Turner and his Fighting Temeraire make the new twenty quid note

JAMIE EDWARDS

New 20£

The Bank of England have revealed the design of its new £20 note (above), which will begin circulating in 2020. It features Turner’s 1799 Self-Portrait (now in the Tate Britain) and his almost ubiquitously familiar painting The Fighting Temeraire, of 1839 (NG, London; below). Also featuring on the note will be Turner’s famous quote ‘Light is therefore colour’, a phrase first uttered by Turner in an 1818 lecture delivered at the RA.

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

The new design is the result of a landmark public vote, the first time that the public was invited to nominate candidates to feature on a new note. The bank ended-up with a list featuring some 29,000 nominees, 590 of which were artists. From these, a shortlist was drawn up: Turner, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hepworth, William Hogarth, and designer Josiah Wedgwood, and eventually Turner won.

This story has been the subject of some controversy. Rightly, it was pointed out that women are conspicuous only by their relative absence from the new batch of notes–by 2020, the £5, £20 and £50 notes will feature portraits of notable blokes, whereas only one woman (besides HMQ Elizabeth II, obviously) has got a look in: Jane Austen, who will feature on the £10 note from 2017. Caroline Criado-Perez, head of the campaign for more women to appear on banknotes, was rightly, I think, miffed that only one woman made it on to the Bank’s list of five notable historical figures for inclusion on the new notes, quipping that “I guess the Bank of England thinks one woman out of five historical figures ticks off their gender quota.” The Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, meanwhile, has admitted that although diversity was a consideration in the decision nevertheless conceded that “further progress” could be made in this regard.

I DO think, though, that we should acknowledge the Bank’s efforts to increase transparency and independence by involving the public in a vote (even if the final decision was made by a board headed by the Bank’s deputy governor, other high-fliers and some specially drafted in “advisors” etc.). I do also think–laying the gender inequality aside, if such a thing can ever be done–that Turner makes for a very appropriate choice. Turner is, after all, without doubt one of the preeminent and most important figures in British art history.

Theory no. 37,987,869*: the Mona Lisa really shows Leonardo’s gay lover

JAMIE EDWARDS

Mona Lisa

The Telegraph reports today the latest Mona Lisa theory.** Silvano Vincenti–the art detective, who has spent the last few years digging around in the ground beneath S Ursula’s convent in Florence looking for Lisa del Giocondo’s (née Gherardini) remains–has finally “come up with an answer to a question that has divided scholars for years – who was the Mona Lisa based on?”. Vincenti says that we’ve all been wrong for years, and that the Mona Lisa is actually not, strictly speaking, a portrait of Lisa at all. It’s really a portrait of Leonardo’s live-in assisatnt, and conjectured lover, Salai. Partly based on examinations of infra-red images, Vincenti says that the “androgynous” Mona Lisa is a fusion of Lisa’s face with the best bits of Salai; he says that the forehead, nose and that smile, are all Salai’s features. Underlying all this is the speculation that Leonardo and Salai were gay lovers–hence Vincenti’s comparison between the face of the Mona Lisa with the face of the Incarnate Angel, here reckoned to be a portrait of sorts of Salai, and notable because the angel has a stonking erection. Reading between the lines, the Mona Lisa thus goes from idealised portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife, to a secret homage to Salai, Leonardo’s gay lover.

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Frankly, Vincenti should’ve known better. The basic premise that the identification of the portrait’s sitter is ‘a question that has divided scholars for years’ is a false one. No scholar–or else, no serious one–actually doubts whether the portrait is a picture of Lisa, however idealised or imaginative it may, in many respects, be.

At any rate, it is frankly misleading to claim that even if Leonardo found Salai attractive, and even if he had, somewhere in his mind, Salai’s features when producing his pictures, that those pictures must then be understood as pictorial manifestations of Leonardo and Salai’s gay romance. This is a misunderstanding of the artistic process, what it entails and how it works. It’s also a rather naïve take on sexuality in the Early Modern period, during which relationships between older men and young boys would never have been understood according to a modern taxonomy of sexuality (gay, homosexual etc.). To say the Mona Lisa is actually about gay love, articulated in those terms, is simply anachronistic.

