True Romance

True Romance

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) is among the most influential intellectual works ever written, an all the more staggering achievement given how unapproachable it is. Modern English translations from the original German commonly top 200,000 words and 700 pages. The language is dense, the definitions special, the sentences long, the concepts abstract, the arguments complex.

One of Kant’s best-known contributions to canon is the distinction his Critique draws between “analytical” propositions—whose truth-values are directly discernible from the definitions of the words being used (e.g. “Quadrangles contain four angles.”)—and “synthetic” ones, whose truth-values can’t be determined from definitions alone (e.g. “The sum of any quadrangle’s interior angles is 360º.”). Analytical truths tend to register like tautologies—plain statements that generally go without saying. Synthetic truths, on the other hand, tend to register more like revelations. Demonstrating them requires, at the very least, carefully synthesizing multiple analytical propositions, with results that are bound to be more novel and interesting than the simple tautological stuff.

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The curators of new exhibit The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860—highlighting perhaps the most influential artistic movement in history, with a title that plays off the name of Kant’s seminal work—seem to get this. Organizing “the first major collaborative exhibition” between the host, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Yale Center for British Art, whose building is now closed for renovations, the curators’ intent isn’t just to reassert “analytical” truths about Romanticism (though most of us could probably use a refresher). They also intend to convince us of a “synthetic,” more revelatory proposition about the movement: “Traditionally, Romanticism is deemed a foil to Enlightenment, overthrowing the reign of reason and reasserting the value of fantasy, spirituality and the individual psyche,” they write in the companion booklet. “This exhibition, however, presents Romanticism as driven by an attitude inherited from the Enlightenment: namely, the will to critique, in the Kantian sense of the term—that is, the will to skeptically analyze one’s own knowledge.”

And what a presentation it is. If a picture were worth a thousand words, this new Critique would be considerably longer than Kant’s, with well over 300 works on display. But where most of us would likely find the latter inscrutable and dry—at the very least, quite time-consuming—the extremely varied paintings, etchings, lithographs, sculptures and medallions that make up the exhibition, plucked from the vast collections of both of the institutions behind it, speak a lush, universal language that can be experienced in a couple of hours.

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Volcanic eruptions redden skies. Clouds hang like perfectly fluffed pillows. Forests glow from golden-hour sunlight. Locations familiar to the artists exude nostalgia. Far-off locales pulse with exoticism. In one particularly enthralling painting, a young girl naps on a marble sculpture, using a soldier’s uniform for bedding. Nearby, another young girl, much poorer-looking, sits on a floor, staring forlornly into an out-of-frame fire. Disasters of War, a massive series of etchings by Francisco de Goya arrayed in 27 columns of three, “exposes the atrocities of war” and “derides the excesses of the Church, the failures of imperial ambition and the terrible fragility of human morality during times of social and political duress.”

Across all of these diverse contexts, the exhibit makes a compelling case that the Romanticists did indeed embrace critical thinking, though they applied it in a new way, using it to explore “the emotional and imaginative capacities of the human subject”—which is to say, themselves. Even as Romantic-period creators retained the Enlightenment’s interest in depicting subjects realistically, they also came to embrace the notion that there would always be an inescapably subjective element of the process: the artist.

As a result, in landscape paintings, for example, it became fair game to suffuse land and water features with the feelings they happened to evoke in the painter. This in turn could imbue a landscape with enough meaning and attention to make it the primary subject of depiction. Before these developments, the curators write, “landscape painting primarily had served as a stage for human action, to frame a composition or reinforce established iconography. In the Romantic period, however, nature began to assume meaning and formal value…” It took embracing subjectivity to realize that nature, for one thing, isn’t merely a means to human ends but is rather an end in and of itself.

And isn’t that a more objective way of viewing the external world, in the end?

The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860
1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed, Fri 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm
(203) 432-0600…

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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