Author Archives: jamieedwards756

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

“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

Connoisseurship Now? Continued.

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Regular readers might remember that I recently went off to the Paul Mellon Centre to attend a conference devoted to the subject of connoisseurship and its future directions, or lack thereof, perhaps–you can read my thoughts on that here.

Anyway, the Paul Mellon Centre has made the day’s proceedings available online. You can watch all the papers here.

(Thank you also to Bendor Grosvenor for re-blogging my post about the conference on his own blog, which really is worth a read!)

Jamie

Ain’t no party like a Bauhaus party . . .!

Bauhaus

Students from the Art History department and the Barber Association have organised a summer soirée for everyone in the department to celebrate the end of the year, the end of exams(!), and to see off our finalists with a bang!

It takes place on Monday 9 June from 7-10pm in the Barber.

The theme is Bauhaus, and fancy-dress is welcome, encouraged, even – time to don your thinking caps, perhaps take cue from the above photograph of Oskar Schlemmer’s  Bauhaus costumes from the 1920s! Otherwise, dress in metallics.

Tickets cost £18, with a reduced ticket price of £15 for Barber Association members. The event will include:

- Drinks on arrival

- Light buffet

- Photographer

- Live music

…and last but not least…

- A photo booth  (for flaunting all those ace Bauhaus-esque outfits!)

You will be allowed to bring some alcohol with you, as long as it is not spirits or red wine. So feel free to bring along some white wine or fizz to celebrate another year’s hard work!

Tickets can be purchased from the Barber reception or from your year reps. Plus ones are more than welcome. The Facebook event can be found here.

 

 

“I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ” Connoisseurship Now?

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

I’m writing (but not posting) this on the train back up to Brum from London. I’ve been at the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, where I’d never been before and is really rather lovely, and which today (Friday 2nd May) hosted a one-day conference dedicated to a discussion of the future of connoisseurship and its (uneasy) place in modern art historical scholarship: An Educated Eye: Connoisseurship Now. And I must say, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and at times slightly strange, conference.

The big question is: does connoisseurship have a future? For the uninitiated reader, the question perhaps reads like an odd one. Isn’t art history all about who painted/sculpted/drew what and when did they do it? And aren’t art historians precisely the sorts of people who are qualified to pontificate on precisely those sorts of things? Art historians can spot their Rembrandts from their Rubens from miles off with their “Educated Eyes”, can’t they? For that matter, aren’t art historians and connoisseurs the same thing anyway? Once upon a time, perhaps the answer would have been “YES” on all these counts; the early days of art history in the 19th and early 20th centuries are marked by a noticeable desire to point out that “X painted Y in Z”, qualified along the way with statements like “We know this because that’s exactly how X did eyes, fingernails, hairdos…, ears,… especially in his “middle period”…” etc. (we’re in the realm of Morelli, here).

Morelli's artists' ears

Morelli’s artists’ ears

But it’s not quite that straightforward. For as long as connoisseurs have existed, they’ve been satirised by artists and derided as phonies (in Bruegel’s famous drawing of the Artist and Connoisseur, Bruegel has the connoisseur wearing glasses, which was probably intended as a dig at the connoisseur’s claims of possessing innately  “educated eyes”).  In other words, the label connoisseur always seems to have carried some pejorative associations. And things then got really tricky for connoisseurs in about the 1970s/80s with the emergence of so-called “New Art History”: so that’s stuff like social art history and feminist art history, with which art history undergraduates become intimately familiar from the get-go at Brum and pretty much every other art history department in the UK . The practitioners of new art histories professed a severe disinterest in the fact that “X painted Y in Z”, and “we know this because X always painted his eyes like that”, which it deemed myopic and trivial. New wave art historians instead sought to instill intellectual rigor into the discipline of art history and to analyse artworks with a view to revealing more profound, erudite insights about artworks in their social, political, religious . . . cultural . . . . etc. contexts.

