Why I like this module… Making Cultures: New Ways of Reading Things

Chloe Lund, BA History of Art, 2013

Chloe Lund, BA History of Art, 2013

“This module encourages students to critically engage with the material world by considering how objects make and reflect culture. Each week, sessions are delivered by a different University department, including the Research and Cultural Collections, Lapworth Museum, the Centre for West African Studies, the Medical School, the Barber Institute, and Winterbourne Gardens.”

“The content of the classes is exceptionally diverse and we had a go at some of the tasks involved in the professional roles of our session leaders, such as writing museum labels, curating a display of objects from Special Collections, making a wax model for casting, and planning an activity to engage a target group with a work of art. We were also treated to a number of behind-the-scenes tours and demonstrations, including watching a rock being sliced open to reveal a splendid fossil in the Geology Department! Class discussions were especially interesting because the group was comprised of students from many different cultural and academic backgrounds. As well as improving my understanding of the use and interpretation of objects of culture, I would say that taking Making Cultures has really enriched my University experience. It is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the University beyond my own department, and presents the privileged chance to explore its rich collections.”

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This second year MOMD module:

  • draws on the University’s extensive range of museums, collections and archives and the expertise of arts and science academics and heritage professionals.
  • Involves object-based learning in its broadest sense, enabling students to critically engage with the material world.
  • focuses on issues around the collection, interpretation and display of material culture; current debates about ‘ownership’, ethics and public engagement; and the impact of new digital technologies
  • Is assessed by a reflective learning journal and a portfolio of evidence linked to specific artefacts and collections

 

 

 

Why I like this module… Visual Cultures of Revolution in France

Rebecca Ingram, finalist, BA History of Art

Rebecca Ingram, finalist, BA History of Art

“We all know of the infamous events that bloodied the streets of Paris between the years 1789-1848, but this era is also remarkable for the way in which the social upheaval brought about a radical change in the significance of art for the French commoner. I enjoy this module immensely because the story of visual cultures of this era is unique: the module covers not only the production of pro-revolutionary imagery, but the entire re-imagining of the power of images as well as the symbolic destruction of images. This module is about understanding the potency of art through the eyes of an eighteenth-century Parisian.

 Dr Richard Clay’s enthusiasm is so engaging and the way he incorporates his own ideas is particularly exciting. For example, he has shown us that what historians have previously considered to be the mindless vandalism of regency Paris was in fact deliberate iconoclasm, and that this played a key role in asserting the republican sensibilities.”Untitled2

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This final year module:

  • analyses the roles of visual cultures during the revolutions of 1789 and 1830, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and its fall. Untitled5
  • examines the continuities and changes in the production, display and reception of paintings and prints during this time in France.
  • explores the training of artists, the development of museums, and periods of iconoclasm
  • analyses works by artists such as David, Boilly, Isobey, Gérard, Rowlandson, Gillray, Géricault, Delacroix, and Daumier

 Dr Richard Clay convenes this module. To get a taste of what the module is all about check out his BBC 4 documentary, Tearing Up History.

Why I like this module… Inside Out: Interiors and Interiority in French Art, Design and Visual Culture, 1840-1940

Claire Lawley, finalist, BA History of Art

Claire Lawley, finalist, BA
History of Art

“Inside Out is a very engaging and well-structured module. Not only do we cover a large period of history (1840-1940), but we also explore a large range of artists and movements. Until studying this module, I had not considered how the interior of a room could signify so many messages, and how this can be linked to the interiority of the figures that inhabit the space. Studying the Nabis has been one of my highlights, in particular Edouard Vuillard who painted many figures of his mother within the domestic sphere. There have been many topics to cover, all of which have given me in depth knowledge, and new perspectives of looking at interiors of French art. I am very glad I chose this module for my Special Subject!”

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 This final year special subject

  • Untitled5is taught by Dr Francesca Berry, a specialist in French art and design, the representation of interiors, and feminist theories
  • analyses the changing uses and meanings of the interior and notions of interiority in French art, design and visual culture 1840-1940.
  • considers a range of media, including painting, photography, magazines and film,
  • debates the practices of key figures including Degas, Cassatt, Vuillard, Matisse, Atget, Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier
  • analyses the interiors produced by Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Cubism, Art Deco and Surrealism.
  • considers visual forms in relation to artistic and architectural theory, popular psychology and literary

Are computers sending art historians straight to the dole queue? Not likely . . .

Dole queue

‘Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists’, reported Matthew Sparkes in yesterday’s Telegraph. The article was reporting on a paper put together by a bunch of computer scientists from the Computer Science department at Rutgers, State Uni. of New Jersey, and is available online here.

The gist of the article is this: the identification of similarities between works of art has long been the prerogative of art historians, but now computers, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, are ready to take their place, being capable of identifying instances of formal similarities between given works of art that have hitherto elided the experts.

‘One important task for art historians is to find influences and connections between artists’ say, quite rightly, Babak Saleh, Kanako Abe, Ravneet Singh Arora, and Ahmed Elgammal — the paper’s authors. We’re off to a good start.

But things quickly go awry . . .