This latest theory is therefore a kind of dramatising and skewing of the known facts that gives rise, in this case, to a view not dissimilar to the wholly problematic interpretations of Michelangelo and Tomasso dei Cavalieri’s relationship and the works of art, poetry etc. that they exchanged.

Anyway, as Prof. Martin Kemp has been saying for years–and this is repeated in The Telegraph‘s article–we don’t actually know what Salai looked like. Vasari’s written description of him is generic, to say the least, and conforms to a standard type: “he was pretty and had curly hair”, basically. So any attempt to spot Salai’s features in Leonardo’s work is a lost cause from the off, and any results are wholly conjectural.

Thus Kemp’s view: “This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy…”.

To put that another way, this is Dan Brown stuff.

 

* This is, by the way, the second time Vincenti has gone public with this “theory”. This is just a re-hashing. In 2011, he said the same.

** do wish people would stop referring to Leonardo as “da Vinci”.

Silly but funny? will.i.am at The Louvre

JAMIE EDWARDS

Rembrandt.i.am

Stumbled across this on t’internet and I’m conflicted. Is it brilliant? Is it terrible? Or just plain weird? I won’t know, maybe it’s all those things. I’ve gotta say that will.i.am’s face super-imposed on the Old Masters is quite funny, but the new captions on the frames are better: “Rembrandt.i.am”! Even funnier still is the moment Scherzinger begins warbling as the Mona Lisa. 

 

New Caravaggio found in attic?

JAMIE EDWARDS

BBC reports that a new Caravaggio might just have been discovered in the attic of a house in Toulouse. The picture, showing Judith Beheading Holofernes, came to light two years ago (on the occasion of trying to mend a leaking roof apparently). It subsequently fell into the hands of Eric Turquin (pictured below alongside the painting in question), who now suspects that the painting is another autograph version of Caravaggio’s famous Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome).

The French Government has placed a 30-month export bar on the picture. In the meantime, analysts at The Louvre are working on ascertaining an attribution; should they authenticate it as a genuine Caravaggio, the French Government will have first dibs on acquiring it.

Caravaggio, Rome

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome)

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

I’m no Caravaggio expert, but when you put reproductions of the “new” Caravaggio next to the version in Rome, the former doesn’t seem “right”–the composition’s a bit clumsy; the flesh colours a bit stark; the curtains behind, a tad sharp and staccato. These comments come, of course, with the important caveat that they are being offered about a pretty bad reproduction of a painting that is supposed to have spent its recent history under a leaky roof, so caution is needed. However, the fact that Caravaggio courted such a huge following, the so-called Caravaggisti, seems to me to be clearly relevant and imposes yet another reason to be cautious about making excited pronouncements about this discovery. I’m sure that The Louvre will be able to shed some light when their investigations begin to yield answers.

 

One week to go: Flatpack Film Festival

OLIVER STEVENSON (Finalist; Student Ambassador for Flatpack)

FFFX_hires_widescreen-centred_ten_WEB

At the end of April (19th-24th), Birmingham will be taken over by Flatpack Film Festival for the tenth time. From its beginnings in a Digbeth pub and a Balsall Heath attic, Flatpack has grown and spread, and has become, over the course of a decade, an important week in Birmingham’s cultural calendar. Flatpack 10 will include shorts, documentaries, parties, installations, workshops, exhibitions and new features in venues all over the city from Brummie classics, such as the BMAG and The Electric Cinema to Centrala in Minerva Works and, for the last three days of the festival, in Action Space. “What is Action Space?” I hear you cry, well Action Space is new. An inflatable venue that will be right outside Birmingham Council House. It has to be seen to be believed.