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

As a consequence, the art world, encompassing the academy, galleries/museums, the art market, and the connoisseurs (which up to then had kind of straddled all those realms) was drawn into a polemic: proper art history ain’t about who did what when, said the new generation of scholars, whereas the art market and museums remained—remain in fact—steadfastly keen on precisely those sorts of things. Let’s not beat around the bush, a picture is worth a LOT more if it’s demonstrably a “Rembrandt” instead of a “Dirk, the painter from up the road”, and the gallery visitor is, I guess, more satisfied to learn that Rembrandt painted this image of himself in 1669, rather than “unknown self portrait of a 17th-century Dutch artist, date unknown”.

This conference was about making sense of those debates, casting an eye over what’s happened during the intervening years since the emergence of new art history, and to cast a prophetic eye into the future and ask what room there is for connoisseurship in art world going forward. And the answer was surprisingly comforting: there is still cause to be concerned with who made what and when, and that this is in fact a prerequisite for embarking on, say, a social art historical investigation into the work of a given artist. As Liz Prettejohn lucidly described, how are you supposed to know what social context to situate a work of art in if you don’t know/care about when/where the artwork was made, which, often, entails considerations of a connoisseurial kind. However, connoisseurship as an autonomous art is no longer viable, not least of all because it’s unsustainable, which is to say that if we cling on to practicing  connoisseurship in the traditional sense, what do we do once we’ve figured out the who made what and when for every work of art there is? We’d have, in other words, nothing left to do.

Everyone in the room seemed to agree here. There was a general consensus that we probably should all care about things like attribution, dates, provenance and so forth, if, for nothing else, for the sake of conscientious history and the preservation of our heritage, and because it provides the bare materials, if you like, for art historical research. There was pretty much agreement, as well, that perhaps connoisseurship should be re-introduced to university curricula–or else, something that is the same in gist but goes under a different name given the dodgy associations of connoisseur (although nobody in the room could come up with a suitable alternative!). As was pointed out on more than one occasion, connoisseurship, but in particular the vital skills of visual analysis and description, are no longer inculcated in university art history degree programs and far too many art historians consequently spend too much of their time NOT looking, or perhaps don’t know how to look, at the objects of their study. Visual discernment has gone out the window, and new art history has come in through the front door (and is refusing to leave the hallway). (PLUG ALERT: I don’t think the last statement holds true in the case of the Art History department at Birmingham. We’re blessed to be based in the Barber Institute, whose stellar collection is at our disposal, and so visual analysis is actually at the very heart of what we do here!)

But what was MOST revealing during the conference are the lingering antagonisms that have persisted from 1980s and continue to divide, say, the art dealer from the art historian.

It’s an antagonism that is brought into sharp focus when we contrast Martin Myrone’s opinions (who is curator of pre-1800’s art at the Tate) with those expressed by Bendor Grosvenor (the chap from the BBC’s Fake or Fortune… but who is also a serious scholar and the author of a very good blog), who represented the art-dealer-cum-unabashed-connoisseur at the conference. Grosvenor is all about the eureka moment that comes from when one is presented, as a connoisseur, with a picture that has languished in some dusty museum rack for decades but is “obviously” a lost van Dyck (= a hitherto undiscovered masterpiece worth squillions). Grosvenor was upfront about it: he needs connoisseurship in his line of work as a dealer because collectors want names. But he was also astounded by how few art historians actually practice connoisseurship and have no clue about how to look at pictures – “it’s like having a fully-trained doctor who is unable to make a diagnosis”, he said. For his money, good old fashioned visual analysis is a prerequisite to proper art historical research, and I think I agree with him here. For his part, Myrone said “so what?” to connoisseurship. In these difficult financial times, should museums/galleries really expend their time, effort and money on all-things connoisseurial? Does it really matter whether a landscape can be proved to be by Gainsborough or not (he had a dig at Bendor’s Fake or Fortune here)? Laying aside the matter of commercial value which is indelibly linked to authorship, a landscape’s a landscape, surely, and can be studied and enjoyed as such?

