Robinson links art, literature

Across the street from the Yale University Art Gallery’s “Picasso and the Allure of Language,” an exhibit about Pablo Picasso’s relationship to 20th century literature, a British art historian described the link between 18th and 19th century British art and literature.

In the crowded lecture hall at the Yale Center for British Art on Tuesday afternoon, Duncan Robinson, master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, delivered his first lecture, titled “Pen and Pencil: Writing and Painting in England, 1750-1850,”as part of the biennial Paul Mellon series. Robinson, the former director of the YCBA, explained how artists and writers both inspired and learned from each other.

“Paintings were made of literature,” Robinson said. “Poets cited art. Artists cited poems.”

During his lecture, Robinson emphasized the works of British painter William Hogarth, drawing a link between his paintings and theater. An avid theater-goer in London, Hogarth demonstrated his passion for the stage in his brushstrokes, Robinson said.

“As a result, his paintings were very theatrical, and his characters literally animated as if they were on a stage” Robinson said.

Robinson went on to describe Hogarth’s series called “The Beggar’s Opera,” which was based on John Gay’s opera of the same name, to let the audience picture how art captures the spirit of a playwright’s words.

While the purpose of this year’s series is to reveal the interdependence of literature and visual arts, Robinson said he selected artists who have work hanging at the YCBA or its sister institution, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London.

“I try to incorporate the paintings at the Center into my lecture, not only because it helps illustrate my point but also because Yale has such a wonderful collection,” Robinson said.

But each artist also stood out from the sea of British painters in the 18th and 19th centuries for establishing a significant relationship with the written word. Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, will be the focus of the next lecture because Reynolds associated with more writers than artists of his age, Robinson said. In addition to painting, Reynolds wrote about the theory of art.

Saving poet and artist William Blake for the last lecture, Robinson said Blake had sentimental value: he was the first artist Mellon began collecting. Blake believed writing and painting were inseparable, Robinson said.

For the gallery, Robinson’s visit is sentimental in and of itself. Robinson, a former adjunct professor of History of Art at Yale, was the longest-serving director at the Center. He left in 1995 and moved to Cambridge.

“[His] presence always enlivens our community in the most stimulating and enjoyable of ways,” Amy Meyers, the current director of the YCBA, said.

While the audience was mainly comprised of adults, Ricardo Sandoval, the public relations representative for the YCBA, said these lectures are also intended to reach students at Yale. He added that they help provide scholarly background about the vast collection of work hanging at the Center.

“We have a really great collection of British art here and hope that these lectures will lead students and others to visit the center and have a greater understanding of the artists mentioned in the lecture series,” Sandoval said.

This series is held in honor of Paul Mellon ’29, who founded the YCBA and the Paul Mellon Centre. The next talk will be held on Thursday, April 16.

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