Towards an Affective History of Art: Vision, Sensation, Emotion

Emma Barker, Open University,

Carla Benzan, Open University,

Art-historical considerations of instinctive, non-rational forms of human experience tend in two directions. On the one hand, there are contributions that examine the representation of emotion in works of art, as exemplified by the essay collection, Representing Emotions (ed. Penelope Gouk and Helen Hills, 2005). Following a broadly historicist agenda, such contributions are predicated on the assumption that emotions can only be accessed in mediated form, through representational codes.  On the other hand, since the publication of David Freedberg’s The Power of Images (1989), scholars have become increasingly concerned with the intense, even visceral, experiences that works of art can elicit from the beholder. Closely associated with the so-called ‘affective turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, this type of approach asserts the primacy of the material and experiential over cultural frameworks. Attempts to bridge the gap between representation and experience by scholars working in the sub-discipline known as the history of the emotions have as yet made only limited use of visual sources (see, for example, the special issue of Cultural History, 7:2, 2018).

This session seeks to build on these various developments in order to realise the as yet unfulfilled promise of an affective history of art. It aims to bridge the gap identified above by investigating the interaction between works of art and beholders with reference not only to visual strategies and sensory experiences but also to discursive articulations and cultural formations. We especially welcome contributions that analyse such interactions with close reference to historically-specific vocabularies of affective experience in the broad period from around 1400 to 1900, such as the humours, passions, sentiments or emotions. Contributions may seek to examine claims for the compelling power of canonical works or, alternatively, to account for the emotional impact of works that no longer move the beholder as they once did. The central aim is to illuminate the changing role that art and visual culture have played in the understanding of affective experience over time.

Speakers & Abstracts

From “laughing” to “shuddering” and other Affective Responses to the Work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-69): A Consideration of Early Sources up to 1610

Jamie Edwards
(University of Exeter)

In 1610 Carolus Scribanius (1561-1629) published a new chorographic description of Antwerp (Antverpia). On the subject of the city’s cultural heritage, he provides a description of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents (c.1564). Based partly on his recollections of seeing (a version of?) the painting, which he conflates with excerpts from Pliny’s Naturalis historia, Scribanius’s remarks provide an evocative testimony to the emotive force of Bruegel’s painfully ‘real’ depiction of infanticide. It is a gruesome scene. Scribanius dwells on Bruegel’s disconcertingly realistic depiction of sorrowful mothers (one ‘tearing her hair, lacerating her face [and] pouring out tears’), as well as the arresting sadness of seeing an innocent ‘crawling towards the breast of its wounded and dying mother’. All this, Scribanius says, cannot help but provoke a ‘shudder’ from any spectator – a visceral and bodily response that is heightened by the convincingness of the wintry setting, in which, he writes, you would ‘swear’ that the blood and snow, which ‘mingle’ terribly with one another, are both ‘real’. 

On the one hand, Scribanius’s description makes use of several conceits typical of Renaissance ekphrasis; but, on the other, it provides a vivid glimpse into the kinds of bodily and emotive reactions that Bruegel’s art provoked. Taking Scribanius’s “shuddering” as its starting point, this paper will explore a range of Early Modern affective responses to Bruegel’s art, from “laughter” (1604) to grief-stricken “hand-wringing” (1578). It will also interrogate the meanings and uses of terms including ‘affect’ and ‘emotion’ in this specific context.

Embodied emotion and religious drama in Lombard polychromed sculpture

Andrew Horn (University of St Andrews)

From the late Middle Ages through the early modern period, images of the Passion, and specifically the sufferings of Christ and the Virgin Mary, represent a devotional and meditative strain in religious culture in which powerful emotions are elicited in the individual and the community of faithful, in order to empathically and penitentially involve them in this sorrowful narrative and to understand its meaning.

