The following items are responses to the ‘scratch’ performance of ‘Experimenting in the Galleries: Performing with Vernon Lee’, held at the School of Arts, Birkbeck, University of London in November 2019.
Audience members responded in a variety of ways. Some left written feedback (a selection appears below) but some went further:
- Sharon Draucker, a literary scholar from the USA, reflects on how a gallery visit was reframed and intensified by the experience of watching the scratch;
- historian Alison Brown writes about relationships between Vernon Lee and her neighbours, the expatriates who lived on the outskirts of Florence at the end of the nineteenth century;
- while interdisciplinary scholar, Sally Blackburn-Daniels, has a go at answering Vernon Lee’s ‘Questionnaire’.
Shannon Draucker, then a PhD candidate at the University of Boston and visiting London for archival research in autumn 2019, attended the ‘scratch’ performance at Birkbeck. Not long afterwards, she visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow and writes here about how the performance affected her own gallery-going.
14 January 2019 — Visiting the Kelvingrove after “Experimenting in the Galleries”
As a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on late nineteenth-century British literature and physiological aesthetics, I was delighted to learn that my November 2018 research trip to the U.K. serendipitously coincided with a public event centered on one of my major authors: a scratch performance titled “Experimenting in the Galleries: Performing with Vernon Lee” at Birkbeck’s Keynes Library. Led by Dr. Carolyn Burdett, directed by Rob Swain, and written by Nicola Baldwin, the performance dramatized conversations between Lee and her lover and collaborator Kit Anstruther-Thomson as they visited museums in Italy and recorded and theorized their bodily responses to art. Following the performance, Burdett led a discussion among the directors and actors as well as two other scholars: Hilary Fraser, a professor at Birkbeck and author of Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century, and Matthew Longo, Director of Birkbeck’s BodyLab.
At the centre of the performance and the discussion was the question “what does art do to (and with) our bodies?” – a query that animated Lee’s work for decades and that still continues to preoccupy literary scholars, historians, philosophers, and scientists. In her experiments with Anstruther-Thomson (dramatized so compellingly in the Birkbeck performance), Lee investigated the physiological and mental aspects of aesthetic reception. Are our bodily responses to art based on the automatic actions of our nerves and muscles, or based on conscious, mental processes of reflection? As Burdett writes, Lee’s answers to such questions were complex and shifted throughout her life. Skeptical of the disinterested, amoral approach to aesthetics espoused by the “art for art’s sake” movement, but equally wary of the “physiological aesthetics” of Herbert Spencer, Grant Allen, and others (particularly with its ties to ideas about evolution and sexual selection), Lee drew on emerging concepts of “empathy” by German-based psychologists like Theodor Lipps and Karl Groos to suggest that our experiences of aesthetic beauty are comprised of our physiological sensations and emotional feelings – and our conscious reflections on them. As Lee wrote in Beauty and Ugliness (1912), “We can know our bodily states only in, or by, what we call our mental ones” (138).
I left “Experimenting in the Galleries” feeling stimulated by the performance and invigorated by the discussion, eager to follow the project as it develops. However, I didn’t truly realize the extent of the project’s lasting impression on me until I embarked on a museum visit of my own. A week after the performance at Birkbeck, I visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow and found Lee’s ideas working on me in new ways. As I wandered through the museum with the “Experiment” fresh in my mind, I found myself meditating on my own affective responses – my bodily as well as my mental reactions – in distinctly “Lee-like” terms.
Lee probably would have been on my mind at any museum visit following the “Experiment,” yet I believe the Kelvingrove provided a particularly fitting locale for me to contemplate the relationships between art and the body. The most frequently visited museum outside of London (and recently ranked the “top museum” in the U.K. by TripAdvisor), the Kelvingrove is renowned for its careful attention to the museum-goer’s experience. According to Peter Samis and Mimi Michaelson, authors of Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, Glasgow Life, which operates the Kelvingrove, had a specific mission to make museums more “physically and intellectually accessible” – not just available to those with “education, income, and status” (133).