I was lucky enough last year to go to some of the Flatpack 9 events, including a screening of the fantastic Sex & Broadcasting, a documentary about the independent, freeform radio station WFMU run out of Jersey City (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, I urge you to look it up). Though my personal highlight was a dinner party, but no usual dinner party. The installation The Dog House at Stryx, in Minerva Works, was what the festival described as ‘a dinner with a difference’. It involved being sat at a table with four others, all of us donning Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, in order to experience a Danish family’s dinner time and all the dramas that ensue during. Before you sat down you had no idea what to expect or which character you’d be–I went with my girlfriend and she ended up being my boyfriend in the film. Each pair of goggles showed the film from a different character’s perspective so you end up discussing what you, and the others, saw. It was a truly unique and unreal experience that aimed to show the future of cinema (though by the time this kind of cinema becomes all the rage I’m hoping that the technology has evolved to make you feel less motion sick).

The Doghouse Installation1

The Dog House at Stryx; Minerva Works

Flatpack is a truly wonderful festival that brings so much to Birmingham. Though The Doghouse isn’t running this year, there is so much more to get involved with and have a try at. Go and see a film at The Electric Cinema (I am thinking of going and seeing the brilliantly named Chuck Norris Vs. Communism); go and see incredible light-paintings by the Japanese artists Tochka at the Ikon (which conveniently would also mean you get to see their Dan Flavin exhibition); explore the demonic presence in Birmingham with local historian Ben Waddington at Satan’s Birmingham; or join in with the lunar lunacy at the free Full Moon Party on the Friday of the festival (it’s free!).

Flatpack is definitely something that is worth getting involved in, and none of the events take place more than half an hour away from campus. The full programme is hereso don’t just take my word for it, go and book something and escape from the harsh realities of exams and deadlines just before the new term starts. It might just change your life.

Restoring Joachim Wtewael at the NG

JAMIE EDWARDS

Another excellent video by the National Gallery here, about the marvellous Jill Dunkerton’s work to restore their Raising of Lazrus (about 1605) by Joachim Wtewael. As Dunkerton explains, the picture was a right old mess just a few years ago, and this video charts her painstaking work to bring it back to something like its original glory.

Fascinating stuff, and another good example of how important conscientious conservation is for the preservation of important works of art for future generations to enjoy.

PS sorry about the lack of action recently (writing, writing, writing!). Many new posts coming next week!

Review of The Journal of Art Historiography: Issue 13, December 2015

Faith Trend

The Journal of Art Historiography is a unique journal dedicated specifically to the specialised field of art historiography. It has been successfully edited since its conception by the University of Birmingham’s own Richard Woodfield and was the basis for the university’s recent summer symposium series. Each issue is packed full of articles, translations, reviews and reports of the highest academic standard and this abundant yet critically weighty output is what has made the journal an authority in the area of historiography. Indeed, the Dictionary of Art Historians calls it ‘the major research organ of the field’.

For those who attended the Birmingham art historiography symposium back in 2013 you will be delighted to see two articles by familiar faces in the most recent issue of the Journal: the University of Birmingham’s Daniel Reynolds and collaborator Rebecca Darley reflecting on their role as curators of the recent coin exhibition Faith and Fortune, and Australian academic Catherine De Lorenzo’s article on ‘The hang and art history’.

Darley and Reynolds curated the successful and long running coin exhibition, Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage at the Barber between November 2013 and January 2015. Their article focuses on how the duo and their team decided to shake up the traditional method of numismatic exhibition display and instead present the coins in a revolutionary manner with the aim of engaging and educating a wider and more diverse audience. As Darley and Reynolds explain, the field of numismatics has long been seen as a rather esoteric and dry area, with exhibitions doing very little to sway audiences from these preconceptions. Exhibitions of numismatics have also, on the whole, focused on the visual and aesthetic qualities of the coins, and have been limited by the typical presentation method of the coins – placed in rows on pH-neutral cloth covered board, separated from their accompanying labels. With the Faith and Fortune exhibition, Darley and Reynolds chose to mount the coins on a large Foamex board integrated around the text which focused largely on the coins economic qualities.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 15.47.32

One of the cabinets showing how printed boards were used to mount the coins to encourage visitor engagement with the objects and their interpretation.

