Excitement is pervading the air, the annual elections are underway! Students are scrabbling for positions of power, bright eye-catching signs litter the campus, promising change and new water fountains.
This Thursday 21 February, the department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies welcomes Dr Shulamith Behr, Honorary Research Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art, who presents her paper, Between Authenticity and the Multiple: Käthe Kollwitz, graphic dissemination and dealership.
Come and enjoy a glass of wine while listening to our esteemed speaker. The Barber Photograph Room, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 5.15pm.
When I first received an email last September from Dr Sadiah Qureshi of the History department at the University of Birmingham, explaining that paintings by George Catlin (1796-1872), were returning to England to be exhibited for the first time since the 1840s, and that a research project with the National Portrait Gallery was available to Birmingham students to assist in this exhibition, I could only think of two things. Firstly, what an amazing opportunity it was, and secondly, I hope I get it! After discovering a bit about Catlin, my excitement for the research project that I was possibly about to embark on grew even more as I discovered what a fascinating artist he was. Born in Pennsylvania, he made a series of paintings in the 1830s that documented the lives of America’s indigenous population. His paintings became known through an ‘Indian Gallery’, which toured America and Europe for a decade.
After successfully applying, a group of twenty Birmingham students travelled down to London to have our first meeting with the George Catlin exhibition team at the National Portrait Gallery. After explaining to the rest of the group not to worry as ‘I grew up in London and know my way around’ I then spent half an hour wandering round the back streets of the gallery trying to find the office where the meeting was being held… One day I will realise that I need to stop relying on my appalling sense of direction. After getting a friend to rescue me, everyone finally gathered in the meeting room where we could observe Catlin’s Native American portraits that were scattered around the table, all the while having a sense of pride that we were actually helping with the exhibition.
As was expected, we had a long day ahead of us. Firstly, we were told how we were going to contribute to the exhibition. The plan was that groups of five were to research a topic surrounding George Catlin and his works. We would then present our findings in videos which would appear on the exhibition website, and later give gallery talks on the exhibition. A buzz of excitement quickly filled the room.
We were then given a tour of the Victorian wing of the gallery where we were told about the many problems that can arise when holding an exhibition. For example, they discussed how long it took to decide what colour they were going to paint the walls, as everybody seemed to disagree which one would complement the paintings most! After a quick break for lunch, we were taken back to the office and given talks by the curators, Dr. Stephanie Pratt and Dr. Joan Carpenter Troccoli, about possible topics that we could research. There was a nervous energy in the room as people started to realize how quickly this decision actually had to be made!
After meeting with the rest of my group, we decided to focus on Catlin’s original exhibitions in Europe in the 1840s – that is, how he exhibited his works, and how the European public reacted to these Native American portraits. The research project consists of both single and joint honours History students, and seeing as I was the only History of Art joint honours student, it gave us more of an incentive to look at the project from an art historical approach, as it was very likely that we would be the only group to do so. This was perfect for me as it meant that I was able to combine both the History and History of Art aspects of my degree very well, by linking in historical social issues with Catlin’s art. Luckily, the gallery was thrilled with our research topic and loved our original idea of looking at Catlin’s work from an art historical perspective.
The rest of the first semester and the Christmas break soon passed and we realized how fast the filming day for the website videos was approaching. After putting together a text, we frantically tried to memorize it before filming day to avoid us reading from the script. On 25th January, filming day arrived, and as we walked into Winterbourne House in Birmingham with light boxes, microphones and recording equipment all set up, I looked at the rest of my group, who suddenly all became very quiet!
During the filming I think it is fair to say that we all surprised ourselves. Everyone remembered their lines and delivered their speeches with confidence, surprising the film crew as to how few takes we took to record the videos! These videos will be accessible through the online exhibition page when the exhibition opens in March.
Even though the experience is not yet over (we still have the gallery talks to prepare for in May!), I am confident that everyone has thoroughly enjoyed meeting new people and that the students in particular have gained a lot from finding out what it is actually like to work on an exhibition. For this, I would like to thank all of the exhibition team at the National Portrait Gallery and Sadiah Qureshi, from the History Department at Birmingham, for putting the project together. I am very grateful that Birmingham and the National Portrait Gallery were able to work together, and I would highly recommend anyone to seize this kind of opportunity!
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 7 March – 23 June 2013 click here for more information.
A conference, American Indian Images: Making and Breaking George Catlin’s legacy will take place on 8 March for more information, see the NPG’s website.
Heading to the Barber Institute on my first day as a Collections and Exhibitions Intern I was certainly excited but also apprehensive. Trying to be realistic, I was sure that I would spend a great deal of time photocopying, making cups of tea, and doing various mundane tasks that nobody else wanted to do. Luckily, this was very far from being the case. From day one I was involved in the Barber’s big loan exhibition: In Front of Nature: The European Landscapes of Thomas Fearnley. Experiencing the practicalities of installing an exhibition was particularly valuable as I increasingly gained confidence in handling such high value and irreplaceable objects. Installation was particularly varied, one day I would be hanging works on the walls and the next I would be painting plinths. It was an extremely busy time for the small team at the Barber and a great deal of attention was paid to making it perfect, after all, it has been the most costly exhibition at the Barber to date. Despite the meticulous planning of the exhibition, I was reminded that you can never truly envisage what the space will look like until the works are on the walls. As a result, the hang of the exhibition was completely changed. Luckily, everything was finished just in time for the opening, which was a great success.
