By Colin Wilson
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Tate Britain; until July 2011
Issue 351

A blaze of romantic angst – Henry Wallis’s “The Death of Chatterton”

The early 19th century saw ideas about art transformed by a new movement which came to be known as Romanticism. It can’t be simply defined – not surprising when it included literature, music and painting in countries across Europe – and artists now defined as Romantics disagreed about its fundamentals. But common themes, reflected in a new exhibition at Tate Britain, included the rejection of accepted ideas, a stress on the individual as opposed to society, and an interest in conflict, both in society and within oneself.

The theme of conflict is unsurprising when you consider these artists’ historical context. The French Revolution sent shockwaves through Europe, posing a new and democratic alternative to kings and privilege. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” the Romantic poet Wordsworth later wrote, “But to be young was very heaven!” The Romantic poet Byron fought and died in the struggle for an independent Greece, while Shelley attacked the government in his poems.

War and social struggle are depicted in some paintings at Tate Britain. Turner’s “The Field of Waterloo” shows the scene after the battle, in a night illuminated by flares and burning torches, as women search among the dead bodies. His “Ploughing Up Turnips, Near Slough” shows a scene of rural poverty – with Windsor Castle and Eton College in the background.

Romantic painters depicted scenes from classical myth and the Bible, as had their predecessors. But there are also paintings here of a Cornish fishing village, a cottage in the west of Ireland and of men working in a gravel pit. Some paintings function as social documents – Turner’s “Frosty Morning” gives a vivid sense of what it was like to live in poverty in the English countryside.

The new technologies of the time made technical innovations possible – new, bright colours of paint were invented in the 1810s, for example. New technology also formed subject matter for paintings – Turner paintings here show a whaling ship, or Waterloo Bridge.

The subject matter most associated with the Romantics is not urban or industrial, however, but nature. This is not an orderly, relaxing nature, but nature as wild, turbulent and alien from human concerns, typified by high mountains and storms at sea, which feature in several pictures here. Even apparently tranquil country scenes by Constable feature huge skies of carefully observed clouds.

Other paintings go beyond nature as subject matter. By the end of his career Turner had almost given up representing objects in his paintings at all. The late Turners in the Tate’s exhibition are extraordinarily beautiful. In looking at each of them the viewer looks directly into the sun: the rest of the painting is an almost abstract mass of colour and light.

Here Turner has something in common with William Blake, the prophetic poet and artist who prefigured much of the Romantic movement in his political radicalism, his fierce individualism and his rejection of rationality and orthodox religion. “Christ is the only god,” Blake told a young journalist, “and so am I and so are you.” He rejected the idea that art should represent the world: it should represent the mind’s potential. “Copiers of nature are incorrect,” he explained, “while copiers of the imagination are correct.”

Blake is represented here by eight tiny pictures showing scenes from his personal religious mythology. A skeleton, flesh still on its bones, is chained amid flames, next to a naked man in a contorted position. Another engraving shows simply a man screaming in horror at the reality of death.

While artists in previous periods had depended on aristocratic patrons, the Romantics at least tried to make a living by selling artworks on the open market, either successfully (Turner) or not (Blake). This change in the economic basis of artists’ lives was reflected, perhaps, in their ideas. There arose an interest in individual feelings and conflicts, and the idea that artists were a special, elevated kind of people – “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, as Shelley put it.

The idea of the individual out of sync with society is a key concept shared between works such as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Society, in this scheme of things, tends to be crude, unfeeling, materialistic – an echo of the industrial capitalism beginning to dominate Europe. By contrast the individual is a sensitive person, perhaps a genius – a new and very Romantic concept – or else inhabits a different reality altogether.

This brings us again to Blake, who frequently had conversations with angels. The Tate exhibition also includes Richard Dadd’s wonderful but unnerving painting “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke”. It depicts – in very great detail – a group of fairies. Though daisies and grass tower over them, most look almost human, except that their skins are blue-grey. Dadd made the painting in Bedlam, the great insane asylum, where he was confined after cutting his father’s throat with a knife. At the centre of the picture an axeman is swinging his blade down onto a hazelnut.

This is a fascinating exhibition, which well reflects the richness and complexity of the Romantic movement. Even better, entrance is free.

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