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Introduction: The Time for the Change Has Come
Culture is something that is never stable – floating together with time, sometimes keeping in pace with the latter, sometimes overrunning it, and sometimes lingering somewhere in the past, it follows the specific, unpredictable pattern.
Turning steady even for a moment is unnatural to culture in general and art in particular – once stopped, they cease to exist.
Because of the considerable pause in the art development in the Victorian period, Pevsner assumes that such artists as Morris, Gropius, etc. were called to put an end to the period of cultural “stagnation” of the Victorian England; however, according to the existing evidence, such ideas were considered as highly controversal ones by a number of critics.
It must be admitted that the considerations of Pevsner could be doubted even despite the profound grounding that made their basis. Like any other revolutionary idea, this one was greeted rather coldly, which allows to suggest that there was a grain of truth in the author’s assumptions.
To be more serious, it is necessary to admit that Pevsner’s work deserves respect due to its grandeur – the all-embracing observation of the most noticeable works of the English painters of the Victorian period is most impressive; such is its authority that one starts instinctively believing the ideas that Pevsner communicated in his work.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that Pevsner’s work was also based on the papers of the famous Victorian artist, William Morris, which already adds certain tint of credibility to Pevsner’s research.
Pevsner’s Ideas: Is There Something Wrong about Victorian Epoch?
Who could ever dare to profane the Victorian epoch and suggest that this was the period of stagnation in the sphere of art?
Pevsner’s idea of the group of artists who were destined to change the world’s vision of the world art in general and the English art in particular seems shocking, yet there is certain evidence that the writer’s speculations are worth paying attention to.
Despite his exposed criticism of the pause in the artistic development of the Victorian period, he never meant to slacken it or make it vanish. As Draper mentioned,
Pevsner has been and was criticized for his interest in the picturesque, which seems at odds with his views on Modernism but for a general, educated audience, he marshaled the picturesque and its theories to promote Victorian architecture1
Therefore, these were not the ideas of the Victorian epoch that Pevsner called to abandon, but the stable, frozen state that the art was in.
However, it is important to mark that Pevsner’s ideas were also supported by a number of critics who considered his criticism of the historianism as the opinion that had the right to exist. Indeed, the arguments of the writer were rather reasonable; perhaps, it was the very notion of historianism that confused the critics and created the surge of misunderstanding. As Watkin explained,
Spurging the interpretations of historicism by the philosophers and sociologists who have invented and popularized the term, Pevsner used it, generally in a condemnatory sense, simply to refer to those who allow themselves to be influenced by past styles2
Based on the philosophy of Morris, Pevsner’s idea of the modern art was considered as something dangerously new. It is quite peculiar that some of his critics denied the very idea of change in the art.
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A good example of such position is Watkin’s critique that was aimed at Pevsner’s belief in Zeitgeist3. However, tracing the roots of Pevsner’s philosophy, one can see distinctly that it is far from being skin deep.
Thinking the Morris Way
Like many other revolutionary ideas, Pevsner’s version of what the art of Morris and the rest meant for England and the entire world was grounded on sufficient evidence. With help of Morris’s assessment of the state of Victorian art, Pevsner was able to make such far-reaching assumptions.
Despite the probable one-sidedness of Pevsner’s ideas, they were still based on rather solid evidence, which means that Pevsner’s ideas can be considered plausible. Incorporating the approach that Morris practiced in his evaluation of the Victorian art, Pevsner actually approached the idea of socialism in art, as he followed Morris, who “believed in design as a moral force for good, which could liberate humanity from their drudgery and enslavement to the capitalistic factory system of production”4.
It seems though that, despite the accusations of socialistic approach and the anti-Victorian moods in his ideas, it still seems that the modernistic tendencies that he was actively promoting were of crucial importance for the art and for the artists, as well as the viewpoint of the Victorian art that he suggested.
Indeed, the modernist artists that started the triumph of the art nuveau, releasing the art from the impact of the epoch, Morris et al. offered a plethora of novelties for the further development of the art.
