Fuseli's Milton Gallery: “Turning Readers into Spectators.”– By Luisa Calè
Article first published online: 17 APR 2008
© 2008 The Author. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 94–97, March 2008
How to Cite
Furman-Adams, W. (2008), Fuseli's Milton Gallery: “Turning Readers into Spectators.”– By Luisa Calè. Milton Quarterly, 42: 94–97. doi: 10.1111/j.1094-348X.2008.00186_5.x
- Issue published online: 17 APR 2008
- Article first published online: 17 APR 2008
Fuseli's Milton Gallery: “Turning Readers into Spectators.” Oxford : Oxford UP , 2006 . xiv + 259 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-19-926738-5 . $99.00 (cloth )..
Although Luisa Calè demonstrates her knowledge of Paradise Lost (and some knowledge of Milton scholarship), this is not a book about Milton. Rather, as Calè states at the outset, it is a book about the Romantic reception of Milton's poetry—in particular its reception by the viewing public of Henry Fuseli's Milton Gallery, 1799-1800. This radical remediation of Milton's epic, she says, turned readers into spectators and spectators into readers through a kind of “resegmentation” analogous to that undertaken in 1943 by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who saw the poem as a series of tableau that could be compressed and reordered into alternative sequences of “privileged instants.” Calè's ultimate aim is “to restore the visual dimensions to Romantic reading practices by way of [. . .] a new development in the eighteenth-century public sphere: a culture of exhibitions” of which Fuseli's massive undertaking was only a part—but a part that makes an ideal “case study” (5). This act of restoration requires a variety of lenses—producing, finally, a sort of panorama of the phenomenon in its multiple cultural contexts: commercial and academic galleries; printed catalogues, reproductions, anthologies, and illustrated books; new technologies of vision, such as the magic lantern and the eidophusikon, as well as Enlightenment optics and epistemology; the politics of regicide in the 1790s; and the problem of gender as expressed in Burke's On the Sublime and the Beautiful and in Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women. Only in the last two chapters does Calè undertake anything like a reading of Fuseli's Milton—a partial one at that—but by then she has provided a vast amount of material to enable readers to see Fuseli's project in the round. Like Fuseli's own spectators, however, they are finally on their own to supply the missing links of the epic and to restore “good continuity” from the possible readings “cut open” first by Fuseli, then by Calè herself (88).
In her somewhat dense introduction, Calè argues that Fuseli's Milton Gallery “literalizes” Lessing's theory of the boundaries between poetry and painting “by translating the action of Paradise Lost in a series of twenty-seven paintings”—a cinematic montage of the poem, drawing the viewer-as-reader between the frames, from one moment in the narrative to the next (9). She also borrows Wolfgang Iser's theory of the text as “a potential effect [. . .] realized in the reading process,” but attempts to ground this theory in a detailed and particular social context (11), one in which reading and viewing became mutually reinforcing activities. Finally, she says, Paradise Lost becomes “a collection of statuesque postures that the spectator is required to connect and animate in a choreography” (15).
Moving into her first chapter, Calè takes up the paradoxical dual role of narrative painting in late eighteenth-century England. On the one hand, narrative painting was the ultimate genre of “high art,” intended to answer Italian biblical narratives with the peculiarly English and Protestant greatness of Shakespeare and Milton. Following Aristotle, readers were traditionally posited as virtual spectators, imagining, in the mind's eye, the scene placed before them by the author. On the other hand, by creating a literal, spatial dialogue between paintings and literary texts, literary galleries rendered those texts not in the idealized, disembodied state recommended by Coleridge and others, but rather as a kind of cultural capital that could further artists' careers while drawing a new class of readers to the canonical “greats” of English literature. Calè notes that while the Royal Academy represented traditional, disinterested ideas of civic humanism, Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery and Fuseli's Milton Gallery represented “a public domain explicitly configured through commercial interest” (21)—interest directly connected to the democratization of print following the copyright law of 1774. Buyers at all economic levels could invest in individual prints that could in turn be interleaved with copies of literary texts, and the sale of such prints was one motive for gallery shows, just as “books became the collectors' paper galleries” (34). Yet the divide between academic and commercial art was by no means clear, with such artists as Reynolds and Fuseli participating in both endeavors. Fuseli, indeed, was particularly adept at self advancement by playing “several positions within the field of cultural production” (44). Although the Milton Gallery was a financial failure, it enhanced Fuseli's reputation as the foremost painter of the sublime and helped lead to his election to the Royal Academy in 1799.
In her next two chapters, Calè moves on to discuss in massive detail the various ways in which spectatorship led to a variety of reading practices and, in turn, how a variety of reading practices led to practices in viewing. Galleries, she argues, served as a form of literary abridgement—allowing spectators to grasp enough of a poem's sublime and beautiful moments to “embellish polite conversation” (76). Moreover, by guiding the eye from text to picture, gallery catalogues encouraged a kind of interrupted, virtual reading, in which viewers had to “patch together the discrete climactic moments” selected by the artist “into a new continuous plot” (77). Calè compares Fuseli's visual abridgment of Paradise Lost with two literary abridgments by Richard Bentley (1732) and John Wesley (1763) in order to underscore its singularity. While Bentley sought to smooth out Milton's plot for easier comprehension and Wesley sought to prune its learned allusions to make it fit for religious instruction, Fuseli heightens elements of the uncanny and supernatural—those elements regarded by Burke as representing the sublime. These elements, for Calè, amount to “two adaptations” in one: one of the “pure sublime” plot represented by Satan, the other of the “human sublime” plot represented by Adam and Eve (79). Whereas Bentley and Wesley excised Milton's similes from their texts, Fuseli revels in them—as when he chooses to illustrate the “Lapland Orgies” called up by their association with the hellhounds surrounding Sin. Interested neither in plot nor in ethical instruction, Fuseli continually cuts to underscore action and movement. In short, he “guts Milton's poem, reducing it to a series of climactic moments that are articulated into a new whole” (96).
