horror vacui— a fond look

"Mrs Leoni's Parlor" 1894— part of a series of NYC interiors by Byron
Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1852-53
A reblog with updating

I've been thinking about Victorian painting— specifically about the pre Raphaelites and their hallucinatory hyper-realism (its difficult to use "realism" in conjunction with these paintings of knights errant and damsels). The shrill colors and the complexity of the details are fascinating to me at the moment. Something in my head is percolating about the artist Meghan Boody and the updated pre Raphaelite vision —but who knows if I'll be able to say any more than just that.

A 20th century art historian remarked on the pre-Raphaelite tendency toward "blade-by-blade" painting-- that is rendering each and every line and form in equal detail. Filling the entire canvas with detail, filling a page with 9 different typefaces and varieties of ornament, filling an entire room with dainties, what-nots, and doodads— a Victorian inclination and equal illustration of horror vacui.
Horror vacui - "fear of emptiness" or empty space is a term I love. The phrase carries with it intimations of mania and compulsion —covering every surface, interweaving pattern atop pattern. Perhaps it can be as loosely interpreted as Collyer Brothers piles or the noisy and noisome claustrophobic streets of Dickensian London. Somehow, though, I relate the term to an overall sensibility. A complex density with an awareness of the whole, not an open-ended haphazardness. But I'm not sure if this is really the case.

I came upon these rather amazing photographs
taken by Philip Henry Delamotte (above), in about 1859, of the later incarnation of London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. (After the exhibition closed it was moved to Sydenham Park and rebuilt, which is what is shown here. It remained standing until it burned, November 30th 1936.) The Crystal Palace exhibit was a kind of World's Fair, an enormous display of technological and cultural achievements. Though international in scope, it was sort of Britain on parade. ( I believe it was in the 1850s that the term "Victorian" solidified into a cultural identity.) The exhibition opened the floodgates for all manner of manufactured ornament, embellishment and gewgaws.

About this same time, Richard Dadd, locked away in a London hospital for the criminally insane, began the first dabs of Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, below left, and then continued for nine years.
For the rest of the 19th century (and into the 20th) great moral debates raged over "taste" and the "proper use" of ornament. And in the midst of that, many people's houses ended up looking like this "Parlor, 11 West 45th Street, New York, 1896" (taken from the wonderful The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors through the Camera's Eye, 1860-1917 by William Seale). Called a Japanese Parlor, the nook features a "Moroccan" inlaid table, Turkish- inspired seating and cushions, most likely a Persian carpet, and no less than four window treatments.
J.K. Huysmans' Au Rebours ("Against Nature"), published in 1884, is practically a recitation of the senses; a literary horror vacui in which words stand in for the over-stimulated eye sweeping across every surface:
"In other days, when he was still in the habit of inviting women to his house, he had fitted up a boudoir where, amid dainty carved furniture of the light-yellow camphor-wood of Japan, under a sort of tent of pink Indian satin, the flesh tints borrowed a soft, warm glow from the artfully disposed lights sifting down through the rich material. This room, where mirrors hung on every wall, reflecting backwards and forwards from one to another an infinite succession of pink boudoirs, had enjoyed a great renown among his various mistresses, who loved to bathe their nakedness in this flood of warm crimson amid the aromatic odours given off by the Oriental wood of the furniture.../ The dining-room, draped in black, opened out on to a garden metamorphosed for the occasion, the paths being strewn with charcoal, the ornamental pond edged with black basalt and filled with ink, and the shrubberies replanted with cypresses and pine. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth adorned with baskets of violets and scabious; candelabra shed an eerie green light over the tables and tapers flickered in the chandeliers. While a hidden orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were waited on by naked negresses wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears..."
While not a literal transcription of synesthesia, it renders the effect.


Carol said...

The top photo reminds me of a hotel in Las Vegas -- I forget which one. Losing one's memories is not entirely a bad thing.

Carol in Venice

Anonymous said...

I like painted furniture

The Bat said...

Hah! Nice pictures of eclectic disarray and a quotation from my favorite writer JK Huysmans. And that term "horror vacui" -- you Europeans sure have a way with words.

Thanks for being around. I'm going to figure out how to add you to my blogroll.

The Bat said...

Sorry, I forgot to include my site address earlier:

angela said...

Hello Bat
Thanks for comment!

"-- you Europeans sure have a way with words"

Um-- I suppose I'm of European decent, but I'm from NYC. Sorry if you were hoping for a REAL European...

Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry, just assumed. Since you were listed on "things" mag. Anyway, I've managed to add you to my link list now. Thanks! -- The Bat

bryan j robinson said...

we had a group art show in new york city in 1991 call "horror vacui" in the chapel at the corner of Amsterdam Ave and 103rd street. Bryan J Robinson.....

Pat said...

I just stumbled upon your blog when I Googled horror vacui tonight. I love the term too--used it in my thesis in 2003. I've been exploring some of your posts--both recent and past. Very interesting.

angela said...

Hi Pat-- Thanks so much.
Now where can I read about your thesis? Sounds interesting!

Person of Interest said...

My 79-year-old mother is the Martha Stewart of horror vacui. Her condominium is wallpapered with images -- including on the refrigerator -- with family photographs and newspaper clippings. She has some nice pieces of furniture, but also oddities rescued from beside the community dumpster. Books from the Salvation Army and Goodwill are stacked like a retaining wall. And the radio is usually repeating the news over and over. Her car dashboard is populated with small stuffed animals.

When I visit, I feel suffocated. My mind goes numb. I love her dearly, but after about an hour of this visual and auditory assault, I yearn for space, solitude and silence. Am I an unfeeling and ungrateful wretch?

angela said...

Wow PoI-- what a compelling description. Its sort of like a more intellectual "Hoarders." Here's what I think: you should document yr mother's condo in detail! make it visual and written. And post it.

I can completely and utterly understand yr reaction. My mother is not nearly as bad but has elements of that...


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