Bringing Historical Concepts to life: first-year trip to Tate Modern and the National Gallery

Rebecca Savage gives her account of the recent first year trip to London…

The University of Birmingham provides the ideal opportunity to study paintings at first hand at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which, as any lecturer will tell you, is an invaluable resource given that the study of painting from powerpoint slides and text books is no substitute for the real thing. It is, however, always exciting to see pictures outside the grounds of the university and a couple of weeks ago the first years (accompanied by some second-year students and, of course, our lecturer, David Hemsoll) visited Tate Modern and the National Gallery on a whistle stop tour of the capital.

Many of us started with the current exhibition at Tate Modern – Works on Paper – a display of drawings, etchings and poetry by the late Louise Bourgeois. These provided an intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable insight into the artist’s interior monologue, displaying private drawings made by the artist late at night, while also demonstrating her talents outside the sculptural work for which she is best known.

The Tate’s collection also gave us all the opportunity to grapple with some of the questions we have been thinking about in our recent module ‘Historical Concepts’ in which we have been learning about a number of activities and questions involved in the study of art history. Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept Waiting certainly linked in with themes of ‘what is an artist?’ given the seemingly simplistic process involved in the production of the work and its distance from the traditional criteria for defining ‘fine art’. The jury was also undecided as to whether Michael Baldwin’s work Untitled Painting can be considered art at all, although it did raise questions on the purpose of a painting as a reflection of the real world.

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

After a quick break for an overpriced lunch or coffee (let’s face it everything seems expensive on a student budget!) and a desperate run for the coach, which, David insisted, ‘would not wait for us’, we made our way to the bustling Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.

At this point I admit I had a mission. I am writing my first ‘Historical Concepts’ essay on Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and was eager to see first-hand the famous detail of the floorboards and clothing I had been reading so much about. I wasn’t disappointed, after an initial period of confusion (the gallery doesn’t seem that big until you start looking for a single, specific, painting) I found the portrait in a small room. I can honestly say that seeing the colours, technique and brushwork up close has brought it alive for me. Also, I was rather lucky that a group tour happened to be talking about this painting whilst I was looking at it, so I was able to have a sneaky listen in to what they were saying!

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The National Gallery gave everybody the perfect opportunity to see some of the art discussed in lectures and seminars actually in the flesh. We were able to point out the iconography in Antonio de Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St Sebastian presented recently in one of David’s lectures as well as appreciating Berthe Morisot’s images, which we have discussed with lecturer Fran Berry in the module ‘Concepts of Modernism’.

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

I think we would all agree that our visit to the big city has certainly assisted us with our studies. Whether that’s by seeing specific works, helping us to discover new artists, or, more generally, reminding us of the scope of work there is to be discovered, it has definitely demonstrated to me how much we have already learnt.

Rebel Visions: the War Art of CRW Nevinson

Final year student, Marianne Thomas, reviews the Barber Institute’s latest exhibition…

Having only opened on 24th October, the Barber Institute’s exhibition, Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson seems to be proving very popular. Visitors to the gallery from the local area and further afield have been praising its unique and insightful view of the First World War. So, encouraged by the thought-provoking atmosphere of this centennial November, I decided it was high time that I take a look for myself.

On entering the gallery, I had no idea whatsoever who Nevinson even was, but a concise timeline and introduction displayed within the exhibition space soon put me straight. His biography was rather fascinating – starting off with an art education at UCL, he began working as a Medical Orderly in France in 1914. This led to him witnessing the terrible casualties that would haunt his art for the rest of his life – his position as an official war artist in 1917 only emphasised that.

The way in which Nevinson’s wartime experiences are manifested in his work is clear from the outset, and it is his lifelong and distinctive viewpoint of warfare that the exhibition focuses on. Clearly laid out with succinct, yet informative interpretation labels, Rebel Visions looks at works created during the First World War as well as the post-war years. From the section of the display dedicated to the war period, there were two paintings that really grabbed my attention.

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

The first was La Patrie, painted in 1916. This image depicts a makeshift French hospital, where Nevinson worked during the autumn of 1914. The figures of the wounded soldiers are incredibly striking. I’m not much of a Cubism connoisseur, but the men represented in La Patrie certainly seem to fit the stylistic mould. Nevinson uses strong geometrical shapes to form the faces and make them seem contorted with pain and suffering, while the harsh lines of the soldiers’ bodies reminded me of broken machines or fallen robots. The extensive use of black in the painting also adds to the morose feeling, while the title seems to suggest that Nevinson is being satirical – this hardship is what the “motherland” has given its children, and Nevinson doesn’t shy away from highlighting that.