‘It must be mentioned that determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’ This is mad as far as I’m concerned. Michelangelo never declares that his conception of God from the Sistine Ceiling was inspired by Ghiberti’s similar airborne God from the Gates of Paradise, but on the basis of formal and circumstantial evidence, which is to say it looks a damn lot like it and Michelangelo will have seen Ghiberti’s sculptures daily in his youth, I think we can say that it’s probably the case. But this isn’t my real issue with the paper; the article does after all acknowledge that instances of artistic influence proposed by art historians are usually demonstrably right, even if there is no “proof”. For example, we might not know FOR CERTAIN that Francis Bacon ever saw Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (do we? Raphael’s Julius II makes for just as neat a comparison?), but since the former’s picture of a seated, grand, albeit tormented, bloke really does look like the latter’s Papal portrait, then there most likely IS a relationship. Hence the comparison has found its way into the mainstream literature on Bacon.

Velzquez, Innocent X

Bacon, after Velzquez, Innocent X

My problem instead is with some of the previously undiscovered, but for my money far-fetched, relationships between works of art that the computers have apparently managed to unearth, as well as some of the frankly flippant, if not wholly misguided, claims the authors make along the way. (An important caveat here: the authors do admit that ‘We are not asserting truths but instead suggesting a possible path towards a difficult task of measuring influence.’) Let’s look at some of them.

‘Although the meaning of a painting is unique to each artist and is completely subjective, it can somewhat be measured by the symbols and objects in the painting.’ Art historians will nowadays wince at those words, and Roland Barthes will probably have had chickens . . .

‘The earliest style is the Renaissance period with artists like Titian and Michelangelo during the 14th to 17th century.’ Notwithstanding the arbitrariness of the period style classifications that the article leans on more generally (Renaissance, Romanticism, Baroque, Pop, Abstract Contemporary, American Modernism, Post-Impressionism…etc.), this statement is a bit worrying… Pedantry, perhaps, but Michelangelo and Titian weren’t about in the 14th century or the 17th, and if we’re being picky, traditional narratives of art history don’t usually include 17th-century art under the rubric of the Renaissance.

And the most major problem, I think, is this clanger:

‘Paintings do not necessarily have to look alike, but if they do, or have reoccurring objects (high-level semantics), then they might be considered similar.’

My issue here is that they’re effectively saying that even if pictures don’t look alike to the eye, computers, with all their mathematical wizardry and algorithms, can nevertheless spot relationships that otherwise defy human perception. Problem here, of course, is that people make artworks, not computers, and so if two artworks by two artists don’t look alike to the eye, then it is really doubtful whether there ever was a meaningful relationship between them. Common sense, which computers don’t possess, dictates as much.

See: Frédéric Bazille’s Studio 9 Rue de la Condamine (1870) and Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barber Shop (1950). The computers threw this up as a match, and ‘After browsing through many publications and websites, we concluded, to the best of our knowledge, that this comparison has not been made by an art historian before.’ The authors’ faith in the technology is thus vindicated. But, hang on, there’s probably a very good reason why art historians have never spotted a relationship between Bazille’s Studio and Rockwell’s Barber Shop, which is that they simply don’t look sufficiently alike to warrant the positing of anything more than a coincidental relationship between them. Which is precisely what the next sentence says: ”The painting might not look similar at the first glance, however, a closer look reveals striking similarity in composition and subject matter, that is detected by our automated methodology . . . [emph. mine]’ I don’t buy it. And what the authors neglect to mention is what we, that is to say art historians, call iconographic conventions. Bazille’s picture belongs to a rich tradition for showing artists working in their studios, and perhaps Rockwell did, either knowingly or inadvertently, look to that that tradition for his Barber Shop. That’s a sound art historical judgement. But it doesn’t mean that Rockwell was influenced by Bazille. The authors also fail to mention whether there is any inkling whatsoever that Rockwell knew Bazille’s work(s)? These are the kinds of questions art historians ask, whereas computers, it seems, do not. Or perhaps can’t ask?

Bazille and Rockwell

Similarly, the paper heralds the similarity between Georges Braque’s Man with a Violin and Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Still Life as a “discovery”. Nah, not really. Braque and Picasso were immediate contemporaries, they knew one another(!!) and were pioneers of a movement retroactively called Cubism. A perusal of any monograph on cubism will generate Braque’s and Picasso’s names alongside one another and show ample similarities between their art. So, not a discovery after all. . .

Picasso and Braque

If you read the paper, you’ll quickly find that there’s loads of technical jargon, equations and mind-boggling graphs which apparently bestow scientific robustness on the findings:

Classme

Long equation

Erm…. I’m struggling. The tables and charts don’t exactly shed any more light, either:

Diagram

And what on earth is this?

Mingboggling

. . . answers on a postcard, please.

I can’t help but think that all this is a case of all fur coat and no knickers, and that the jargon simply conceals the fact that the computer’s supposed discoveries don’t stand up to the scrutiny of art historians. It’s nonsence masquerading as scientific art history. I really don’t think, for example, that Bazille’s and Rockwell’s pictures look sufficiently alike to warrant the claim that there IS a relationship. And this is where art historians differ from computers: art historians, or else, the good ones, weigh-up their proposals against a balance of probabilities, and posit relationships between artists and their works only where there is a demonstrable formal relationship that is meaningful, and, moreover, can be substantiated by consideration of the likelihood that X artist had seen Y’s Picture. That’s what art historians do, and, on the basis of this article, are capable of doing infinitely better than a machine.

Suffice it to say that I don’t think we can expect to see queues of bereft-looking art historians at the Job Centre any time soon . . .

