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Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain

by Amy Woodson-Boulton
Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2012
288 pp., illus., 16 b/w. Trade, $55.00; ebook $55.00
ISBN: 9780804778046; ISBN: 9780804780537.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Few subjects seem more outdated, less "modern" (in the narrow, art historical sense of the word), so distant from today's questions on museum studies, than the topic so masterfully examined in this book. At the same time, though, few books manage better than this work to highlight the great relevance of its subject for contemporary historians, estheticians, city planners, and museumgoers. In this robustly scholarly as well as deeply committed study, Amy Woodson-Bolton examines the role and place of art museums and more generally the museum movement in the three major "regional" centers of late 19th Century industrial Britain: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool. For good or for bad reasons, Victorian art itself and the Victorian approach of art as a kind of middle-class and pragmatist reinterpretation of the romantic ideal of "beauty and truth" have been scornfully discarded as parochial and moralizing kitsch by almost all modern and modernist movements during the 20th Century (it is only since a couple of decades that this kind of art has gained new interest). However, Amy Woodson-Boulton's book demonstrates convincingly how the challenges faced by the new-born institutions (the three museums were established between 1867 and 1883), the paradoxes of their incredible public success (each of them attracted audiences that can be compared to the crowds that visit today's blockbuster shows) and the sharp debaters surrounding their fundamental choices and references, can learn us a lot on many contemporary ideas and discussions on art, museum management, and education.

In the absence of any centralized art policy in 19th Century Britain, but also in the absence of any museal institution as we understand it nowadays, the almost simultaneous birth of art museums in major industrial cities in Britain was anything but a coincidence. Social reformers and promoters of art, with John Ruskin as their most influent spokesman, found each other in the widely shared conviction that art had a specific role to play in an industrial society. Its goal was to display beauty, in order to heal the viewer suffering from the ugliness and difficult living and housing conditions of an industrial environment, and this display of beauty had to occur in a place that was meant to become the public equivalent of the private home (as a place of peace, quiet, warmth, and regeneration) that most viewers were deprived of. Art, in such a perspective, is then defined by its subject: the beauty of art is less the beauty of the work's materiality as such, but that of the subject that it represents (and this subject is always nature, more particularly nature seen as inherently beautiful, for created by God). Art, in other words, was seen as a window on the world, and this window could only be inviting and compelling of the subject on view did also tell a story (for it was believed that only the story could help make sense of the representation).

This fundamental assumption explains first of all what kind of art was on display in these Victorian city museums: realist art, contemporary art, British art. There was no room for formal "thickness", exotic (Catholic) themes or motifs, and definitely not for old masters, since works of that kind were incapable of functioning as transparent windows: what they showed was less the world than themselves, in their opaque materiality, and moreover the public had forgotten most of the stories behind them. Second, Victorian assumptions on art also explain how these works were put on display in the museal space: not as items belonging to an underlying grand narrative of "art history", but as a heterogeneous collection of items, some of them "artistic", some of them "industrial", some of them "arts and crafts", and all of them were supposed to regenerate the body and mind of the spectator. Finally, such an approach of art also explains why museums were considered necessary, and why city councils accepted to spend (much) money on them: museums addressed the victims of industrialization and offered the public, often with large grants of the industrials themselves, what it had been lacking for so many time: the beauty of nature, the soul of a home.

Besides the careful and always thought-provoking description of this program, which took very different forms in the three cities (and this is a source of permanent surprise throughout the whole study), Amy Woodson-Boulton's book pursues three major goals.

First, the author wants to disclose the great complexity and the countless contradictions of the city museum movement. At the level of the artworks: the application of Ruskin's program to the concrete setting of realist art for often uneducated spectators reveals an insurmountable conflict between beauty and truth, which tend to become enemies in industrial Britain. At the level of museum management: very soon the debates on opening hours, free entrance policy, the need for thematic temporary exhibits or special events with art for sale, and on the offering of other services and facilities disclose the sometimes contradictory needs and desires of various groups in a country that is still extremely class and gender divided. At the level of the social and philosophical role of art: how does it connect (or not) with religion, education, politics (here a key role is of course played by the controversies that accompany the public's craving for expanded opening hours, even on the "Sabbath"?

Second, Amy Woodson-Boulton rewrites an important chapter of British cultural history. On the one hand, 19th Century city museums are still largely uncharted territory, and Transformative Beauty is a great contribution to our knowledge on this hidden part of the artistic past. On the other hand, existing scholarship on the institutionalization of art in that period has been traditionally focusing on the leading role of the royal family (as the model collector), the London establishments (which did not face the problem of the industrialization of the museum's environment and whose audience was differently educated), and the conceptualization of the museum as a tool for nation-building (which is certainly not the case here).

Third, and this is perhaps the most crucial ambition, the book rethinks art history's own historicity. It demonstrates the clash between the basic principles of a Victorian city museum and the still dominant axiom that structure the 20th Century modern, i.e. "white wall" museum confronting individual visitors with objects that are no longer windows on the world but works of art for art's sake. It also shows how the pre-modern, Victorian approach of art and its emphasis on subject and narrative will be replaced during and after the First World War by a new, anti-realist, anti-narrative, anti-representative program that presents the works as parts of a totally different frame that is the historical transformation of art as a play of autonomous forms. Art, in this modern program, ceases to serve social reform and loses its references to ethics and theology, since it rejects the traditional burden of representing the hidden or lost beauty of God's creation. At the same time, the shift from pre-modern to modern museum remains however a good model to better understand the changes that Western museums are undergoing these days: what artists, museums directors, policy makers, and visitors are obsessed with today is power and politics, and to a certain extent the radical heteronomy of Victorian museums offers an excellent key to a different reading of today's revolution in museumland ‒ which is more than a return to the past, for in the meantime decisive elements have been abandoned as well (contemporary Western art is no longer determined by middle-class reformism or post-romantic encounters of beauty and religion, for instance). Modernism may be rejected today, but it cannot be discarded as a simple intermezzo.


Last Updated 5th February 2013

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