The team’s decision to focus on representing the coins as economic artefacts marked another break in tradition and reminds the viewer that coins were not typically meant to be perceived as art. Their aim, as the article states was to ‘reflect upon the multiple ways in which seeing and interacting with coins gave the objects value in the late antique world and how the coins in turn generated networks of shared expectation, rhetoric and material exchange which defined people’s lives.’ Darley and Reynolds then go on to weigh up the limitations and opportunities that the space at the Barber provided them with, other factors that had to be considered in the lead up to the exhibition, as well as general reflections on the successes and failures of the exhibition as a whole. In particular they highlight the research that has been stimulated by the exhibition, achieving a key aim of theirs to make the exhibition a ‘a forum for research rather than purely dissemination.’ The account provides a fascinating background to the exhibition and those of our readers who managed to see the exhibition will be able to judge for yourselves how successful you believe Darley and Reynolds to be in achieving their goals.

Catherine De Lorenzo’s article ‘The hang and art history’ is, as mentioned earlier, another one which may be familiar with our readers who attended the 2014 conference. De Lorenzo’s paper is one strand of a wider research project analysing exhibitions of Australian art over the last 50 years and focuses in particular on the subject of Aboriginal art, the increase in its recognition and acknowledgement as ‘quintessentially Australian’, and the implications this has on art history. Tony Tuckson’s Australian Aboriginal Art (1960-61) is the key example that De Lorenzo works with and she gives a fascinating and in-depth analysis of the ‘cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional’ curatorial strategies that directed the exhibition. While De Lorenzo touches on the curatorial and art historiographical legacies of Tuckson’s exhibition it would be interesting if she had looked at other exhibitions in the same level of detail, however I suspect that will be forthcoming as part of the goals of the wider research project that she is a part of. De Lorenzo’s article ultimately demonstrates how much the museum sector has changed over the past 50 years in its handling and understanding of Aboriginal art and how it can be further shaped in the future to continue to educate both scholars and the public on Aboriginal art and its essential place within the canon of Australian art history.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 14.52.12

The book that followed Tuckson’s exhibition

Further Birmingham art historians Matthew Rampley and Nóra Veszprémi are to be found in the reviews section. Rampley considers Vlad Toca’s Art Historical Discourse in Romania, 1919-1947 and suggests that the work does not constitute a particularly deep critical analysis but praises it for providing ‘a useful start to the discussion of an understudied subject.’ While Veszprémi provides a response to Rebecca Houze’s Textiles, Fashion and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress, which is incredibly detailed and thorough, giving real insight into the many highlights of Houze’s text.

Another article which may hold particular interest for our readers is Claire Farago’s review of The Lives of Leonardo, a subject of great discussion among the writers and readers of our blog. Farago looks in depth at Thomas Frangenberg and Rodney Palmer’s collection of articles taken from a symposium in 2006 on the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography. Farago highlights the central theme of the book as considering the legacy of Vasari’s Lives and her fascinating review of the book makes it one to perhaps recommend to our undergraduates in the future as they tackle Vasari in their first year. While generally praising of the book on the whole, Farago is withering in her disdain of the lack of female contributors to the volume, a reminder to us all that there is still a great deal of work to be done in balancing out the field. Indeed our first years have recently been tackling the problems that arise when men are solely responsible for our understanding of artists biographies.

I have barely touched the surface of the multitude of articles contained in December’s issue of the Journal of Art Historiography, so richly packed as it is with such an abundant range of pieces. However, I hope I have done enough to whet the appetite and encourage our readers to take a closer look at further articles in the journal. Anyone who would like to review one or two in greater detail is encouraged to get in touch.

 

To read the December issue and the 12 past issues the website is:

https://arthistoriography.wordpress.com/

What do our alumni do?

Every other year, the Department hosts an Art History Careers Event that is designed to give current students a taste of what kinds of careers will be open to them with their degrees in Art History from the University of Birmingham. This year, we managed to pin down two of the speakers–Dr Jennifer Powell and Becky Peake-Sexton–to record two short films about their own experiences post-University, to tell us a bit about where their degrees have got them. Take a look and below, and hopefully it’ll give you some food for thought about where you might go with your degree(s)!

