Like Romanticism itself, the YUAG’s new and exhaustive special exhibition “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860” is difficult to encapsulate. Drawing from a variety of collections — the Gallery itself, the Yale Center for British Art and Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library — the exhibition spans two floors and four galleries and creates a sweeping landscape of the Romantic movement. Sectioned into eight different themes and featuring works by such luminaries as Joseph Mallord William Turner and Francisco de Goya, the exhibition attempts to provide a clearer understanding of the movement’s multi-faceted nature. And while it would be impossible for any one exhibition, no matter how large, to capture the essence of the Romantic period, “The Critique of Reason,” a stunning exhibit, comes impressively close.
Each room in the gallery is painted a different shade of either red or blue, creating a slight tension that keeps viewers on their toes. The delicate contrast between colors alludes to the opposition between the Enlightenment and Romanticism: Light blues and heather greys suggest the clarity of reason and the cool certainty of the Enlightenment, juxtaposed with deep crimsons and vibrant reds that call forth the emotionally charged tempest of Romantic thought.
As the exhibition’s title suggests, Romanticism turned Enlightenment’s own investigative lens onto itself, questioning knowledge and whether reason might detract from the appreciation of beauty. The paintings on view suggest a quest for answers about one’s self and one’s place in the world, answers that cannot necessarily be found with a microscope. The gallery’s layout offers no set chronology or prescribed order in which to view the themes and allows the viewer free reign, encouraging a Romantic-like exploration of the self and the surroundings.
Much of the exhibit is dominated by landscapes: caverns, starry swatches of sky, seascapes punctured by boats, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, ominous clouds. Each painting invites the viewer to inhabit the artist’s mind and search for whatever meaning he (the vast majority of artist on view are men) found in the bareness of valleys or the grandeur of fantastical caves. However, viewers can also imagine themselves into the landscape, to see how their thoughts align with any particular painter’s vision. I found myself enthralled in the pulsating stars and the faint horizon of Jean-Francois Millet’s “Starry Night.” The calm of the hazy trees and the deep cerulean sky drew me into Millet’s psyche, allowing me a moment’s break from my hectic life.
“The Critique of Reason” also highlights the intense Romantic fascination with the raw power of nature. Man is pitted against the uncontrollable, the mighty force of natural disasters. One painting in particular conveys this: John Martin’s “The Deluge.” A massive canvas wider than my 5’2” frame, it commands the attention of the room and drew me in immediately not just with its size but with its subject as well: a small island of impotent people at the center of a dark seascape, surrounded by towering waves. I recognized the helplessness of the people, their complete lack of control over their fate, and was captivated by a scene of utter terror for those within it.
The paintings within this exhibition allow us to confront our fears from a safe distance. However the Romantics could also appreciate nature’s gentle beauty. For example, John Constable’s “Cloud Studies” depict a nature as nonthreatening, ever-changing and welcoming.
Although all the works within the gallery are over a hundred and fifty years old, many of the paintings still feel relevant. Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War, an eighty-piece exploration of the realistic and fantastical horrors of war, brings to mind images we see every day on the news; each etching draws the viewer further into a real-life nightmare. Viewing the etchings, one begins to wonder why such terrors persist and why we haven’t learned from the past; Goya’s works suggest that, two hundred years ago, he asked the same questions.
With poise and exuberance, “The Critique of Reason” grapples with pertinent emotions and issues. Wandering the exhibition can be likened to walking through one’s own mind, seeing reflections, both welcome and unwelcome, of the world around us and within us. Whether you’re looking for introspection, knowledge, or the simple pleasure of viewing the work of talented artists, “The Critique of Reason” is the perfect escape.