Mukai, Kumiko. Hawthorne's Visual Artists and the Pursuit of a Transatlantic Aesthetics.
Apart from Prophetic Pictures: Nathaniel Hawthorne's Knowledge and Uses of the Visual Arts by Rita K. Gollin, John L. Idol, and Sterling K. Eisiminger, surprisingly very little work has been done on the subject of Hawthorne and the visual arts, which is a shame, given the centrality of the visual and of aesthetics to Hawthorne's work, especially from the 1850s novels forward. Kumiko Mukai's book is a helpful step forward in our better understanding of Hawthorne's aesthetic philosophy and the ways in which his exposure to European art, as well as to European and expatriate artists during the Consul years abroad, reshaped his thinking and art.
In Chapter One, Mukai pays new attention to some often overlooked tales: "The Prophetic Pictures," "Sylph Etherege," and "Edward Randolph's Portrait." In Chapter Two, she shifts her attention to The Scarlet Letter and to the importance of Hester Prynne's embroidery. In Chapters Three, Four, and Five, the focus is exclusively on The Marble Faun, which, given this novel's complexity and its almost delirious series of meditations on a range of art objects and artistic types, as well as their gendered significance, seems well justified. The most valuable aspects of Mukai's argument are feminist: her discussions of the significance of embroidery to The Scarlet Letter and women artists to The Marble Faun.
For Mukai, the three "study" tales of painted portraits she examines in the first chapter "represent Hawthorne's early view of art." They illuminate the major themes of his art, its central antitheses: "humanity and art, reality and imagination, love and loneliness, mortality and immortality, ideal and earthliness, perfection and imperfection, evanescence and eternity, good and evil, sanity and insanity"; "he acknowledges artists as they are and views their faults and humanity with empathy" (24). Hawthorne, Mukai argues, "does not consider that the artwork should attach to the artist" (34). While noting the significance of miniature portraiture to "Sylph Etherege," Mukai's initial ventures into Hawthorne's aesthetics mainly focus on his moral themes, which art and artist figures extend: "one of the characteristics of Hawthorne's aesthetics is a comprehension of ... contrary ideas, and he is fully aware of factors like human sorrow, vulnerability, foolishness, obstinacy, and evanescence" (45). Mukai does little to justify renewed attention to these stories, essentially repeating traditional assessments of Hawthorne's recurring themes.
Once she proceeds to the major works, her argument becomes more interesting. I am quite appreciative of her focus on the figure of embroidery in The Scarlet Letter, given how many of my students have complained over the years about the ways in which Hawthorne apparently delimits Hester's art as "feminine" and therefore inferior to the author's own. They miss out, as I let them know, on the phallic urgency of Hester's needle, but also on Hawthorne's belief in Hester's woman-centered aesthetic potentialities. Hester, Mukai writes, fuses the "conflicting portraits of a conservatively domestic woman and a new kind of independent woman--a veiled, self-controlled woman and a passionate, self-assertive woman. Her art, accordingly, is both a manifestation of self-expression (i.e., a projection of the self) and a recoil from projection" (86). Mukai draws our attention to the ways in which Hawthorne's depiction of Hester as a seamstress is tinged with anxieties connected to the other possible profession for a seventeenth century woman, prostitution, and to issues of Puritan iconophobia, important to understanding the radical charge of Hester's defiant artistic pride. Her art is also intricately tied to nation and culture. "Hawthorne entrusts Hester with the significant mission of an American woman whose aesthetic is affected by English culture. She must create a new style of art that bridges the Old and New Worlds, Puritan society and Jacobean art, patriarchy and equalitarianism, and sin and atonement. Hawthorne's ultimate goal may have been to describe a character who artistically connects the two countries: she inherits the British art of embroidery, but practices it with a transatlantic perspective" (96).