Jamie

From religious toleration to local regeneration: why a series of Zurbarán paintings is at the heart of Auckland Castle’s past and future by Lauren Dudley

Growing up in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, I have spent many hours exploring the beautiful and mysterious palace grounds in the town centre, but I had never really wondered what was inside the house attached to them, which has been home to the Prince Bishops of Durham for the last 900 years. A few years ago, the palace’s art collection, notably its remarkable series of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), came under scrutiny when they were at risk of being sold. Thanks to philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer the collection was saved and the palace has been granted charitable status as Auckland Castle Trust. With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, it is now open to the public and is part of a considerable investment project led by Ruffer in the regeneration of the town. So, during a visit home I took the opportunity to have a look around…

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My tour began in the impressive St Peter’s Chapel, the largest private chapel in Europe and formerly the Castle’s Banqueting Hall. The original chapel was demolished following the Civil War. In the 1660s Bishop John Cosin (1594-1672) began the renovation of the Castle, including the conversion of the hall into the present-day chapel. Much of the decoration dates from the 19th century – notably the beautiful stained glass windows.

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Upstairs, in the Throne Room a gallery of Prince Bishops is shown through a striking collection of portraits, which includes paintings by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) representing Bishops Shute Barrington (1734-1826) and William Van Mildert (1765-1836), one of the founders of the University of Durham. Barrington employed the renowned architect and Lunar Society member, James Wyatt (1746-1813), to make alterations to the Castle as shown through its neo-Gothic features.

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Entering the Throne Room, a portrait of Bishop John Cosin hangs above the chair

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Lawrence’s portraits can be seen on the top row, above the fireplace

From the Throne Room I went into the much anticipated Long Dining Room, which was specifically re-designed to house the series of Zurbarán paintings that have been the cause of so much talk in the town for the last few years. While some might find the paintings quite unusual, shocked that they were bought for £15 million, it is clear to everyone that they are rather special. Few Zurbarán paintings can be seen in the UK – the National Gallery houses some of the Spanish artist’s work and you can read more about it on their website here. The Barber Institute owns a painting attributed to the studio of Zurbarán, Saint Marina, c.1630s, which is an interesting comparison to the Auckland Castle series.

Dan VII

Dan VII, © Auckland Castle Trust

Zurbarán’s series at Auckland Castle is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It depicts larger-than-life individual paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The figures’ dress are somewhat theatrical and they are depicted in striking poses, almost like actors, and they tower over the landscape behind them. In fact, the artist depicted the figures in the dress worn during contemporary religious processions in his home town of Seville. The expressive gestures of the biblical figures is perhaps evidence of Caravaggio’s influence on Zurbarán. The interpretation in the gallery also highlighted the fact that his figures were based on Albrecht Dürer’s engravings.

Levi III

Levi III, © Auckland Castle Trust

The early provenance of the paintings is mysterious – with one story suggesting that they were destined for a wealthy Catholic buyer in the New World but that the ship carrying them was capsized by pirates! In any case, the paintings, dated c.1640-44, ended up at an auction house in London in 1756 and Bishop Richard Trevor (1707-1771) bought them for £124 (of his own money, in fact) to hang in Auckland Castle. He purchased the series as a deliberate political gesture – while the paintings can be considered as Counter-Reformation in style, produced in a Catholic culture, their reception in Britain was intended as a gesture of support for the toleration of the Jewish faith. In 1753 the government had passed the Naturalisation of Jews Act, but it caused outcry, and it was not until the following century that Jews were granted full civic liberties. In this context, the 12 Tribes of Israel depicted by Zurbarán represented the foundations of the Jewish faith and, indeed, its shared heritage with Christianity, which would have been a bold gesture in eighteenth-century Britain – showing the power of art patronage on the political stage.

Simeon II

Simeon II, © Auckland Castle Trust

Fittingly, an interesting temporary exhibition is currently on show in the room adjacent to the Long Dining Room, entitled, The Power and the Glory: How Religious Art made Tudor England and the objects on display are presented as ‘survivors’ of the destruction that would follow during the Reformation. The recent exhibition at Tate Britain, Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, showed objects that had been damaged during the Reformation (see my post about the exhibition here), whereas The Power and the Glory presents beautifully preserved, intact objects such as Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours and Elizabeth of York’s signed prayer book. The exhibition highlights how the political and religious landscape in Britain changed significantly as a result of the Tudor reign. Future plans for Auckland Castle include the establishment of a museum dedicated to the history of religious faith in Britain and extending its collection of Counter-Reformation paintings (find out more about the castle’s regeneration on their website). It would be an apt site for such a museum given the link with nearby Durham Cathedral and a little further away, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The Castle reminded me of the Palais des Papes in Avignon and a much smaller version of the Vatican, so it will be exciting to see what becomes of Auckland Castle in the coming years.

 

 

Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections Internship by Holly Wain

After finishing my final year I was lucky enough to undertake a month long internship at the Cadbury Research Library which is the home of the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections and holds approximately 200,000 pre-1850 books and 4 million manuscripts. I had seen the advert through the careers network earlier in the year and I had been using the library during the research of my dissertation, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity for me. I had been interested in rare books and manuscripts during the final years of my degree and the advert mentioned heritage which seemed to fit into other work experience that I had carried out in museums. I realise now, however, that at that point I really had no clue about the work involved in libraries and archives! Throughout the four weeks I learnt an enormous amount about the way libraries and archives differ and I have had a real insight into the role of an archivist, something I am now seriously considering as a career path.

The Cadbury Research Library’s Main Reception, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston Campus, Muirhead Tower Lower Ground Floor.

 

The Heslop Reading Room. Open to students, academics and the public.

The Heslop Reading Room. Open to students, academics and the public.

