Books

Contrariness and Subtle Humor from a 19th-Century Proto-Feminist Art Writer

A recently published volume of Vernon Lee’s writing reveals a woman who is a product of privilege, as well as someone who used what it afforded her to resist the status quo.

A Photochrom cityscape of Florence (circa 1890-1900) (image via the Library of Congress)

The transcendent nature of artistic beauty; the spiritual elevation of work by Italian masters; the moral and intellectual benefits of well-designed Greek architecture — for many people these kinds of sentiments come across as antiquated, silly, or bourgeois. They seem out of place today, far removed from the endless spin of the art world. Universality and idealized notions of beauty, particularly those that center Europe and White subjects, have long gone out of favor for many in the arts, even as they remain stubbornly present in art museums and art history courses.

But for Vernon Lee (born Violet Paget), a writer and art critic living and working around the turn of the 20th century, this kind of thinking was very much present, even as it was just starting to show some early cracks. She herself contributed to its breakdown. A recently published volume of some of her writing, The Psychology of an Art Writer, gives a window into Lee’s intensity, intellect, and defiant nature.

It should be stated up front that Lee comes from privilege and her writing often carries a haughtiness about class and a self-importance that is glaringly evident from her descriptions. In one instance, she likens people walking on the streets of Florence to “that foul town mud one picked one’s way in.” In another, she derides the “vulgar curiosity, pointing, craning, staring” of the tourists in the galleries with her (though to be fair, hating on tourists is a common pastime for many of all classes). Adjacent to her privilege is the fact that she lived well outside of social norms in her time: a pacifist who argued regularly and publicly against militarism; a woman who had numerous female lovers and dressed in clothes styled to mimic men’s garments. She is a product of privilege as well as someone who used what it afforded her to resist the status quo.

It should also be said that this book can be read, to my mind, with great humor. The project that Lee embarks on throughout is an impossible one, even ridiculous in retrospect. But it is very much of its time, driven by a desire to take ideas seriously and a desire to be taken seriously, which, it cannot be stated enough, remains a challenge for women today. The book shows her project to be two-fold: to trace the ways in which her tastes and perceptions of art were shaped and changed over time, and to test ideas about the psychological impact of art on its audiences by using herself as an experimental test case. She subjected herself to works of art with excruciating repetition in order to record and understand every perceivable impact they were having upon her body and thoughts.

The first section of this thin volume, titled “Psychology of an Art Writer (Personal Observation),” offers her own best attempt at understanding how she came to know and appreciate art, from early experiences with music and books, to the opinions of others, to her admission that her father’s tastes likely impacted her perceptions “through sheer heredity.”

In the second part, titled “Aesthetic Responsiveness: Its Variations and Accompaniments,” she quotes and comments on excerpts from her diaries of gallery experiences from 1901–1904, moving from palpable rapture to increasingly frequent episodes of deep frustration and boredom. When contemplating Titian’s “Flora” (1517): “This picture gives a sense of this flood of life: heightening one’s own … I confess to a wish to kiss — not to touch with fingers — the Flora’s throat.” Then, upon returning to Florence’s Uffizi yet again: “I am tired, can’t go on, am bored with the succeeding pictures, as when one doesn’t want to speak to people or be spoken to … In looking out of the window there is the relief of not focusing.”

Vernon Lee, circa 1870 (image via Wikimedia)

While the work is certainly of its time, this book also speaks to the present in a clear and strong voice. It is a detailed and relentless testament to just how incredibly subjective the experience of art is, how much of it is learned and gained through prior knowledge of particular cultural and artistic traditions, and just how easily we are distracted or put off these experiences by our mood, the weather, by the boredom wrought of too much repetition, and by our sense of ourselves.

In another way, it’s a humorous portrait of the mania that some of us arts writers (or anyone who spends a significant portion of their time in galleries and museums) can get wrapped up in, because, as the title indicates, this is a book about Lee, as much as it is a book about art. It highlights her honesty and candor about herself and anyone else who might be “half killing themselves in trying to fix, possess, understand.” The fact that she doesn’t finish that thought, to lay out explicitly what she’s trying to “fix, possess, understand,” is very telling. We can guess that in her case she’s likely referring to her inability to solidify a singular psychological theory of art. But, of course, the reality is that knowledge of so many things, particularly when it comes to human emotions, is deeply impermanent and slippery, never sitting still for long, and for those who wish to pin people down, including themselves, they are likely to meet only deep frustration.

As the book goes on, the wryness and poetry of her entries increases as she succumbs more and more to introspection. I can easily imagine this line being written by any number of people as they enter yet another contemporary art fair: “Fine day, good spirits. But the falseness of our modern art habits!”

This is not a book that will appeal to everyone, but for art nerds and perhaps some art writers, as well as those interested in 19th and 20th century queer thinkers, and those who appreciate literary self-flagellation and subtle humor, this is well worth picking up.

The Psychology of an Art Writer by Vernon Lee is published by David Zwirner Books as part of their ekphrasis series.

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