With its imposing Spanish Baroque architecture and dazzling array of objects (ranging from Sir Roger the Elephant to Salvador Dalí’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”), the Kelvingrove provides a host of sensations and stimuli. A Spitfire LA19 plane hovers above stuffed animals from the museum’s natural history collection. Sophie Cave’s Floating Heads installation overwhelms the vertical visual space of a central foyer. A daily organ recital at 13:00 stirs the visitors’ auditory as well as visual senses.
The physical arrangements of the galleries reflect the curators’ attention to the visceral experiences of visitors. Most rooms feature works of art (including a Picasso and a Dufy) hung at a height most suitable for the eyes of an average nine-year-old child. (Most museums hang paintings at a level to mitigate glare for the average adult). Though the Kelvingrove’s choice has been met with some critique, many praise the museum’s concern for all viewers. As Laura Cumming recently wrote in the Guardian, “Had I not found that bowing your head slightly made you unexpectedly relax and feel more intimate with a painting, and thus likely to look longer, I would have been completely sceptical.”
Figure 1: Draucker, Shannon. “Sophie Cave’s ‘Floating Heads’ at the Kelvingrove.” November 2018. JPEG file.
The Kelvingrove not only attends to the bodily sensations of its visitors, but also urges them to consciously reflect on those experiences – to consider, as Lee wrote, “the psychological side of aesthetics, and its interdependence with all other questions of mental science” (13). Known for its unique approach to museum labels, which are placed above the artist’s name (to “de-emphasiz[e] the cult of celebrity,” as Samis and Michaelson write), the Kelvingrove’s museum labels teach visitors to engage mentally and physically with the art (134). The museum labels are descriptive, playful, and even philosophical, but always capped at 30 words or fewer, so as not to draw the viewer’s visual attention away from the art for too long. The labels are also placed at hip height – so visitors don’t “read [their] way round the walls instead of looking at the exhibits,” as Cumming writes. Often, the labels invite visitors to think about particular colours, techniques, or effects at the same time that they communicate the history of the work – prompting us to use our brains as well as our senses, our intellects as well as our bodies.
The Kelvingrove’s display of John Lavery’s larger-than-life painting “Anna Pavlova” (1910) especially seemed to summon Lee’s ways of looking at art. The sweeping gestures and fluid movements Lavery depicts invite viewers to move along with it. Indeed, I saw several visitors imitate Pavlova’s pose for a picture – an act that some might dismiss as kitschy or touristy, but that also reflects the painting’s inducement of bodily movement. To me, the painting’s kinesthetic potential evokes Lee’s notion that, as Burdett writes, we can “distinguish changes in breath, balance, and muscular tension as reactions to the observed form, seemingly amounting to a type of unconscious mimicry of it.” Crucially, though, the label for Lavery’s painting, which points out the “effect of theatrical lighting by using strong contrasts of light and shadow,” also directs viewers to reflect on the work. We must at once embody and contemplate the form.
Figure 2: Draucker, Shannon. “John Lavery’s ‘Anna Pavlova’ (1910) at the Kelvingrove Gallery.” November 2018. JPEG file.
Lee’s ideas haunted me most insistently as I wandered through the “Looking at Art” exhibit, which invites viewers to consider “how art gives up its secrets, but can still be mysterious.” The room, painted in bright yellow, immediately arrests one’s bodily stimuli. Scattered throughout the exhibit are placards that bear different aesthetic questions: “How do artists use colour? How do artists paint stories? How do artists use shapes?” The placards themselves, which visitors can touch and move, merge tactile and aesthetic experience.
Figure 3: Draucker, Shannon. “Interactive placards at the Kelvingrove Gallery.” November 2018. JPEG file.
