Within Romanticism, the unprecedented subjectivities of the Romantic sensibility were always already there, naturally present and (only) culturally repressed. However, it seems that the pictures and poems were necessary for this presence to appear. The techniques of negation that are central to Romantic art underwrite this un-innovated innovation of an always already individual subjectivity suppressed by the codes of mastery – it is as if the subtraction of all antecedent conventions leaves something that has been there all along. The Romantic subject is thus the mise en scène of reason and culture, the background which envelops everything to take centre stage. And in Romantic landscape, nature is depicted so that what appears is humanity. If this effect, as we shall see, is obtained through negation, through the absenting of codified figuration, it has no ill-will toward the figure, only to the code. Romanticism empties the picture of code to fill the picture with liberty, truth and nature. Here, the would-be autonomous language of Romanticism is bound up with fantastically autonomous subjectivities. Humanity is represented through such works not in what is seen ‘in’ the work but in how the work is seen. In this sense, then, Romantic art is not entirely visible. Looking at the work, becoming a spectator for such a work, performatively eclipses the social conformism of classicism with intuitive, feelingful individuality.
From the 1770’s, paving the way, as it were, for the Bohemian autonomous subject to emerge or providing material for the Bohemian to plunder, grew a counter-classical, anti-authoritarian, feelingful idiom of behaviour, the ‘cult of sensibility’. Judgements about character could be read off displays of sensibility, a susceptibility to tender feelings, typically exhibited by a show of tears. Feeling and sensitivity replace duty, obedience and honour as the measure of virtue. What guarantees the ‘man of feeling’ his humanity is the sequence of proofs he gives that he prizes empathy over correctness. Spontaneous emotions, compassion and a love of nature form the groundless ground of this personality, the social basis of an individual liberated from social conventions. Novels, in Romanticism and ever since, make heroes and heroines out of those who choose love matches over marriages of convenience, power and status. Love, especially courtly love and the romantic legacy of love that follow it, is codified by the Romantics to be the uncodified relationship par excellence: if passion cuts across the calculations of wealth, family and title, then it is, it must be – how could it not be? – the core of a repressed subjectivity. However, the ground is groundless since there is no basis for love. The ground has to be groundless because, if there could be a basis for love, a reason for loving, then love would be corrupted by extrinsic reasoning. In the cult of sensibility, feelings are the inverse of calculations. Like Kant’s aesthetic judgement, no amount of wealth, education or force can determine the content of love if that content is to remain faithful to the feelings of love. Hence, love is, in principle, disinterested.
Romanticism, however, has become a debased currency. By turning Romanticism into a pejorative label, modernists preserved the Romanticism of their attachment to innovation, subversion, subjectivity, aesthetic autonomy, primitivism and outsiderism as tropes of modernity. Modernism is the replication of Romanticism which, in order to replicate Romanticism’s innovative energy, must present itself as unprecedented. This is why, historically, we find Romantic thinkers inaugurating modernist idioms of originality such as the idea that the artist should work for his own generation, not that of his grandparents; or, the idea that art is governed by its own rules not those of church or state. Freedom from the academia, therefore, is originated by modernism through the reiteration of Romanticism’s almost unprecedented precedent. The truly original would be equally unthinkable, unreadable, impossible. Cultural originality, if it is to signify as originality or as anything, must be iterable, repeatable, must have its origins elsewhere. Romanticism’s impossibility remains undecideable, though. Which is to say, Romanticism remains current despite modernism’s doubts. Not least because love has not – or not quite, not yet – given way to calculation.
