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Romanticism and Its Discontents

Romanticism and Its Discontents

by Anita Brookner
198 pages with 42 illustrations
© 2001 Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0-374-52784-9
paperback; $16.00

I belong to that generation, born with the century, nourished on the Emperor's dispatches, which always beheld a naked sword but went to grasp it at the moment when France put it back into the Bourbon scabbard . . . The events I sought were never as great as I needed them to be.

-- Alfred de Vigny, quoted in Romanticism and Its Discontents

Such a statement is typical of the mal du siecle which swept the French nation following the defeat of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his magnificent Grand Army. Mourning and disillusionment took over the French psyche: "Napoleon's debonair conquerors were succeeded by a generation of resentful young men who felt cheated of their chance of glory. No longer could an ostler's son rise to become Marshal of the Empire." And no longer could the rigid idiom of accepted modes and subjects -- the Neoclassicists, typified by Jacques-Louis David -- serve to express the spectrum of new feelings forcing their way to the surface. Rebelliously, painfully, even guiltily, a new idiom appeared in art and literature, an idiom of individuality, spleen, ennui; an idiom in which artists, cheated of heroism, instead put everyday life under the lens of scrutiny; in short, Romanticism. English novelist and art historian Anita Brookner explores the movement's genesis and development in 19th-century France in Romanticism and Its Discontents. There is much of value in Brookner's work: but Romanticism and Its Discontents does not yield its treasures easily.

The book discusses the careers of eight figures: three artists and five writers/art critics, with a chapter devoted to each. After a substantial, if wandering, introduction, Brookner opens the study with Gros, Napoleon's contemporary; traverses the changing face of the movement through the art and literature of Alfred de Musset, Baudelaire, Eugene Delacroix, Ingres, the brothers Goncourt, and Emile Zola; and with J. K. Huysmans, brings it to its closure at the brink of the 20th century. The text resembles less an academic text than a novel, the introduction in particular meandering with the feel of the opening of a fictional work, a tension wherein the reader hopes exposition will soon resolve into overall narrative sense or direction. Overall, it does not: such sense must be assembled, gradually and patiently, through the chapters that follow. The writing is not always clear, the text in places 'mushy' -- the reader left aswim in prose which yields no distinct images.

Above: Eugene Delacroix,
Drawing for Death of Sardanapalus
Below: Eugene Delacroix,
Tiger Attacking Horse

When it is clear, it is beautiful. The chapter on Gros is a case in point: it presents an empathetic portrait of the artist and his dilemma. Antione-Jean Gros (1771-1835) was court painter to Napoleon and, after Napoleon's defeat, to the Bourbons who succeed him. More than that, he was the unwilling herald of a new era of painting. In him we see the troubled birth of Romanticism's new individuality, identified by Brookner as 'the moi.' Protege of strictly Neoclassicist painter Jacques-Louis David, Gros's departure from accepted subjects and norms was painful both to his mentor, and himself: his own originality was not a pleasure, but a disloyalty. Gros was, as Brookner states, "both hero and victim."

Another pleasure of the book is its analysis of works both well-known and lesser-known. Eugene Delacroix's (1798-1863) The Death of Sardanapalus and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres's (1780-1867) Le Bain Turc (The Turkish Bath are examples of the former. Delacroix's drawings are also mentioned, surprisingly modern for the time, and showing "a violent irrational urge quite at odds with the polite patrician facade." Ingres is evaluated, not only in relation to his ouevre, but in comparison to both Delacroix (Romanticist) and David (Neoclassicist). Such analyses offer new insight into the artists' work.

The literary figures include Alfred de Musset, whose works are representative of the first generation of disillusionment; Baudelaire, bringing the common affairs of everyday life under the microscope; the brothers Goncourt, whose elaborate "case histories of ennui and disenchantment" took Baudelaire's idea to an often sordid extreme; Emile Zola, convinced that his labor was clearing the way for "the genius of the future"; and finally, J.K. Huysmans, his anti-hero Des Esseintes seeking utter escape in the stimulation of the senses. To have the works of the wordsmiths presented side by side with the visual artists offers a rare opportunity to compare the two types of interpretations with one another, and in their relation to the movement's evolution and eventual end.