I was chosen along with Hannah Hickman, a Masters student studying at the Shakespeare Institute, to work towards an exhibition and a cataloguing project. As soon as we arrived we were welcomed in as part of the team. Our supervisor, archivist Jennifer Childs, had organised a very detailed schedule for the entire four week period in which she planned time for the exhibition, cataloguing and sessions with each member of staff. This approach was so refreshing and I really appreciated how she had planned the internship to benefit us instead of leaving us feeling like spare parts. During the internship we worked towards an exhibition for the centenary of The First World War which will open in September and will be placed in the Main Library. Jenny and the team offered helpful guidance and trained us in different skills but we were also given the freedom to determine the nature of the exhibition. Jenny planned the schedule so that we had time to work on every part of the exhibition and we were able to experience all the steps involved, from selecting material and narrowing down a theme to working in the conservation studio with conservator, Marie Sviergula to prepare our chosen materials. We also worked on two digital exhibitions on Flickr and the archive catalogue CALM’s image gallery which involved experience in reprographics and Photoshop.

In the conservation studio we discovered that making mounts for photographs is a lot harder than it looks.

In the conservation studio we discovered that making mounts for photographs is a lot harder than it looks.

We were also able to see the work of Hoa, an intern from Melbourne University. Here she is working on watercolours of skin diseases!

We were also able to see the work of Hoa, an intern from Melbourne University. Here she is working on watercolours of skin diseases!

The second part of the internship was spent working with an archivist on a cataloguing project. I worked with Anne George on the Save the Children collection and had the opportunity to sift through the papers of Dorothy Buxton and her sister Eglantyne Jebb, who founded the organisation. The papers, from the early 1920s, were not catalogued and I worked on putting together a more detailed list of items to then catalogue them on the programme CALM. I was trained to use the programme and by the end of the internship I had catalogued just over 500 items! It was hard work looking through folders of small papers and trying to make sense of handwritten scribbles but I found it incredibly interesting. It was a privilege to be able to read through her notes and see history playing out in such a personal way. I really enjoyed making links between figures and events because with every new newspaper cutting or letter I was getting another glimpse into the time period. I also felt very lucky to be able to work with an archivist and contribute to her project.

I am so grateful to the team at the Cadbury Research Library for making the internship so worthwhile in terms of the skills gained but also the knowledge I now have of career paths into archives. Each team member was so interested in our plans and offered invaluable advice. I have enjoyed working at the Special Collections so much that I plan to continue volunteering there during my MRes course starting in September.

Our exhibition, ‘Rest and Recreation: volunteering during the Great War’ opens September 4 in the display case in the Main Library foyer.

 

Curating Research: Rachael Yardley, co-curator of Lasting Impressions: 20th Century Portrait Prints, talks about her fantastic experience of working on the postgraduate exhibition at the Barber Institute

There is nothing like the feeling of walking into an exhibition that you have worked towards for nine months and seeing a crowd of animated people engaging with the works that they are encountering. These works were chosen, researched and carefully arranged by myself and eight other History of Art postgraduate students from the department, as part of a module called Curating Research. The months that preceded the private view of our exhibition, Lasting Impressions, were challenging at times, but also so much fun! We all learnt a great deal and we have come away with the fantastic experience of working as a team to transform academic research into an exhibition that we hope will captivate the Barber Institute’s audience.

Rachael standing proudly in front of the bustling Lady Barber gallery at the private view of Lasting Impressions

Rachael standing proudly in front of the bustling Lady Barber gallery at the private view of Lasting Impressions

We were given the opportunity to work on the exhibition as part of the ‘Curating Research’ module offered by the University of Birmingham’s MA programme in Art History, Film and Visual Culture. The academic year began with module leader, Dr Richenda Roberts teaching us about the history and evolution of museums and galleries around the world from private collections to public institutions, including various current issues that affect them today. Gaining theoretical and historical knowledge on museums and exhibitions was fascinating and is important for anyone hoping to work in the museum sector. However, we were itching to get down to the practical aspect of the course. One of the wonderful things about the module is that we were taught not only by experienced, knowledgeable University of Birmingham staff, but also by members of the team from the stunning Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Sessions were led by the Marketing, Learning and Access, and Exhibitions and Loans departments.

The Barber worked in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, which provided many of the exhibition loans for Lasting Impressions. As part of the exhibition planning, we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the prints up close and personal and to make our selection of loans. This was a great opportunity to delve behind the scenes. It is not surprising that almost everyone doing an Art History MA in 2013-14 took the Curating Research Module!

Lead image for Lasting Impressions, Self Portrait, Michael Rothenstein (Coloured woodcut, 1981)

Lead image for Lasting Impressions, Self Portrait, Michael Rothenstein (Coloured woodcut, 1981)  © National Portrait Gallery, London

However, it was not all fancy trips and talks. The course has also been a lot of hard work. The incredible prints on offer to us somehow needed to be narrowed down, the themes had to be worked out, and it all had to live up to the Barber Institute’s excellent reputation. (And, of course, the visitors had to like it!) Met with a whirlwind of new information and exciting prints it was easy to get caught up and forget the most important part – what would become Lasting Impressions, the exhibition itself.