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

In all, pretty interesting stuff. The connoisseur problem is clearly still alive. Hugo Chapman, who is curator of old master drawings at the British Museum, avoids the label connoisseur, beginning his talk with the words quoted in the title to this post: “I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ”. Chapman explained that it isn’t necessarily what connoisseurship is that makes him anxious (Chapman, after all, does connoisseurship at work – how else did he decide which of the two drawings in the BM of an Ideal Female Head is by Michelangelo?) it’s more what the word means, or is perceived to mean: snooty, posh bloke who, just by looking, knows instantly what something is, who it’s by etc., and isn’t very much interested in anything else. In sum, then, perhaps connoisseurship is still important and relevant to us all, scholars, curators and dealers alike, but the word has too much baggage. Perhaps, then, we need to stop and have a re-think  as to what connoisseurship is, what it entails, how we do it and for what purposes, and, for that matter, what we call it. And perhaps we really do need to re-consider how or if it’s taught in universities.

 

Jamie

 

Curating Art History Colloquium – Programme

UoB crest

 

There’s still time to buy tickets for this year’s Departmental Colloquium. Tickets can be purchased from the online shop. Students from the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies can confirm their attendance by emailing Faith Trend directly at: FCT357@bham.ac.uk.

The programme has now been finalised and is available below. With a truly international billing–our keynote is coming all the way from Australia–, besides speakers from closer to home, the colloquium promises to be a fascinating exploration into the worlds of museum curating and academic art history, and we hope to see lots of you there!

 

Curating Art History: Dialogues between museum professionals and academics

7th and 8th May 2014

 The Barber Institute of Fine Art, The University of Birmingham 

 

PROGRAMME

 

DAY 1 (7th May)

14:00 – 14:45 Registration and refreshments (Barber Institute Foyer)

14:45 – 15:00 Welcome and Introduction (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Erin Shakespeare (UoB); Nicola Kalinsky (The Barber Institute)

 

PANEL 1: ETHNOGRAPHY AND CURATING NATIVE ART (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Nicola Kalinsky

15:00 – 15:50 KEYNOTE: The Hang and Art History

Catherine De Lorenzo (University of New South Wales, Australia)

15:50 – 16:10 Contemporary Native Perspectives: Dialogue and Exchange in Artistic Practices and Curatorial Methodologies

Helen Shaw (University of York)

16:10 – 16:30 t.b.c.

Bryony Onciul (University of Exeter)

16:30 – 17:00 Response and Questions

 

19:00 – 21:00 Conference dinner (venue to be confirmed)

 

DAY 2 (8th May)

9:30 – 10:00 Registration (second day attendees) (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 2: KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE AND DEVELOPMENT (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Clare Mullet (UoB)

10:00 – 10:20 Art detective: creating collection knowledge through public engagement

Andy Ellis (Public Catalogue Foundation)

10:20 – 10:40 Cross-talking in Engage Journal 

Karen Raney (University of East London)

10:40 – 11:00 Response and Questions

 

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee break (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 3: EXHIBITIONS THAT CHALLENGE CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND ART HISTORY (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Richard Woodfield (Journal of Art Historiography; UoB)

11:30 – 11:50 Post-humanist Desire: Visualising Cyborgs and the Hybridised Body

Ming Turner (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan)

11:50 – 12:10 [Re]Exhibiting Impermanent Art

Vera Carmo (University of Maia, ISMAI, Portugal)

12:10 – 12:30 Between a Rock Drill and a Hard Place: Researching and Curating Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Elin Morgan (UoB; The New Art Gallery Walsall)

12:30 – 13:00 Response and Questions

 

13:00 – 14:30 Lunch (Barber Institute Foyer)

Time to look at the Faith and Fortune exhibition in preparation for the afternoon’s paper (Coin Gallery, Barber Institute)

 

14:30 – 15:00 Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts: Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Chairs: Jamie Edwards and Faith Trend (UoB)

Rebecca Darley (The Warburg Institute) and Daniel Reynolds (UoB)

 

15:00 – 16:00 Roundtable AHRC Iconoclasms Network (Barber Lecture Theatre)

A cross-disciplinary debate and Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain

Chair: Lauren Dudley (UoB)

Richard Clay, Henry Chapman, Leslie Brubaker (UoB); Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh); Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums Trust)

16:00 Closing Remarks

Jutta Vinzent (UoB)

 

16:30 – 17:30 Drinks reception (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

Christ’s Passion in art from the Barber Institute

Ahead of the Easter weekend, here’s some of the key moments from the story of Christ’s Passion told using works of art from the collection of the Barber Institute.

