A new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art aims to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the literary and visual arts.
The exhibit, “Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” displays a series of busts of the British poet Alexander Pope created by his friend, the French sculptor Louis François Roubiliac. The show, which opens at the Center on Thursday, also includes paintings, documents and other objects illuminating the two significant 18th century cultural figures. This summer, the exhibit will travel to Waddesdon Manor in Britain, home to one of the two busts of Pope central to the exhibit, while the other belongs to the YCBA’s collections.
“[Literature and visual art] are intermeshed in the culture of the 18th century and beyond -— you can’t isolate them,” said Martina Droth, the exhibit’s organizing curator at the Center, YCBA associate director of research and education, and curator of sculpture.
The growing popularity of the portrait bust in Britain coincided with the emergence of a new conception of authorship, explained Distinguished Professor of Art History at University of California, Riverside Malcolm Baker, who curated the exhibit. The bust became a frequent means of building the fame of authors, Baker said.
Theater and English Professor Joseph Roach explained that Pope was perhaps the first figure in English literature to make a living based on his work alone — without patronage. The poet was “a rockstar” in 18th-century Britain, and so his image became ubiquitous, Roach said.
“[Roubiliac and Pope] built their success upon one another’s reputations,” YCBA Director Amy Meyers said.
The artwork in the exhibit also illuminates Pope’s position in the literary canon, Baker said. Pope’s books on display illustrate the poet’s “engagement with the materiality of the book,” Baker said, explaining that Pope featured images of himself in his books, sometimes alongside depictions of earlier literary icons such as Homer.
“Pope is always referential to classical sources – both in his writing and in his image,” Baker said.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Center will host a conference this weekend titled “Objects, Images, and Texts: Pope, Roubiliac and Representation of Authorship.” Droth said the exhibit as well as the particular format of the conference, which pairs papers by scholars of English literature with those of scholars of Art History, are meant to highlight the two fields’ interconnectedness.
The exhibit is a particularly significant one to present at Yale, said Roach, explaining that Yale has produced the most significant body of Pope scholarship — largely owing to the efforts of Sterling Professor of English W.K. Wimsatt and Sterling Professor of English Maynard Mack, who wrote the definitive biography of Pope. Wimsatt, a key figure in literary theory’s “New Criticism” movement, cowrote “The Intentional Fallacy,” an essay arguing that an author’s intention or biography is irrelevant to his work: what matters is the text. Ironically, Wimsatt dedicated much of his life to collecting meticulous historical scholarship about Pope, Roach said.
“In any humanistic inquiry — which includes art history — there is a productive tension between foreground and background,” said Roach, who will speak about Pope’s influence at Yale during the conference.
The Center’s exhibit places Pope in the context of New Criticism, Meyers said, adding that the exhibit has an antecedent in the 1961 show featuring portrait busts of Pope that Wimsatt organized at the National Portrait Gallery in London. When the current exhibit travels to Waddeston Manor, the artistic works will be placed in a national context; the show will explore problem of translation as well as the questions regarding England’s relationship to France that emerge from Roubiliac’s being a French sculptor, Meyers added.
Baker said he has been researching the portrait bust for over 20 years. Droth explained that it was largely due to Baker’s extensive knowledge of all of the busts’ locations and the appeal of his vision for the exhibit that allowed the show to come together in two years, while preparations for most exhibitions take at least five or six years.
While the busts are all housed at the Center, they are undergoing a technical scanning study in the Center’s restoration facilities to ascertain the ways in which the sculptures differ, Droth explained. She said the data collected from this study as well as the content of the conferences held both at the YCBA and at Waddesdon Manor will become the basis of a book.
“Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain” will remain on view through May 19.