It is in her three chapters on The Marble Faun that Mukai's work really shines. Uncovering a range of art work-intertexts for the novel, Mukai devotes each chapter to one of the central artist figures in the novel: Hilda, Miriam, and Kenyon. Drawing our attention to the works that may have had an influence on Hawthorne's great, ambitious, maddening novel about expatriate artists in Rome, Mukai also links this novel's heroines to Hester Prynne through works like Francesco del Cairo's Herodias with the Head of St. John the Baptist, presently in the MFA in Boston. "There is the possibility that Hawthorne saw this painting, in which his favourite theme and technique, chiaroscuro, represent the mysteriously beautiful face of Herodias as she sews the tongue of the prophet. The needle, femininity, cruelty, and sexual perversion are suggested by her brutal act, as is a usurpation of the masculine voice" (107). Mukai discusses this painting in the context of the first image we have of Miriam Schaefer, the Jewish heroine or anti-heroine, depending on one's point of view, of the novel, in which she is mending a pair of gloves. "The image of her sewing hardly acts to stabilize her femininity," given that the sketches in her studio are of such phallic Biblical avenging women as Jael and Judith (107). Another work Mukai highlights is Bernardo Luini's Salome and St. John the Baptist, which Hawthorne did actually see, in Uffizi. In Luini's painting, the decapitating woman Salome and St. John "do not cross gazes, and Salome's expression is typically enigmatic, grotesque, and dreadful." In contrast, Miriam paints the decapitated prophet looking at Salome with "a look of gentle and heavenly reproach," awakening in her "whole womanhood" love and "endless remorse" (IV, 44). As Mukai argues, "By humanizing Salome and imbuing her with a sympathetic response to a saint, Miriam embodies her contradictory desires: to achieve independence mastery [sic] (not least of her own desires), and to be protected and forgiven" (126). Mukai's sensitive treatment of Hawthorne's depiction of women artists is, in the end, the strongest feature of this book. While he is not, in her view, a feminist, Hawthorne felt sympathetic to women and their social situation, a view that enables Mukai to make illuminating points about Hilda and Miriam in particular; she underscores the importance of Hilda's role as a copyist of the Great Masters, clarifying why making her a copyist is not a sexist decision on Hawthorne's part, and she allows us to see Hawthorne's identificatory investment in the turbulent, complex Miriam.
"It is sculpture," Mukai writes, "that arguably best realizes the key concepts in Hawthorne's view of the artist; immortality, spirituality, and purity" (109). Women artists, Mukai points out, were not associated with sculpture because it was considered expressive of high masculine ideas, whereas women artists could only work within the "personal realm," hence their predilection for pastels, portraits, miniatures, and paintings of flowers (110). (One has only to see the work of an artist like Georgia O'Keefe to witness the savagism and philosophical complexity of female flower-paintings.) While Mukai points out the significance of Miriam's associations with sculpture in the novel (111), in her view Hawthorne ultimately maintains a "latent prejudice against extremely 'free and new' women artists.... Hawthorne may present Miriam with the intention of engendering a different type of woman artist, but in the end, his views of art and women remain patriarchal ones. Instead, he struggles to reconcile the contradictions embodied in Miriam, imagining an ideal heroine who is at once mysterious, gifted, 'feminine,' and modest" (114-115).
Many of Mukai's discussions, and in particular those in which she compares visual art to Hawthorne's ekphrastic depiction of them, are valuable. But overall, this uneven book verges here and there on brilliant analysis yet remains analytically threadbare. One longs for a really sustained discussion of the implications of many, if not most, of the book's findings. Mukai, who has produced a fine bibliography, has certainly done a great deal of research, but has not always accompanied this research with analytical exploration. She maintains a view of Hawthorne as an essentially timorous man who occasionally allowed himself access to his darker impulses and to his capacities for empathy with women. This view of Hawthorne is compounded by anachronistic references to Hawthorne as a "Puritan," which would certainly have surprised the author. In the end, Mukai seems to perpetuate Henry James's view of Hawthorne as a primitive American artist with flashes of genius. She misses out on, in my view, the centrality of themes of gender and sexuality to Hawthorne's art, seeing, instead, only his work's relevance to these themes. In this regard, however, Mukai is hardly alone. In any event, readers who avail themselves of her study will, I suspect, find much that is useful in it, picking and choosing amongst the numerous points of interest on display.
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|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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