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: WEDNESDAY 16 March

‘The Modernist Making of an International Rhythmic “Race”: Katherine Dreier’s Lithographs and Ted Shawn’s Dreier Lithograph Dance.’

Professor Robin Veder
(Penn State Harrisburg)

Wednesday 16 March
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 7.51.02 AM

‘In the 1920s and 1930s, artist Katherine Dreier and dancer Ted Shawn believed they could make a new “race” by rhythmically stimulating viewers’ neuromuscular systems. Veder locates their joint contribution to American modernism within the overlapping discourses of physiological psychology, neurasthenia, and theosophy.’

Biographical Statement:

Robin Veder is Associate Professor of Humanities and Art History/Visual Culture at Penn State Harrisburg. She received her doctorate in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, and she has held post-doctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center for American Modernism, Harvard’s Garden and Landscape Studies Program at Dumbarton Oaks, and in spring 2016, the Institute for Advanced Study at Durham University. She is author of several articles on transatlantic art history, visual culture, history of the body, and landscape studies of the long nineteenth century, appearing in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, American Art, Visual Resources, Journal of Victorian Culture, Modernism/Modernity, and International Journal of the History of Sport. Veder’s book, The Living Line: Modern Art and the Economy of Energy, was published by the Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England’s Visual Culture Series in 2015.

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

Birmingham Central Library. In Memorandum.

OLIVER STEVENSON (finalist)

Central Library

Central Library

The concrete heart of Birmingham is being destroyed. I, of course, am referring to John Madin’s brutalist masterpiece The Central Library.

 I remember the first time I visited Birmingham city centre, it was a few months before I started university in 2013. I got off a train at New Street and, having no idea where I was going, I walked to Victoria Square. There, peaking out from between the Town Hall and the Victorian Baroque Birmingham Museum was a huge concrete monolith of a building. I don’t remember much about that first visit three years ago but I remember the Central Library, though at the time I had no idea of its former function or about the ins and outs of British postwar concrete architecture. It’s jagged, angular concrete exterior struck my very core.

It is now, as was the fate of the second city’s Victorian library, being torn down by yellow cranes that appear in stark contrast to its muted colours; the demolition commenced before the final appeal to save the library had even begun. Birmingham City Council took a hammer to one of its most unique buildings, regardless of the fact that is one of the finest examples of Brutalist architecture in the UK and one of the finest examples of John Madin’s, one of the most brilliant Brummie architects, buildings. Though, shockingly, it is not the only of Madin’s buildings currently being demolished in Birmingham City centre. His incredible skyscraper stood at 103 Colmore Row, part of the Birmingham skyline for the last forty years, is also being taken down.

Central Library now.png

Why 103 Colmore Row, let alone the Central Library, have not been listed is still a point of contention for many people. Other outstanding examples of British brutalist have been: London’s Barbican Estate and Trellick and Balfron Towers, the UEA Ziggurat in Norwich and, closer to home, the New Street Signal Box (not five minutes walk from the Central Library) are all protected. Despite this, the Central Library, a remarkable example of postwar architecture that is so outstanding and unique to Birmingham and fits so well in to the city, with the entire Paradise Circus built just to house it has not been. Instead the city council have allowed it to be demolished, crushed in to nothing, razed it to the ground, in order to build another boring contemporary steel and glass structure as a gate between Victoria Square and Centenary Square. It is honestly a travesty, a real shame. A tragedy.

Colmore Row .png

103 Colmore Row

Signal Box

New St. Signal Box

It’s marmite nature may have divided Brummies and visitors alike but there is no way of denying that Central Library has been a distinctive, remarkable structure in the city since it opened in 1974. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact at some point I am going to get on a train from Selly Oak to New Street and it will not be there anymore, but it breaks my heart every time I go in to the city and a little bit more of it has been torn away.

So I’m writing this to say that, Birmingham Central Library, you magnificent brutal bastard, I will miss you. No matter how many t-shirts, postcards, tote bags and pin badges I buy with your unforgettable silhouette on it, I will miss you. 

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