‘Twilight’, a neon text written backwards, can be read correctly only in the reflection on the window of the gallery. Like an eclipse of the sun, the piece is best seen by looking away from it. This ‘looking away’ introduces a trace of enigma, figuring an intimate bond between the viewer and the artwork through a lack or drift. It addresses the viewer via the distance between the object and the edge of the room. Something is extracted from the object and something returned to it. The object is reproduced – must be reproduced for its own legibility – in reflection and thereby surrenders some part of its aura as a unique object. In effect, the work is neither sculpture nor print but a hybrid form that uses architecture as a screen for an object that it houses. In exchange for this loss of aura, the object regains its alterity, no longer existing merely as the object of attention, as spectacle. It is an object that is needful and dependent, not cut off from everything according to the model of modernist autonomy. ‘Looking away’ is a kind of twilight vision, a form of vision on the verge of not looking, a half-look that preserves the viewer from the tyranny of the eye. This gesture is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s instruction that before you start a painting you should close your eyes, which supplements (and overwhelms) the visual with the imaginative and spiritual.
Walker and Walker’s neon light needs you to turn away from it in order to be seen fully. Despite this counter-intuitive stretching out of the relationship between object and viewer, the technique of ‘looking away’, in various forms, has its roots in Romanticism. Friedrich’s figures in the landscape, for instance, typically turn their backs on the viewer. Their ‘looking away’ can be read as a technique for the viewer to reflect on the individual, internal, emotional, spiritual lives of the depicted persons. Instead of looking ‘at’ the depicted person, the viewer looks at what the depicted person is looking at, around the figure, alongside it. The viewer, as we know, is always and inevitably external to the image, but can be sewn into the image by various techniques. The depicted figure’s averted gaze mirrors that of the viewer by being unseen, existing as an ‘external to the image’ within the picture. Facing in the same direction, the viewer and the depicted figure know nothing or next to nothing of one another while, potentially, standing in for each other. Standing in separate spaces, one in the diegetic space of the painting, the other beyond the frame in a space that includes the painting, the two individuals are spectators of the same landscape. If this landscape is addressed to the viewer, the viewer is nonetheless aware that the landscape is also ‘for’ another – this other. Thus, the figure’s ‘looking away’ from the viewer, like Walker and Walker’s reflected neon sign, reconstructs the viewer of art beyond the idioms of the visual. Walker and Walker supplement the visual, of looking ‘at’ the art object, with a looking away and looking outward. In a technique that is analogous with escaping from the gallery, ‘Twilight’, by turning your attention to look at the reflection on the window, risks or raises the possibility of the viewer looking beyond, looking away, that is, looking through the window. And here, in this ‘looking through’, we see the trace of yet another Romantic trope in ‘Twilight’. It is an expansion of the vignette as an architectural rearticulation of the blurring of the edge of art. The absence of a decorative border or frame stamps the vignette as a Romantic trope that blends the image seamlessly with the page, placing the most conspicuous division between art and life under erasure. The vignette is perhaps a token or nothing but a formal device for achieving the merging of art and life, but it is a far-reaching one. And it is a device that reappears time and again in Walker and Walker’s work. It is not merely the border between the work and the space that the work occupies that is so often breached in their work; they produce works that dream of the collapse or transparency of the gallery itself. If the Romantic vignette merges the picture with the page, Walker and Walker go on to merge the page with the book and the book with the room and the room with … everything. They build invisible bridges that link objects within the gallery with the world beyond and the world within. For all the romance and reverie that their work stages, Walker and Walker immerse their work in the everyday and the unremarkable.
Likewise, Romanticism does not elevate itself by dismissing the everyday. In one strand of Romanticism at least, originality is bought with the absolutely unexceptional. The break with artistic convention takes the form of a mimicry of the most common as the Romantic generation of poets insisted on writing about ‘common life’ with the language of ordinary people. Romanticism takes its name from this technique of borrowed novelty: the use of romance languages, the languages of speech rather than the Latin of academia and Law, sets the seal on Romanticism as a rival to the master code and the mastery of code with a force extracted from or pressed throughotherness. Here, because of the strictures embedded in classicism, otherness refers to the majority. And it is in the form of otherness that Romanticism approaches the popular, the common, the vulgar, and above all the ordinary and self-evident – as the bearer of emotionality. The Romantic struggle against classicism is, in this respect, resistance to codification itself. Common language buys the Romantic poet out of the code because the others of culture and cultivation do not hold the key to the code. Since any judgements made from the code belong to the code, and therefore do not belong to the individual according to the Romantics, authenticity belongs to those without the code. With no professional standards as guidance, the new artist will have to learn to trust on feelings, passions, sensation. It is in this sense that the Romantic artist is a solitary individual: escaping the shadows of his antecedents, he must (at least dream that he can) begin from scratch.
