DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 1 MARCH

‘O Say Can You See: American Art, Propaganda, and the First World War’

Professor David Lubin (Wake Forest University & Terra Foundation Visiting Professor University of Oxford)

Wednesday 1 March
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

Co-organised with the American and Canadian Studies Centre, University of Birmingham

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Childe Hassam, Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917 (Addison Gallery, 1917)

Abstract:
In the mid 1910s, American artists, photographers, and graphic designers played an engaged and sometimes controversial role in helping their countrymen decide whether to intervene in the Great War or remain neutral. Focusing on a painting by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam, which shows a panoply of Allied flags flying above Fifth Avenue shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, David Lubin considers how patriotism, religion, gender, banking, and pacifism were all called into play visually as the First World War sucked America into its vortex.

Biographical Information:
David Lubin, the Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University and Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor at Oxford University, is the author of Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2016) and co-organizer of World War I and American Art, an exhibition now on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 22 FEBRUARY

‘Disalienation: ownership, performance, repatriation’

Professor Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (University of Oxford)

Wednesday 22 February
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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Penacho: Pracht & Passion exhibition installation view, Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, 2012. APA-PictureDesk.

Abstract:
This lecture reflects on a process of disalienation that drives repatriations, the performances, replications, and provenance research involved. In a case study I focus on the inbetweenness of ‘Montezuma’s Crown’ – el Penacho – which comes to stand for all museum objects, suspended in a shock-proof vitrine in the Weltmuseum in Vienna. While Mexican tourists press against the glass case, making a pilgrimage to see the crown as a way of connecting with a lost Aztec heritage, the uncertain provenance of the headdress makes this an ambiguous relic. The historical movement of the Penacho from Central America to Central Europe instead speaks of Austria’s thwarted imperial ambitions, while conservators’ insistence that the crown cannot be moved due to its fragility is now used as an excuse to rebuff demands by the Mexican government to repatriate it. I trace the various ways in which the Penacho straddles ontological and epistemological domains and how its suspension in the museum’s vitrine represents a metaphor for the political stalemate in which it is now caught. Relationships between art and ideology are refocussed through the lens of fascism, trauma, and colonial claims for restitution that refer to cases of Nazi looting. The lecture will present examples from contemporary art and museum practises that challenge notions of origin and forms of property ownership.

Biographical Information:
Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll is an artist and Professorial Fellow of Global Art History at the University of Birmingham. She is the author of the book Art in the Time of Colony, and related exhibitions that include Ore Black Ore in the Allegory of the Cave Painting at Extracity Antwerp; Investigated at Savvy Contemporary Berlin; Artists in Residence at the Pitt Rivers; Embassy Embassy at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin. Her installations and texts have been exhibited and performed at the Venice Biennale, Institute of Contemporary Art London, Pesta Bonka Festival Indonesia, and the Marrakech Biennale. An expert in contemporary art and colonialism as well as the history of museums and collecting, she wrote her M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard University about Aboriginal Art. She is an editor of the journal Third Text, and has also been the curator of various international exhibitions including Julie Gough: The Lost World (Part 2) which has just formed the basis of her most recent book The Important of Being Anachronistic: Contemporary Aboriginal Art and Museum Reparations.

She is currently completing an edited volume Botanical Drift: Economic Botany and its Plant Protagonists, and a book about the Immigration Detention Archive that she is adapting for the stage in a new commission from the Konzerttheatre Bern. She is also working on a book project that provides the basis for this lecture, Fragile Crown: Empire, Collection, Restitution, which is about the complexities of restitution arguments for the return of cultural property.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

