On the 4th of December I went along to the Barber Institute’s second speed workshop run by the Art History department at the University of Birmingham. After the success of the first speed workshop earlier this year, this workshop was just as interesting, enjoyable and enlightening as the first, if not more.
If you’re unsure what the speed workshops are all about then imagine speed-dating but with paintings instead of people. You get 10 minutes with a post-graduate student and a work of art from the Barber Institute’s collection of their choice, and the post-grad attempts to educate you about that artwork as fully as they can in just 10 minutes. When the 10 minutes are up, you’re ushered on to the next post-grad/picture, and so on until you’ve done the full circuit of 5. Each of the presenters had their own method of presenting their chosen work and each did a very good job of it!
I was first introduced to the exquisite and wonderfully intricate miniature showing the Flight into Egypt by the Boucicaut Master, dated to between 1404 and 1415. This fascinating little work was presented by Oliver but when we first walked into the study room where the miniature was set-up in a little alcove, we weren’t sure what we were meant to be looking at until Oliver pointed it out to us. It’s tiny! But once you look at this work more closely you are really able to appreciate everything about it. Oliver he told us as much as he could about the miniature, which shows the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s plans to massacre all baby boys. It’s amazing that Oliver was still explaining things and answering our questions about such a tiny work of art when the ten minutes was up. The sheet was taken from an early fifteenth-century Book of Hours (a prayer book for the laity) and, like many other books of its kind from the period, it was pulled apart page-by-page and sold at auction to the highest bidder. Although it is, in some ways, a terrible shame that such a fine work of art should be almost desecrated, it does mean that we are able to enjoy this fantastic miniature in the Barber Institute. When looking at this page up-close it’s clear that a tremendous amount of skill went into creating the miniature, which (with help from its careful custodians at the Barber of course!) has enabled it to survive in pretty good nick despite being some 600 years old!
We were then ushered on to our next “date”: Cosimo Rosselli’s Adoration of the Magi from around 1484 which was presented by Jamie. This picture could not have been more different to the tiny one we had just left behind. Once an altarpiece, probably inside a Florentine church, Rosselli’s Adoration is pretty large (monumental, even, in comparison to the Flight into Egypt miniature) and it dominates the bay in which it hangs. Jamie really engaged his audience and challenged us to think about what we were viewing, by conducting a Q&A session of sorts after giving us a brief overview of what we were looking at. We discussed the subject of the altarpiece, the three Kings adoring the infant Christ, and we also tried to figure out who the other characters present are (requiring us to summon all our knowledge of saints’ attributes that we’ve gained so far on our degrees…) and why they are there, coming up with the theory that certain saints are shown because they were particularly relevant to the church for which the altarpiece was made and/or its patron(s). Jamie also pointed out to us that in the far distance you can just make out an angel (“. . . it’s the thing that looks a bit like a squashed fly”, he says), who is announcing the birth of Christ birth to farmers on a hill. Thus although the altarpiece shows the adoring Magi, Rosselli cleverly managed to allude to the associated story of the adoring shepherds as well.
Then, into the next gallery we went to join Imogen with the Still Life with a Nautilus Cup by Jan Davidsz de Heem from 1632. This still life is full of all of the symbolism and hidden meanings that you would expect from a 17th-century Dutch still life and we debated the various meanings of most of the main objects in the paintings and even some of the smaller objects, like the lemon rind and walnuts. We discussed the idea of vanitas and earthly-wealth that would not accompany you to heaven (or hell if you’re unlucky) and how this was represented by the worn appearance of the objects and how they are all in disarray. Finally we were divided when debating whether there is a large dent in the metal vase at the centre of the composition, or whether this was a reflection of the plate in the shiny surface and what the potential significance of this might be (…though I think it is a dent).
10 minutes up and we were whisked on again into the next gallery to see Etienne Aubry’s Paternal Love from 1775 presented to us by Marie. Marie made us think about the characters in the painting and their relationships to one another in depth, and by doing so demonstrated how Aubry’s painting tells a story that can be interpreted in many ways. We focused mainly on the middle-aged man who seems to have just arrived in the room. We discussed who he may be and his social status, and considered how this would affect his relationship to the other figures seen in the picture. This character is greeting one child, yet neglecting two others, and we also observed that the mother figure has rolled up sleeves, which may indicate that she is from a working class background; this is in contrast to the man’s finery which suggestive of high social status. In turn, these observations allowed us to speculate about what the story behind the picture is. Perhaps the child the man is greeting is his illegitimate child? If so, is there a moral significance here? Perhaps these kinds of issues about families, fidelity and filial piety had a particular resonance in France during the second half of the 1700s.
Finally we moved again and came to a stop in front of Pierre Bonnard’s Doll’s Dinner Party from around 1903, presented by Hannah. We were first told that Bonnard liked to paint things that were familiar to him and this is an important thing to keep in mind when discussing his paintings, which are often marked by a sense of the voyeuristic. We looked at the way that the door and the mother – Bonnard’s sister – framed the children and how the hazy light and the darkness which his sister almost melts into gives the idea of a snapshot in time, a flickering memory of the event captured in a sketch, painted later in a studio.
When our final 10 minutes were up the speed workshop came to an end and I can honestly say that it was 50 minutes well spent. I had been in the group which was lucky enough to get a chronological journey through the gallery and I think I speak for everyone when I say that each of the paintings and the students who presented them were fantastic. Personally I think that the very first work I saw, the miniature by the Boucicaut Master was the most interesting as it had a real sense of history about it which I thoroughly enjoyed. The afternoon was then capped off by mince pies and wine downstairs in the Barber, where we continued to chat about the paintings and got to ask all the questions we had run out of time for earlier. This speed workshop was in my opinion an overwhelming success and if you don’t believe me come to the next one! There’s also a short video of the workshop on YouTube here…
There will be another speed workshop in March as part of the UoB Arts and Science Festival, with the theme ‘Life and Death’.