Previous student-led exhibitions had all done something a little different and we wanted to follow suit. Our earliest ideas ranged from abstract themes, like arrangement by colour, to more specific ideas, like displaying only artists’ self-portraits. It was only upon visiting the National Portrait Gallery for the first time and looking around and seeing the works available to us that we decided upon our focus: printmaking as an artistic, expressive form. The twentieth century saw numerous artists produce prints, many of whom were experimenting with different, and sometimes unusual, printmaking techniques, combining different methods or using new materials. The works we chose were all fascinating individually and captivating aesthetically – we thought they would certainly make a ‘lasting impression’ on our visitors! I fell in love at an early stage with the portrait of Robert Plant by David Oxtoby. The print is vibrant and expressive of Plant’s musical passion (I confess to being a big Led Zeppelin fan).

A visitor looking at David Oxtoby’s portrayal of Robert Plant © Simon Hadley

A visitor looking at David Oxtoby’s portrayal of Robert Plant
© Simon Hadley

The works we chose were diverse and, as such, the resulting exhibition juxtaposes prints such as a 1907 etching of William Booth by Francis Dodd, a wonderfully vibrant and technically fascinating self portrait by Michael Rothenstein (1981, coloured woodcut), and a group portrait of politicians at the House of Commons by Chris Orr (1986, aquatint and etching). Within the exhibition, works such as these provide an overview of British portraiture in print during the twentieth century, and highlight the various techniques and styles used to develop the expressive potential of printmaking.

We wanted to make this exhibition as accessible as possible, and knew from our own experience that the technical aspect of printmaking can sometimes be a bit of a mystery. On display in the Lady Barber gallery, alongside the prints, we have included a selection of printmaking tools as well as an information sheet outlining various printmaking techniques. You can even try out drypoint with Birmingham Printmakers at the Barber Institute’s workshops.

Co-curator and Art History student, Annette Eldridge discussing the printmaking tools display with Exhibition and Loans Officer, Katie Robson

Co-curator and Art History student, Annette Eldridge discussing the printmaking tools display with Exhibition and Loans Officer, Katie Robson

Alongside that of the National Portrait Gallery, we were also given the opportunity to explore the fantastic collections here at the University of Birmingham, including the Research and Cultural Collections and the Cadbury Research Library. In fact, the visit to the Research and Cultural Collections led to the loan of my favourite work in Lasting Impressions – a charming plasticine print by Hans Schwarz (1922 – 2003). Schwarz was an experimental artist and this self portrait with his wife expresses perfectly his sense of humour and innovative style.

Hans Schwarz (1922 -2003) Happy Couple I Undated, plasticine print A1060, © Research and Cultural Collections

Hans Schwarz (1922 -2003) Happy Couple I
Undated, plasticine print
A1060, © Research and Cultural Collections

It was exciting to reach the point of having chosen the works and established the theme, but our work wasn’t over. The chosen works would need to make their way onto the walls and into the cases. But before that, we had to summarise all the research we had carried out about the artists and sitters into a one hundred word label – possibly the hardest task in curating an exhibition. And all of these tasks had to be done to a deadline. To me, though, this is just another reason why the module is so fantastic – it doesn’t just teach you ‘exhibitions in theory’, but it teaches you how to overcome the real life challenges you must inevitably deal with if you wish to put on an exhibition. As an aspiring curator, the knowledge and practical experience I gained during this module has been invaluable.

Thankfully, we did manage to get everything on the walls and in the cases, and we even managed to write the labels! With a big thank you to Dr Richenda Roberts and all of the Barber Institute staff that gave us so much help – we are all incredibly proud of what we have achieved, and could not be happier with how the exhibition has turned out. You can see it for free at the Barber Institute until the 28th September.

The History of Art MA students from left to right: Gerda Van Wyk, Alice Peters, Mik Escolme, Annette Eldridge, Erin Shakespeare, Yang Yang Zhou, Rachael Yardley and Anne Russell. © Simon Hadley

The History of Art MA students from left to right: Gerda Van Wyk, Alice Peters, Mik Escolme, Annette Eldridge, Erin Shakespeare, Yang Yang Zhou, Rachael Yardley and Anne Russell.
© Simon Hadley

If you’re interested in studying the MA in History of Art and the Curating Research Module click here to find out more.

Oliver McCall, one of our previous MA graduates, has reviewed Lasting Impressions here.

Mortar boards, pins, heels, wine, prizes and speeches: it’s Graduation 2014!

It’s that time of year again when campus is buzzing with excited (and slightly nervous) students, proud parents, and lecturers dressed as you’ve never seen them before! Graduation is a time to celebrate all our History of Art students have achieved during their time at Birmingham, not just on their degree programme but also as members of our department, the Barber Institute, UoB and the city itself. As a department we are pleased to be able to give out two prizes each year – the Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation, and the Emily Rastall Prize for the best overall contribution to the department. Competition is always stiff and there are more worthy candidates than there are prizes: every year, many of our students give generously of their time and energy in volunteering for various events, helping to run open days, applicant visit days, and workshops, and offering peer support. The department really appreciates this because it helps to make the department what it is – friendly, fun, and a great place to study.

Here we’ve put together a selection of photos from the ceremony on July 11th when Single and some Joint Honours History of Art Students graduated. You can read about about our prize winners and also see David, one of the department’s founding members, being given the by-now traditional ‘lift off’!

Dr Richard Clay with Tayler, Alice and Olivia at our pre-gown reception

Dr Richard Clay with Tayler, Alice and Olivia at our pre-gown reception

 

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Senior lecturer David Hemsoll and Dr Fran Berry at speech time

 

Students and parents at speech time

Students and parents at speech time

 

This year, the Emily Rastall prize, awarded in memory of a student who sadly passed away just after her finals in 2012, was shared by French and History of Art student Holly Wain and History of Art student Caroline Hetherington for their overall contribution to the department.