In a section titled, “Investigating Art,” which reveals the material history of some of the museum objects, I felt my breath catch as I viewed Anne Redpath’s “Place de l’Institut, Paris” (c.1949). My response, I realized, arose not so much when I gazed at the work’s beautiful façade, but rather when I glanced at its back, which the curators had left open to show a discarded drawing. (Redpath had also painted on the other side of the canvas because art materials were scarce postwar.) As I glanced at the “other” painting, as well as the stickers, labels, and scribbles that now overlay it, I felt arrested, excited, as if I were learning a hidden secret. As I walked away from the canvas, I pondered how my excitement derived as much from reflecting on the artwork’s history as from experiencing its immediate aesthetic effects.
Figure 4: Draucker, Shannon. “Anne Redpath’s ‘Place de l’Institut, Paris’ (c. 1949) at the Kelvingrove.” November 2018. JPEG file.
Figure 5: Draucker, Shannon. “Back of Anne Redpath’s ‘Place de l’Institut, Paris’ (c. 1949) at the Kelvingrove.” November 2018. JPEG file.
In her preface to Beauty and Ugliness, Lee wrote, “My aesthetics will always be those of the gallery and studio, not of the laboratory” (viii). What my visit the Kelvingrove reminded me is that museums provide us not only a space to look at art, but a place – even a “laboratory,” if you will – to ponder how we look at art – a question at the heart of critical debates in numerous disciplines (art history, certainly, but also literary studies, philosophy, and cognitive science). Thinkers like Lee remind us to be not only passive receivers of aesthetic impulses, but also active contemplators of the world around us.
As I made my way back to the Kelvingrove’s entrance at the end of my visit, the lunchtime organ concert began, and I was momentarily arrested by the sound that flooded the space. As I closed my eyes, I felt the floors vibrating beneath me and my pulse quicken in tandem with the music. Physiological aesthetics, for sure. And yet, when opened my eyes, I noticed children skipping and giggling in the foyer, museum patrons sipping tea in the café, and new visitors perusing their museum guides. Reflection and pleasure, absorption and contemplation, at work. This was, indeed, to quote Lee, “art for the sake of life” (Renaissance 259).
Burdett, Carolyn. “‘The subjective inside us can turn into the objective outside:’ Vernon Lee’s Psychological Aesthetics.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century (12). 2 June 2011.
Cumming, Laura. “Heady heights: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.” The Guardian. 8 July 2006. <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/jul/09/art1>
Lee, Vernon. Renaissance Fancies and Studies. London: Smith, Elder, 1895.
Lee, Vernon and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics. London: John Lane, 1912.
Loney, Gillian. “Kelvingrove ranked the top art museum in the UK.” GlasgowLive. 7 November 2018.
Samis, Peter and Mimi Michaelson. Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum. London: Routledge, 2016.
Alison Brown reflects on the ‘scratch’ and on audience discussion that followed about the art historian and critic, Bernard Berenson. Berenson knew Vernon Lee, and lived relatively close to her near Florence. He accused the Lee and Anstruther-Thomson of plagiarising his ideas when they first published their ‘experiments’. Alison was following Lee’s renaissance interests, about which she wrote ‘Vernon Lee and the Renaissance: from Burkhardt to Berenson’ in Victorian and Edwardian Responses to the Italian Renaissance ed. by John Law and Lene Ostermark-Johansen (Ashgate 2005.) She also talked about ‘Vernon Lee, Brewster and the Berensons in the 1890s’ at a 2005 conference on Vernon Lee. Henry Brewster (whose family Alison knew in Florence) belonged to what historian of art and architecture Joseph Connors called ‘the polemically inclined expatriates populating Florence’s hillside in the 1890s’.