 

Nevinson, 'War Profiteers', 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) ©The Nevinson Estate / Bridgeman Images (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

Nevinson, War Profiteers, 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) © The Nevinson Estate/Bridgeman Images (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

The second painting that really stuck with me was War Profiteers, produced a year later. Showing two women dressed lavishly but with mask-like facial features, the image, together with its title, implies that some women actually benefited from warfare, encouraging a feeling of repulsion in the viewer. It certainly achieved this with me; the women appear to be enjoying themselves at the cost of so many lost lives, and the fact that Nevinson paints them in shades of blue only serves to emphasise further their cold demeanours and attitudes. I found myself wondering what contemporary viewers would have made of this controversial and finger-pointing viewpoint, and then realised that this blatant criticism of the elite was probably what earned Nevinson the title of “rebel”.

Then, I decided to take a look at the post-war images and found a painting which grabbed my attention even more. The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934, is my favourite painting from the exhibition. This image made me appreciate fully Nevinson’s importance as a war artist – I love how busy and full of meaning it is. A crucifix takes precedence at the centre of the painting, while a huge cannon is represented directly beneath it. Mourning saints are depicted around the edges and images of both traditional and modern weapons fill the foreground. Religion and warfare are juxtaposed, arguably in conflict with one another. Also, the fact that this painting was created just before the Second World War could suggest that Nevinson continued to observe political unrest, regardless of state propaganda to say the contrary, and, perhaps this shows just how “rebellious” his visions were.

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist's estate / Bridgeman Images photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images
photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

So, upon leaving the exhibition, I had a much clearer idea of who CRW Nevinson was and what he represented. None of his works glorify warfare; the events are portrayed as being brutal, cold and machine-like, destroying the lives of any soldiers who were involved. One hundred years after the First World War began, I think that Nevinson’s work is as important as ever, and this exhibition certainly succeeds in hammering home his message.

See Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson 24 October 2014 – 25 January 2015, free entry, Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Research Seminar #3: Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts): Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

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DEPARTMENT OF ART HISTORY, FILM AND VISUAL STUDIES RESEARCH SEMINAR SERIES 2014 – 15

Thursday 13th November 2015, 5:15pm

Barber Photograph Room

Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts)

Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

Cubomania

Collage practices based around the recuperation and juxtaposition of found printed images have long been a staple of the critical and curatorial reception of Surrealism. This seminar, however, considers just one, so far virtually undocumented instance of Surrealist collage, cubomania, developed under siege conditions in wartime Bucharest by the poet Gherasim Luca and pursued by him for some five decades. The simple procedure of cutting photographs or reproductions into regular squares so as to re-assemble them into grids adopts a deceptively modest format, but Luca’s accompanying theoretical framework sees the results as miniature testing-grounds for some surprisingly challenging ideas, harnessing the tensions between erotic desire and violent revolutionary consciousness that might eventually be applied to a transformation of the world itself.

Enquiries to Jamie Edwards: jle756@bham.ac.uk

AAH Careers day at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, by MRes student, Holly Wain

This year the Association of Art Historians’ Careers Day, organised by the AAH student Committee, was held right here on campus at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 25 October 2014. This was a great opportunity to listen to the wise words of speakers from a range of arts and heritage institutions without having to travel across the country! The day was split into several talks with the opportunity for informal questions over tea breaks and lunch.

AAh careers day

AAH student committee member and UoB PhD student, Imogen, who organised the careers day

The speakers represented a really wide range of careers in the arts and heritage sector. This was refreshing to see as it is easy to assume that arts and heritage is limited to museums and galleries. Here, I felt that a wide range of interests had been taken into account. For example, the first speaker was Reyahn King, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands – I found her talk particularly interesting as, recently, I have become more interested in pursuing a career in the protection of historic buildings. This is a sector that can appear quite confusing as organisations range from government funded bodies to charities and trusts. Also, there is a distinction between practical conservation and those who manage the strategy and policies. I found Reyahn’s talk very useful as she gave details on her first roles after graduation. Reyahn gave a very positive message to reassure undergraduates, explaining that she did not take the obvious route to work at HLF, but that this was completely fine as you can experience different areas of the sector and still be gaining skills that can be used elsewhere.