Beginning from scratch, without precedent, without a past, without resources and materials from which to begin, and without an idea of what beginning from scratch might be – this is the impossible task of the Romantic artist. Romanticism searches out a cultural twilight in which to free itself from historical burden. Call it genius, call it imagination, the twilight that Romanticism urged was the foreclosure of the Classicist heyday and the elimination of its institutionalisation of ‘copying’. Blake, in his marginalia of Reynolds’ ‘Discourses’, repeatedly highlighted copying as a form of knavery, for, He who copies does not Execute he only Imitates what is already Executed. Execution is only the result of Invention. Romanticism is fascinated with the ur-idiom, the origin of originality, both as technique and as sublime imagery. Walker and Walker take up this Romantic idiom of the origin in their sound work ‘Big Bang’, which is a simulation, in collaboration with Professor John G. Cramer, of the sound of the remaining echo of the Big Bang. It is the ur-sound, the sound of the ur-event, the origin without ground, the unprecedented precedent of everything. And yet, what we hear is an echo, a trace, a ripple – the origin is absent. This sound, an emissary of the origin of everything, is not the origin itself. Installed within a dark room with the door slightly ajar, ‘Big Bang’ presents the slenderest glimpse of absolutely everything. It is an appropriated sound, a found object that iterates the origin, and in a sound that we have never heard before. Originality, including the ur-precedent of the pluriverse, appears, after prolonged delay, in another form. Originality doesn’t cheat us when it takes other forms; this is the only way that originality can appear.
Romantic notions of the unprecedented artist, of the artist as origin and source of originality, are formed out of fictional characters in literature and the visual arts at the end of the eighteenth century. Originality is borrowed. The image of the original and authentic individual has to be borrowed from the fringes of society. To begin with, there are no images of the Romantic artist except as images of artists in disguise as recognisable free-spirits and outcasts. Increasingly in the years leading up to Romanticism, the bandit is regarded as a secret benefactor [who] dreams of perfecting the world by committing crimes. The bandit, who had previously appeared in art and literature as a criminal threat to society, begins to be portrayed as a fugitive from injustice. Banditry is seen, for the first time, as a symptom of a general social malaise and the bandit is seen, for the first time, as an agent in the resistance to a miserable situation, rather than the cause of distress. Vampirism is redeemed too. The vampire – albeit a monstrous, terrifying character – is a Romantic figure of mystery and darkness that challenges the certainties of received knowledge. Vampirism transgresses social mores of sex, death and blood at a time when artists were making a bid for freedom from the academy, classicism, imitation and convention. Outsiders of various kinds are ushered from their ‘proper’ place in the social periphery to the centre of events, invading the territory of the scholarly professional with rogue subjectivities, unruly practices, unofficial hopes and independent or eccentric passions. Originality, independence and authenticity, so vital for Romanticism’s corrective to the prevailing accounts of art as a form of copying or otherwise imitating classical precedents, were iterated by drawing on the code of codelessness woven into characters loaded with social estrangement. The Romantic artist first recognises his unique, unprecedented identity in the faces of others, society’s others.