What’s in a Bruegel? Not a “h,” according to Jonathan Jones

JAMIE EDWARDS

One of the things people often ask is ‘how exactly do you spell Bruegel: is it with the “h”? or without?’ Truth is, it’s both. Bruegel signed his name both ways, and, in his early career, there were other spellings besides those two main ones. In fact, if you wanted to be precise – and a bit of pedantry can go a long way – you could rephrase the simple question ‘is it spelled with the “h”? or without?’ as the much more cumbersome: ‘so is with the “h,” or without? but what about the “u”? should I include a diaeresis over the “u”? or is it a macron that I need?’ And, to be honest, it’s not just a matter of how it’s spelled, because there’s also the matter of how Bruegel styled his signature: is it lowercase, in italics? or is it uppercase, with all sorts of other idiosyncrasies thrown in for good measure (which letters should be given as a ligature, for instance?). For in the corpus of autograph paintings and drawings by Bruegel, all of these varieties and more are encountered: from ‘brūeghel,’ to ‘brueghel,’ to ‘BRVEGEL’. (This, by the way, is to say nothing about how people outside the Netherlands coped the artist’s name – to Italians, for instance, Bruegel’s Dutch name was not only a bit tricky to spell but also, I guess, difficult to pronounce, and so we find yet more variants: the Bolognese doctor Scipio Fabius, for instance, plumped, in 1561 and again in 1565, for ‘Petrus Bruochl’.)

What this all means, in reality, is that Pieter Bruegel willingly played around with how to spell his own name. In early works, from the 1550s, we find him using variants on the ‘brueghel’ type of signature (lowercase, in italics, often with the “h,” with all sorts of other variations); then, in about 1559, he decided to adopt, with greater consistency than before, the now more familiar form: ‘BRVEGEL’ (usually uppercase, sometimes with the “V” and “E” in ligature, and that pesky “h” now eliminated). Here’s how some of those signatures actually look in a few works by the artist (1. the 1556 drawing for the Big Fish Eat the Little Ones; 2. the 1559 Netherlandish Proverbs; 3. the 1559 drawing of Charity):

B signatures .png

It’s stating the obvious, but what this shows us is that Bruegel couldn’t quite make up his mind when it came to spelling his name and signing his works. Up until about 1559, that is. For from that date, he went as ‘BRVEGEL’. And the reason for this change is a simple one: for ‘BRVEGEL’ has a more Latinate feel than the decidedly Dutch ‘brūeghel‘ and its variants. The signature change was, in other words, about cultivating a particular image: the Latinising, or “Latinisation,” of the name signalling the artist’s social, cultural and intellectual pretensions. (If proof is needed, we can just cast about almost at random in Bruegel’s milieu and find other examples of people doing exactly the same thing: ‘Domenicus Lampsonius,’ to take just one example from Bruegel’s extended circle, is a Latinised version of ‘Dominique Lampsone’.)

That to me seems to be the most plausible explanation of what’s going on here. But, whatever the historical realities are, the ‘is it with the “h” or without’ cliché provided a nice tagline in Jonathan Jones’s recent article in The Guardian on the, in my view ill-conceived, subject of which Brueg[h]el matters; or, put in another way that comes closer to what Jones actually thinks, which Brueg[h]el was any good?

His article was prompted by the upcoming opening at the Holburne Museum in Bath of a new exhibition: Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty, which is the first exhibition ever mounted in the UK on the Brueg[h]el dynasty. I’ll be giving a lecture there in March, on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (that’s the Bruegel-without-the-“h”’s) Blind Leading the Blind and its copies. Jones, though, doesn’t think that such an exhibition is worth having, for ‘the only Bruegel worth bothering with is the one whose name is spelled without the “h,” ‘ which is to say, Bruegel the Elder. The “other Brueghels,” namely Bruegel’s sons Pieter Brueghel (usually called Pieter the Younger, to distinguish him from the father) and Jan Brueghel (usually called Jan the Elder, or “Velvet Breughel,” to distinguish him from his own son, Jan Brueghel the Younger … ) are, in Jones’s view, second-rate painters, scarcely worthy of being the focus of an entire exhibition. He simply can’t see why ‘British museums and art dealers such as Christies, which staged a Brueghel show in 2014, [are] so obsessed with these lesser painters?,’ the “lesser painters” in question being the Brueghels with the “h”.