Concentrating on a selection of polychromed sculptural groupings of the Passion from churches and pilgrimage sites in early modern Lombardy, this paper will examine the emotions and emotional responses represented in these works through systems of facial expressions and bodily gestures.  The question of how such emotion is understood and utilised in devotion will be discussed with reference to two genres of religious texts: Passion dramas of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries--which could be regarded as direct or indirect sources for such 'staged' scenes in religious art--and the analogous, highly descriptive and emotionally-charged scenes of the Passion featured in late-medieval and early modern spiritual treatises. The paper will propose embodied emotion as a means of dramatic catharsis and spiritual transformation--both essential to the performed drama of human existence and salvation which underpins early modern Catholic religious belief and practice.  This discussion will be informed by theories concerning emotion, gesture and the body as represented in religious art, prayer and ritual by authors including Leon Battista Alberti, Gian Paolo Lomazzo, Federico Borromeo and Gabriele Paleotti.

An Architecture of Joy: Paris royal festivals in the Age of Sentiment

Katie Scott (Courtauld Institute of Art)

This paper considers the experience of royal festivals, held in Paris to celebrate domestic happenings in the life of the monarch (births, marriages) and international events in the history of the kingdom (victories, peace treaties) by analysing the ways in which the senses were mobilised to engender a collective experience of joy (réjouissance).  It is especially concerned with how lighting and fireworks were used to accentuate the power of architecture (permanent and ephemeral) for the sake of emotion, sometimes at the cost of reason.  Of particular concern are those celebrations of architectural monuments themselves – the inauguration of the place Louis XV, and the laying of the foundation stones of Sainte Geneviève and the Pont Louis XVI – in which the built environment forms not the backdrop to ceremony and celebration but is rather the very object of attention and, arguably, the agent of emotional response. 

Porcelain and the Figure of Pain in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments

Iris Moon (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This paper considers the place of pain in eighteenth-century aesthetic discourse and contemporary responses to historical examples of racialized porcelain by reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) alongside the figure of an enslaved African man at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It asks can (and should) pain can provide an affective framework for beholding historical works of art that raise complex issues of race, capitalism, and slavery? Made by the Doccia manufactory around the 1780s, the figure depicts a bald African man seated on a rocky base, his hands bound behind his back and his legs shackled. The model’s pose derives from Pietro Tacca’s monument of I Quattro Mori in Livorno, a fountain that heavily influenced the reception of racialized sculptures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before the Wedgwood antislavery medallion eclipsed it. A twisted and tormented figuration of pain, the process of looking at the object elicits a visceral reaction in a medium more readily associated in the eighteenth century with the pleasures of the table. How do we process this object and the immediate emotional response it elicits? One of the problems of pain, according to Elaine Scarry, is its exceptional resistance to translation. Yet pain already posed problems for eighteenth-century thinkers such as Smith. In fact, physical pain defied the necessary depth of affect to elicit the sympathy that Smith saw as the corrective to self-interest, the driving engine of capitalism. How then, might have Smith responded to a work like the Doccia figure?  

‘Behold ye Dandies, scum of manly race…’: ‘hysterics’ and masculinity in the early 19th Century

Daniel Rees (Wellcome Collection)

This paper re-examines the work ‘Dandies at the Opera’ by Robert Cruickshank (1818). This satirical print depicts a scene of over-sensitivity to feelings generated by an opera and the subsequent medical crisis. Moreover, it presents this emotional reaction as something distinctly ‘feminine’ despite belonging to male figures and therefore deserving of ridicule.

‘Dandies at the Opera’ is a prime example of how ideas surrounding mind-body dualism, prevalent in earlier philosophy, were being eroded and replaced by a more nuanced approach that recognised the interconnected nature between these two phenomena and the importance of feelings and sensibility.

The overarching theme of gender fluidity, homosexuality and class displayed in this scene are explored with reference to visual coding of the subversive male body. I will be using the language of Physiognomics and visual symbolism to address the context of the ‘Dandy’ as well as referencing the changes in medical and philosophical interpretations of the body and emotions. The influence of fin-de-siecle anxiety and notable incidences of new, ‘hybrid’ male/female roles such as the ‘man-midwife’ are considered.

Central to the question of how this image can be read is Cruikshank’s attempts to manipulate the potential responses to seeing these figures of contemporary society. This paper will highlight how the production of meaning around ‘emotions’ shifts and alters according to historical contexts of class, race and gender and is never ‘universal’ or ahistorical. In this respect I will be supporting the arguments of Gouk, Bourke, Boddice, et al.