I very much enjoyed your Vernon Lee – Kit Anstruther-Thomson event, especially the two actors’ portrayal of their friendship, which seemed very convincing, VL clever but not too overbearing and Kit gently affectionate towards her. I also enjoyed the presentation and discussion of the ideas about movement and the brain, which is a difficult topic but clearly presented, and crucial to their debate and controversy with Berenson. Berenson is of course a key figure, with whom VL had enjoyed a friendly (if contentious) relationship since 1892, three years after she first met that ‘little art-critic who appears destined to become famous.’ He and Mary Costello were not yet married nor living in the villa I Tatti on the other side of a hill that separated them, but in a road much nearer to Vernon Lee’s own villa. So they were close neighbours. On the other side of Florence were two other members of this circle, the bellettrist and essayist Henry Brewster, ‘H.B.’, who provides an amusing and witty commentary on his friends, and the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand (later related to Brewster through the marriage of their children), who was the author of an influential book, The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture (first published in German in 1893) and an early contributor to their debate about reading works of art.
What it seems they were all trying to do in various ways was to wrest the definition of the pleasure we receive from art from the Impressionists (who thought it was purely optical) to what Mary Berenson called ‘this physico-psychological’ method, relating it instead to our bodily and mental response to form and movement. Hildebrand had written in his 1893 book that we need the memory of touch to recreate the three-dimensional form of sculpture, which Berenson defined more memorably in The Florentine Painters (1896) three years later as ‘giving tactile values to retinal impressions’ (meaning, according to the English philosopher R. G. Collingwood, not ‘the texture of fur and cloth’ but ‘motor sensations, such as we experience by using our muscles and moving our limbs’). Despite acknowledging that Berenson’s ‘tactile values’ heightened motion as music does, Vernon Lee and especially Kit thought that the stimulus came from a change in breathing, not motion ― or as Henry Brewster put it, they believed that ‘the sense of form proceeds from the lungs and not, as Mrs Costello (later Mary Berenson) maintains, from the knee pan.’ Nevertheless, when they sent the Bernard and Mary a proof copy of their essay ‘Beauty and Ugliness’ the following year (in The Contemporary Review, 1897, repr. in 1912 as an essay in Beauty & Ugliness and other studies in Psychological Aesthetics), Berenson quickly accused them of plagiarism. It was left to Brewster to point out (in a letter to the composer Ethel Smyth) Berenson’s inconsistency in first claiming that their article was ‘rot and secondly all the ideas are his!’ And it’s clear from Vernon Lee’s notes and her and Berenson’s heavily annotated copies of the Principles of Psychology (1890) by William James ― Berenson’s old teacher at Harvard and known to VL through his brother the novelist Henry James ― that she had arrived at her conclusions independently, owing more to psychologists like Carl Lange, Théodule Ribot and Giuseppe Sergi than to Berenson, who in turn owed more to Hildebrand than he admitted (as his similarly annotated copy of Das Problem der Form demonstrates).
More difficult to disprove was Berenson’s accusation that Kit was ‘a recording angel’ in remembering and using in ‘Beauty and Ugliness’ all his conversations with her on their visits to art galleries ― from which VL had quickly been excluded for being too impatient and quarrelsome. The friends had both thanked Berenson in their book for ‘much most generous teaching on art-history and criticism’ and a pack of notes labelled by Vernon “C.A. T’s memoranda after lectures or lessons of M. Berenson’s” shows that she did attempt to record his words and she told Vernon about his theory about the genesis of a work of art that counterbalanced Vernon’s. Kit nevertheless remained stubbornly resistant to Berenson’s ideas according to his own recording angel, his wife Mary. In her journal Mary reflected on ‘the strange [corrected from crude and unappreciative] things she used to say as one or other of us took her to the Florentine churches’. It was ‘very hard work’, she said, for Berenson to impress his own view of architecture on Kit, to persuade her ‘to look on architecture as enclosed space’ and accept the difference between movement and motion.’ Nor could he refute ‘her strange idea that the excellence of architecture & sculpture lies in movement’ by making the spectator move, ‘that is to say, walk around it or in it’ (a view that Vernon perhaps reflects in saying, in opposition to Hildebrand, ‘that a statue shouldn’t be composed like a bas-relief but compel you to walk around it’).
