Tag Archives: Department of Art History Film and Visual Studies

Mortar boards, pins, heels, wine, prizes and speeches: it’s Graduation 2014!

It’s that time of year again when campus is buzzing with excited (and slightly nervous) students, proud parents, and lecturers dressed as you’ve never seen them before! Graduation is a time to celebrate all our History of Art students have achieved during their time at Birmingham, not just on their degree programme but also as members of our department, the Barber Institute, UoB and the city itself. As a department we are pleased to be able to give out two prizes each year – the Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation, and the Emily Rastall Prize for the best overall contribution to the department. Competition is always stiff and there are more worthy candidates than there are prizes: every year, many of our students give generously of their time and energy in volunteering for various events, helping to run open days, applicant visit days, and workshops, and offering peer support. The department really appreciates this because it helps to make the department what it is – friendly, fun, and a great place to study.

Here we’ve put together a selection of photos from the ceremony on July 11th when Single and some Joint Honours History of Art Students graduated. You can read about about our prize winners and also see David, one of the department’s founding members, being given the by-now traditional ‘lift off’!

Dr Richard Clay with Tayler, Alice and Olivia at our pre-gown reception

Dr Richard Clay with Tayler, Alice and Olivia at our pre-gown reception

 

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Senior lecturer David Hemsoll and Dr Fran Berry at speech time

 

Students and parents at speech time

Students and parents at speech time

 

This year, the Emily Rastall prize, awarded in memory of a student who sadly passed away just after her finals in 2012, was shared by French and History of Art student Holly Wain and History of Art student Caroline Hetherington for their overall contribution to the department.

On receiving the prize, Caroline said: ‘Receiving the Emily Rastall prize was a little surprising (and embarrassing!), but I was very pleased to get it. Being recognised for contributing to the department made me think back over the three years of my course and remember the exciting things I was able to accomplish. It definitely reminded me that there was a lot more to my degree than the final mark.’

How did she feel at graduation? ‘Graduation was a lovely opportunity for all of us to be excited and proud after all the nerves of results day, although for me the best part of the day was my parents turning up about two minutes before we went on stage to receive our degrees.’

Is there anything she’ll miss now she’s graduated? ‘I will miss actually studying art history the most, as especially in final year I have loved the amount of research and interesting conversations that have taught me so much more about the subject. Alongside this, writing a dissertation about a previously unstudied sculpture probably gave me the most satisfaction.’ But, Caroline’s not going very far: ‘I am not leaving the University yet – I’m now a graduate trainee in Professional Services, working on different placements over the next year. I don’t know where I’ll go after that, but I’m pretty sure I’m not done studying yet.’

 

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Holly (left) and Caroline standing by the tree planted in Emily’s memory in the Barber grounds

 

Holly said, ‘I feel very honoured to be receiving the Emily Rastall Prize as it means the department can continue to celebrate the commitment and enthusiasm Emily had for Art History at the Barber. It also gave me the chance to reflect on my past four years in the History of Art department and how much I enjoyed contributing to projects like the Golovine Blog.’

How was graduation for her? ‘My graduation day was fantastic because I could share all the relief and happiness with my family and friends. My favourite moment was walking out of the Great Hall after the ceremony and feeling proud and excited for the future!’

What is her favourite memory of her degree? ‘My best memory of studying art history at the Barber is working with my tutor Liz for my dissertation. I loved researching using primary sources in archives because I felt like I could genuinely contribute something new and different. I enjoyed it so much that I am coming back to the Barber in September to do a research masters in History of Art.’

 

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Cheers! Drs Fran Berry and Camilla Smith on the Barber steps with Caroline, Tayler, olivia, Alice and Nelle

 

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It all happened here! Holly, Hang, Emma and Caroline with Dr Liz L’Estrange on the Barber steps

 

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Relieved that no-one fell up or down the stairs! Claire, Louisa, Connie and Grace after the ceremony

 

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Milling around outside the Barber

 

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Hats off!

 

And now for the most traditional event of the day…

 

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Ready…

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…steady…

 

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…wave, David!

 

And now for something more sensible (well, depends what you make of the lecturers’ outfits):

Outside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Outside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation was this year awarded to Joint Honours History of Art and English student, Sarah Cowie. Here she tells us a bit how she felt receiving the prize about the  dissertation that she wrote.