Alex careers

Alex is pictured here talking about museum education

Alex Jolly, Learning and Access Assistant at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, gave us an insight into the roles involved in a museum’s education department. As well as giving a detailed view of the strategy behind making the collections accessible and enjoyable for a wide range of people, Alex gave some helpful general advice for job searching in the sector. I picked up some new websites for searching for job opportunities, for example Engage.org and National Museum Directors Council website. Alex also stressed that when applying for those first jobs after graduating you should not be afraid to apply for a role if you feel under qualified, as it is enthusiasm and ideas that count.

Hannah careers day

Former UoB History of Art student, Hannah, is shown here talking about her career path

Hannah Carroll, a former History of Art student at the University of Birmingham, explained the day-to-day tasks involved in her role as a Marketing Officer at Birmingham Museums. Hannah encouraged students to volunteer as much as possible to gain a sense of what each role entails and what you would be most suited to. This was important to Hannah as she had never seen herself going into the marketing side of things until she gained that practical work experience.

Connie careers

UoB graduate, Connie, presented on her experience as Pop Art curator

For those looking ahead to a career as a curator, Dr Connie Wan discussed her role as Pop Art Curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. She gave us details about her career path, including her collaborative PhD, before explaining her role as a curator. Connie explained that, although the common belief is that a curator ‘points and chooses’, there is, in fact, a whole host of other activities involved in her role: for example, travelling around the world to carry out research in different archives and building relationships with contemporary artists. Connie started out studying graphic design and moved on to research nineteenth-century art before her role as Pop Art curator. She encouraged us to see our lack of knowledge in certain areas not as a hindrance but, rather, an opportunity to learn. I think these words were definitely a reassurance to all students in the audience!

Carly careers 2

UoB doctoral researcher, Carly, talked about her local oral histories project, Digbeth Speaks

The day also included a talk by Carly Hegenbarth, a History of Art PhD student at the University of Birmingham. She presented the academic side to careers in the arts and gave a detailed view of the work involved in further study. Carly’s talk emphasised the rewarding nature of doctoral research in discovering new knowledge, as well as the opportunities to get involved in activities outside of your own research. For example, Carly managed a HLF-funded oral histories project, Digbeth Speaks, in 2013.

Jane careers

Jane can be seen here presenting case studies of her work in conservation

The more practical side to museums was presented by Jane Thompson-Webb, Conservator at Birmingham Museums. Jane began by giving us a detailed account of the different types of work involved in caring for the collections and then gave examples of the projects that she had undertaken, showing the astonishing results with ‘before and after’ photos. Jane described the different career paths available for those interested in a future in conservation, from university postgraduate courses to apprenticeships. [To find out about the current volunteering opportunities at Birmingham Museums with the Conservation department, click here].

To close the day Chris Packham, Careers and Employability Consultant for the Careers Network in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham, gave us some tips on networking and keeping up to date with what is going on in our chosen fields via Twitter and LinkedIn.

I would like to thank all the speakers for a very informative day with lots of advice and tips for starting out with job searches and applications. I also really appreciated the positive outlook that all the speakers had for our prospects as History of Art graduates.

Research Seminar No.2: Sandy Heslop, ‘Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100′

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Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series 2014 – 15

Thursday October 23rd, 5:15, Barber Photograph Room

Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia)

Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100

Pastoral

All welcome. Refreshments served!

Enquiries to Jamie Edwards at jle756@bham.ac.uk

Rachel Coombes Reviews ‘Art and Life’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery (4th June – 21st September 2014)

Tucked away in South East London, Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain’s first purpose-built art gallery, designed by the architect Sir John Soane. Opening to the public in 1817, the gallery houses an esteemed and important permanent collection, made up largely of works by 17th and 18th century European Old Masters, including Rembrandt, Poussin and Van Dyck. In recent years, it has also run a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions, which include ‘Modern British’ among its themes. The gallery’s latest show, ‘Art and Life’, which closed towards the end of September, belonged to this strand; it focused on the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, whose work can be seen on permanent display in Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. The exhibition covered roughly a decade (1920-31) of these artists’ careers, a period which coincided also with their relatively short-lived marriage. The couple were part of a British avant-garde scene working in the first half of the 20th century. The final rooms of the exhibition showed the work of the Nicholsons’ painter-friends Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, which revealed a similar gaucheness of style. While none of these artists are particularly well-known now (having been neglected in the complexities of the European modernist scene), they were not unsuccessful during their lifetime. But it was the Nicholsons’ artistic partnership, thriving as it did on a shared love of the British countryside and a similar artistic sensibility, which made the exhibition so insightful.