Marinali Man of Sorrows

This sculpted marble relief shows the Man of Sorrows. It was made by Orazio Marinali (1643 – 1720), who was one of the leading sculptors in Vicenza near Venice in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The subject of the Man of Sorrows doesn’t actually derive from the New Testament descriptions of Christ’s arrest, suffering and crucifixion which constitute the Passion story proper. Instead, the subject comes from the Old Testament, chiefly Isaiah, who foretold of the coming of a sinless man who will atone the sins of mankind, writing (Ch.53): ‘He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.’ Isaiah’s prophecy is thus considered a prefiguration (a prediction, of sorts) of Christ’s ministry and ultimate Passion. And out of Isaiah’s prophecy developed the Man of Sorrows iconography, which typically exhibits precisely the characteristics that we find here in Marinali’s relief: a half- or bust-length image of Christ that is closely cropped, showing him looking grief-stricken, sometimes crying (as in here) and wearing evidence of his suffering including the crown of thorns (as in here).

The Barber doesn’t own a representations of the the Last Supper (when Christ announced his upcoming death to his disciples, one of whom would betray him), or the moment when Christ was arrested following Judas’s betrayal. And so we move on to the subject of the Crowning with Thorns.

Crowning with Thorns

‘And platting a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand. And bowing the knee before him, they mocked him, saying: Hail, King of the Jews.’ (Matthew 27:29) Following Christ’s arrest and having been sentenced to death by Pilate, Christ was taken into a hall by Roman soldiers who draped him in a purple robe, placed a crown of thorns on his head and a reed in his right hand (in lieu of a scepter), and then bowed in mock veneration of Christ. This is precisely what’s going on in the above etching by Luigi Pellegrino Scaramuccia (1616-1680), which was made after Titian’s painting of the same subject that is now in the Louvre.

van Dyck Ecce Homo

Anthony van Dyck’s Ecce Homo was painted at some time between 1621 and ’27 for the noble Balbi family of Genoa. Here van Dyck has also deployed the Man of Sorrows iconography, but this time an episode from the New Testament accounts of Christ’s Passion is illustrated. According to John, following the crowning with thorns, Pilate led Christ out to show him to the people, remarking: ‘Behold the Man’, which in Latin is ‘Ecce Homo‘ (John 19:5). Following this humiliation, Christ was given his cross and processed to Golgotha to be crucified.

Mellan Sudarium

When Christ was carrying the cross on the road to his crucifixion, St. Veronica wiped Jesus’s face using a cloth, on to which there miraculously appeared an image of Christ’s face (hence Veronica’s attribute the sudarium, or “sweat-cloth”, which you often find Veronica holding in depictions of the Carrying of the Cross, or see below for Veronica holding her sudarium on the outside shutter of a triptych). It’s Veronica’s sudarium that Claude Mellan (1598 – 1688) represented in the above engraving. With the rise of print publishing in the 16th century, Veronica’s sudarium became a remarkably popular subject in the printed media, which could be put up in the home as relatively cheap, but compelling, aids to devotion, intended to remind the viewer of Christ’s suffering and death. Mellan’s engraving is an example of this. However, Mellan also pays homage to himself: ‘FORMATVS VNICVS VNA’, the inscription on the bottom of the sheet, translates as ‘the one formed in one’, which is a pun on the uniqueness of Christ, the uniqueness of Veronica’s miraculous image, and, in turn, Mellan’s virtuoso skills, since this entire engraving is made up of a single unbroken line.

Memling Crucifixion

Golgotha, “the place of the skull”, is where Christ was eventually crucified and is represented here in a small painting that is attributed to the circle of Hans Memling (c.1430-94). Behind Christ we see Jerusalem, to his right a man in black who is shown kneeling in prayer (this is actually a donor portrait, so a portrait of the person who commissioned the picture). On a hill in the background, meanwhile, we find a miniature representation of the Agony in the Garden, when, following the Last Supper, Christ took himself off with 3 disciples to a garden at Gethsemane where he prayed to God to be spared from suffering and during which an angel consoled Christ (although there is no angel here); this type of mashing-together of chronologically separate episodes into one picture is a phenomenon referred to as simultaneous representation. Inscribed on the little plaque on the top of the crucifix are the initials ‘I. N. R. I.’, which are the initials for Jesus’s Latin title that Pilate had put up on the cross: “Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm.”