Romanticism ushered in a new conception of the artist as self-fashioning, self-determined and independent. Being thus liberated from history, tradition, convention and social mores, Romantic artists set out to establish their own horizons rather than be commanded by inherited limits. This is the groundless ground of the Romantic genius and the ‘strong poet’ who exceeds all given boundaries through unprecedented acts. Two contrasting tropes of Romantic freedom, Napoleon’s exceptionality and the historical rupture of the American constitution, mark out the conceptual horizon of the annihilation of conceptual horizons. Various figures, historical and literary, come to articulate the Romantic individual in all its peculiarity, one idiom of which is always tinged with violence, excess and exoticism. These are the masks which the Romantic wears in order to be seen, in order to appear at all. Delacroix’s Sardanapalus, in ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, can be read as a double portrait, not as one inside or beside the other, but as one portrait made possible by another. Sardanapalus permits the appearance of the Romantic subject, the unrivalled, unprecedented individual, by dressing it up in the costume of the other. Sardanapalus is a doppelganger for the Romantic artist, a double without which the Romantic artist would have no idiom and no face. Not that the Romantic artist is identical with Sardanapalus. Rather, the face of the new, autonomous artist appears in relation to, alongside and in a resemblance with gothic characters such as vampires and bandits, as well as monumental figures like Napoleon and Sardanapalus.
Sardanapalus, charged with exoticism as the last king of Assyria, responds to his imminent death with a pyrotechnic display of barbarous destruction. ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ is an extreme expression of volatile dynamism, painterly bravura and dramatic tension of the disordered and unbridled. Here, we can make a series of connections between the king’s massacre and the artist’s freedom, hinted at with the combination of ‘volatile dynamism’ and ‘painterly bravura’. An anarchic compendium of horrors is placed before Sardanapalus like a feast. But the feast is a gluttonous vision: a spectacle of violence which erupts around the idle king as a result of his command, not his labour. Although the painter works tirelessly in the studio, he, like Sardanapalus, commits none of the violence that he arranges before him. Linda Nochlin is right that this painting cannot be reduced to a mere pictorial projection of the artist’s sadistic fantasies under the guise of exoticism. And yet, the uncompromising, autonomous artist can see something of his magisterial freedom and command of art through the awesome, horrible power of the tyrant. Delacroix’s Sardanapalus permits the strong poet to appear through the death of the indulgent king. Two tropes of Romantic freedom – the sensuous, unruly freedom of the uncommon individual and the political freedom of revolutionary terror – are brought together by Delacroix in an image of anti-royal sedition that never completely erases the pleasures of princely misrule reconfigured as the artist’s sovereignty.
Misrule and Romantic autonomy share the break with society that was the prerequisite of the Romantic hero whichpivoted on the figure of the truly great exceptional man … through the creative power of his unbridled imagination.This is the same lexicon from which Nietzsche’s affirmation of lightning and madness emerges as if it emerges from nowhere. Zarathustra’s self-creation as child-hermit, cut off from society and culture in order to gain wisdom from within, is a Lutheran device for, as the phrase goes, ‘looking into one’s heart’ rather than relying on or being corrupted by the dogma and authority of clerics, the church and tradition. The Romantic artist draws his autonomy from the Protestant reconfiguration of spirituality as immediate, inner, wordless experience without code or instruction. In these terms, there is nothing to separate the spiritual aristocracy from the amateur, the philistine and the uninitiated. Art and spirituality without hierarchies – no clerics, no kings – goes further than breaking the seal that excludes the herd; it gives the advantage to those who are uncorrupted by the master codes. Our sophisticated reading of Greek myth and Roman Law will not draw us closer to the hoped-for unmediated, subjective truths of Romantic art. Kant’s critique of aesthetic judgement is a case in point. Written at the inaugural moment of Romanticism, Kant deflates the bookish, educated, classicist forms of artistic attention with a conception of the aesthetic that is unshakeably subjective, immediate, authentic, disinterested, non-conventional, universal, rule-free and unlearned. And Kant’s exemplary aesthetic objects are not palaces or paintings but a wild tulip, a crustacean – that sort of thing. No amount of wealth, education or force can assist in the pleasure of such natural beauties. The Romantic ‘break with society’ is a trope for immersing art deeper into the social body, a transformed, de-hierarchised, post-revolutionary social body.