Richard Dorment described this exhibition as ‘an exercise in tedium’, pointing out the drab use of colours in the landscape paintings and the pseudo-naivety of the draughtsmanship (The Telegraph, 2nd June 2014). It is true that the inclusion of the occasional ungainly, gawky horse – added to the landscape as if it were a piece of fuzzy-felt – suggests a self-consciously naive approach, as seen in Walton Wood Cottage no. 1 (1928). But the overriding effect is one of charming, and bold, unfussiness rather than glaring ineptitude. Dorment seems insensitive to the simple fact that the predominance of sombre greens and browns in the Nicholson’s Cornish and Cumberland panoramas is the result of a sincere painterly response to a particular atmosphere. Winifred’s Cumberland landscape scene Northrigg Hill (1926) is a case in point: hung alongside a version of the scene painted by the couple’s friend Christopher Wood, it has a convincing vigour to it which Wood’s painting lacks. It is as if she has filtered her strongest sensations and visual memories of the place into one atmospheric and evocative scene, sacrificing mere imitation for immediate sensation. The bold contours of the hedgerows, zigzagging across the undulating land lead the eye into the misty blue distance, which blends almost seamlessly into the folds of cloud of a typically overcast English sky.

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, 1926

A different kind of sensual immediacy – of equal potency but greater delicacy – is apparent in Winifred’s still life paintings of flowers on windowsills. In these paintings, her sensitive use of colour gives the very real impression of petals glowing translucently in sunlight. The painter described the coloristic sensitivity which governed her approach to the painting Anemones (1924): “I added sunflowers, canary poppies, buttercups, dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink and all my yellows broke into luminosity”. Many of Winifred’s canvases are suffused with daubs of varying shades of pink; one shade in particular she recommended to her husband in 1925: ‘Have you tried Jaune capucine Foncé, it’s rather a good pale pink [sic].’ That same year, the exact colour appears in Ben’s Cubist-inspired still-life, Jamaïque.

Winifred Nicholson, Anemones, 1924

Besides her brief excursion into pure abstraction during the 1930s – as represented in this exhibition by White and Black Eclipse (1936) – Winifred was to remain attached to domestic still-life as her primary subject matter throughout the rest of her career. As a result it is perhaps unsurprising that she has been consigned to art historical obscurity. Despite the fact that Ben Nicholson’s serious pursuit of geometric abstraction did not begin until beyond the prescribed scope of the exhibition in the mid-1930s, the final room featured several of these austere works. Perhaps this curatorial decision was intended as a reminder of what he is best known for today, or, as Dorment implies, of his relevance to Modernism. One cannot help drawing comparisons between his rather sudden move into abstraction and the broader formal experiments among the avant-garde artists on the continent. But, contextualising these later works within an art historical modernist ‘narrative’ serves only to denigrate the earlier works to which this exhibition is dedicated. They are in themselves interesting, exploratory attempts to communicate genuine responses to their favourite parts of the British countryside.

Rachel Coombes

Semester 1 Programme

EL'E:

EMREM – the postgraduate forum for Early Medieval, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern studies – launches its Autumn programme. First event – a conference workshop – this Wednesday.

Originally posted on The EMREM Forum:

EMREM would like to announce their programme of events for the semester. 

Wednesday 15th October 2014 2.30-3.30pm

 Peter Gelling Library, room 315 Arts Building

Conference Workshop

Wednesday 29th October 2014 2.30-3.30pm

Computer Room 3rd floor ERI Building

Estoria de Espanna Presentation and Demonstration

Wednesday 12th November 2014 2.30-3.30pm

Peter Gelling Library, room 315 Arts Building

Research Presentation Session

Wednesday 26th November 2014 2.30-3.30pm

 Peter Gelling Library, room 315 Arts Building

Manuscripts, Libraries and Archives

Wednesday 10th December 2014 4-7pm

Fage Libray, Arts Building

End of Term Wine Reception

sem 1 programme

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AAH Art History Careers Day: Saturday 25 October, Barber Institute

We’re delighted that this year’s Association of Art Historians (AAH) Careers Day is taking place at our very own Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham on Saturday 25 October.

The event will introduce a range of careers opportunities which are available to art history students. There will be a series of informal talks by speakers from leading cultural institutions who will share their professional experiences and expertise in areas including curatorship, art management, gallery marketing and education, and research. 