In her account of Kit in the preface to her writings in Art and Man (1924), Vernon Lee describes her as a free spirit who combined an equestrian upbringing (her father was a Master of the Hounds) with training as an artist and clay-modeller in London and Paris: ‘she makes wonderful things in clay and says extraordinary things’, VL was told before first meeting her in 1887. Like Vernon (and perhaps influencing her), Kit became interested in the early 1890s in teaching art appreciation in the recently-founded colleges for working people, Toynbee Hall and Morley College. As a relative outsider to these ‘polemically-inclined’ nineteenth-century literati in Florence, Kit offers a different approach to the issues at stake ― perhaps more related to the views of the English poets Coleridge, Shelley and Wordsworth, Vernon Lee suggests in Art and Man. VL’s own views in The Psychology of an Art Writer (2018; https://davidzwirnerbooks.com/product/the-psychology-of-an-art-writer) have recently been republished (reviewed in the New York Review of Books, August 16, 2018). So it’s a good moment to re-explore her and Kit’s ideas, as the warm response to your excellent play shows. And although Berenson’s contribution to them is difficult to unravel, Kit’s struggles with him in the Uffizi might be entertaining and provide an extra character to your cast.
Alison Brown, December 2018
Sally Blackburn-Daniels bravely fills out Vernon Lee’s ‘Questionnaire’ – not an easy task (try it!).
Lee and Anstruther-Thomson published in 1887 the initial findings of their experiments (and Lee’s theories) in a long two-part essay, ‘Beauty and Ugliness’, for a journal called the Contemporary Review. Lee wanted responses from the European experimental psychologists on whose work she drew. She sent the essay to some of them but without success.
So, a little later, in 1900, she wrote a ‘Questionnaire’ and sent it to the Fourth Psychological Congress in Paris, asking delegates to complete it. The full title – it was sent in French – was ‘Mémoire et Questionnaire sur le rôle de l’élément moteur dans la perception esthétique visuelle’.
No-one responded – ‘not the very smallest notice was taken’. For all her force of character and energy, Lee was a woman in what was still largely a male domain and she was an individual, without institutional place or standing.
Lee later sent the questionnaire, revised somewhat, to friends and acquaintances.
Is Sally the first person to tackle it in the twenty-first century?
Sally’s answers are rendered in italics below. Everything else is by Vernon Lee, kindly translated from the French by Paul Murray.
Paget – Questionnaire
Aside from your actual, literal movements, could you give an account of what we are to understand by the expressions: motor states, personal sensations of tension and pressure, sensations of raising and lowering; also movement in a lateral, diagonal direction, up and down, from right to left, backwards and forwards?
What I understand by the following terms: Motor states – sensory perception and resultant actions, perhaps reflex, volition, the use of will. Personal sensations of tension and pressure – the processing of anxiety or restriction, but also, dependant on the mood, comfort, being swaddled, held. Sensations of raising and lowering – inspiration and exasperation. The movements – flight, take off and launch, the abruptness of mood changes, confusion and hesitation between progress and regression.
Do you have any clues as to whether you are, in your own eyes, a visual type or a motor type?
I believe that I am a motor type, in that I tend to mirror or engage physically. Thinking involves movement, emotion changes my body.
Do you have a very highly developed visual memory? Could you visualise a whole page of writing? Can you recreate within you the phenomenon of complementary colours, with your eyes closed, according to M. Binet’s formula? Do pictures that you recall exist in your memory very precisely, in their totality, in a stable state, without appearing as a succession or alternation of fragments, without the need for reconstruction?
No, I don’t believe I have a very visual memory, in my mind’s eye I see fragments, snapshots, movement, I pick up on chains of association (but not in a linear way, but web of association and easily distracted). This echoes the way in which I look at images, sculptures – in a piecemeal way, small sections, looking closely – a microscope rather than a panorama.
When you remember a landscape, do you tend to see it as separate pictures, each with a fixed point of view?
Separate parts/ sections of the scape framed – when thinking of the whole scene I am always drawn to the very top of the image, the sky, mountains, etc, and then make a movement with my eye towards the base of the image. This feels like a movement towards myself, within that space, and allows a moment after looking to become aware of personal perspective and feeling.