As we’ve now seen, it ain’t quite that simple: as I said a moment ago, a bit of pedantry goes a long way, so let’s just remember that the Elder Bruegel also had the “h”. But, the bigger point here concerns Jones’s idea that Bruegel the Elder’s children produced pictures that are inherently or automatically inferior to their faither’s: Bruegel’s genius produced masterpieces; the Brueghels’ servility produced copies, feeble pastiches, or else pretty inoffensive still lifes:

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Bruegel without the “h,” Blind Leading the Blind, 1568; Capodimonte Museum, Naples

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Brueghel with the “h,” Blind Leading the Blind

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Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1606/7; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

This is the sort of thing you will have read years ago. And it was said especially often of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who, in comparison to his brother Jan (whose originality has never really been questioned), has always tended to be thought of as being a totally uninventive, totally servile imitator and pasticheur of his father’s art. But is that really true? Consensus now is that it’s not: Brueghel with the “h” also produced pictures according to his own capacities of invention and artistry. And what he produced, apparently without recourse to an existing prototype by his father, is, in my view, not only good (whatever good means … ) but is also interesting for all sorts of reasons.

But, be that as it may, we can or should object, I think, to the snobbish dismissal of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s activities as a copyist. All the best artists copy and always have done, and might you not say that Brueghel the Younger’s commercial savvy is something to be applauded: clearly he identified a market demand for Bruegel’s and Bruegelian pictures, which he seized and capitalised on, and clearly made a living for himself. If that makes a man feeble … then …? What’s at stake here, I guess, is how you define greatness in an artist anyway. If absolute originality is the key criteria, then we’re always on shaky ground, because what even is artistic originality, exactly? How is originality defined? And how can we ever be sure that something is absolutely original in the strict sense? (Roland Barthes had thoughts on that matter, on the tyranny of the author-genius’s supposed originality; and even Michelangelo’s inventiveness is best understood as a process of assimilative emulation, according to which he took pre-existing artistic and literary ideas and then put them all together in inventive ways — so, is that originality?) Besides, why can’t commercial success be a marker of greatness? (The idea that art historians should only be interested in seeing greatness in masterpieces produced only by artists who take pride of place among the pantheon of artist geniuses died out, rightly, a long time ago … art history students are habitually taught nowadays to “difference the canon”.)

For me, the lives and works of the Brueghels with the “h” are just as interesting as the life and work of the Bruegel without the “h”. They might be interesting for different reasons; but different, surely, isn’t the same as being “less good than”.

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 8 FEBRUARY

‘Seurat’s Public’

Professor Alastair Wright (University of Oxford)

Wednesday 8 February
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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Georges Seurat, Cirque (1890-91)

Abstract:

Taking as its primary focus Seurat’s Cirque (1890-91), my paper examines how the artist’s work imagines the public both as depicted audience and as implied viewer. I assess the claims made by Seurat’s colleagues Paul Signac and Félix Fénéon for a proletarian and politically radical audience before suggesting that the work of another of Seurat’s contemporaries, Stéphane Mallarmé, offers a better model for the painter’s ambivalent invocation of the public. The paper explores aspects of Seurat’s technique and subject-matter and of Mallarmé’s writings on theatre and popular entertainments in relation to the politics of the public sphere under the French Third Republic.

Biographical Information:

Alastair Wright is Associate Professor and Tutorial Fellow in Art History at St John’s College, University of Oxford. His first book, Matisse and the Subject of Modernism, was published by Princeton University Press in 2004. In 2010 he curated an exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s prints at the Princeton University Art Museum. The accompanying catalogue, Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered, examined the role played by reproduction in Gauguin’s understanding of French colonialism in Tahiti. Alastair has published widely on European and non-European modernisms in October, Art History, the Oxford Art Journal, the Art Bulletin, and in various edited volumes and catalogues.

He is currently working on two book projects. The first is a study of the politics of embodied spectatorship in the work of the 19th-century British painter Ford Madox Brown. In the second he is exploring the manifold links between the emergence of modernism in the visual arts and the transformation of the public sphere under the French Third Republic, with a particular emphasis on the work of the Neo-Impressionists.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

Art Detective “doing” Bosch.