Tickets (includes lunch and refreshments):

AAH members £8; non-members £12

Places are limited and tickets must be bought online in advance:

 www.aah.org.uk/events/careers-in-art-history 
Speakers:
Reyahn King (Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, West Midlands)
Dr Connie Wan (Pop Art Curator, Wolverhampton Art Gallery)
Sarah Shirley-Priest (Senior Specialist and Branch Manager, Bonhams)
Jane Thompson Webb (Conservator, Birmingham Museums Trust)
Alex Jolly (Learning & Access Assistant, Barber Institute of Fine Arts)
Hannah Carroll (Marketing Officer, Birmingham Museums)
Carly Hegenbarth (Doctoral Researcher, University of Birmingham)
Chris Packham (Careers Consultant, Arts and Law, University of Birmingham) 

This event is supported by the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham.

Join our Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1469125306681559/

For enquiries, please contact the event co-organisers:
Imogen Wiltshire: ixw713@bham.ac.uk
Charlotte Stokes: charlotte.j.stokes@gmail.com
Ana Bilbao: aebilb@essex.ac.uk

AAH Careers Day Barber Institute

 

Laughing with Mary Beard. And a (not so) Laughing Cavalier.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Last night I went to hear Prof. Mary Beard–esteemed Cambridge don, TV presenter and keen blogger–deliver a lecture at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the topic of laughter in ancient Rome, which is also the subject of Beard’s latest book: Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up.

The lecture, as we’d expect, was brilliant. Mary exhibited a masterful, and often playful, combination of overwhelming intelligence and an endearing ability to deal with complex ideas in an accessible way, without coming across as at all patronising. (As a non-Classicist, I followed the whole thing and didn’t feel inadequate at any point.) The talk essentially asked: what did Romans laugh at? when did they laugh? and what does this tell us about society, politics, and power relations in ancient Rome?

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

For instance, let us consider–as we did with Mary–the story related by the Roman historian and politician Cassius Dio in his enormous eighty-volume history of Rome from the the 3rd century CE. The story takes us back to the Colosseum in the year 192 CE. Dio is sat in the front row (where the important people sat, with women and slaves packed in at the back, 100ft above the Colosseum’s arena floor) watching (squinting if you’re a woman or slave) the emperor Commodus parading himself about in an elaborate display of Imperial might that dragged on for 14 whole days; on one day, Commodus slew 100 bears, on another he participated in scripted gladiatorial combat, etc. Word had got out before this spectacle that Commodus had intended to masquerade as Hercules (as he was apparently prone to doing–see the above bust of Commodus-as-Hercules from the Capitoline museum) and fire deadly arrows into the assembled crowd, and this provides the backdrop to the episode that caused Dio’s laughter. In Dio’s words:

[The emperor] killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head… and the bloody sword. He said absolutely nothing, but with a grin he shook his own head, making it clear that he would do the same to us. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot by the sword for laughing at [the emperor]… if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others [to do the same]… so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.

So it’s basically an ancient instance of biting your lip. And it’s interestIng, as Mary explained, because it gives us a sense that we are experiencing Roman life, and laughter, at first hand, and it provokes the modern scholar to address what it is in this episode that Dio found funny, what the episode tells us about the relationships between emperor and his subjects in ancient Rome, and gets us to think about the social function of laughter: Is Dio’s laughter an act of insubordination, a mocking of, via the medium of laughter, the pumped-up pretensions of the emperor; or is it (what we’d call these days) nervous laughter? And, for that matter, what kinds of problems, methodological and empirical, does such a question pose for the modern historian?

All this was dead interesting. But what struck me was the resonance that all this has with my own work on Pieter Bruegel. I was lucky enough to get to chat to Mary afterwards, and I mentioned how her interest in laughter in the ancient world mirrored by interest in laughter in the 16th century in the Netherlands, and, in particular, the question of whether people laughed at Bruegel’s pictures of peasants or not, which, as I’ve said before, has been the subject of great controversy since the 1970s. Did people really laugh at Bruegel’s representations of the rural poor? And was this laughter, if there ever was any, condescending? Or was it democratising–a Rebelaisian carnivalesque form of laughter that acts a social leveller (according to Bakhtin’s classic study)? And, what’s more, what evidence is there that can support our view either way? Can we ever really know what people laughed at in their lounges and dining rooms in the 1550s and ’60s (just like can we ever know what Dio found funny sitting in front of an ostrich-head-wielding Commodus in the Colosseum in 192?)?