Circle of Rogier, Deposition

Attributed to a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400 – 1464), this triptych (three adjoining panels; the image on the left shows the triptych open, the one on the right the triptych when it’s closed) represents on its inside middle panel the Descent from the Cross, when Christ’s dead body was lowered from the crucifix. On the interior wings, meanwhile, there are 2 further examples of Old Testament prefigurations of Christ’s death: on the left Adam and Eve are shown mourning their son Abel, who was the first human ever to die having been murdered by his jealous brother, Cain; on the right it’s Jacob and Rachel being shown their son Joseph’s bloody coat, which his envious siblings had doused in a goat’s blood to make believe that Joseph had been killed, whereas in reality they’d sold him off as a slave. On the outside shutters, two female saints are shown in semi-grisaille (monochrome grey painting, and semi- in this case because their flesh is flesh-coloured): on the left is Helena, who recovered the True Cross and, on the right, Veronica with the sudarium. Altogether, then, this triptych not only rehearses the story of Christ’s redemption of mankind, but has a special emphasis on notable women and female mourning, which inevitably leads to speculation that the triptych was commissioned by a (grieving?) woman (or an organisation of women – for a convent?).

Tomb

Finally, we return to the iconography of the Man of Sorrows in the above bronze relief, cast by an anonymous Italian artist at some point in the 16th century. The main scene shows Christ being held at his tomb by the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist as well as a few angels; emaciated, with his rib cage exposed, this image is a grisly reminder of Christ’s sacrifice. In the arched pediment at the top of the tabernacle, however, is a small image that hits home at the heart of the Easter story: the resurrected Christ, who rises from his tomb with his right hand raised in blessing, affirming for the viewer that because of Christ they also can hope for resurrection and salvation.

Jamie

Our 100th post!

We’re in a celebratory mood over at The Golovine HQ. This post marks our first major milestone – our 100th post to have been published.

The occasion presents the ideal opportunity for us, The Golovine team, to thank all of you who continue to support us by contributing material to the Blog and for reading it. But it also seems like the opportune moment to give ourselves a little pat on the back by casting an eye over the Stats, to see what we’ve achieved over the year and a bit since The Golovine was launched.

Back in December 2012, our global reach looked like this:
Golovine global reach December 2012

Back then, we had a pretty strong readership, unsurprisingly, in the UK. But we did also have a smattering of viewers in: France, the US, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Taiwan, Spain, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Mexico, Switzerland, Australia, the Philippines, Iceland, Japan, Brazil, Bolivia, Germany, Hungary, India and China.

. . . pretty good . . .

As of today, though, it’s fair to say that our global reach has grown a fair bit! The map now looks like this (much less of it is blank!):

Golovine global reach April 2014

To date, a big chunk of our viewers are still domestic (note the blood orange colour of the UK on the map), but we have also had hundreds of hits from readers in the US, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Canada (the darker oranges).

Meanwhile, the total list of countries we’ve managed to infiltrate with all-things art historical looks like this:

Countries

… phew! We’re pretty chuffed with that.

That all translates to a grand total of 14,024 views to date since we launched The Golovine:

Viewer stats

The best month on record was November 2013, when we had 1,285 views. Our best day on record also occurred during that month, on Friday 22nd November. That day we’d published 2nd year undergraduate Maysie Chandler’s post about designing costumes for the University production of Spring Awakening. Maysie’s post attracted over 200 views that day alone - well done Maysie!

The top 10 most popular posts of all time are:

1) Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print

2) A mysterious manuscript in Liège: Dr. Elizabeth L’Estrange and 3rd year student Holly Wain on their recent research collaboration

3) Five Paintings, Ten Minutes Each = 300 Years of Art History!

4) Postgraduate student Hannah Squire discusses her experience volunteering for the National Trust

5) 35 days, 4 libraries, c.180 call slips, 6 museums, 3 lovely Fellows…. Yale, it was a blast!

