Friday, August 21, 2009

Reading between Digital and Analog: Henry Wentworth Monk

The Sin and Salvation exhibit (reviewed here at Minnesota Public Radio) shows how radical and quirky the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was, a loose band of painters who posed a challenge to the conventions of Titian-style portraiture. They made highly decorative works, often designing their own frames, complete with lines of text and sculptural elements. To fully enter these works, viewers are expected to read them, interpreting religious and poetic symbols and connecting complex narrative threads.

One of my favorite paintings is this one, a portrait of Henry Wentworth Monk. He's a man with alarming facial hair, like Hunt himself (in this self portrait). Hunt holds the Bible in one hand, and the Times (London?) in the other. It's a great depiction of how an individual situates himself between two very different forms of discourse. The Biblical messages are analog, requiring hermeneutic interpretation. The daily news is the digital mode, contingent on events taking place over time, unfolding in the historical present. The mind finds "itself" negotiating between the two, reading them in relation to and against one another. I like the way Hunt stares somewhat fanatically straight ahead, the blue globes in the glass window behind suggesting the spinning planets of his messianic vision.

These red-bearded men of the Brotherhood (and its circle) are like a certain kind of rare animal, now endangered or extinct, I think.

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