And when remembering a friend, do you see him or her in a distinct pose, clearly defined, as in a portrait? Or instead, do you travel over the landscape in your memory, seeing its details more or less appearing and disappearing? And with people, do you tend to recall a gesture or movement, active fragments, so to speak, in the process of changing?
The friend becomes a palimpsest, not very clear in my mind, but a multiple, layers of visual memory interconnected through mnemic associations. In answering these questions I have noticed I find it difficult to maintain a static single mnemic image. But this is not necessarily due to the individual being active within the fragment, just a layering of these fragments.
Do you experience a stronger sensation of wellbeing when you dwell over a bit of natural landscape through a window, or when you’re actually walking on the landscape? And when in a church or any monumental building, do you feel the need to find separate fixed points of view, or rather take possession of what you see by walking around it and letting your gaze travel, in a way that the building appears to unfurl in front of your eyes?
Being ‘in the landscape’ produces a greater sensation of wellbeing (of comfort, happiness and health), due to movement and sensual experience of the landscape, a form of physical association with, rather than dissociation mediated by the window. Within a monumental building I automatically take multiple separate points of view, which is ‘guided’ by a sense of framing provided by a sense of natural progression around the building. Allowing the building to open itself up to, and close down my gaze. I don’t feel this is an act of volition particularly, but perhaps directed by the architecture/ architect/ materials used.
This question brings to mind the cathedral or a particular building concerned with moral asenscion and heavenly reward – there is in me an automatic pull towards the ceiling. This design (and I suppose my learned response to this) is to conflate this awe at the design with a motor and visual response that makes me feel small and unworthy.
Can you give an account of what we are to understand by feelings of organic wellbeing, which are sometimes vague, and sometimes found in the cardiac or respiratory region, and also in the head (but not in the muscles of the eye), when you are in front of paintings of real landscapes that please you? Is it your understanding that one can take expressions such as
“ lines which shoot away,” movement and velocity
“roof which drops down”,
“groups which balance one another” scale, pivot, fulcrum
etc. quite literally?
Yes, verbs become the focal point of the description, it becomes a visual image, but not always cohesive. The dropping of the roof seems to me to be opposite to what we would want a roof to be! It makes me uncomfortable to think of this almost Dali-esque rendering of a roof!
Does something inside you appear to respond to these verbs of movement when applied to static objects? And in the case of more complex emotional states, do you attach in some way a literal meaning to the words: “an arch that crushes the soul”, or “gothic arches that give flight to the imagination”, “a chalice under which it is easy to breathe, you can feel your chest expand”, “a painted or carved landscape that makes the heart flutter, that frees us from the burden of worry, and which accelerates or makes regular the rhythm of life”?
Yes, these expressions create a visual image, a moving image (a hallucination?) combined with movement in the literal sense of the movement.
Do these expressions seem forms of convention to you, without any intrinsic truth; or do they seem to address physiological states that you are vaguely aware of in your aesthetic experiences?
I am aware of the emotional connotations of these physiological states more so than the physical experience.
Do you ever find yourself contemplating and recalling statues from several points of view, like a series of reliefs; or do you rather move around them in your thought or reasoning process?
I move around in thought but not taking in the full object, but close frames. This closeness provides me with a sense of the process of making the work of art, of shaping material, I enjoy the surface rendering of the work, and believe I can get a sense of the emotional state of the artist as the object is being made. I am intrigued by the different tactile states of objects, and I know I CANNOT touch, but my mind allows me (through stored memories) to imagine how it would feel to touch.
When you are in front of painted figures, or particularly heavily sculpted ones, do you experience light muscular sensations which sketch the gesture of the painted or sculpted figure, similar to the sketching movements that many people see themselves doing when watching a game of billiards or firearms practice, as observed by Fechner and Lotze?
I am very liable to ‘sketch’ movements. I also mirror gesture, posture, and expression!
