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Lene Østermark-Johansen, Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture

Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada
p. 187-190
Référence(s) :

Østermark-Johansen, Lene, Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture, Farnham, Surrey, Ashgate, 2011, 402 p.

Texte intégral

1This is the first exhaustive monograph ever to discuss Walter Pater’s ideas on sculpture, which have attracted scattered attention here and there in volumes or articles on Pater. What’s more, Østermark-Johansen provides us with a wide-ranging and synthetic examination of Pater’s aesthetic views on painting, writing and architecture while examining his response to the culture of Antiquity, 18th-century German aesthetic philosophy, 19th century French art criticism and British contemporary art. And besides being a landmark book for Paterian studies, this is a very beautiful object both to the eye and touch, with high-quality sheet paper, 89 black and white illustrations and 20 colour plates.

2The term “sculpture” here covers a range of meanings. The definition of sculpture and relief, indeed, encompasses far more than three-dimensional sculpture in the round as it also applies to art forms involving more than two dimensions (engravings, tapestries or anything woven, different kinds of relief, etc.). Moreover, Østermark-Johansen articulates Pater’s ideas on sculptural form with his conception of style and language. She analyses the language he employs when discussing sculpture—the use of sculpture as a metaphor, a plastic conception of writing that entails more than two dimensions, etc.—and she focuses on Pater’s predilection for the process of pressure and the making of indentations or protrusions onto a flat surface. She then weaves links between his mode of writing and his understanding of sculpture as an art form involving tension between flatness and relief. The central thesis of the book is indeed Pater’s privileged notion and pervasive trope of relief (rilievo), which has consequences on his view of the writer as sculptor or carver in language. This particular idea enables the author to show how Pater’s aesthetic theories are linked with his theories on language and writing. The idea of the interlinking of the visual and written language is thus explored both within his dense work and in relationship with the general aesthetic context of the period.

3Chapter 1 examines Pater’s response to Italian Renaissance theories on the Paragone and his discussion of the differences and similarities between the arts. She argues that “relief”—understood as an art form, a theoretical concept, and a stylistic ideal—is central to Pater’s aesthetic theories. Pater’s interest for the relief is linked to such qualities as the compression of space or the combination of flatness and prominence, which highlights the relationship between background and foreground. She then establishes a correlation with Pater’s essay on style and with the sculptural metaphors he uses to discuss his ideals of language, style, structure, history and criticism. Here she shows how relief—an art form worked from surface into depth—particularly appealed to Pater as a form closely related to writing. Indeed, Pater appears as acutely sensitive to the physical process of imprinting lines on a planar surface—and this has bearings not only on his aesthetic theories but also on his practice as a writer.

4Chapter 2 focuses on Pater’s response to German Aesthetic theory, mostly Lessing’s discussion of the Laocoon, Winckelmann’s writings on Greek sculpture, and Hegel’s polarity between poetry and painting as the arts of modernity, and architecture and sculpture as the arts of Antiquity. Østermark-Johansen dwells on Pater’s interest for questions such as the repeated idealized patterns of the human form, the compression of form into narrow space, the sense of rhythm and the belief in linear time and sequence in lieu of closure and stasis. She also shows how Pater overcomes the problematic relation between the category of the beautiful and images of masculinity. She then evokes Pater’s interest for the Venus de Milo’s fragmentary form as well as for frayed surfaces and the non finito—which allows an exchange between outer and inner, surface and depth. This leads her on to examine Pater’s concern with the unity between form and content and to establish a link between his ideas on the unity of sculpting and his style and figurative language. She for example concentrates on examples of his concern for the unity of the individual word that needs to be inscribed within a broader concern for the unity between form and content.

5In Chapter 3, the relationship between Pater and French Aestheticism—for example his dialogue with Gautier and Baudelaire and their critical essays on painting and sculpture—enables Østermark-Johansen to show Pater’s role as a critic mostly concerned with formalist issues. She examines those themes which link Pater to those French authors as well as to Swinburne: the idea of the blending of the Classic and the Romantic, the idea of hybridity, androgyny and sexual ambivalence, the interest for the strange beauty of Romanticism, the question of sculpture as a “primitive” art form, and the rejection of the simian or grotesque in art—which induces her to offer stimulating analyses of Pater’s responses to Rodin and of his alignment with Baudelaire’s views on the primitivism of sculpture.

6Chapter 4 deals with Pater’s key relation to contemporary “Aestheticist Painting”. Østermark-Johansen argues that relief plays a central role in the visual productions of the Aesthetic Movement as many of their works evince qualities derived from sculptural relief—the monochromatic colour harmonies, the positioning of figures in a compressed space between a planar surface and a decorative background, or the emphasis on surface, texture and repetition. This leads her to conclude on Pater’s “return” to painting and his belief that painting is the all-encompassing art form of modernity. She also makes interesting analyses of the cross-fertilization typical of the period, aptly showing the echoes between Pater’s texts and the visual art works of Whistler, Burne-Jones, Leighton, dwelling, among other central themes, on the problematic of whiteness and colour.

7Chapter 5 is a discussion of Pater’s vision of Greek sculpture, which opens up to his studies of myths. One is brought back here to the thematic of the coexistence of Classic and Romantic, of the Olympian and the Chthonian, of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and, again, of polychromy and whiteness. The last chapter, “Style and the Language of Sculpture”, concludes on Pater’s plastic cult of the word and his view of reading and writing as essentially sculptural activities. Østermark-Johansen analyzes his conception of style and writing, drawing on thorough exploration of unpublished material and providing fascinating analyses of Pater’s manuscripts and texts published in their first editions which are rendered more concrete by the photographs provided. Besides, she traces Pater’s debt to De Quincey and Wordsworth, such as their notions of the palimpsest and of the process of incription: Pater draws on their plastic language to express the relationship between the inner and the outer world. Pater’s ideal of style is one which envisions a long historical line of formal, i.e. sculptural, unity between thought and expression—from the Greeks to the 19th century. One example of Pater’s sense of unity is his interweaving of the palimpsest and the relief frieze, which Østermark-Johansen brilliantly associates with the horizontal layering underneath the surface and with his trope of the procession which moves horizontally along the surface. The end of the chapter is a stimulating exploration of the relationships between textures—from marble to weaving and to inscribing on a page—as well as of the notions of tactility and impress.

8Lene Østermark-Johansen’s book mixes erudition and problematization, synthesis and analysis. It is an invaluable and polished monograph on Walter Pater’s aesthetics and style that not only provides a comprehensive exploration of all his works in their generic and thematic heterogeneity, but also offers a highly coherent view of that central late 19th-century author through that highly pertinent problematic of sculpture and the relief.

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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada, « Lene Østermark-Johansen, Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 76 Automne | 2012, 187-190.

Référence électronique

Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada, « Lene Østermark-Johansen, Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 76 Automne | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2013, consulté le 10 décembre 2019. URL :

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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada

Université de Rouen

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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