Meanwhile, my main personal project during the internship was to curate a print room display on the architect of the Barber Institute, Robert Atkinson, for which I had just three months to organise. As part of this project I found myself trawling through letters from the 1930s, taking photos of the Barber from the top floor of the Muirhead tower and trying to track down the son of Robert Atkinson. The exhibition was installed at the same time as two other exhibitions, which marked the start of the Barber’s 80th anniversary year. On the day of 80 years since the signing of the deed of settlement (founding the Barber Institute), the exhibitions were opened and I spent a rather exhausting but enjoyable day giving five talks on my exhibition to various groups and showing people round. The private view was a great opportunity to look back on what I had achieved and witness people enjoying the works on show.
My research for the exhibition culminated in a public lecture, which I gave on the last day of my internship. Far from being confident at public speaking, this was certainly going to be a challenge for me. I was amazed by how many people were genuinely interested in learning more about the history of the building and its architect, and I was particularly pleased to have a good turn out for the lecture. As Robert Wenley (head of collections) introduced me, I was extremely nervous, but this soon went as I concentrated on sharing the knowledge I had gained over the last few months. The complements I received afterwards have done wonders to boost my confidence in public speaking and this is one of the most valuable skills I have gained from my time at the Barber Institute. I was certainly sad to leave the Barber, but it has confirmed to me that working in galleries is what I want to do, and it has provided me with a great basis of skills to pursue this career.
‘The Most Perfect Example of His Work’: Robert Atkinson and the Building of the Barber Institute is on display in the print bay of the green gallery until 5th May 2013.
The Barber Institute hires six interns each year, in Collections and Exhibitions, Learning and Access, and Marketing and Public Relations. Recruitment for the next cohort of interns will begin in May 2013.
Come and support one of our own at this Thursday’s Art History Research Seminar! Carly Hegenbarth (2nd Year, PhD) will be presenting her paper, Civil Liberty and the Irish Poor: the Visual Cultures of Catholic Emancipation 1828-9.
Come along and enjoy a glass of wine – all welcome. 5.15pm, The Barber Photograph Room, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
On Saturday 12th January 2013, thirteen History of Art undergraduates, two post-graduates and their lecturer (you can see some of us in the picture below!), left Birmingham for the capital to see The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, an exhibition drawn from the Queen’s illustrious art collection at Buckingham Palace. It was the perfect complement to our module ‘Women and Artistic Culture in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period’.
Ready for our private viewing in the Drawing Room at HM’s London residence, we leapt from our Virgin Pendolino train (a number of students, I should say, travelled down with Chiltern Railways) like the youthful art lovers that we are. Some got the Tube to Green Park and others to Victoria, but our fate soon became clear. Instead of using the mighty palace’s gold-topped gates, we were ushered towards a diminutive side entrance, and visions of corgis at our feet were replaced by a throng of tourists queuing to get into the very public, and not at all exclusive, Queen’s Gallery (even the impressive looking columns in the picture below, which shows the entrance vestibule to the Queen’s Gallery, are, as one intrepid art historian among us discovered, faux-marble and hollow).
Once we had overcome this minor disappointment and made our way through security, we entered the first room to be greeted by Quinten Massys’s fascinating portrait of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who writes in his study like a sixteenth-century Saint Jerome. But links to Jerome, a profoundly chauvinist thinker, do not go down well with a class of feminist art historians and our attention was quickly redirected. That said, I much admired Albrecht Dürer’s tiny 1514 engraving of the studying saint, and particularly the lion and dog sleeping like old friends at his feet.
The exhibition’s Dürer room gave us a fascinating insight into the German printmaker’s world, and the extraordinary Apocalypse series reveals the extent of Europe’s superstitions in the run up to 1500, when, it was believed, the world would end. Much time was also spent examining (particularly by Jamie, our token PHD student) Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents, and it was fascinating to learn that the artist’s depictions of slaughtered children had been subsequently covered up.
Portraits of Kings, Queens and nobles occupied much of the gallery’s wall space, and familiar faces such as King Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scotts glared down at us with typical indignation. But perhaps the most interesting of them all was a portrait of King Louis XII of France from the workshop of Jean Perréal. With a medallion round his neck and a right-royal double-chin, this French monarch is a key player in our period of study, and in 1499 he married Anne of Brittany, one of the most important patrons of the arts in Renaissance France. It is images like this that help to illustrate the extraordinarily convoluted and worryingly inbred Valois family tree.
Having nearly missed her train from Birmingham, Jordan Read, a Canadian exchange student in our class, had to fight her way through the busy streets of London to reach Buckingham Palace on Saturday. But she preserved some energy for gallery-going (a notoriously exhausting pursuit) and I caught up with her to see how she had got on.
‘Despite a bumpy travel, the exhibit was terrific!’ She told reporters outside her halls of residence on Wednesday night. ‘Then again, I think any exhibit in London is incredible compared to the extremely limited art exposure in Vancouver; I’ve seen enough Emily Carr to last me a lifetime.’
So what, I asked Jordan, made this exhibition so special? ‘The great thing was that it complemented our class, Women and Artistic Culture, really nicely. Normally I feel under-educated when I visit exhibits and find myself spending more time reading the curatorial notes beneath the art than actually looking at the art. It was really thrilling for me, as a student who has never properly studied art history before, to recognise stories and characters that were depicted throughout most of the exhibit. I particularly liked Lucas Cranach’s Lucretia from 1530, mostly because of the contrast between her semi-nudeness and her lavish costume, but also because I was familiar with her story from reading Bocaccio’s “Famous Women”.’
Finishing on a negative note, Jordan explained, ‘My only disappointment was the postcard selection in the gift shop; there were more of the Queen Elizabeth II’s face than there were of art from the exhibit.’
We may not have purchased enough postcards, but the exhibition itself was an illuminating and entertaining affair, and will no doubt serve us well as we continue the study of women in Europe during the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period.