JAMIE EDWARDS

“There’s so much in him ….” Him being Hieronymus Bosch. True.

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Earthly Delights in the 2016 Bosch exhibition

Here’s Waldemar Januszczak being interviewed by the brilliant Janina Ramirez, as part of her Art Detective podcast series, on the subject of Bosch’s so-called Earthly Delights (1480s or 1490s; Prado, Madrid). Worth a listen; it does well, on the whole, to avoid, if not rubbish, some of the nonsense that people have had to say about Bosch, and this particular picture, in the past (including the “crazy idea” that this picture had something to do with Adamites!). It does a good job too to emphasise the basic religious significance of this picture, despite what you might think when you look at it for the first time.

There are some problems, though. It’s not all that exceptional, for instance, that Bosch ended up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady, as this was family tradition. (Though it might be exceptional that Bosch, as a painter, achieved such a senior position: he rapidly rose to the status of sworn brother, a promotion from “ordinary member,” and artists didn’t tend to occupy such an elevated position.) Most problematic, though, is the idea, rehearsed here, that the triptych was an altarpiece (  “… of course it was,” says Januszczak), which was set up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady’s chapel. OK, so a copy — they say here — might later have sat on the altar there ( … though I can’t remember what the evidence is for this? is there any? don’t think there is); and it is a triptych. But neither of those things mean that the original was an altarpiece.

For a start, not all triptychs were altarpieces; that’s the kind of assumption that led to the bonkers Adamites theory. (Put simply, that theory arose because if the triptych is assumed to have been an altarpiece, then it follows that it can’t really have sat on a Christian altar, can it? Sorry: the imagery just doesn’t fit there, for this image bears no sensible correlation with what actually goes on at a Christian altar …. So people went scurrying about to find alternative “altars”. Cue: the Adamites, whose altar, adorned with Bosch’s picture, presided over all the orgiastic sex. Err ….)

Any anyway, more compellingly, all the evidence — and when we’re dealing with Bosch, evidence is a rare commodity so should be seized upon whenever it’s available — suggests that the triptych was commissioned by a “local noble” for a domestic, albeit very grand, setting. That noble was Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau.

The triptych is first documented in the Nassau Palace of Coudenberg in Brussels in 1517: it was seen there by Antonio de Beatis (see, if you can, Gombrich, ‘The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight,’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967); Steppe, ‘Jheronimus Bosch. Bijdrage tot de historische … ,’ in Steppe (ed.), Jheronimus Bosch … (1967) ). At that time, in 1517, the triptych was in the possession of Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda, Engelbrecht’s nephew (the latter died in 1504 without direct legitimate heirs, so his property went to Henry). Current thinking is that Engelbrecht commissioned the triptych in the 1480s or 1490s (though disagreement reigns over which decade it was). Neatly, we do know that Engelbrecht visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1481, to attend the 14th Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece; and coincidentally, the first time that we find Bosch mentioned as a painter in his own right in the surviving documentation comes from that very year, when “Joen the Painter” sold shares in the Bosch family house at ‘s-Hertogenbosch to his older brother Goessen. Engelbrecht visited again in 1496, in the entourage of Philip the Fair. (The latter, we know as a matter of fact, was a patron of Bosch’s: in 1504, presumably with Engelbrecht once more in tow, Philip the Fair was in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and asked Bosch to produce a large triptych for him showing the Last Judgement. Inevitably — though not necessarily — this leads to speculation that Engelbrecht might have suggested to Philip that Bosch was an artist to be aware of!) And given that the Nassau owned a property nearby at Breda, we can guess that Engelbrecht, as well as Henry, actually visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch quite regularly, for business as well as pleasure.

The Prado endorses this view concerning Engelbrecht’s likely patronage, as did the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP Catalogue Raisonné, 2016). Not least this is because the triptych’s provenance can be traced from Engelbrecht-Henry Nassau into the possession of Phillip II of Spain, and, by extension, from there into the Prado in 1933. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that when Phillip sent the triptych to the monastery of El Escorial, in 1593, it was not placed in a religious setting there either … it was placed instead in the royal apartments, in the Gallery of the Infanta.)

