, and leave the sense that the given writers are too much casualties of their age and thinking to change the terms of a debate which made Christianity (Protestant in persuasion, often Catholic in sympathy) to set the terms for the nineteenth-century thinkers represented here. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Notes and QueriesOxford University Press

Published: May 10, 2018

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