Day 2 of Dickens and the Visual Imagination took us to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Artin London. The wonderful cavern of an underground library provided the perfect setting for a day of papers that focused more specifically on art and film historians’ perspectives on Dickens.
The day began with Lynda Nead’s keynote “‘To let in the sunlight’: Dickens, Lean and the Chiaroscuro of Postwar Britain”, a fascinating analysis of David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. Nead started with some stimulating questions that pushed at the wider frameworks of the conference: what do we mean by “the visual imagination”? What is our “visual imagination” of Dickens: what do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why? Nead began by thinking about how we read the relationship between text and film, arguing for a reciprocal relationship in which neither text nor film is privileged but rather seeing adaptation as a process of creative transformation evolving new forms and opportunities – this, she suggested, might offer one way in which to understand the concept of a visual imagination. With this in mind Nead moved on to read Lean’s Great Expectations in the context of postwar Britain, providing a detailed analysis of a selection of stills from the film which focused on the complexity of Lean’s use of black and white.
The use of chiaroscuro – the interplay between light and shadow- constructs a subtle “language of shadow” which achieves a rich depth to images, and constructs an aesthetic of decay and ruin which was highly resonant with the postwar Britain in which the film was produced. Nead seemed to be suggesting that the aesthetic language of the film is not “Dickensian” as such, but rather creates a visual language of its own that very much belonged to the moment in which the film was made.
The next panel on Perception and Perspective began with Andrew Mangham’s paper (read by Greg Tate) on Dickens, Hogarth and Perspective, an interesting analysis that took Dickens’s references to Hogarth in the preface to Oliver Twist as a starting-point for identifying a Hogarthian sense of visual perspective in Dickens’s realism. Janice Carlisle followed with an exploration of Great Expectations and JMW Turner’s painting; this worked towards centring Estella in the novel’s visual economy, particularly in terms of how Estella constructs Pip as artist. Aleza Tadri-Friedman presented on “Art Appreciation and Visual Perception in Dombey and Son“, considering the recurrence of art throughout the novel with a particular focus on how the transgressive Edith Granger is positioned within wider debates about art and perception in the nineteenth century; in another indicative text-illustration reading, Tadri-Friedman looked at the interplay between the narrative construction of Edith through Dombey and Carker, and the illustration that accompanies one key scene in this narrative.
Panel 2 explored Dickens and Painting, beginning with Dehn Gilmore’s “Reading the Dickensian Gallery” which suggested ways in which art and artistic vocabulary in Dickens might offer a new way of understanding Dickens’s relationship to his early reviewers. Pat Hardy’s Dickens and Portraits looked at the ways in which Dickens employs the language of portrait painting, focusing on Bleak House which represents a key moment in engaging with ideas around portraiture, exploring key ideas about physiognomy and using this not only as a way in which to read individuals, but also with an interest in how people see one another. Vincent Alessi finished with a paper on the influence of Dickens on Vincent van Gogh, offering a complex examination of van Gogh’s development as a painter and analysing particular paintings of or influenced by Dickens.
The day concluded with a final keynote presentation by Kate Flint on the subject of “Pavement Art”. Flint began with a short story by Dickens, “His Brown Paper Parcel” (“Somebody’s Luggage”; All the Year Round, 1862 Christmas edition), in which the narrator is a pavement artist: why, Flint asked, would such a figure be so interesting to Dickens? In what followed, Flint offered a wonderfully rich exploration of pavement artists in the nineteenth century and explored the questions raised through this unique form of visual culture. Pavement art occupies an interesting, often contradictory, space: it is emphemeral yet immobile/immoveable; outside of institutions and the marketplace, yet necessarily public and invites the viewer to participate in a form of artistic patronage; often produces a copied image but never produces a definitive replica and depends upon being constantly reproduced; creates delight amongst its audience through the process of its creation more than in existing as a finished product. Pavement art troubles and challenges the definition of art and artist, and in turn raises complex questions about the relationship between author and art work, raising issues of ownership and authorship, creation and performance, and the position of art in the public sphere- all especially important to Dickens at a time when he was touring the country performing extracts of his own work in his final years. Ideas were raised here too about the mobility of the artist and the circulation of art, resonating with the rise in print circulation throughout the nineteenth century and Flint picked up on this relationship, as well as questions around the legitimacy of wandering and loitering.
Illustration of a pavement artist from The Graphic, September 1874
Flint’s talk provided a stimulating end to the day, and in its analysis of a different form of culture also spoke to some of the issues that Lynda Nead had raised in questioning the idea of the visual imagination: there was here an idea about how we might define the visual imagination as being, like pavement art, something transient, ephemeral and almost impossible to truly grasp, something forged and re-forged in different contexts and places, resisting (or defeated by) the permanence of the art forms that it tries to get a hold of, and always part of a process of creative transformation that evolves, adapts, and opens up new possibilites for interpretation.