This website records the developmental stages of a project that has grown from my research into psychological aesthetics, a set of ideas formulated in the late nineteenth century about how our bodies and minds are involved in the experience of beauty.
The project is a collaboration with my Birkbeck colleague, Professor Rob Swain. Rob runs Birkbeck’s MFA in Theatre Directing and you can read more about his career as a theatre director in the People section.
We have also collaborated with Professor Matthew Longo, a cognitive neuroscientist who runs Birkbeck’s Body Representation Lab and investigates how the mental representation of our bodies affects our perception. Again, you can find out more at the People section.
Our guide for thinking about these ideas, loosely known as ‘psychological aesthetics’ and flourishing at the end of the nineteenth century, is an extraordinary Victorian woman called Vernon Lee (1856-1935). She was born Violet Paget and you can read more about her (and about how I first became interested in her) on the Research page (coming shortly!).
Vernon Lee wrote prolifically; she also read prodigiously, in multiple European languages. She was a preciously intellectual young woman and, in her mid-20s, having already published a well-received book on eighteenth-century Italian culture, she declared herself ‘humbly gone to school as a student of aesthetics’.
This declaration initiated a life-time of looking, reading, thinking, talking, and writing about art – about how we look and listen and see and hear.
Some of the most important insights she gleaned from her study of what became known as the ‘new psychology’ – when, for the first time, ‘mind’ went inside the laboratory, to be studied there according to the methods of the natural sciences. Theories about the relationship between mind and body that were being posited by the new psychology became the key to her ideas about why we find some things beautiful.
But it was not only reading and scholarship that spurred on Vernon Lee’s thinking. Falling in love was just as important. When she met Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson, a young and aristocratic Scottish artist, the two women almost instantaneously were attracted to each other. Lee became intrigued by Kit’s sensitivity to art: Kit felt things in her body as she looked at sculpture or architecture or painting. Or even at a chair.
Kit’s body joined in the process of looking at objects. As she stood in front of, say, an upright chair, she felt her lungs fill with air, her muscles stretch upwards as she planted her weigh into her legs and feet, responding seemingly mimetically to the chair’s sturdy shape. Her shoulders squared and her balance steadied. Her breath might exhale over a curve, while her muscles tensed in concert with lines and angles. These corporeal changes made her feel calm and harmonious or, perhaps, fragile or agitated.
This feeling, Lee began to speculate, was then projected back into the object (‘felt into’ it) and experienced as if it belonged there. ‘Beauty’ is in fact the outcome of feelings in us provoked by and then projected back into the object.
The intriguing psychological idea that Lee eventually discovered – and which seemed perfectly to fit what was happening in Kit’s body – came from German researches in psychological aesthetics. The key word was Einfühlung.* It meant ‘feeling into’ and Lee believed that it explained what happened when Kit looked at an object.
This, she began to see, is why art affects us and why beauty is vital, how it helps us to be alive.
Our bodies respond to the form of objects: forms communicate motion to us – rising and falling, curving, straining, relaxing, pressing, pushing. Such motions are in fact our bodily experience: the objects that evoke them are static. But they are felt as qualities of the objects themselves. For, as Lee writes: ‘We are inside them; we have “felt ourselves,” projected our own experience into them’.
These ideas were the outcome of long and slow intellectual labour. They were also, Lee constantly pointed out, the outcome of empirical research, of ‘experiments’ she undertook often on a daily basis as the women visited galleries and churches, looking at paintings and sculpture and architecture.
‘What is a work of art? What does it do for us, or rather do with us?’ This was Lee’s original question and she sought answers in churches and galleries, in Florence and Rome, Paris and London. She began ‘experimenting in the galleries’.
Vernon Lee’s ‘experiments in the gallery’ are the impetus for the project(s) described here.
We hope there will be many experiments as we explore, taking cues from Vernon Lee, what a work of art is, and what it ‘does with us’.
We invite you to explore the body’s territories, its many resources, in order to re-think, re-feel, and re-experience beauty and ugliness.
* In the first decade of the twentieth century, the word that had become so important to her, Einfühlung, was translated into English as empathy (you can read more about empathy on ‘The Research’ page).