Victorian architecture was in vogue at a time when America was producing enough millionaires to finance the construction of mansions across much of the continent. These were the castles and palaces of the new American aristocracy. Like the castles and palaces of Europe, they came with a great variety of architectural features. Unlike these castles and palaces, they were not usually separated by great distances. They were often packed into the same neighborhood, and even, like the palaces of Venice, constructed next to each other.
Having recently moved to a city with some prime examples of Victorian architecture, I have begun to think about how this type of architecture is a metaphor for the way the artist's mind works during the creative process. More than that, though not separate from that, it is a metaphor for the conversation that goes on between the right and left hemispheres of the brain during the act of making art. We are told that the right hemisphere has to do with imagination and creativity, while the left brain deals with logic and reasoning. Composers of music are constantly mindful of the interplay between structure and imagination. The right and left hemispheres are always engaged in an intimate and animated conversation. Painters, sculptors, poets, dancers, and other artists have a similar experience.
Now, when I gaze at a Victorian mansion with its dazzling collection of gables, turrets, corbels, belvederes, pedestals, towers, entablatures, lintels, rose windows, minarets, latticed arches, scalloped sidings, etcetera, I can't help thinking about some of the agonies and ecstasies that have accompanied my decisions about what to put into a painting. Sometimes the instinct is to put in a lot of different things. (It worked for Picasso.) Sometimes the instinct takes a minimalist direction. The artist is always seeking, in any case, the right balance and combination of structure and imagination. The Victorian mansion appeals to us as a vision of the struggle to come to terms with our natural inclinations for composure and expression, a state of mind that offers a kind of freedom perhaps attainable only through art. It brings to mind Henry Miller's saying that freedom is having the inner workings of a Swiss watch combined
with absolute recklessness. The Victorian mansion appears to be some such of a thing, a wild creature that has been harnessed and tamed. It goes in all directions, yet it holds its shape, a strange architectural being frozen in the act of growing new appendages.
Recently, while studying the Carson mansion, one of the country's premier Victorians, I began to think about coloring such an edifice. Most Victorians are subdued shades of grey, white and brown. Some are painted yellow, and some, especially in San Francisco, are painted a few different colors. I have seen one painted pale pink all over. But what about painting a Victorian fifteen or twenty different colors? While pondering such a multicolored phenomenon, another thought came to mind. Perhaps the Lego company should produce a specialized set of Legos for making Victorian houses. The various features could be color-coded to make it easier for kids to assemble. Pictures of Victorians of various complexity could be included in the set as a guide. There could be a version for older kids, and possibly one for adults.
Another aspect of the Victorian mansion is its power to evoke the subconscious. Once we have digested some of the complexities of the outside, we begin to wonder about the interior. The sea is a symbol of the subconscious because it is filled with strange things we can't see: We may imagine the interior of a Victorian in the same way. The Victorian offers a doorway to the subconscious, along with its power to stimulate our general understanding of art and how it works.