Januszczak surely knows this story about the triptych’s provenance: after all, displayed in the very same room as the Earthly Delights in the 2016 Prado exhibition was a portrait of the triptych’s likely patron, Engelbrecht, done in the 1480s by the so-called Master of the Princely Portraits. (You can just about make this out in photograph above, in the display cabinet.)

So, good and interesting podcast. But let’s not forget the evidence.

** Shameful plug, and tenuous link, alert: the podcast mentions Bruegel, and in case you’re interested, I’m giving a lecture about Bruegel at the Holburn Museum in Bath on March 22, to coincide with their exhibition Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty. More here.

A week in Prague

REBECCA SAVAGE (finalist)

Each year, 2nd year History of Art students embark on a University-funded, week-long study trip to a European city, in order to study its art, architecture and culture up-close. In the past, students have visited, among other cities, Rome, Berlin, and Brussels. Last year, however, the destination was Prague. Just weeks ahead of the current 2nd years heading off on their trip, here is Rebecca Savage reviewing her week in Prague last year …. 

February reading week rolled around again and, with it, the much anticipated History of Art second year field trip, which each year sees a group of excited students set off to explore art a little further afield! 2016’s trip took us to the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic, led by Professor Matthew Rampley, lecturer (and 2nd year personal tutor) Claire Jones and PhD student Sara Tarter. The trip is a core component of the second-year curriculum and is fully-funded by the University.

Prague is a city famous for its range of architecture which tells the story of the country’s complex political history, moving from Habsburg rule to the Austro-Hungarian empire and later Communist Government, all of which have made a lasting impression on the city: its streets, buildings, monuments and institutions. The sheer diversity of the city became obvious to us the minute we arrived by coach, in the low light of the evening, and, despite our tired eyes and rumbling stomachs, we were all struck by the range of buildings, bridges and statues that were there waiting to be explored.

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Bright and early the next morning, after a somewhat bizarre hotel breakfast – I observed at least two fellow visitors topping their porridge with cold meat and eggs – we headed out to explore the city some more, hopping on a tram to take us into the centre. Matthew led us on a tour of the older areas of Prague, taking in sights such as Old Town square which features the famous Jan Hus monument and the astronomical clock (which Matthew dismissed as “too touristy”).  Day one also featured a steep uphill trek, which despite the chilly weather and our aching legs, offered us one of the best views of the city (above) and the opportunity to visit the St Vitus Cathedral, and to view the changing of the guard outside Prague Castle!

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In contrast to the older areas visited on Tuesday, Wednesday gave us the opportunity to see some of Prague’s modern features, and to visit the National Gallery. Housing a collection of over 2,300 works, displayed over three floors, the gallery contains a number of Czech and European works from the 19th and 20th centuries. On the ground floor the gallery currently houses the monumental Slav Epic, created by Alfons Mucha between 1910 and 1928 and which represent the history of the Slavic people. Comprising twenty enormous canvases — each around 13 feet tall — they were, despite their mixed reputation amongst Czech nationals, perhaps the most memorable works from our visit to the National Gallery. Interestingly the gallery was also then exhibiting  Al Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads, which I thought were made all the more impressive by the snow storm that surrounded them when we arrived:

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Thankfully the snow had cleared by Thursday, which saw us undertaking our second walking tour of the city, this time focusing on Prague’s modernist architecture, beginning with Wenceslas square. As with our tour earlier on in the week, this walk saw us considering and discussing a dizzingly-vast array of different sorts of buildings, all exhibiting such remarkable diversity in architectural styles. Highlights included the Hotel Jalta: a boutique hotel from the communist era which boasts a nuclear bunker and socialist statues as decoration. Matthew also pointed our attention to the statue of Wenceslas square’s eponymous king, a controversially parodic work by artist David Černý (an artist famous for his subversive works including the The Piss Sculpture in front of the Franz Kafka museum and the Olympic London Booster Bus):

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On Friday a group of us embarked on a walk up to the National Memorial on Vitkov Hill. Originally built as a monument to Czechoslovakian legionaries, and later used to promote the communist regime, the memorial was opened to the public by the National Gallery in 2009 — although it still maintains some of its previous sinister gravitas.  On Friday afternoon we visited the Municipal House and its Art Nouveau exhibition. Again this offered us another side to the city’s artistic legacy and rich holdings, featuring glass, fashion and furniture which often get otherwise overlooked.