6) Defining Faces: MA student Katie Wilson on curating one of the new exhibitions at the Barber

7) LAST CHANCE TO SEE! ‘The First Cut’ A Review of Manchester Art Gallery’s Exhibition by alumnus Natalya Paul

8) Review of ARTIST ROOMS: Damien Hirst at the New Art Gallery, Walsall

9) Second year student Maysie Chandler turns her hand to costume designing for an upcoming University production . . .

10) Elizabeth I, her People…and a Guinea Pig: MA graduate Oliver McCall on his recent Curatorial Internship at the National Portrait Gallery

The most popular search term for us on search engines such as Google is, predictably, “the Golovine”. In fact, our Blog is now the #1 hit on Google if you search for “Golovine”, and the picture of the blog team (below) is the first image that Google generates for the same search term:

Golovine-2

In short, we’ve come a long way since the Summer of 2012 when a couple of us sat down to have a chat about the idea of setting up a departmental Blog, and joked that we should call it “The Golovine” as a play on “we heard it on the (Golo)vine” and taking inspiration from the Barber’s Institute’s much-loved Portrait of Countess Golovine by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Turns out, though, that plenty of you out there have since heard lots from us on The Golovine . . . Here’s to the next 100 posts . . .

 

 

Where are van Eyck’s Just Judges?

Universally acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of European art of all time, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece–a.k.a. The Ghent Altarpiece–is in the news. Again.

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo's Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo’s Ghent

The Ghent Altarpiece was completed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck. Jan, who is dead famous, had inherited the project from his older and considerably less famous brother, Hubert, who was commissioned by Joost Vijdt to supply his family’s Chapel inside St. Bavo’s (then St. John’s) in Ghent with an altarpiece. Hubert died in 1426 leaving the project incomplete–exactly how much of the altarpiece had been realised by 1426 (i.e. just its design or had Hubert actually put brush to panel) has since generated reams of (mostly boring) art historical rumination. Vijdt, the patron, was a merchant, financier and warden (“kerkmeester”) of St. John’s, and we’re sure that it was for Joost that the van Eycks undertook their monumental, multi-panelled, triptych because its original frame bore an inscription saying so.

The altarpiece’s frame isn’t the only part of the triptych to have since perished, however. To say that the altarpiece has had a troubled history is to put it mildly. Parts have been lost in accidents—its predella (a row of short panels across the bottom of an altarpiece) was lost in a 16th-century fire—but other losses and movements have come about as a result of political and religious conflict.

Beeldenstorm

Frans Hogenberg, Iconoclasm in the Church of Our Lady Antwerp, 1566

Mercifully, the altarpiece was spared during the “iconoclastic fury” (“beeldenstorm”) that swept the Netherlands in 1566;  the altarpiece was moved out of its chapel and stowed away in the attic. (We get a sense of the very real danger posed to works of art during the 1566 “fury” in the above engraving by Frans Hogenberg, which shows coloured windows being smashed, statues being torn down and triptychs being bashed away at in Our Lady’s church in Antwerp.)

But over the course of the subsequent centuries, the van Eycks’ altarpiece hasn’t been so lucky. It has been the victim of over a dozen crimes and no less than 7 thefts! And it’s the thefts that have brought the altarpiece back into the limelight.

The altarpiece was nicked by the French after the Revolution and put up in the Louvre, only to be returned to Ghent in 1815 after the defeat at Waterloo. The wings, less Adam and Eve, were then pawned in 1815 by the Diocese of Ghent, which failed to redeem them. Consequently, they were then sold on to an English collector in 1816 and off they went to London. From there, they were re-sold to the King of Prussia, who had them packed up and sent off to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. Meanwhile, back at Ghent a fire damaged what was left of the altarpiece and Adam and Eve were sent to Brussels to be stored in a museum.

Things then get a whole lot worse in the 20th century.

Dismantled Ghent Altarpiece at Altaussee

Dismantled Ghent Altarpiece at Altaussee

During World War I German forces helped themselves to a couple more panels from the already fragmented Ghent Altarpiece (the wings were, we remember, already in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie). At the close of the war, however, and following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles with its repatriation clauses, all the panels from the Ghent altarpiece then in Germany were returned to Ghent in 1920.