Girodet, The Shades of the
French Generals Received by Ossian

As well, the book yields an intriguing impression of the interrelation of artist and writer/art critic: the reader, paging through the subsequent tales, begins to see the influence of one upon the other. Gros's work influences Eugene Delacroix, who through "persistent application" obtains access to the older painter's closed studio. Writer Musset is an influence upon Zola, and comments critically on the art of Delacroix. Baudelaire lauds Delacroix (indeed, Delacroix held a certain obsession for him), but criticizes Ingres. Huysmans and the Goncourts, the Goncourts and Zola, converse face to face and via correspondence. Such references bring the artistic/literary circle, and the time, alive. These men did not exist in a vacuum: they were alive, sharing ideas, praise or criticisms, likes and dislikes.

One of the difficulties of Romanticism and Its Discontents is its aversion to indicating dates. Those who like to tidy facts chronologically in mind must seek notes elsewhere for the dates with which to compare painters and writers with one other, with the Napoleonic chronology, or with other events which might lend context and thereby, richness of understanding. As well, Brookner presumes a great deal of her audience and their familiarity with persons and historic events of the time. There is no mercy for the uninformed. Literary and artistic names are flung in quantity at lightning speed, and usually, last name only -- Diderot, Chateaubriand, Stendahl, Voltaire, Gautier, David -- and that the reader is well up on the pivotal Napoleon Bonaparte and his place in French political history is assumed as a matter of fact. This can make the work formidable, even dauntingly so, for the casual reader.

The book includes a comprehensive index, allowing easy reference to both artists and paintings. The 42 illustrations are handy thumbnail references to the works of art under discussion. The 17 color plates are detailed, glowing with luminosity, and good reproductions of what are of necessity pocket-sized reproductions of much larger works. The plate numbers are faithfully represented in the text, making it easy to flip from prose to visual reference; but the aversion to dates is present here too, and the dates of the works are not included on the plates or in the List of Illustrations (though at times they are mentioned in the text), which again, hampers easy mental reference to understanding a work's place in time.

Napoleon as Emperor

Like Romanticism and Its Discontents, Anita Brookner's 1971 book The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism features chapters on Baudelaire, the brothers Goncourt, Zola, and Huysmans. Readers familiar with The Genius of the Future will find that quantities of text have been 'borrowed' virtually intact for corresponding chapters of Romanticism and Its Discontents, usually with only revisions of a word here and there. Those unfamiliar with the earlier book will not notice anything amiss (although it is perhaps 'not quite cricket' not to mention this somewhere in the new book's text), but what is unfortunate is not so much the 'borrowing' as the fact that the altered 2001 text is murky -- and the comparative 1971 text, clearer and more to the point. The Genius of the Future also includes one thing which would have been nice addition to Romanticism and Its Discontents -- Baudelaire's poem Spleen, which so clearly elucidates the rationale of Delacroix's painting The Death of Sardanapalus.

The Salons of the last years 1799-1809 were filled with pictures of Napoleon and his exploits; it seemed possible to share his glory... Napoleon bequeathed a legacy of aspiration and regret that continued to resonate until two generations managed to outlive the past and to usher in a new era, one free of nostalgia, with eyes turned toward the future.

-- Romanticism and Its Discontents

Romanticism and Its Discontents does not spoon-feed the reader. The languid, laid-back text reflects the mal du siecle of its subjects -- a sort of exhaustion, a prose that is lyrical, but without much emotion or energy. It is less a crisp, definitive academic book, rife with dates and places, than a tale-like assessment of the subjects' individual lives. Yet the characters themselves are a fascinating story, their own personal 'heroism of the everyday' the subject under the magnifying lens. Since we suffer from similar disillusionment it is perhaps appropriate that at the closure of the 20th century we examine the fin du siecle of the previous era. If in 1900 we were ready to "usher in a new era, one free of nostalgia, with eyes turned toward the future," that time has passed; in 2001, we are again steeped in political turmoil, agnosticism, nostalgic longing; or, as Brookner says of Huysmans, having made a "retreat into yet another closed world" (computer games? TV? the Internet?). In Romanticism and Its Discontents, Anita Brookner presents an offering whose intertwining of art and literature fascinates; it not only explores French Romanticism's heroes, but sheds light on our own time as well.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the book itself. Anita Brookner's The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism © 1971 Phaidon Press Limited. The book reviewed above is the paperback edition, © 2001 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Romanticism and Its Discontents was previously released in the United States in hardcover © 2000 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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