On receiving the prize, Caroline said: ‘Receiving the Emily Rastall prize was a little surprising (and embarrassing!), but I was very pleased to get it. Being recognised for contributing to the department made me think back over the three years of my course and remember the exciting things I was able to accomplish. It definitely reminded me that there was a lot more to my degree than the final mark.’

How did she feel at graduation? ‘Graduation was a lovely opportunity for all of us to be excited and proud after all the nerves of results day, although for me the best part of the day was my parents turning up about two minutes before we went on stage to receive our degrees.’

Is there anything she’ll miss now she’s graduated? ‘I will miss actually studying art history the most, as especially in final year I have loved the amount of research and interesting conversations that have taught me so much more about the subject. Alongside this, writing a dissertation about a previously unstudied sculpture probably gave me the most satisfaction.’ But, Caroline’s not going very far: ‘I am not leaving the University yet – I’m now a graduate trainee in Professional Services, working on different placements over the next year. I don’t know where I’ll go after that, but I’m pretty sure I’m not done studying yet.’

 

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Holly (left) and Caroline standing by the tree planted in Emily’s memory in the Barber grounds

 

Holly said, ‘I feel very honoured to be receiving the Emily Rastall Prize as it means the department can continue to celebrate the commitment and enthusiasm Emily had for Art History at the Barber. It also gave me the chance to reflect on my past four years in the History of Art department and how much I enjoyed contributing to projects like the Golovine Blog.’

How was graduation for her? ‘My graduation day was fantastic because I could share all the relief and happiness with my family and friends. My favourite moment was walking out of the Great Hall after the ceremony and feeling proud and excited for the future!’

What is her favourite memory of her degree? ‘My best memory of studying art history at the Barber is working with my tutor Liz for my dissertation. I loved researching using primary sources in archives because I felt like I could genuinely contribute something new and different. I enjoyed it so much that I am coming back to the Barber in September to do a research masters in History of Art.’

 

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Cheers! Drs Fran Berry and Camilla Smith on the Barber steps with Caroline, Tayler, olivia, Alice and Nelle

 

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It all happened here! Holly, Hang, Emma and Caroline with Dr Liz L’Estrange on the Barber steps

 

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Relieved that no-one fell up or down the stairs! Claire, Louisa, Connie and Grace after the ceremony

 

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Milling around outside the Barber

 

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Hats off!

 

And now for the most traditional event of the day…

 

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Ready…

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…steady…

 

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…wave, David!

 

And now for something more sensible (well, depends what you make of the lecturers’ outfits):

Outside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Outside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation was this year awarded to Joint Honours History of Art and English student, Sarah Cowie. Here she tells us a bit how she felt receiving the prize about the  dissertation that she wrote.

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Prize-winner Sarah on graduation day

 

How did she feel getting the prize? ‘I am very pleased to have been awarded the Sam Beighton Prize this year, as I know there was much competition! It is a nice recognition of my efforts with the dissertation, and I am extremely grateful to my supervisor for guiding me in the right direction.’

How was graduation? ‘My graduation day was lovely, although as a Joint Honours student I graduated on a different day to some of my  History of Art peers, but Josh and I did still manage to have a photo shoot in front of the Barber though!’

What was her best memory of studying at Birmingham? ‘Aside from the second-year study trip to Rome, I think my best memories are of the Barber. It is such an inspiring environment, with amazing research materials in the library and galleries, and always a great venue for lunch with concert music playing in the background!’

Any plans for the future? ‘My plans for the future are yet to be made – I wasn’t very good at thinking ahead in final year! At the moment I’m considering doing a law conversion in Bristol, after travelling this year.’

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Sarah with fellow JH History of Art and English student Josh

 

What was it like researching and writing a dissertation? ‘In the same way as with any research, my dissertation topic adapted, evolved (and unfortunately considering the word count, expanded!) the more I read around the field of study. What began as an interest in Kurt Schwitters’ association with the German Dadaists gradually became a study of exile and anti-nationalism during the Nazi regime; a subject area that complimented my final year special subject, German Modernisms of the Body.

The dissertation explores national identity and the concept of Heimat in Kurt Schwitters’ (1887-1948) assemblage, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, which was produced in Hanover in 1920 and then reworked by the exiled artist nineteen years later in Oslo. The dramatically different cultural climates of these two completion dates – which bridge together post-World War One Germany and pre-World War Two Europe – have invited interpretations of the work that place special emphasis on Schwitters’ increasingly diminished sense of German national identity under the Nazi Regime. However, considering the irreparable damage left following Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the anti-nationalist sentiments outlined in the artist’s essay ‘Nationalitätsgefühl’ (National Sentiment) from 1924, the current study questions the extent to which Schwitters had a fixed sense of national identity, or any kind of investment in the Volksgemeinschaft even during these earlier years.

 

Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920/1939. Oil, paper, cardboard, wood, fabric, and ceramic on board (97 x 69 x 11 cm) London, Tate Collection.

Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920/1939. Oil, paper, cardboard, wood, fabric, and ceramic on board (97 x 69 x 11 cm) London, Tate Collection.