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Alongside all the key visits just described, we also had ample opportunities to explore the city for ourselves, in our own time, taking in places of particular interest to each of us. This was particularly important as the trip will form the basis for our own research project, which generated an assessed presentation delivered in the Summer exam season. Indeed, the point of the trip is to identify the subject of your presentation, usually a work of art or architecture, then spend as much time as possible studying it at first hand, whilst still in Prague itself. For nothing compares to studying art objects in real life, and that is one of the joys of the trip!

However, studying works of art and buildings up close wasn’t the only joy and it wasn’t all academic study. We experienced the city’s other important offerings and highlights – cheap beer, hot wine and soup in bread bowls amongst them. We got lost on the tram and metro system; and let me tell you that, besides all the museum-going and walking, nothing gets you bonding with your peers quite like trying to figure out how, in planning to go from A to B on the metro, we’d actually ended up at Z. Another highlight was getting to know the lecturers more, and have fun with them exploring a foreign city. As cheesy as it is to say, I know that some of my fondest memories of being an art history student at Birmingham, as well as my closest friendships, were formed on the study trip to Prague. 

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 25 January

‘Portraiture and the colonised: The problem and a case study’

Dr Simon Dell (University of East Anglia)

Wednesday 25 January
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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King Njoya, ‘King Njoya with one of his wives,’ 1912. Published: Der evangelische Heidenbote, Vol. 86, 1913

Abstract:
A portrait in the European tradition entails the production of a likeness of an individual. Thus the preconditions for a portrait are a category of individuated personhood or subjectivity and agreed procedures for the representation of that personhood. Yet how do these elements converge in the European tradition? And what are the implications of this for the depiction of people from beyond Europe? How, if at all, are the colonised to be represented in this tradition? This paper explores these questions through a case study drawn from the Bamum of the Cameroon Grassfields during the first decades of the twentieth century.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

Spring Term’s Research Seminars

The finalised programme for the Departmental Research Seminars in the Spring semester  has now been made available. Please see below.

spring-term

 

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 30 NOVEMBER

‘Art, Architecture and Exile; the Empress Eugenie in Farnborough, 1880-1920’

Professor Anthony Geraghty (University of York)

Wednesday 30 November
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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Abstract:
‘The Empress Eugenie – the widow of Napoleon III – spent the last forty years of her life in Farnborough in Hampshire. This talk will explore the house she lived in, Farnborough Hill, and the remarkable collection of fine and decorative arts she displayed therein.’

Biographical Statement:
Anthony Geraghty is Professor of the History of Art, and Chairman of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. He is an architectural historian, with a specialist interest in the early modern period in England. He joined the University of York in 2002, having previously taught at the Glasgow School of Art in 1998-2002.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

New Raphael …?

Jamie Edwards

Stephen Hibberts with the painting Noli Me Tangere (credit: Colin Usher, via The Telegraph)

Stephen Hibberts with the painting Noli Me Tangere (credit: Colin Usher, via The Telegraph)

That man up there, the Antiques collector Stephen Hibberts, reckons he has unearthed a lost painting by Raphael. Depicting the moment Christ told the Magdalene not to touch him following His Resurrection — a subject known in art history by the Latin words Christ is said to have uttered, “Noli me tangere” — Hibberts found the painting some years ago at an art fair in Avignon. Back then, it was, or so The Telegraph reported, lying on the ground, a much-maligned, and literally downtrodden picture, purported to be some detritus of some unknown period in art history from the hand of some unknown artist who harboured a penchant for producing pictures that resemble the Old Masters.