Does the arrangement of the drawing of the lines in a painting – the convergence or divergence of lines sinking into it – give you a feeling of relief, attraction and well being? Or contrary to this, a vague sense of malaise, a kind of oppression and disgust, even antipathy and sadness?
I feel that the lines give a sense of movement, but colour is more attuned to expressing emotional states. But Francis Bacon’s cages/ frames produce in me an overwhelming sense of constraint and claustrophobia, which I find interesting as I exist outside of the framing device. But I suppose this is a very unsophisticated form of sympathy.
When you are in a famous building, particularly in the Gothic style, do you feel your body making light balancing movements, as a response to the sense of balance stimulated in your imagination by the architectural lines, a kind of balancing that makes you as it were participate more effectively in the existence of the building, up to the point where it seems to become still, stopping its grasp on your feeling as soon as you become perfectly level?
A sense of serenity and uprightness, a drawing-up-of, into the heights of the building. But the Gothic style is for me, a sensory overload: too much ornamentation, busy-ness, asymmetry – it forces one completely off balance, physically and mentally.
In your experience, is one’s understanding of and pleasure in a statue sculpted in the round helped by making one’s own body copy the pose or state of muscular tension represented by the statue, or is it blocked by doing the opposite? Thus could you see yourself half lying down or leaning in front of Apoxymenos by Lysippos, or standing on tiptoe with your muscles really tensed in front of the Dying Gladiator?
I often produce a physical echo (to perhaps bring about an emotional echo) with statues, which gives me a sense of pleasure and a belief in the realness of the object and its relationship to me. But there are some positions that shape me in a way that aggravates or causes pain and discomfort (due to nerve damage through illness) and I find often that I do not go back to these works as they become interconnected with this.
When you are looking intensely at works of art (especially paintings), are you conscious of having initiated rhythmical movements inside you (sometimes by quietly humming to yourself) that seem to correspond to a kind of rhythm, accent and continuous beat present in the visible work of art, a perfect rhythm in the works of the grand masters, or a partial and even chaotic one in the works of mediocre painters? And do you find, conversely, that other rhythms you hum or make internally blur your understanding of a painting, almost in the same way as if you were tapping out a different rhythm with your foot while listening to a piece of music?
Hmm, I don’t think so. Although occasionally I will purposefully initiate a rhythmical movement/ sound as a barrier to other external distractions in the gallery space.
NB While our attention can be stimulated solely by movement and by interior sound, the experiences mentioned in questions 10, 11, 12 can only have any value by experiencing as well the opposing sensation of a movement, gesture or musical rhythm that jars or clashes with our aesthetic perception, instead of aiding or elevating it.
Do physical disorders, tiredness, illness or pain prevent you from finding real pleasure in a work of art; or does seeing the work momentarily suppress, to a varying degree, your weakened state?
It depends. If I search out a work I am attracted to because of its beauty, vibrancy, joy etc., it can negate the tiredness/ illness/ depression and become restorative work. But likewise, a work can be cathartic, and there can be a form of pleasure in connecting my own ‘weakened state’ with the one that I perceive in the object. A sense of comradeship and deeper, intense feeling.
Could you store up the image of something beautiful which you were not able to fully appreciate at a certain time because of physical illness or mental distress? Is any residual part of the aesthetic emotion conserved in your memory, as a type of emotional abstraction or halo surrounding the name of a picture, place or movement whose visual image has faded in your mind?
Yes, the image becomes a palimpsest of associations and memories.
Have you practised or studied painting, sculpture or drawing? Have these studies brought any changes to your spontaneous habits of perception and aesthetic pleasure?
I have been to an art class, and the teacher told me to only visit one or two works at a gallery, at a time. To find one that suits me, an initial attraction and spend quality time with it. To try and find out why I feel a connection. Don’t look at the information on the wall until it is time to leave the work. Figure out what it is, to me. So I always look for something that is immediately interesting.
