Monthly Archives: August 2014

Why I like this module… Fashioning Flesh and Technology: Modernism and the Body in Germany 1918-1933

Sarah Cowie, finalist, BA English and History of Art

Sarah Cowie, finalist, BA English and History of Art

Fashioning Flesh and Technology is one of the most fascinating modules I’ve taken at Birmingham. The topics explored range from technology and its effect on the war veteran’s body to mass culture and the New Woman, providing a thorough examination of how artists, architects, designers, and filmmakers responded to the dramatic social and political changes incurred in Germany’s interwar years. In particular, I have enjoyed the opportunity to study the representation of the mechanised body in films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and postwar trauma in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The experience has challenged the way in which I analyse imagery, as well as informing my English Literature Dissertation on fiction and cinematography. The seminars encourage group debate on the diverse topics introduced in the lectures, with both contemporary textual sources (for example, the writings of Freud, Kracauer, and Benjamin) and more recent scholarship on the body in modern visual culture enriching these discussions. The material covered and the interdisciplinary approach has really suited my interest in European modern art and has certainly inspired me to consider further study in this area.”

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This final year special subject :

  • Untitled4is taught by Dr Camilla Smith, a specialist in the visual cultures of England, Switzerland and the Weimar Republic
  • Considers the concept of German Modernism in relation to discourses on real and imagined bodies from 1918-1933
  • uses a range of visual, textual and film sources to explore Modernism’s relationship to themes such as the metropolis, mass culture, technology and sexuality
  • analyses works by artists and authors such as Freud, Foucault, Loos, Dix, and Schenker

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

Untitled3  Untitled4

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!”

 Untitled2    Untitled3    Untitled4

 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 Edwards

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.

 

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