Taking a Closer Look at the Truth: Art for Sake of Art
To understand whether the considerations of Pevsner were true enough, it is necessary to analyze several artworks from the Victorian period that Pevsner described. One of the most influential personalities of the then epoch, Goldwin, Morgan and Morris himself would suit this goal in the very best way.
One if Morris’s mist famous creations, Sunflower Wallpaper, is the anthem to simplicity, which brings one closer to the socialist ideas that the artist was so fond of. According to Jill Duchess of Hamilton, this was the desire to bring the nature closer to the industrial, robot-like cities:
Among the displays of wealth of the new rich of the industrial era were gardens packed with assortments of horticular freaks. Some unfortunate exotic plants had been selected simply for their bizarre appearance, like alien creatures in the zoo5
Considering the artwork by de Morgan, the famous Peacock, one can see the same implication underlying the artwork, namely, the desire to turn back to the nature. Ridden through with the passion for the natural, the entire artwork is breathing with the new life that de Morgan gave it.
Pursuing the same idea of returning back to the Nature and appreciating it as the main source for inspiration, he created his famous Peacock, a bluish anthem to the beauty of the wild; in addition, he dared to offer the influence of the Eastern ideas to the British art.
As Osband remarked, “Inspired by the beauty and colors of Islamic ornamentation, de Morgan used vivid colors, especially peacock blues and greens, and Turkish and Persian motifs”6
The last, but not the least, the creation of Godwin deserves close and thorough examinations. A sideboard shaped in the way no one could imagine it to be, this was one of the earliest manifestations of modernism in the Victorian times.
As soon as the artwork was introduced into the world of art, there could be no doubts that the Victorian historianism was left for good, and the stale, frozen forms of art are no longer to be feared.
It must be noted that the Sideboard was considered a daring mixture of the English and the Japanese style, which broke new grounds in the sphere of art. A huge step forward, the discovery of cultural fusion was a sign of great cultural progress, which means that Pevsner’s theory is not to be doubted.
Conclusion: On a Journey to the Future
Looking back at the past, with its moments of stunning discoveries and the periods of complete, utter nothingness, one can claim that the theory of Pevsner had the grain of truth in it. Once the idea of modernism, though mixed with a speck of socialism, started reigning in the culture of the country, the further progress became possible.
Unless this step has been made, the further development of culture would be impossible – captured by the stereotypes of what art must be like, England would have never been able to establish the new ideas in their splendor.
Thus, it can be considered that the theory of art development that Pevsner suggested proves right, despite all criticism that it was subject to. Providing a thorough consideration of the Victorian art, Pevsner discovered the true reasons that enhanced the development of the English culture.
Cowling, M. Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, Vol. 3, Cambridge, MA, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Draper, P. Reassessing Nicolaus Pevsner. New York, NY, Ashgate Publishing, 2004.
Douglas-Hamilton, J., P. Hart & J. Simmons, The Gardens of William Morris New York City, NY, Frances Lincoln, 2006.
Lees-Maffei, G., & R. House, The Design History Reader. Oxford, UK, Berg Publishers, 2010.
Osband, L. Victorian House Style: An Architectural and Interior Design Source Book. Columbus, OH, F&W Publications, 2001.
Watkin, D. Morality and Architecture Revised. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 2011.
1. Draper, P. Reassessing Nicolaus Pevsner. New York, NY, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004, 138
2. Watkin, D. Morality and Architecture Revised. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 2011, 115
3. M. Cowling. Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, Vol. 3, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 692
4. Lees-Maffei, G., & R. House, The Design History Reader, Oxford, UK, Berg Publishers, 2010, 54
5. Hamilton, Duchess of, J., The Gardens of William Morris, P. Hart & J. Simmons, New York City, NY, Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2006, 17
6. Osband, L. Victorian House Style: An Architectural and Interior Design Source Book. Devon, UK, 2002, 172