Romanticism and timeless individualism

The Romantic period, spanning from circa 1790 and 1850, was a period of monumental and reactionary change in the History of Art. The focus of many creatives’ work during this time was emotion as they challenged the establishment in anticipation of the industrialisation of society, which threatened to strip people of their individuality.

Interestingly, parallels can be drawn between Romanticism and the youth of the post modern-day left, the charge of ‘woke’ millennials and Gen-Zers. Although many Romantics were white men, and the modern left is a much more diverse cohort, there is an underlying value system that both groups share which is important to recognise.

The Romantics’ focus on individualism in light of the Industrial Revolution is similar to the way the modern left establishes figureheads to be the voice or the catalysts of their campaigns. Perhaps a hangover from the movements of the sixties, this generation has fused the world of celebrity, which has always been at its fingertips, with the world of politics; the ‘woke’ of society often create movements for change on the back of individuals.

Take Greta Thunberg. She has become an icon in the fight against climate change and is rallied around and celebrated for her independent decision to speak more about a side-lined but critical issue. The Thunberg phenomenon is strangely reminiscent of Delacroix’s famous work, Liberty leading the people, (‘La Liberté Guidant le Peuple’).

If a piece were to be painted of the Thunberg phenomenon, it is not hard to imagine that it would look similar to Delacroix’ masterpiece.

Delacroix celebrates the individual figure of Liberty, or the ‘Marianne’, proudly raising the Tricolour above her head, whilst the masses she has inspired rally in the background, brandishing guns, excited for revolution. Young climate activists use Greta as a symbol for change in the same way Delacroix signals a revolution with Liberty. If a piece were to be painted of the Thunberg phenomenon, it is not hard to imagine that it would look similar to this.

We can draw a similar parallel when we consider Caspar David Friedrich’s seminal piece Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, (‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’). This painting depicts an anonymous man stood at the top of a rock face looking out over a foggy landscape of mountains and valleys. Some would suggest that Friedrich’s piece expresses the courage it takes for someone to make a journey when the road ahead is unknown and chaotic.

The way young activists frame the refugee crisis is similar. They endeavour to show how perilous the journey is for refugees. Images of individuals struggling to survive on boats in the middle of the Channel flood social media feeds, in an attempt to elicit sympathy for the victims fleeing disorder.

Giving identity to those in hostile environments could have its roots in Romantic individualism. It is not hard to forget the image of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy found dead on a Turkish beach after drowning, fleeing Syria with his father. Campaigners hold onto this picture, trying to spark nationwide fury at the government’s policy towards the refugee crisis. They give one victim, representative of millions of others, a human face.

The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this year inspired a comparable response from anti-racism activists. Individual victims were taken to represent mass oppression of minority members of society.

In Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake did the same. Although his figures remain unnamed, poems such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘London’ and ‘The Schoolboy’ focus their attention on individual victims of society to expose widespread societal injustices.

This should inspire us to further learn about and better our understanding of the causes we are passionate about.

Furthermore, the worlds which the modern left and the Romantics fight against were, and still are strikingly similar. Young progressives’ fury at systemic prejudices, such as patriarchy, racism, and homophobia, to name a few examples, still present in supposedly ‘developed’ society, is strongly reminiscent of the Romantics disdain for industrialisation. These structures continue to be seen as depriving individuals of sovereignty and in both cases, there is a desire to tear out the root cause. It is interesting to consider how humans react similarly at completely different times in history to parallel situations. It suggests that there is an unchanging essence within our human nature which pushes us to express our perception of the world: the way we feel about it. Drawing links between history and the present helps us in reconceptualising ourselves as the next players in the long road of the human story. This should inspire us to further learn about and better our understanding of the causes we are passionate about.

By Harrison Newsham

Illustration: Hannah Imafidon

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