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Rethinking Romanticism: Works By Blake, Turner, Goya At Yale

Special to the Courant
Rethinking Romanticism with art by Blake, Turner, Goya and more in New Haven

Any art exhibition that features the work of Blake, Turner, Stubbs, Goya, Gericault, Delacroix and Constable is worth seeing. Period.

These masters, and many others just as awe-inspiring, are currently on view in "The Critique of Reason, Romantic Art, 1760-1860," the first collaborative exhibition between the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art (the latter is closed for a year for conservation work on the building).

With that said — and given the brilliant curatorial staffs of both museums — the resultant exhibition, "The Critique of Reason," is more of a hodgepodge than the super grand homestand one might have anticipated. It's a sprawling, eight-section show that recasts Romanticism — that post-Enlightenment period often thought of as individualism unleashed in worlds of fantasy and spirituality — as something far more substantial.

There are magnificent moments, particularly in the sections called "Nature: Spectacle and Specimen," "Artist as Social Critic," "Landscape and the Perceiving Subject," and "Literary Impulse." Here, you can fleetingly grasp the overriding theme of the exhibition — that Romanticism was not just created by detached, isolated figures but was very much attuned to the changing world. It was not, in other words, a sigh of relief and a retreat from the "real world" but a serious critique of it.

There is value in seeking a more flexible definition of Romanticism, of course, since no movement in any of the arts is really as ironclad as historians sometimes proclaim. To achieve this, the curators cite the "momentous changes" between 1760 and 1860 — American and French revolutions, Napoleon's conquest of land, James Cook's explorations of oceans, Darwin's "The Origin of Species" and Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason," from which the exhibition takes its title. ("Our age is…the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit," Kant proclaimed). "In sum," the curators conclude, "the modern world was forged" during this time.

The section that makes the most convincing case for the exhibition's overriding theme is "Artist as Social Critic." Here, you find a veritable wailing wall of 80 etchings by Goya from his 1863 Disasters of War. You don't need to look at every image to get the full impact. Just step back and absorb the totality of war's disaster, any war. Haven't we seen these same images before, updated every 10 years in the past two centuries?

Still, James Gilray's three hand-colored etchings are what really stand out in the section, including "Blood of the Murdered Crying for Vengeance" (Step right up! See Louis XVI's severed head on the ground!) and "Zenith of French Glory" (Look at the garroted priests swinging from stanchions! This is French gory, not glory!). Both depict the excesses of the French Revolution but also seem to portend the contemporary fanatical brutality of ISIS, the Taliban and Boko Haram. Next to Gilray, and counterbalancing the horror, are etchings with watercolor from William Blake's first prophetic book, "America A Prophecy (1793). Blake contrasted America's successful revolution with the French disaster, reminding us that we were once the great hope of the world, even in England. More of Blake's unrivaled visionary work can be found in the "Literary Impulse" section (startling engravings, among the last he ever made, for an edition of Dante's Divine Comedy) and "Religion" (another prophecy, Jerusalem, from 1804, and others). Indeed, the Blake is reason enough to visit this exhibition several times.

Another highlight is the work of JMW Turner, particularly "Dort or Dordrecht," a huge seascape from 1815 that is filled with clarity and detail, juxtaposed with "Wreckers, Coast of Northumberland" from 1833-34, in which Turner opens the door to modern art, from Impressionism to abstraction. Several other Turners included here fall between these two points on the artistic compass.

This is not a chronological but thematic exhibition so you can enter from either end and not be entirely lost. An effort has been made to incorporate works from both museums — to allow for "cross-English Channel synergies" — because Romanticism has long been thought of as primarily a French movement. But here, the British art predominates. The strongest continental counterbalance comes from France (Delacroix, Gericault, Daumier, Corot).

In short, "The Critique of Reason" is open-ended enough for visitors to create their own unifying theme for themselves. With or without that loaded word "Romanticism."

THE CRITIQUE OF REASON, ROMANTIC ART, 1760-1860 is on view through July 26 at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven. Information: 203-432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu

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