Walker and Walker’s ‘The Wanderer’, a fibreglass life-size figure dressed in a velvet replica of a nineteenth-century suit, is based on Friedrich’s painting ‘The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’. In Friedrich’s painting the solitary figure stands before sublime nature and above not only the sea of fog, but the rest of humanity. None of Zarathustra’s contempt or Sardanapalus’ disregard for the life of others is evident in the painting, but the wanderer is elevated, heroic, separated from the social body, a man apart. His outfit already fixes him as otherly, existing outside the norm. In Walker and Walker’s replica, the elevation of the wanderer is a miniature of the mountainous heights of the original, and yet more miraculous still: the figure levitates 5cm above the ground. Here is the separation of the Romantic sensibility – palpably, visibly evident. And to underline the separation from the earth as a charged, preternatural distinction, Walker and Walker have the wanderer floating on a pillow of light. White halogen light: this is a futuristic echo of the Romantic original. Inactivity, uninterrupted and timeless engrossment, silence and separation add up to an effect of Romantic otherworldliness. This is an otherworldliness, as we have seen, that may, ultimately, be a technique for securing a place for the artist within the social body – or a social body other than the social body prepared for it by Classicist precedent. ‘The Wanderer’ favours this reading in the way it transposes the aspirations that formed the original image: instead of the natural, awe inspiring depths of mountainous terrain, Walker and Walker’s wanderer is transfixed by what lies beyond the gallery. For Friedrich, the wanderer is seen only from behind, turning his back on the world of the spectator to be fully engrossed by the world of sublime nature or to look inward into the sublime depths of his imagination; Walker and Walker’s sculpture turns its back on the gallery, looking for a world beyond it.
A more recent work, ‘Unpainted Mountain’, is simultaneously immersed in and cut off from the world beyond art. Two fibreglass mountains float on clouds of light. The white halogen light has no edge because dry ice blends the light with that of the room, turning this installation into a vignette that merges the spaces of art and spectator. They are painted white to look like they are not painted. Not-painted, here, is a signifier, not a natural state. The mountains are not in their original fibreglass state; they are contrived to appear untouched. They are not raw, then; they are ghostly, blanched, colourless. Face-to-face with these mountains, we are not the spectators of a scene, a picturesque beauty spot. The landscape is not framed, cut off, in space; it is cut off from the world it occupies by being flayed of its skin, plucked from the appearance of its appearance. White objects in galleries are mirrors of the gallery itself. White paintings identify themselves with the white walls on which they hang and white sculptures mimic the white plinths on which art objects are elevated to meet the visitor’s gaze framed by white walls. ‘Unpainted Mountain’ separates itself from the world by adapting itself, ghoulishly, to the gallery, disappearing in its white on white purity like a phantom, a vision, a feeling. Here the binary of the separation of art from life and the merging of art and life is caught in a tense tidal flow, pulling away and rushing back in, neither decidedly autonomous nor finally immersed in everyday life. Here is a landscape that is quite unnatural. The trees are white and the rocks are white. As such, they merge together and hide one another. ‘Unpainted Mountain’ is an oxymoronic object: a monochrome landscape.
Landscape painting takes on unprecedented magnitude for the Romantics because it seems to provide a givenlexicon of signifiers. Modernist landscape follows suit. In fact, it was possible for the independents of early modernism to challenge the academy with the genre of landscape because the Romantics had previously broken with classicism by insisting that the simplest forms of Nature could speak directly to us. Not the meanings issued from education, institution and the archive: these Romantic meanings were meanings, it seemed, that could be plucked from the trees. Landscape painting thus seems to set the artist and public ‘face to face’ with nature just as Luther had ostensibly set men face to face with God. Friedrich’s Tetschen altarpiece Cross in the Mountains puts Landscape painting where religious iconography had been. This sort of switch, of substituting a low object for the master code, became a staple of modernism’s practices of negation, first with Courbet’s ‘Stone Breakers’ and then with everything from primitivism to Pop and the everyday. Jesus, the subject of the traditional crucifix, with his wounds, frail body and mortality, is reduced to a token, an almost imperceptible trace, off-centre and seen from behind. The landscape, on the contrary, with a mountain of grey rock supporting a good crop of evergreen trees, is solid, vivid and fills our field of vision. Friedrich’s reversal is not iconoclastic or blasphemous: the landscape carries, or is intended to carry, the meanings which the image of Jesus once carried. Like other Romantic artists, Friedrich reconfigured the constellation of painting so that the elements of Nature alone [could] carry the full symbolic meaning. Later, modernists would confer the same power to ‘significant form’ that the Romantics conferred on the landscape: a master code without mastery, a code without codification, universality without hegemony.
