Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Reading Group Report: 'Notes on Form in Art’: Composing Character

Led by Nicole Bush (Durham University)

22 February 2013

St. Chad’s College, Durham University

The February reading group saw NENC holding another successful event at Durham University.  The purpose of  this session was to explore George Eliot’s essay ‘Notes on Form in Art’ (1868), which discussed the composition, transferrence and presentation of artistic creation.  We then related these ideas to critical views on art in an essay by David Trotter, and sought to apply them by looking closely at the transformation of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings into black and white engravings.

We began the session by considering Eliot’s meaning of the term ‘form’ in relation to artistic production.  She connects the concept of form as an object with determining rules to the inspiration of the artist, poet or writer.  As a result, the construction of artistic conventions must always derive from original insight on the part of their creator, whilst new kinds of inspiration necessarily relate to concepts that have already been established.  We considered how this relates to Trotter’s view that for Eliot, poetic form in particular was not viewed as inhibiting artistic creation, but operated rather as a framework through which new ideas and types of metre could be established.  

Eliot’s distinctive view of form was then related to other areas of nineteenth-century literature in which members could identify similar views of artistic creation.  In particular, the outlook of several Romantic-era writers was recalled, which implies that Eliot’s notable admiration for Wordsworth also extended to other figures of the era.   For example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the primary and secondary imaginations in his Biographia Literaria (1817) was mentioned.  It was suggested that parallels can arguably be drawn between Eliot’s concept of form as both inspiring the artist and producing conventions through which his work could be expressed, and Coleridge’s belief that the metre and imagery of poets are reflective of a higher inspirational source.  

Another prominent Romantic outlook to share some parallels with Eliot’s view is  Percy Bysshe Shelley’s theory of poetic composition in his A Defence of Poetry (1821).  Like Eliot, Shelley conceived of artistic convention in metre, style and ideas as being a beneficial ‘form’, which in turn could inspire more original insights on the part of contemporary and future poets.  Furthermore, Shelley believed that this creative version of ‘form’ in the arts could also be observed within politics, economics and the sciences.  This provoked some interesting discussion on how concepts of fixidity and form are associated usually with the sciences in the modern era, as opposed to this more interdisciplinary approach favoured by Eliot and others.

Moving from Eliot’s theory of ‘forms’ in art to a consideration of how these ideas can be observed in practice, we looked closely at Turner’s paintings.  Their transformation into engravings divested them of colour, yet arguably enhanced their level of detail.  We were particularly impressed by one theme of Turner’s in which the vivid sunset tones in the painting became, in the process of an engraving, a more striking portrayal of the shift between twilight and evening.  Relating this to Eliot’s theories, we considered that the transition in mediums  did not so much deprive Turner’s original painting of its vivacity, but added to it a different level of artistic insight.  In this respect, the engraving cannot merely be seen as an imitation of Turner’s masterpiece, but as enhancing the subjects in a way that could not have been possible in the original medium.  As a result, we were fascinated by the potential of Eliot’s theory of form to be applied to different kinds of artistic production.

Extending our earlier conversation on the limitations of a form of art, we concluded the session by considering whether Eliot’s theory could be applied to disciplines outside modern-day concepts of ‘art’.  In particular, we thought about whether Eliot’s ideas anticipated present-day aims in literary studies to explore the relationship between aesthetic and scientific modes of thought.  It was suggested that this notion of ‘form’ as being both fixed and inspirational could be seen to not only enlarge literary scholarship, but also question further the notion of ‘two cultures’ in the arts and sciences.
The NENC organising committee would like to thank Nicole for a very informative and interesting session, and would welcome comments or points for further discussion. 

Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University


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