 

In challenging the reading of Spatial Growths as evidence of German or Norwegian national identity, the central tenet of the dissertation explores how Schwitters’ sustained use of found materials (themselves fragments of a disordered reality) is symbolic of a wider process of ordering exile. Indeed, the concept of Merz – a label which encompasses Schwitters’ innovative creative practices and a name which he adopted for himself in the 1920s – sheds light on the artist’s understanding of a transnational Heimat; signalling Schwitters’ desire for a more flexible identity in the midst of political discourses on national purity. Approached thus, the fusion of two nationalities in Spatial Growths cannot be considered a visual enactment of the artist’s loss of German national identity. Rather, through its palimpsest qualities and the incorporation of domestic materials, it alludes to Schwitters’ prolonged search for a stable Heimat in an unstable existence; contributing to a narrative of homelessness that defined the life of this artist.  

Detail of Schwitters' Spatial Growth

Detail of Schwitters’ Spatial Growth

 

Despite moments of panic when I thought I might not be able to actually view the work (it was touring Germany for much of the year), writing the dissertation came to be as rewarding as it was challenging. The opportunity to study one work of art in such depth, whilst drawing on the expertise of my supervisor, Dr Camilla Smith, enabled me to form a research topic that interested me greatly, and that I felt had not been fully explored before.’

 

Well done again to all our graduates this year – you have done us proud! You can see interviews with some of our students on graduation day here.

 

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Lyon’s Fête des Lumières: Commercialist extravaganza or installation art at its finest, asks French and Art History student Marianne Thomas

The city of Lyon, located in the heart of the French hexagon, is a beautiful and vibrant one, bursting with a wide spectrum of cultural events that is ever-surprising in its variety and seemingly never-ending in its frequency. It’s arguably little wonder then, that after choosing Lyon to be the location of my compulsory Year Abroad last year, I was just as excited to experience the weekly art markets and the annual film festival as I was to explore the city itself. However, there was always one highly-acclaimed event that stood out in the calendar more than most and that I looked forward to from September onwards: Lyon’s annual Fête des Lumières, coming to town on 6th December.

 

The city of Lyon

The city of Lyon

 

A gigantic festival of lights, it’s not difficult to see why just the idea of the Fête des Lumières held such appeal for the History of Art student in me. Each year on the first weekend of December, every corner of Lyon is illuminated: building-sized video installations, pyrotechnics and dazzling light displays stretch from the concrete housing-block communities of the inner suburbs to the sprawling, fountain-laden squares of the city centre, and transform after-dark Lyon into a living, breathing canvas. Thousands of artists apply each year with the hope of securing a small area of the city to show off their expertise in their chosen field; the festival undoubtedly gives many installation artists an unparalleled opportunity to exhibit their work in an imaginative way outside of the gallery.

Subsequently, after seeing numerous photos of the spectacles offered by previous years, I was understandably excited to see what 2013 would bring, and assumed that the citizens of Lyon – being lucky enough to have this event on their doorstep – would feel the same.

 

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An installation in one of the city’s squares, December 2013

 

Nevertheless, in the lead-up to December, I found that, upon talking to local residents, most of them didn’t seem to share in my excitement. Some groaned with dread at the thought of the imminent collapse of public transport in the wake of all the tourists, but many more bemoaned the fact that the festival had become so commercial in recent years and that the “true spirit” of it had been masked by gimmicks and consumerism. After learning more about the history and facts of the Fête, it became clear that both of these viewpoints were fairly understandable.

After all, amazingly, Lyon’s Fête des Lumières is the third most-visited annual festive event in the world, with only Rio Carnival and Oktoberfest beating it in the leaderboard. That’s to say that, on average, four million tourists flock to Lyon every year for an event that is barely advertised outside of the city itself, and is practically unknown in the UK. Suddenly, the transport-related anxiety made a lot of sense. The argument of the Fête being overrun by commercialism also seems to follow on pretty naturally; the origins of the festival are far from concrete, but the generally-accepted version of the narrative is that the Fête is a tribute to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from the plague during the 1600s, and that lighting up building façades and placing candles in windows is the Lyonnais way of giving thanks for the miracle. However, it’s easy to see that this prominent spiritual aspect of the festival could be easily forgotten amongst the bright lights and fireworks.

So when the Fête des Lumières finally rolled around in December, I was no longer sure what to expect. Was it going to prove to be the commercialist extravaganza that I’d been warned about, or the enormous, explosive art installation that I’d hoped for?

 

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The town hall ‘on fire’

 

I was pleased to find that it was predominantly the latter. Although perhaps many art critics would not consider a festival of lights to be an example of installation art in its traditional sense, there is no reason to dismiss it from the category altogether. The way in which the existing architecture of the city was moulded to fit each artist’s requirement was extraordinary: with the use of incredibly-intricate lighting projections, the town hall and fine art museum were seen to be “demolished”, before being rebuilt into a rainforest and then an underwater kingdom, amongst many other creative destinations.

 

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

 

An existing mural painted onto the side of a local boulangerie was “animated”, its characters brought to life, while the banks of the Rhone river were transformed into a light-up orchestra. Of course, the streets were fit to burst with bodies cramming to see the spectacles, and the sheer number of stalls enthusiastically selling mulled wine was much higher than I would have expected, but a touch of consumerism didn’t mean that the event could not still be regarded as a prime example of the flexibility of installation art.

In fact, witnessing the festival made me think back to a question that all History of Art students will be very familiar with from the first few nervous weeks of first year: What is Art? It doesn’t always have to be a Pre-Raphaelite painting from the National Gallery, or even the most recent and most ‘out-there’ Damien Hirst creation. At its basis, art is arguably about producing a reaction, and there’s no question that the Fête des Lumières continues to do that year after year, showcasing the best talent of this specific artistic niche in an unorthodox, citywide exhibition that celebrates and the Lyonnais landscape and adds a touch of magic to it too.