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Prize-winner Sarah on graduation day

 

How did she feel getting the prize? ‘I am very pleased to have been awarded the Sam Beighton Prize this year, as I know there was much competition! It is a nice recognition of my efforts with the dissertation, and I am extremely grateful to my supervisor for guiding me in the right direction.’

How was graduation? ‘My graduation day was lovely, although as a Joint Honours student I graduated on a different day to some of my  History of Art peers, but Josh and I did still manage to have a photo shoot in front of the Barber though!’

What was her best memory of studying at Birmingham? ‘Aside from the second-year study trip to Rome, I think my best memories are of the Barber. It is such an inspiring environment, with amazing research materials in the library and galleries, and always a great venue for lunch with concert music playing in the background!’

Any plans for the future? ‘My plans for the future are yet to be made – I wasn’t very good at thinking ahead in final year! At the moment I’m considering doing a law conversion in Bristol, after travelling this year.’

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Sarah with fellow JH History of Art and English student Josh

 

What was it like researching and writing a dissertation? ‘In the same way as with any research, my dissertation topic adapted, evolved (and unfortunately considering the word count, expanded!) the more I read around the field of study. What began as an interest in Kurt Schwitters’ association with the German Dadaists gradually became a study of exile and anti-nationalism during the Nazi regime; a subject area that complimented my final year special subject, German Modernisms of the Body.

The dissertation explores national identity and the concept of Heimat in Kurt Schwitters’ (1887-1948) assemblage, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, which was produced in Hanover in 1920 and then reworked by the exiled artist nineteen years later in Oslo. The dramatically different cultural climates of these two completion dates – which bridge together post-World War One Germany and pre-World War Two Europe – have invited interpretations of the work that place special emphasis on Schwitters’ increasingly diminished sense of German national identity under the Nazi Regime. However, considering the irreparable damage left following Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the anti-nationalist sentiments outlined in the artist’s essay ‘Nationalitätsgefühl’ (National Sentiment) from 1924, the current study questions the extent to which Schwitters had a fixed sense of national identity, or any kind of investment in the Volksgemeinschaft even during these earlier years.

 

Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920/1939. Oil, paper, cardboard, wood, fabric, and ceramic on board (97 x 69 x 11 cm) London, Tate Collection.

Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920/1939. Oil, paper, cardboard, wood, fabric, and ceramic on board (97 x 69 x 11 cm) London, Tate Collection.

 

In challenging the reading of Spatial Growths as evidence of German or Norwegian national identity, the central tenet of the dissertation explores how Schwitters’ sustained use of found materials (themselves fragments of a disordered reality) is symbolic of a wider process of ordering exile. Indeed, the concept of Merz – a label which encompasses Schwitters’ innovative creative practices and a name which he adopted for himself in the 1920s – sheds light on the artist’s understanding of a transnational Heimat; signalling Schwitters’ desire for a more flexible identity in the midst of political discourses on national purity. Approached thus, the fusion of two nationalities in Spatial Growths cannot be considered a visual enactment of the artist’s loss of German national identity. Rather, through its palimpsest qualities and the incorporation of domestic materials, it alludes to Schwitters’ prolonged search for a stable Heimat in an unstable existence; contributing to a narrative of homelessness that defined the life of this artist.  

Detail of Schwitters' Spatial Growth

Detail of Schwitters’ Spatial Growth

 

Despite moments of panic when I thought I might not be able to actually view the work (it was touring Germany for much of the year), writing the dissertation came to be as rewarding as it was challenging. The opportunity to study one work of art in such depth, whilst drawing on the expertise of my supervisor, Dr Camilla Smith, enabled me to form a research topic that interested me greatly, and that I felt had not been fully explored before.’

 

Well done again to all our graduates this year – you have done us proud! You can see interviews with some of our students on graduation day here.

 

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Lyon’s Fête des Lumières: Commercialist extravaganza or installation art at its finest, asks French and Art History student Marianne Thomas

The city of Lyon, located in the heart of the French hexagon, is a beautiful and vibrant one, bursting with a wide spectrum of cultural events that is ever-surprising in its variety and seemingly never-ending in its frequency. It’s arguably little wonder then, that after choosing Lyon to be the location of my compulsory Year Abroad last year, I was just as excited to experience the weekly art markets and the annual film festival as I was to explore the city itself. However, there was always one highly-acclaimed event that stood out in the calendar more than most and that I looked forward to from September onwards: Lyon’s annual Fête des Lumières, coming to town on 6th December.