Yet despite these inauspicious circumstances, when Hibberts saw it, he liked it; specifically, he liked “its gothic and rustic appearance”. So he bought it, despite it not being “in the best of nick” (the latter, alongside “rustic,” being a poetic way of describing this picture, which, it must be said, is in horrible condition):

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Hibberts’s picture (credit: Colin Usher, via The Telegraph)

“I didn’t think it would be worth much at all. I’m a realistic man,” Hibberts said in a statement last week, reflecting on the acquisition. “I’m aware,” he added, “that it is sometimes tempting to see things that aren’t there, that you see things you want to see.” Quite shrewd.

Unfortunately, however, it does seem that Hibbert has now decided to see things he wants to see, because he has since decided that his painting, the one he found lying on the floor somewhere in Avignon, is not only from the sixteenth century, but is in fact a lost Raphael!

The story goes like this. Hibberts allowed experts at Sotheby’s, The National Gallery and at Oxford and Cambridge to examine his work. They verified his initial inklings: this isn’t anything special. Their expertise yielded the view that this work probably comes from the Victorian period, when it was all the rage for artists to look back to the examples provided by Italian Renaissance art. But Hibberts didn’t give up; clearly, he’d decided that the picture he owned was something else entirely (on what basis he came to this view is for him to disclose). So he sent it to Bradford University, to try and date it. They examined the picture using Raman spectroscopy and microspectroscopy, in order to identify the pigments used in the painting. The findings were published in the Transactions of the Royal Society A.

The science has shown that the pigments used in the paint, and the way that the canvas was prepared and worked on, are thoroughly consistent with what we should expect for a picture produced during the Renaissance, around 1500. Crucially, to quote from the report, “No trace of any synthetic pigment that appeared post-Renaissance” were identified, which, “when taken with the obvious lack of restorative procedures, implies strongly that the painting is correctly placed as an artwork executed in the Renaissance period.” So far so good. It seems permissible — though it’s not necessarily a done deal just on those bases — that Hibbert does now own a sixteenth-century painting.

But the sting in the tail comes from the next objective: “It now remains to try and attribute this painting to a particular artist.”

This question is tackled in the tellingly entitled “Artistic Epilogue”, as if it is the case that when wrestling with matters of attribution works of art only come in with only secondary importance. We’re dealing here, again, with art history that does science first, and art history second. And adopting the Morellian approach to connoisseurship, the study hones in on “perhaps the most significant feature of this painting,” which is “the polydactyly of the Christ figure”. Christ does, it seems, have one toe too many on the right foot.

They say that this is a characteristic motif used in the Renaissance period, particularly by Raphael. They adduce examples to that end (listed in the report). They also add that several variants of the composition represented in their painting exist from the later sixteenth century. These include an engraving by Maarten de Vos (1582), a painting by de Vos, an engraving by Johann Sadeler (which they present as being somehow distinct from the de Vos print, whereas it is actually after de Vos, viz. is based directly on that print, as the inscription “M.de Vos inuentor / Joannes Sadler scalps” announces), as well as a few other later works from the seventeenth century. Below is the de Vos painting (I think … hard to get hold of) and the Sadeler print:

Johannes Sadeler I (Netherlandish, Brussels 1550–1600 Venice (?)) Noli Me Tangere, from The Passion of Christ, 1582–1583 Engraving; Plate: 9 3/8 × 7 7/8 in. (23.8 × 20 cm) Sheet: 10 5/8 × 8 9/16 in. (27 × 21.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Carolyn R. Vietor, 1964 (64.563.46) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/654701

Johannes Sadeler I (Netherlandish, Brussels 1550–1600 Venice (?))
Noli Me Tangere, from The Passion of Christ, 1582–1583
Engraving; Plate: 9 3/8 × 7 7/8 in. (23.8 × 20 cm) Sheet: 10 5/8 × 8 9/16 in. (27 × 21.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Maarten de Vos, Noli me tangere, 1580s, Pinacoteca Stuard Officio, Parma. (I think ... )

Maarten de Vos, Noli me tangere, 1580s, Pinacoteca Stuard Officio, Parma. (I think … )

What seems fairly clear is that all of these compositions do somehow relate. There are significant differences between each of them, but, in general terms, the compositions match up. So what does tell us?