So if you ever want to experience an installation exhibition with a difference, Lyon in December may just be the place to go. It may not be “high art”, but it certainly shows how adaptable and all-encompassing art can be, and you’ll never be short of a glass of vin chaud as you watch architecture metamorphose before your eyes.

Marianne is studying a History of Art and French. To find out more about this degree programme see here. Read Marianne’s other report on living and working in Lyon here.

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“Spectacular discoveries”: The Ghent Altarpiece makes the news (… again!)

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo's Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo’s Ghent

Readers might remember that the famous Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck was recently in the news. It last hit the headlines in April because of the ongoing puzzle over the whereabouts of the Just Judges panel, which was nicked from St. Bavo’s in Ghent in 1934 and has threatened to show up a several times in recent years; to no avail, unfortunately. You can read about all of that, plus a bit about the altarpiece’s tumultuous history more generally, on my previous post here.

For now at least, the Just Judges puzzle remains still a puzzle, and the altarpiece’s most recent foray into the public eye is in fact nothing to do with the Judges saga. The altarpiece is instead in the news this time for much more positive, if not exciting, reasons.

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Since 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece has been in restoration. The work is being done at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, where visitors can apparently watch conservators at work on panels from the altarpiece through a glazed wall looking into a specially designed room where the restorers are at work (or so Christina Currie told me recently, who is from from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage at Brussels (KIK-IRPA), the organisation responsible for overseeing the treatment). The total restoration of the polyptych has been split into 3 phases:

- Phase 1, underway now and due for completion this October, focuses on the outside shutters

- Phase 2, due to start on completion of phase 1, deals with the upper interior panels (the row commencing with Adam and finishing with Eve)

And…

- Phase 3, scheduled to start in April 2016 and complete the following October, deals with the bottom interior panels, so the Mystic Lamb, the Knights, Hermits and Pilgrims (and presumably they WON’T be doing anything with the Just Judges, which is a replica painted by Jef Van der Veken in 1945 to fill the gap left by the theft of the original)

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 2: Upper interior panels

Phase 2: upper interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

The cost of all this is pretty eye-watering: €1,260,433.20 (I wonder what the .20 is for?). So what do you get for that sort of money? Well, they’re examining and repairing the panels themselves, to allow for unconstrained contraction and expansion of the wood, thus preventing further cracking (i.e. panels have presumably been cradled at some point, which has lessened the “give” of the wood and caused fractures). They’re also removing those familiar yellowed and cracked varnish layers, which should make the whole thing look just that bit more brilliant. And finally, since they’re removing the varnishes anyway, they’re also examining the paint layers themselves, to establish if there are overpaints and restorations that ought to be removed, and whether any new restorations are required to damaged parts. All the while, the observations the restorers make will doubtless enrich our understanding of the van Eycks’ methods, and most probably shed light on the whole “what’s by Hubert and what’s by Jan?” problem.

And things are already getting very interesting indeed. During Phase 1, conservators have realised that much of the outside shutters actually feature extensive overpaints. And following 3D Hirox microscope and MA-XRF analyses (whatever they are), it was realised that the paint layers beneath the overpaints are, surprisingly, in good condition (I say surprisingly because overpaints usually hide nasty stuff). Consequently the decision was made to REMOVE pretty much an entire layer of paint from the surface of the outside shutters in a bid to reveal the van Eycks’ original paintwork. A CODART release (CODART is an international network for curators of Netherlandish art) tells us that this work is ongoing, and that centimeter by centimeter a steady hand(!!), wielding a scalpel (agh! – rather you than me), is removing the overpaint that obscures the van Eycks’ superior work.

And the results are impressive. The 2 images below from the Joos Vijd panel show sections where the overpaints have been removed, thus revealing the subtler, more nuanced brushwork that has hitherto been obscured:

Comparison of Vijd's hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Comparison of Vijd’s hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd's robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd’s robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Other discoveries include a cobweb in the corner of the panel showing Elisabeth Borluut, the wife of Vijd, the altarpiece’s patron; a finding of demonstrable iconographic significance, says the CODART release.

This is all pretty exciting stuff.

But the findings also also beg an obvious question: why were the overpaints done in the first place, if the paint beneath is in such good nick? Who in their right mind would paint over the van Eycks’ brushwork if there was no real cause to do so? From what I gather—and I am by no means especially knowledgable about this—the overpaints are OLD; they certainly have, or had, craqueleur consistent with 15th- or 16th-century paint, and they had, after all, gone undetected by the great connoisseurs of the 20th century (Panofsky, Friedländer and so on never, as far as I know, doubted very much that what they were looking at was the original paintwork–there is a great irony here that much of the scholarship on the altarpiece has been obsessed with discerning Jan’s hand from Hubert’s, whereas it seems, on the outside shutters at least, that up to now we’ve been looking at neither!). When I first heard about the overpaint (again, via Christina Currie), I’d presumed they had been done to conceal fire damage, inflicted on the work in the 16th century–a plausible story, I’d thought. But that can’t be the case, since the paint underneath is superior to the overpaints and well preserved. So it’s all a bit strange. I daresay answers will be forthcoming when the restorations are complete in 2017 and the panels are reunited—less the Just Judges, unless by some miracle it turns up just in time—inside St. Bavo’s, doubtless to great fanfare and accompanied by myriad publications! Watch this space…

 

Jamie

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