Although each of these images was, as Lessing had argued, “frozen” in its moment of time, the gallery “represents actions by placing bodies one beside the other in space” into “a proto-cinematic sequence” (111). Viewers, moreover, were prepared for this kind of visual experience by such inventions as the magic lantern (which projected painted pictures on a wall); the eidophusikon (which made such projections move and, in 1800, was advertised on the same page of the Monthly Mirror as Fuseli's Milton Gallery); and the panorama (which moved viewers' gaze around a continuous 360-degree image). Isaac Newton's Opticks and other Enlightenment research, moreover, had demonstrated that an image persisting in a viewer's memory could combine with a subsequent image to create the effect of motion. And Hazlitt, taking issue with Locke, described perception itself as a gallery of pictures, actively arranged and interpreted by the spectator. In sum, Calè suggests, spectators took a collaborative role in the production of public art and the literary canon: “Visual narrative is not ready-made, but assembled in the mind of the perceiver” (133).
Having established this point at exhaustive length, Calè moves in her final two chapters to a reading of “Satan encount'ring Death, Sin interposing” in the context of eighteenth-century royalist and radical politics, and to one of “the Plot of Adam and Eve” in the context of contending gender theories. Both these readings could stand alone as persuasive articles; together, they suggest just two of the myriad ways in which Fuseli's massive rewriting of Milton's epic might be read. They also draw quite minimally on the first three chapters, and thus represent something of a second beginning—one that offers nothing terribly new in the way of interpretation, but which places Fuseli into a fascinating dialogue with his contemporaries. Thus, for Miltonists at least, these will likely prove the most interesting chapters in the book.
First Calè takes up the “slippery middle-ground” Fuseli had to negotiate between his Unitarian patrons, most notably William Roscoe, and his desire to make a name for himself in Royal Academy circles (144). Thus she reads the radical indeterminacy in his representation of supernatural beings in political terms—specifically in terms of dissenting religion and the iconography of regicide. As Milton's legacy was under construction by contending editors (royalists and dissenters), Fuseli managed to encode anti-eucharistic and anti-Trinitarian propaganda (in the Lapland witch simile) and give massive play to the uncanny—“‘the toxic side effect' of Enlightenment classifications” (164)—while leaving them in ontological limbo as “superstitions.”“All in all,” Calè writes, “the Unitarian framework explains why Fuseli would cut out the matter of Heaven and yet multiply the figurations of Hell,” which embody “those figures of speech that Unitarians held responsible for the corruptions of Christianity” (171). If dissenting opinions were dangerous in the 1790s, republican views were yet more so. Indeed, “[t]o conjure up a headless figure wearing the likeness of a kingly crown could amount to ‘imaginary treason’ ”(174-75); yet, as Calè concludes, Fuseli's election to the Royal Society “proves that his radical leanings and associations were discreet enough for him to be accepted in a position of prominence at a royal institution” (182). On the other hand, Boydell's illustrated Milton replaced Fuseli's radical readings of Sin and Death with Richard Westall's far more traditional reading.
In her final chapter, Calè takes up Fuseli's representation of gender to suggest that here, too, “Fuseli's iconographies bring out competing narratives embedded in Paradise Lost” (185). She notes that Fuseli does not represent our first parents in prelapsarian perfection: they take on the erect postures identifiable with the human sublime only after the Fall. On the one hand, Fuseli is clearly influenced by Burke's stable identification of the sexes with the categories of the beautiful, which we love, and the sublime, which we admire: “we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us.” Fuseli's women are, in fact, generally “polarized between the options of soft beauty and stiff dominatrix” (196)—a polarization seen with great clarity in Fuseli's erotic works, not discussed by Calè. And for the most part, Fuseli's Eve takes on the traditional, serpentine form given her by Venetian artists—a form excluding her from sublime agency, and underscoring her intrinsic threat to masculine subjectivity. On the other hand, in dialogue with Mary Wollstonecraft, Fuseli momentarily subverts this traditional polarization by reading Eve's romance with Satan as a version of the Cupid and Psyche myth, in which Eve aspires (through firmly rendered form and vertical movement) to a kind of Romantic self-transcendence. Likewise, Fuseli's Adam fails—at least until after the Fall—to measure up to traditional sublime iconographies of manhood; more than Eve, indeed, Adam appears sunk in mere sensuality. Only Satan, finally, consistently embodies any real agency—suggesting that the problem of gender remains to be pondered by the Gallery's male and female spectators.
In a conclusion in which very little is concluded, Calè brings us back to her initial point: “Fuseli's Milton Gallery posited active spectators and exploited their desire for dynamic spectacles, counting on the blurring effects of their embodied vision and visual memory” (219). Her book, likewise, posits exactly such readers. Indeed, the experience of reading Fuseli's Milton Gallery is less like reading a traditional scholarly book than attending a well-planned graduate seminar. Using virtually every theoretical approach currently on offer (including considerable archival reading), Calè offers a case study in interdisciplinary activity, circling around a diffuse and shape-shifting center.