Things then go quiet for about a decade until 1934. In April that year the panel showing the Just Judges from the left wing was stolen–and we’ll come back to this in a bit.

Half a decade after the Just Judges vanished, on the outbreak of World War II, it was decided that the Ghent Altarpiece should go off to the Vatican for safe keeping–the Germans had got their hands on it before thought the Belgians! But this plan was thwarted when the Italians declared themselves as an Axis Power alongside Germany. By then, the altarpiece was already in France on its way to Italy, and so the altarpiece was held in a museum in Pau until the French, Belgian and German authorities could agree over what to do with it. Never one to miss an opportunity, though, Hitler had other ideas and decided to seize the altarpiece anyway. So off it went (some parts back!) to Germany, first to the Schloss Neuschwanstein and then, following raids there, to the Altaussee salt mines. The Americans finally recovered the painting for Belgium after the war—above is that remarkable photo of the dismantled panels being inspected at Altaussee—and it was triumphantly returned to Belgium in a ceremony overseen by the Belgian Royal Family. In Belgium, the altarpiece was displayed in the Palais Royal de Bruxelles for the worlds’ press, minus any French officials who weren’t invited because they’d “allowed” Hitler to seize it.

In light of all that(!), it’s hardly surprising that the altarpiece you see nowadays inside Vijdt’s little chapel in St. Bavo’s is a replica – that’s it below. (I happen to think that the replica’s a good thing to have though, not just for the safety of the original’s sake but also because you can have a go at moving the wings etc. of the replica, to see what the thing would have looked like in motion, opening and closing, which you never get to see happening with the “real” one.) The peripatetic actual Ghent Altarpiece is in now in the basement, displayed in an air-conditioned (bullet-proof?!) glass box.

Replica of the Ghent Altarpiece inside St. Bavo's

Replica of the Ghent Altarpiece inside St. Bavo’s

So all’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. The glistening, jewel-like behemoth that you now see dramatically lit in the darkened basement of St. Bavo’s isn’t exactly everything it first seems to be.

Of the many trials and tribulations that the van Eycks’ great work has endured throughout its history, the Just Judges panel that was stolen in 1934 is still out there, somewhere in the ether (picture below of the altarpiece with its missing bit, and alongside that an old photograph of that panel). What you now see when you look at the bottom tier of the Ghent Altarpiece’s interior left wing is a replica of the lost panel done in 1945 by Jef Van der Veken.

The theft of the Just Judges is a complete mystery.

On the night of 10th April when the panel went missing, a French note was affixed to the altarpiece saying ‘Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles’, thus politicising the theft by referring to the panel’s repatriation to Ghent from Germany just a decade or so previously . This was followed-up with a ransom demand for 1million Belgian Francs, which went unheeded. Most astonishingly, following negotiations the ransomer did return–apparently as a sign of good will? Eh?–the grisaille St. John the Baptist, which was on the verso of the Judges panel and is what you see when the altarpiece is closed. Then in November 1934 the self-proclaimed thief Arsène Goedertier revealed on his deathbed to his lawyer that he ‘alone’ knew where the Just Judges is and vowed to take the secret with him to the grave. He also intriguingly said that the panel was hiding in a place where it would be impossible for him or anyone else to move without arousing public attention. So it’s somewhere prominent and public then? Goedertier died and the police concluded that he had indeed taken it.

Ghent Altarpiece without the Just Judges

Ghent Altarpiece closed. St. John is the second panel along from the left on the bottom tier

Ghent Altarpiece closed. St. John is the second panel along from the left on the bottom tier

And it’s for that reason that the Ghent Altarpiece is again in the news. Recently, there have been a couple of murmurs about the whereabouts of the Just Judges. At the beginning of this year, a retired police officer reckoned the Just Judges would be found buried under the soil in a cemetery near Brussels. Meanwhile, in 2008 somebody else tipped the Ghent police off that the panel could be found under some house in Ghent, which the authorities naturally proceeded to partially demolish but found absolutely nothing.