Would you be able to suggest any categories of experience or observation that would be appropriate to furthering the study of these questions?
Could you suggest a new questionnaire, or corrections to this one?
I’d like to ask people what they understand by the terms ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’.
I’d also like to broaden the question to cultural artefacts – do we need to have a social/ cultural connection to a work, or can this be transcended.
I’m also deeply interested in neuro-atypical reactions to art, and physiological responses in disabled or inhibited bodies.
Signed “Vernon Lee”
Finally, these are some fragments from the feedback left by audience members. We thank each and every one for taking the time to record thoughts and connections. Again, italicised script is the respondents’ and plain font the feedback question.
- What did you enjoy about the performance and /or panel discussion?
Yes, I thought the performance was innovative and that the mixed format held the audience’s attention very well, exploring what are some profound ideas at 6:00 on a Friday evening can’t be easy.
2. What didn’t you enjoy or like about it/ them?
Being a little bit of a contrarian, I’d liked to have heard a bit more critical exploration within the production.
3. Did you find the history clear and the world of the play accessible? Are there things you found confusing in the plot, or would like to be explained more?
No, the performance was just right for me: challenging both in terms of the concepts and the production. I certainly had to concentrate and it was an intense hour or so, especially for those of us new to Vernon Lee. If there were grey areas, that is good. These are difficult ideas arrived at through hard work, they shouldn’t be immediately obvious or even clear on first hearing.
The one thing I would have liked to have explained a bit more was the kinds of art work that they looked at, what kind of artistic values Vernon Lee had – though that reflects my own interests as an art historian.
4. What (if any) moments were particularly memorable, and why?
I liked the periods of tension between Kit and Vernon, especially where they were able to draw out differences in interpretation or intention. (Pause.) The discomfort in the room is very effective.
I don’t recollect any. It all seemed wonderfully Bloomsbury-ish, the whole thing, the whole idea of experimenting on the body for purposes of art appreciation, using a play to reflect back on that, in the Keynes Library. I found it all extremely vivid and memorable.
5. Does the play feel relevant to you personally? In what ways? Are there things you feel should be developed to connect with a particular / wider audience?
I thought the diary section relating to Italy, history and imagination was beautiful. This is something I feel too, especially in Italian towns. I think there is something I’m missing though, because this historically informed reaction seems very different to Vernon’s a-historical experiments with Kit.
I would like to see more discussion within the production as a means of exploring both the context of Lee’s ideas and their implication. Berenson had a bad press in the evening, but I wonder if he might not be allowed to defend himself? (Is there absolutely nothing to say in his favour?) One idea that occurred to me as a means of, perhaps, improving the accessibility, would be to have the lecturer interrogate Lee or Kit and weave some of the narrative argument in to the drama.
In order to draw the audience in to the event, particularly if the audience is less academically ‘prep-ed’, it might help to ‘flag’, via the drama, some accessible approaches or areas for discussion, perhaps through allowing the characters to question one another a little more. Something on how Lee’s feminism and pacifism does or doesn’t relate to her ideas. How socially inclusive her theories are. How they accommodate political art, say? What do they say about collectivism? Or gender?
I’m extremely interested, both professionally and personally, in the whole idea of art as a form of communication, in how works of art construct an implied viewer and how people respond to them in different ways. The focus on the body’s response, on emotion as rooted in the body, also interests me a lot.
6. How can we improve our process in future?
I’ve no idea how this would be achieved dramatically but could you highlight more the physical/physiological responses of Kit when she is viewing the artworks?
7. We are keen to run workshops and discussions alongside our future production. Do you have any suggestions for events or activities?
More about thinking about responding to art works in creative ways. What I’d like to stress is that this is something that isn’t necessarily different from art history.
8. Anything else?
How does Andrea Fraser’s institutional critique fit with Vernon Lee’s aesthetic theory? I couldn’t help thinking of ‘Little Frank and His Carp’
Many thanks for taking the time to complete this evaluation: it’s important to us.