 

The city of Lyon

The city of Lyon

 

A gigantic festival of lights, it’s not difficult to see why just the idea of the Fête des Lumières held such appeal for the History of Art student in me. Each year on the first weekend of December, every corner of Lyon is illuminated: building-sized video installations, pyrotechnics and dazzling light displays stretch from the concrete housing-block communities of the inner suburbs to the sprawling, fountain-laden squares of the city centre, and transform after-dark Lyon into a living, breathing canvas. Thousands of artists apply each year with the hope of securing a small area of the city to show off their expertise in their chosen field; the festival undoubtedly gives many installation artists an unparalleled opportunity to exhibit their work in an imaginative way outside of the gallery.

Subsequently, after seeing numerous photos of the spectacles offered by previous years, I was understandably excited to see what 2013 would bring, and assumed that the citizens of Lyon – being lucky enough to have this event on their doorstep – would feel the same.

 

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An installation in one of the city’s squares, December 2013

 

Nevertheless, in the lead-up to December, I found that, upon talking to local residents, most of them didn’t seem to share in my excitement. Some groaned with dread at the thought of the imminent collapse of public transport in the wake of all the tourists, but many more bemoaned the fact that the festival had become so commercial in recent years and that the “true spirit” of it had been masked by gimmicks and consumerism. After learning more about the history and facts of the Fête, it became clear that both of these viewpoints were fairly understandable.

After all, amazingly, Lyon’s Fête des Lumières is the third most-visited annual festive event in the world, with only Rio Carnival and Oktoberfest beating it in the leaderboard. That’s to say that, on average, four million tourists flock to Lyon every year for an event that is barely advertised outside of the city itself, and is practically unknown in the UK. Suddenly, the transport-related anxiety made a lot of sense. The argument of the Fête being overrun by commercialism also seems to follow on pretty naturally; the origins of the festival are far from concrete, but the generally-accepted version of the narrative is that the Fête is a tribute to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from the plague during the 1600s, and that lighting up building façades and placing candles in windows is the Lyonnais way of giving thanks for the miracle. However, it’s easy to see that this prominent spiritual aspect of the festival could be easily forgotten amongst the bright lights and fireworks.

So when the Fête des Lumières finally rolled around in December, I was no longer sure what to expect. Was it going to prove to be the commercialist extravaganza that I’d been warned about, or the enormous, explosive art installation that I’d hoped for?

 

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The town hall ‘on fire’

 

I was pleased to find that it was predominantly the latter. Although perhaps many art critics would not consider a festival of lights to be an example of installation art in its traditional sense, there is no reason to dismiss it from the category altogether. The way in which the existing architecture of the city was moulded to fit each artist’s requirement was extraordinary: with the use of incredibly-intricate lighting projections, the town hall and fine art museum were seen to be “demolished”, before being rebuilt into a rainforest and then an underwater kingdom, amongst many other creative destinations.

 

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

 

An existing mural painted onto the side of a local boulangerie was “animated”, its characters brought to life, while the banks of the Rhone river were transformed into a light-up orchestra. Of course, the streets were fit to burst with bodies cramming to see the spectacles, and the sheer number of stalls enthusiastically selling mulled wine was much higher than I would have expected, but a touch of consumerism didn’t mean that the event could not still be regarded as a prime example of the flexibility of installation art.

In fact, witnessing the festival made me think back to a question that all History of Art students will be very familiar with from the first few nervous weeks of first year: What is Art? It doesn’t always have to be a Pre-Raphaelite painting from the National Gallery, or even the most recent and most ‘out-there’ Damien Hirst creation. At its basis, art is arguably about producing a reaction, and there’s no question that the Fête des Lumières continues to do that year after year, showcasing the best talent of this specific artistic niche in an unorthodox, citywide exhibition that celebrates and the Lyonnais landscape and adds a touch of magic to it too.

So if you ever want to experience an installation exhibition with a difference, Lyon in December may just be the place to go. It may not be “high art”, but it certainly shows how adaptable and all-encompassing art can be, and you’ll never be short of a glass of vin chaud as you watch architecture metamorphose before your eyes.

Marianne is studying a History of Art and French. To find out more about this degree programme see here. Read Marianne’s other report on living and working in Lyon here.

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Our Prize-Winning Students 2013!

At graduation this year, the department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies celebrated three of its students through the award of prizes for the best dissertation and best contribution to the department.

