Liam Lenihan

Barry, Blake and Fuseli: The Material Difference

Barry, Blake and Fuseli: The Material Difference

This paper examines the aesthetic differences between three similar artists and writers in relation to the materiality of the signifier and the conception each man had of his audience. James Barry, William Blake and Henry Fuseli were visual artists who wrote a great deal about art or the artistic process. Their writings show us how material differences pertaining to artistic techniques – such as drawing an outline, the preferred medium, or the means by which the artist could or should address the audience, effect their aesthetic. Rather than focus upon the purely transcendental nature of the ideas behind the art of Barry, Blake and Fuseli, this paper argues that the actual physical execution and condition of the artist’s work informs us as readers and viewers. Just as the mind can teach the eye to understand the ideas behind a visual art heavily indebted to literary subjects, so too can the eye instruct the mind as to the material difference underlying such ideas.

The artistic and literary work of Barry, Blake and Fuseli straddled the divide between two distinct but intimately connected movements in European art: neoclassicism and romanticism. Although the former might be considered more traditional than the latter the writings of each artist demonstrate how self-consciously each man viewed his work in relation to both the classical tradition and the attempt to equal or go beyond it. This self-reflexivity is particularly important in relation to the under-appreciated area of artistic practice, be it the artist’s preferred technique or medium, and its influence upon the relative aesthetic of the artist. For example, James Barry was a more talented as a draughtsman and innovative as an engraver than he was as an oil painter. He was also more prolific in the supposedly lower artistic genres of engraving and printmaking than he was in oil painting. However, unlike his one-time student William Blake, Barry was a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts and his conception of grand allegorical oil pictures, often called history paintings, as the highest form of visual art contributed to his materially different approach to art from that of Blake. Just as Barry’s ideas influenced his approach to artistic practice the traditional practices of making a history painting shaped his approach to the ideas behind it.

Just as the issue of making books, in this case books about the making of visual texts, is important to this paper so too is the matter of shaping readers. The material difference between the paintings of an artist like Fuseli to that of Barry reflect the intellectual difference between them in relation to how they shaped their readers in their respective critical writings on art. While Fuseli’s work has always been prized by the modern viewer for its representation of extreme psychological moods and aspects, Barry’s has always been appreciated for its political and philosophical intensity. Fuseli cultivated a select and elite audience, addressing the viewer as fundamentally a private person; by contrast, Barry addressed the viewer as a fundamentally public citizen, hence his attempt to forge a new municipal art. These divergent approaches to the audience, in terms of both patronage and practice, inform a material difference – expressed in the artist’s work, and an intellectual difference – expressed in the artist’s writing.

In broad terms this paper seeks to demonstrate how different approaches towards the materiality of the signifier and the idea of an audience can complement one another by combining the empiricism of historically orientated scholar with the theoretical approach of the philosophically orientated academic.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.