This is a text I wrote for an exhibition that recently opened at the Torrance Art Museum Titled titled Sincerely Yours…
“Nothing,” A. Wilhelm Schlegel observed, “is Romantic by nature.” With these words, Schlegel attempted to describe Romanticism, the artistic and intellectual movement that spanned from the late 18th to the middle of the 19th century, and continues to shape the form of the West even today. With this remark, however, he was not proposing a tenet to which contemporaneous Romantics had to subscribe; nor was he setting out the rules of Romanticism. Rather, the statement probably has more to do with nature than it does with the boundaries of the Romantic. Indeed, a central theme of Romanticism involved a reanimation of nature in the face of the cold, predictable world imagined by the newly developed—albeit undeniably powerful—physical sciences of the 17th and 18th century. For the Romantics, nature, like any work of art or any poem, had to be creatively willed as romantic. But the Romantic, creative will cannot itself be described: it is not a static object, but action, activity, the perpetual movement of the creativity of nature itself. So similarly, Schlegel’s younger brother, Friedrich Schlegel, declared that “reason is mechanical, wit chemical, but genius: genius is an organic spirit.”
But, of course, Romanticism’s origins are tangled: it was by no means hermetically sealed off from other early Modern economic, political, or philosophical contexts. While its legacy intertwines with the anti-authoritarian spirit of the French Revolution, it contrasts against the universal certainty of the Enlightenment, as well as the mechanistic confines of Industrialism. Picture, for instance, on the one hand Yard with Lunatics or The Madhouse, in which Goya damningly appraisesthe new, institutionalized forms of society, wherein those that do not fit the norm are brutally cast aside. But one also finds, on the other hand, a rediscovery of the infinite depth and beauty in the uncontrollable force that is nature—an image not dissimilar to what Bergson later called the élan vital. This sublime impetus is depicted in Turner’s Snow Storm, Delacroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians, and can even be seen in Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea. Taken together, works such as these present an alternative view of the world: a world in which motives are more decisive than consequences, where truth is made and not discovered, and where the highest virtue of all is produced when sincerity mixes with determination. It is from within Romanticism that the notion of the freedom of the artist becomes comprehensible.
When one surveys the artistic scene of more recent history, one finds that we are children of many traditions. Consider the work of Agnes Martin: her work is at once understandable through a lens of hard rationalism, but also with an eye towards romantic spiritual expressionism. Similarly, Gerhard Richter’s work is not “properly understood” as being either abstract expressionism or photorealism, but is an instance of how one idea can easily mutate into its opposite.
Despite the recognition of the existence of the multiple, compacted influences that are internal to any artist’s practice, in the 21st century the temptation remains to understand artwork via categorization. And surely such a temptation is not groundless. The exhibition Sincerely Yours is a gathering of works that reveal a common trend in contemporary painting: an apparent return to Romantic aesthetics—a New Romanticism. But, if “nothing is romantic by nature,” then what makes the work in this exhibition continuous (or perhaps discontinuous) with the original Romantic ideals? Are the similarities merely surface-level, or are there deeper constants, or more profound social sensibilities shared between the movements? To answer these kinds of questions, it will be helpful to explore three themes of 18th century Romanticism that connect it to the current iteration of the Romantic: anxiety, nostalgia, and the notion ofwaldeinsamkeit. Lets begin with the latter.
Waldeinsamkeit, translated literally, refers to the feeling of being alone in a forest. It is a Romantic German concept that is marked, like Romanticism itself, by both optimism and pessimism. Depending on situation and circumstance, waldeinsamkeit can represent opposing ideas. At times, it can describe a pleasant, mystical union with nature. Think, for instance, of Thoreau, who in Walden described the “animal in us” that awakens when we realize that we too have our origins in the wild: “It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies.” A similar sentiment—that repressing our worm-like, dusty origins only leads to stagnation—is reflected in the exhibition in Ricci’s Great Wide Open.
But the reptilian filth that Thoreau embraces can also spark an opposite reaction; in the hands of Hagler (The Descent Beckons…) one is confronted with an equally romantic disposition: gloom. Such polarity should not be surprising; Romanticism thrives on contradiction. Waldeinsamkeit, the awareness of one’s solitude in the wilderness, also conveys a sense of the dreadful terror that accompanies the paradoxical meeting of ascent and descent, the finite and the infinite. For Romantics, the meaning of an experience is fluid, and traces the borders of sanguinity and cynicism.