Strictly speaking, what it tells us is that in around 1582, a composition was (re)produced as a painting and an engraving by de Vos and Sadeler. What is doesn’t tell us is that Hibberts’s picture is the prototype on which de Vos and in turn Sadeler based their own works; that is a leap too far on the basis of the evidence currently available. And certainly it does not tell us that Hibberts’s picture is not only the prototype, but is in fact the prototype produced by none other than Raphael. Indeed, if one of, if not the, most important elements in the painting here in question is the extra toe, then that importance was apparently lost on de Vos and Sadeler, who omitted this apparently essential, and essentially Raphaelesque, element. Why can’t it be that the painting is after de Vos’s print, just as Sadeler’s is? After all, all the comparable works adduced in the study date from 1582 and after, which suggests that the prototype originated at around that date. Why can’t it have been de Vos’s 1582 print? De Vos being, at this point, very much alive and kicking, whereas Raphael had been dead for sixty-two years.

A possibility, of course, is that the supposed Raphael turned up at about this time (1582) and was the catalyst for all this, but that’s something that needs to be researched and explained. But even this, if it can be proven — and it is probably an unanswerable question — raises another troublesome question: if a Raphael painting had shown up in, let’s say, 1580, then why isn’t de Vos’s print signed “Raphael inuentor”? As Sadeler’s engraving makes clear, it is de Vos who invented the composition. It simply can’t be the case that de Vos and Sadeler would’ve missed out on the lustre that Raphael’s name adds to a print if they really were based on a painting believed to have something to do with Raphael.

And more to the point, can anyone actually plausibly say that the painting looks like a work by Raphael? This business about Christ’s polydactyly is hardly compelling in and of itself. Do the figures, for instance, actually look like figures designed by Raphael? Isn’t it problematic that de Vos’s figures look more Raphael-like than do the figures in the painting that we’re supposed to believe is by Raphael? Let’s remember that Hibberts acquired it — despite it being such an unremarkable work — because he liked its elegant “gothic” character; it almost goes without saying that Gothic isn’t a term usually invoked to characterise a picture by Raphael! (Heinrich Wölfflin would’ve bridled at the thought!)

To that end, the study’s claim that the painting, and the composition more generally speaking, has a Florentine origin is baffling to me. The evidence, they say, or so it seems, is that the view of “Jerusalem” in the background is actually Florence: a topographically accurate view of Florence as it appeared in the sixteenth century from the hill outside the city on which San Miniato al Monte stands, in fact. This is what that view looks like, from slightly lower down the hill, at Piazzale Michelangelo:

firenze

The painting, it’s true, has suffered extensive losses in the background, in the crucial places, and the reproductions available aren’t clear, but it is hard to see that the background really does include a topographically accurate view of Florence. This is clearer from the engravings, supposedly made after the painting in question. The backgrounds here simply do not look like Florence: the Synagogues in both may resemble the profile of the Duomo in general terms, but not precisely; and the Synagogue as it is glimpsed there is really of a rather generic type, familiar from many a picture. And based on what we can make out in the reproductions available to us, the painting likewise features only a Duomo-esque building, but other, key distinguishable buildings — absolutely central to identifying a townscape as Florence — appear to be missing: Palazzo della Signoria? and, orientation depending, Santa Croce? And at any rate, it’s not as if there’s a special or peculiar link between Florence and Raphael: he being a peripatetic artist who nevertheless lived in Rome from 1508.

All told, the idea that a new Raphael picture has been discovered has, as always, been reported with extraordinary gusto and enthusiasm. But the excitement, and blind optimism this generates, has tended to mean that the glaring problems have been downplayed if not overlooked entirely. So what do we know? We know that Hibberts has inadvertently acquired a sixteenth-century painting, the composition of which is known from other works including prints. But that’s not quite the same thing as discovering a Raphael ….

 

 

 

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