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

This is where the (not) Laughing Cavalier comes in. We all know Frans Hals’s picture of a Cavalier because the sitter is laughing; its fame rests, by and large, on the fact that the sitter is a jolly chap, enjoying a giggle at this or that. But, as Mary pointed out (and perhaps this is in the literature on Hals already, but I am no expert), the portrait of the cavalier only earned its title of “Laughing Cavalier” about a century ago. Before then, the picture was notable (if written descriptions of it are anything to go by) because of the curly moustache that the sitter is sporting. In other words, modern sensibilities find that the portrait shows a laughing man, whereas this was lost on, or else wasn’t considered to be the most striking aspect of the picture for, earlier viewers. This was one of Mary’s chief points. That although the sound of laughter, and for that matter the rendering of that sound in print–“hahahae” in Terence’s 161 BCE Eunuch–is remarkably universal, what rouses that laughter is not universal, and has changed over the course of history as  sensibilities and cultural conventions likewise adapt.

Frans Hals, "Laughing" Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

Frans Hals, “Laughing” Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

This is all germane to my work and is certainly food for thought. Can we ever reconstruct what Bruegel’s audience found funny? Did people really laugh at peasants? Peasants in art, for that matter? On the face of it Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Feast isn’t funny, but is this a bit like Hals’s Cavalier, which is to say that do we struggle to see what was funny in Bruegel’s picture because we are no longer socially predisposed to find the poor intrinsically funny? Is it the case that mockery of the poor is nowadays considered taboo, morally reprehensible, and that this is quite different to the situation in the 16th century, which scarcely batted an eyelid at serfdom?

Finally, in case you’re wondering, are Roman jokes from Antiquity funny? Did we indeed laugh along with Mary? Well, none of the jokes related by Mary in her lecture roused genuinely raucous laughter (indeed this was part of her point about the socio-historical contingency of laughter, and not a criticism) but one of them, which only came out during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture, was a gem, and, what’s more, is a joke told by a woman (women otherwise frequently being the butt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes!). It’s preserved in Macrobius’s Saturnalia and the comic is Julia, daughter of the emperor Augustus, who was, on all accounts, infamously promiscuous. The joke goes:

When those who knew of [Julia’s] disgraceful behaviour were amazed how her sons looked like her husband Agrippa even though she gave her body to any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enjoy, she said, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship’s hold is full.”

Simply, hilarious. Surely as funny now as it must’ve been in Antiquity! As for why it’s funny? Perhaps Mary’s book sheds light . . .

Jamie Edwards

Probing Leonardo.

Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Yesterday, we had a Leonardo being cleaned. Today, it’s a Leonardo painting being photographed, with a mega good camera.

Pascal Cotte, of Paris’s Lumiere Technology, has spent 3 years subjecting Leonardo’s hugely famous portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an Ermine to a technique called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), and has apparently discovered that poor old Cecilia once LACKED her posh, furry companion.

LAM works by firing a series of powerful lights at paintings, and a computer then registers the differences in the amounts of light that is reflected, thus revealing insights into what paintings look like beneath their uppermost layer. It is this procedure that has yielded the discovery that Leonardo’s portrait once showed Cecilia without the ermine, then showed her with a regular ermine, and then, finally, with the steroid-pumped ermine we see in the picture today.

Leonardo Ermine

The portrait, which is dated to about 1490, shows Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s chief Milanese maecenas. It has always been thought that the portrait was originally conceived with the ermine, as a signifier of Cecilia’s love for Ludovico, who was supposedly nicknamed “the white ermine”. That explanation still stands. But the real significance of all this is that it sheds light on Leonardo’s practices who, clearly, continued to play around with ideas even once a painting was well underway, as well as the specific circumstances surrounding the execution of the portrait. Why did Leonardo add an ermine to what otherwise seems to have been a finished portrait of Cecilia? Perhaps Cecilia requested it herself. Or Ludovico. So he added one. Thus portrait version #2. But then the portrait underwent another change, with the ermine becoming curiously bulky and sporting lion’s paws. Thus portrait version #3, the final one. Why modify the ermine? Perhaps this bit’s Leonardo’s invention, who, rather than choosing to represent Ludovico with a scrawny ermine (version #2), tried to flatter the Duke by envisioning him in the guise of a bodybuilding ermine. All interesting stuff . . .

 

Jamie Edwards

 

 

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