Paul Delaroche: Art and Sensation

Patricia Smyth (University of Warwick)

Delaroche’s paintings have come to be associated with nineteenth-century sentimentality, a frequently denigrated category that implies a crude and predictable appeal to the feelings of a certain class of spectator. However, contemporary responses to his work attest not only to the complexity and individuality of the viewer’s emotional engagement, but also to the difficulty experienced by contemporary commentators in attempting to articulate their feelings. The critic Elisa Souty responded to Jane Grey (1834) through an imaginative identification with the protagonist’s state of mind in the heart pounding moments before death as, ego stripped away, she experiences only somatic impulses. However, accounts more often reveal an inability to adequately describe the feelings of either the critic themselves or the general Salon-goer. Witnessing affective responses to the Assassination of the Duc de Guise in 1835, one reviewer cited the perplexed mood of the crowd that, having clamoured to see the painting, ‘walked away gloomy and silent’ once they had.

This paper examines the complex emotional states that were apparently prompted by Delaroche’s paintings in relation to wider debates about affect, excess, and class in this period. I finish with Young Christian Martyr (1855), a work that, by the artist’s own account, came to him in a ‘fever dream’. The picture was remediated several times on the nineteenth-century stage in the form of ‘sensation’ scenes that had no obvious connection to Delaroche’s subject, a fact that argues for the emotive power of certain images beyond the limitations of their ostensible narrative. 

The Nabis’ coloured rooms. Emotion, chromotherapy and interior decoration in Fin-de-siècle France

Alessandra Ronetti (Sorbonne University and Conservatoire des arts et metiers (CNAM), Paris)

My paper will address the role played by the work of painters such as Félix Vallotton, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard in portraying the affective power of colour in Fin-de-siècle French modern interiors. I argue that chromotherapy, a widespread practice since mid-19thcentury, influenced the colour design of home decoration in order to affect the sensory experience of the beholder. Fin-de-siècle medical and psychological advice in popular journals frequently included references on how to use the emotional power of colour to decorate different rooms. The Nabis represented colourful interiors by assigning an emotional value to colour according to a double logic. On the one hand, the paintings are related to the new iconography of modern French home interiors, and especially to the interpretation of coloured interiors as a projection of an affective experience. They represent, through the lens of an embodied vision, the different rooms, with the bright colours of the walls, curtains, etc. On the other hand, the paintings themselves, with their dazzling colours, become a part of that same coloured environment they represent. The latter logic of analysis invites us to think about the colours of these paintings as affective elements that elicited emotions in the beholder like the rest of the real decoration of the bourgeois interiors for which the pictures were intended. The first logic, instead, leads us to wonder about the appropriation that the Nabis operated at the time in relation to the practice of chromotherapy, the theories of emotion and the psychology of interior decoration.

Oceanic Feelings and the Promise of the Post-Imperial World in the Paintings of Frank Bowling

Ben Highmore (University of Sussex)

Affects and feelings raise the question of history for art history. How do we register the entanglements of feelings and social history through art? When we move away from the representation of emotions to the non-representational world of modernist abstraction this question becomes more problematic. Here I’m particularly interested in a feeling that Freud named the ‘oceanic’, which he sees as fundamental to religious experience. For Freud it is both an archaic experience and one related to early childhood (prior to language and the mirror-phase), to a time of imagined plenitude. But such a formulation might seem to vacate history. What happens when we try to connect the feeling of the oceanic to the ‘colour-field’ paintings that Frank Bowling painted between 1967 and 1972 in the wake of Guyanese independence? In these paintings outlines of South America and Africa (sometimes of Australasia and Guyana, sometimes even Europe) shimmer through the surface of modulated fields of cerise and magenta, of muddy ultramarines and purples. By looking closely at these paintings, by exploring the period vocabulary used to characterise the oceanic, and by paying close attention to Bowling’s formulations around formalism and experience, I hope to draw out the historicity of the oceanic at a moment of post-imperial world making. If Barthes was right that ‘a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it’, then this paper seeks to develop a mode of formalism capable of moving ‘towards an affective history of art’.




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