Such oscillation brings us to two other related Romantic traits: anxiety and nostalgia. While many of the works in Sincerely Yours more or less agree with Romanticism regarding waldeinsamkeit, examining the notions of anxiety and nostalgia help pick out the important differences. For the Romantics, anxiety is at the forefront of their attention: “One thought chases the next; no sooner have I thought it and am about to write it down than a new one comes along—hold it, grasp it—Madness—Insanity!” wrote Kierkegaard the great, angst-filled philosopher. More directly than those who came before them (besides, perhaps, the Medieval mystics), the Romantics recognized the unease that flows within one’s own self, one’s intentions, and one’s expressions. Among the main points of Romantic paranoia is the emphasis on the inexhaustible depth, not only of one’s unconscious experience, but also of history: of life. Like the mystics before them, the Romantics highlighted the fact that inherent to desire, there is always some ungraspable object that frustrates human goals. This is particularly true when it comes to art and thought, since they occur in language. Such endeavors, for the Romantic mind, are always asymptotic. The more one expresses, the more one recognizes what one has left unexpressed.
The anxiety, the paranoia of Romantics in the 21st century is of a more nonchalant variety: anxiety is not exceptional; it is the norm. Here, historical context plays an important role. Today, we live in a world, and dwell within the destruction borne by colonialism, nationalism, institutionalized racism, and so on. For those living at the dawn of the Industrial revolution, such atrocities would only be realized in a nightmare. What the 19th-century Romantics feared is now, in the 21st century, everyday life. Thus, for Romantics today, paranoia is a mundane feature, not a flaw. And as a norm, anxiety allows artists today to operate not from a perspective of fearful reverence for the ordinary, but with ambivalence for the sublime in the everyday. Recall Dutcher’s Garden with Leather Straps. Here, one is presented with bold colors, with playful mark making, but in spite of that, the joyful air is perceived through overtones of distress. In the 21st century, the paranoia is not a fear that there lies something grand, something unseizable outside of humanity; it is the permanent culpability that accompanies the banality of evil—the duplicity built in to even the most minor practical, social, or economic exchanges.
Kennedy’s W.S.H.D.W. can find its home here as well. The worn linen’s sensuousness is inextricably bound, and balanced by, a well-crafted repugnance. Romantics today have inherited a perpetual frustration, a sort of bad faith, which occurs in the face of the commonplace. Perhaps waldeinsamkeit has been brought home; has been internalized; and the frightful realization is that there is no “correct” pattern to which one can adapt one’s activity.
In contrast is the notion of nostalgia. What were the Romantics nostalgic for? And what might “new” Romantics long for? If, within the past 200 years, the disquieting concerns of our forbearers have been normalized, how might that affect our sense of nostalgia? Much of the Romantic’s nostalgia is rooted in an attempt to “return to nature.” For them, there was a sense that passing through the door of the Enlightenment meant shutting a door that could possibly never be opened again: that of innocence. “I ought to be thy Adam,” Mary Shelly lamented, “but I am rather the fallen angel.” For us today, the door to innocence appears well beyond our reach; and for many, the entire notion of innocence is but a mere fantasy.
In Sincerely Yours, the artists display a much more modest, but equally complex, nostalgia, a nostalgia stripped of the spirit of protest. It is a craving not for innocence, but for naiveté. If they do in fact constitute a movement, the New Romantics demonstrate nostalgia for Romanticism itself, nostalgia for Romantic nostalgia. But to be clear, this is not to say that the new nostalgia is somehow superficial. To illustrate, in Egan’s Before the Mountains one senses the desire for just one glimpse—just one look—just one moment—free from the awareness of the harm humanity is actually capable of. Further, there is homesickness for the ordinary in Sarah Dougherty’s Old Bones and Dusk.
But “the ordinary” today is marred. For the original Romantics, there was a spirit of adventure and of longing in their notion of nostalgia; but we live on the other side of their time, where “discovery” for one culture most often means oppression for another. The hope today is not to become, once more, like Adam; the hope is merely to be reminded that there was an eve to the world we live in, the world, portrayed in Brown’s Gloaming, that we have given the first name “nature.”
So if indeed, “nothing is romantic by nature,” and if indeed any attempt to describe the infinite unfolding of life necessarily falls short, then any attempt to definitively pin down the Romantic may simply be a misstep from the start. The imposition of form on living expression deforms its dynamism. Yet, thought occurs in language; but not just in written form: it occurs in a color palette, in the application of paint, or in the relationships shared between particular images and symbols. So, for instance, Chowdhury (Portrait of Alec) and Williams (The Pavilion), though perhaps working with similar themes in mind, are not simply thinking—not simply expressing—different thoughts about a concept; their entire modes of thinking—the concepts themselves—differ. Regarding thought processes, they stand at odds. Nevertheless, thematically, they can be seen to act in unison. But, as has been explored, the differences between the anxiety and nostalgia in the 21st century and that of the 19th century are not simply a matter of content; they are also matters of form. Hugo warned his readers that, “morning has its ghosts just as night does.” Romantics think in different form today, reminding their viewers that we have befriended the ghosts of the past; forewarning—not that the ghosts are there—but that there was once a time when the ghosts could be pointed out in the first place.