Research Seminar, November 15th, 2011: Dr Carolynn Burdett, ‘Miming, Breathing, Balancing: the art of empathy and the Victorian fin de siècle’.
I’ll begin at the end, if you will allow.  Dr Carolynn Burdett’s intriguing seminar had finished.  In it, she had discussed the research of Vernon Lee.  In a radical enterprise exploring aesthetics, Lee travelled Europe with her cohort (which seems a reasonable descriptor after hearing of their experiences; companion or lover doesn’t seem appropriate somehow) Kit Anstruther-Thomson, recording physical responses to art.  My mind was racing.  The question of how we react to art, or beauty and ugliness, was central to both Dr Burdett’s paper and Lee’s research, and something in particular Dr Burdett said played on my mind: ‘interacting with art should be hard work’ (I’m paraphrasing here).  It would be easy, wouldn’t it, to stroll around a gallery muttering ‘that’s nice’ or ‘I don’t get that’, but what if we really looked.  Stopped.  And looked.  With intent.  How would our body react?  How would our feelings towards the subject manifest themselves physically?  And how aware would be of the changes?  Our emotional response to art is obvious.  Walking home, I remembered seeing Isidre Nonell’s portrait ‘Paloma’ in Barcelona for the first time.  I was rooted to the gallery floor.  Something about Paloma grabbed me so intently I was moved; visibly, to my embarrassment.  It was a reaction rooted in ‘feeling’, but how had my body responded?  This hadn’t registered, of course (why would it?) but for Anstruther-Thomson, responding to art and objects was a ‘physical’ experience.  So in tune with her bodily reactions, she could interpret these changes and describe them to Lee, who would use this research to explore the notion of empathy, the responses of the body to art, and the psychology of aesthetic experience.

Dr Burdett’s paper, ‘Miming, Breathing, Balancing: the art of empathy and the Victorian fin de siècle’, was concerned with investigating this notion of empathy, a term that didn’t enter our language until 1909, coming from the German einfühlung.  Using George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda as a route inside empathy, Dr Burdett described how she intended to explore what was happening at the turn of the century to the language of sympathy.  The work of Vernon Lee is central to the investigation.  Lee was interested in the psychology of aesthetics and sought to give a scientific account of aesthetic experience.  Influenced by the James-Lange hypotheses, Lee sought to overturn common sequences of how the body reacts to emotional changes.  Her thinking went beyond the senses, and re-thought theories of how the body works.  Lee’s work and writing was as radical as that of her male contemporaries but afforded less recognition, a situation Dr Burdett and other contemporary academics seek to redress.  A lively question and answer session followed Dr Burdett’s paper with links drawn between Lee’s research and German philosophy and the physical manifestation of ‘feeling’ in the body experienced by mediums, a subject Dr Burdett hopes to write a future chapter on.  The research seminar was certainly engaging and thought provoking, and the exploits of Lee and Anstruther-Thomson, travelling around Europe ‘responding’ to art, inspired thoughts of an idyllic existence so far removed from a chilly November night in Liverpool, it was difficult not be amused and envious in equal measures.

Mark Tooke

[Mark is at LJMU, working towards a PhD on ‘The Accidental Detective in Contemporary Scottish Fiction’.]

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