The latest addition to the saga comes from Paul De Rigger, who claims that he knows for certain who currently owns the panel. Apparently, it’s knocking around in the collection of an important and well-known Ghent family. De Rigger won’t out the family but is hoping that with pressure they’ll out themselves and that the Just Judges will finally be reunited with the altarpiece.

To be continued . . . !

Jay

Michelangelo’s David: coming to a Facebook timeline (and ammunitions poster) near you

David, Accademia, Florence

David, Accademia, Florence

Expect an explosion of pictures of the David, standing tall, very tall, at the end of a fancy corridor of sorts (lined with other Michelangelos, the “Bound Slaves”) all over t’internet soon. Plans are afoot–might already be in place, actually–for the Accademia in Florence to relax its rules on photography and let its visitors freely take photos of the David.

The wisdom behind this is twofold, perhaps three: 1) the powers that be, including the Accademia’s director Angelo Tartuferi, finally accept that taking a photo of David doesn’t harm it physically in any way, shape or form (although there’s still going to be a ban on flash!); 2) they’ve latched onto the currently trending idea that photos of art/galleries/museums splashed all over social media can actually have a positive effect, getting people interested in art and ultimately increasing footfall, which is, really, the be-all and end-all; and 3) although unsaid, it will just make visiting the Accademia a bit more pleasant for all involved, with less guards exasperatingly screaming “No Foto!”, and fewer bereft, stressed-out-looking sneaky snappers running scared of being berated for their “gross misdemeanors”.

I was one of those sneaky snappers–that’s my pic at the top of the post – success for me!–and I must say that the atmosphere in there was pretty grim. On arrival you’re subjected airport-stylee security. And once inside things barely improve – caliber of artworks notwithstanding. The attendants behaved as if taking a photo of David really is the most reprehensible crime of all time, and the eager tourist spends most of his/her time dodging the attendants’ glances, finger poised to get that much-coveted memento of their trip to visit “il gigante”.

So all this is, I think, good news. And other museums and galleries, including those closer to home, are making similar moves. Just recently, our very own Barber Institute has decided that photos can be taken freely inside its galleries. And if I had to put a bet on it, I’d say we can expect more institutions to follow suit very soon. In the Digital Age in which we live, more and more cultural institutions will, I think, come to realise that iPhones and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. can have positive uses.

But I guess that you could also debate the merits of implementing a photography free-for-all inside galleries. Such a policy can, I suppose, have negative or else strange consequences.

David armed

David armed

Perhaps, for example, we can expect to hear more stories like the one that recently broke about the Accademia and Italy’s Culture Department getting into a twist about the kinds of uses people put their images of David to. Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, lashed out at American gunmaker ArmaLite, whose new ad campaign features David brandishing a massive rifle (inexplicably the image has been modified to cover David‘s genitals with a fig leaf… apparently it’s OK to promote gun ownership, but it’s definitely not OK to show a penis… eh?) .Franceschini’s department warned ArmaLite not to run the campaign, which it deemed  as being offensive and an affront to Italian cultural heritage. So photographs may not physically harm the David, but is there a real threat of cultural damage? Of defaming a country’s heritage?

And it’s fair to be a bit anxious about the new rules inducing the “Mona Lisa effect”. Legions of people flock to Paris every year to go to the Louvre, which allows photography wholesale, and proceed to follow the “La Joconde” signs. 15 minutes later, they end end up having to wrestle their way through a jostling crowd (all ignorant to the other ace art they pass by swiftly!), pressing forward, camera-first, to photograph Lisa Gherardini (and perhaps a cheeky “Mona Lisa selfie” as well), before spinning on their heels for the café. Again, this doesn’t really harm the physical integrity of the painting, but it makes life hard for those who want to actually look at it with their eyes instead of through a lens–and if everyone did that, perhaps more would realise that Leonardo’s portrait isn’t the most amazing thing they’ve ever clapped eyes on, after all, and certainly isn’t the most amazing thing there is to see in the Louvre.

… Coincidentally, the Mona Lisa has also been used to advertise guns (this time by an Italian firm):

Mona Lisa armed

Mona Lisa armed

Jamie

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