The Emily Rastall Memorial Prize, set up this year in memory of Emily Rastall, a graduate of the department who sadly passed away in 2012, was awarded jointly to Rachel Johnston and Charlotte Bagwell. Reflecting Emily’s own love of the Barber and her passion for her degree course, the prize rewards service and commitment to the department. Rachel Johnston served as student representative throughout her time at Birmingham, putting forward the views, concerns, and ideas of her year group. Like Emily, she was involved in the Buddy System which mentors new first year undergraduates, and she also played an active part in the musical activities of the Barber. Charlotte gave generously of her time, especially during her busy final year, to represent the department at Open Days and Applicant Visit Days, talking to Year 12 and 13 students, offer holders, and their parents about her experience of studying at Birmingham, and taking them on tours of the Barber.

Rachel and Charlotte with their prizes

Rachel and Charlotte with their prizes

I was very touched to receive the prize, particularly as Emily was a close friend of mine, and also because it serves as recognition of my involvement in a very special department which I have so enjoyed being part of during my three years at Birmingham. – Rachel Johnston

I was really honoured to be chosen along with Rachel to receive the first Emily Rastall prize. It’s a great prize to award, as a number of students willingly give their time to work for the department, showing their enjoyment of the History of Art course. I’m glad that I was able to contribute to the department and that I hopefully managed to convince potential students, who might be worrying over which university to choose, the strength of the University of Birmingham’s History of Art course. – Charlotte Bagwell

Charlotte and Rachel by the cherry tree planted in Emily's memory

Charlotte and Rachel by the cherry tree planted in Emily’s memory next to the Barber Institute

The involvement of students is crucial to the running of a happy, successful department and we are really grateful to both Charlotte and Rachel and all the other students who have given of their time and showed their commitment. Rachel and Charlotte were also contributors to The Golovine and we hope to hear more from them in the future!

The Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation was awarded this year to Maximilian Milward for his study of Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s ‘Sprucers’/Dog-Tired (1916). Max gives us a glimpse of the process of writing his dissertation, which was awarded a mark of 80.

For about the first three months of working on my dissertation, I just could not see how it was going to end. And by that I do not mean that I could not envision my final argument or the overriding theme of the project. I mean that I could not imagine how I would ever pull all the strands of enquiry together and actually finish such a horribly daunting task. It is the same for every history of art essay that I have ever done. But somehow, in the end, they always get done.

The subject of my study was a painting by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946) called ‘Sprucers’. Nevinson’s career as an artist spanned almost four decades but his most critically acclaimed works were made during the First World War. Today he is well-known for his Futurist depictions of machine-like marching soldiers and abstract shell explosions but a number of his war paintings are more reflective and understated. It was one of these less well known works that I decided to bring into question in my dissertation.

Christopher Nevinson, 'Sprucers'/DogTired, 1916, Bristol City Museum and Gallery (K2394)

Christopher Nevinson, ‘Sprucers’/DogTired, 1916, Bristol City Museum and Gallery (K2394)

‘Sprucers’ was exhibited for the first time in the autumn of 1916, when it was widely considered to be a condemnatory depiction of members of the British armed forces. ‘Sprucer’ was a slang term used during the First World War to refer to a soldier who was lazy or who avoided his duties. It was not my intention to consider whether this meaning was intended by the artist: more important to my dissertation was the way in which the social conditions of production and display changed the implications of the work. It was interesting, therefore, that by 1920 the name had changed from ‘Sprucers’ to the less provocative Dog Tired. The person responsible for this title alteration is unknown, and whilst this was discussed in some depth in my study, I felt that it was more important to establish the motives behind the change. Indeed I was able to argue that this was a deliberate alteration of a controversial title in order to make the painting more socially acceptable, and thus commercially viable, in the years immediately after the War.

Max at Graduation with fellow History of Art graduate Sapna Patel

It is going to sound a bit corny, but in the last few weeks of my working on the project I had elevated it to a status above that of mere coursework. It was a labour of love. Never before had I truly enjoyed a piece of academic work, and for this reason I am sad that it is over. All I can say now is thanks to my supervisor and the History of Art department for their support and help over the last three years. It has been a ball!

Congratulations to all three prize-winners and good luck with your future plans! This summer Charlotte has been travelling in China and is looking for a museum internship (perhaps in Hong Kong!). Rachel has been working as an intern at Apollo magazine, one of the oldest and most authoritative of magazines on the visual arts. Max is currently taking part in the British Horseracing Authority Graduate Programme with an eight-week placement at the Jockey Club Racecourses in Epsom with a view to going into horseracing journalism. Watch out Clare Balding!

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