In filmic terms, Cross in the Mountains is almost entirely mise en scène. By excluding or minimising the staples of religious iconography, Freidrich turns the tables on dogma, on doctrinaire truths and practical strictures, through a lack. It is only by doing without, not through supplementing antecedent competences, that Romanticism can approach the utopian – and pious – rapprochement, the impossible détente, between man and man, man and nature, man and god, spirit and spirit, soul and soul. These are Romanticism’s unprecedented ur-subjectivities – the subject without subjection, without externality. And it is landscape as the appearance of nature that delivers this subject to the spectator. Romantic landscape, and the appearance of nature within it, is never fully identical with land, territory or topography; it is replete with impossible un-coded signifiers and it is a screen for what might be called the subject’s self-perusal. The blank landscape of Walker and Walker’s ‘Unpainted Mountain’ reduces the potential signifiers in nature by partly erasing the distinctions between the features of the landscape, transforming the scene into a single slab, or a single signifier: nature, pure and simple. Phenomenological effects are introduced into the landscape, couching the work in terms of reverie, fascination and awe, though not necessarily eliciting such responses. We do not witness nature in these works with the awe that Romanticism accorded that experience. We see, instead, images of nature, of nature depicted in landscape, inflected with signs of reverie: allegories of reverie. If reverie is the guarantee of authentic expressive humanity, here we have reverie’s echo, iterated and iterable. ‘Horizon’, a luminous horizontal line emanating from the interior of the gallery wall, reduces the features of the landscape further still. Fascination and reverie are signified in its glow, its immaterial emergence and abstraction from the landscape of which it is a tiny albeit ideal fragment. Pictorially, ‘Horizon’ is starkly minimal; geometrically, the only mark that could be reduced further than the simple straight line would be a dot. And, as it happens, Walker and Walker have fashioned a landscape of sorts out of a dot, too. Consisting of single halogen bulb embedded in the wall, ‘Northern Star’ – which is calculated to correspond to the position of the northern star as it might be seen if the gallery wall vanished – is a cosmological miniature, a near-nothing that is sublimely vast. And it is here for us, a tiny miracle that engulfs us, even though we know it is only a halogen bulb inserted into the wall. An allegory of reverie.
Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Basil Blackwell: London, 1987, p. 139
Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling, (1771)
Niklas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, Sanford University Press, 1998 (1982)
See Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth Century Art, Faber and Faber: London, 1984, Chapter III, "The Romantic Vignette and Thomas Bewick."
Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, Oxford University Press, 1970 (1933), p. 80
Hugh Honour, Romanticism, Penguin: London, 1979, p. 53
Linda Nochlin, “Women, Art and Power”, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Thames and Hudson: London and New York, 1991, p. 9
See, Elisabeth A. Fraser, “Delacroix’s Sardanapalus: The Life and Death of the Royal Body”, French Historical Studies, Fall, 2002.
William Vaughan, Romantic Art, Thames and Hudson: London and New York, 1978, p. 238
Lillian Furst, Romanticism in Perspective, Macmillan: London, 1969, p. 33
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin: London, 1988 (1972), p. 153
Rosen and Zerner, (1984), p. 59
Hill (1988), p. 152
Rosen and Zerner (1984), p. 51