Students’ diary: a week in Paris

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 as part of the module Art History in the Field. In the past, students have visited, among other cities, Rome, Berlin, and Brussels. This year, however, the destination was Paris, led by lecturers Dr Fran Berry and Dr Greg Salter, and Sara Tarter (PhD student and teaching associate). Here, 2nd years Hannah Binns, Louise Greenhill, Rozeena Jabeen, Beth Moody and Elizabeth Shih tell us all about what they got up to …. 

Group -- Paris

Group shot at the Pompidou

Monday 12 Febuary (Hannah Binns)

In the ever-bustling New Street Station, we all gathered bright and early on Monday morning to set off for Paris. Some, me and one other nervous traveller, arrived a solid hour early and watched as everyone else gently congregated by Pret in various states of awakeness. Some light competition about who had packed most efficiently, the distribution of the various train tickets, and several litres of coffee later, and we were off. The Virgin train to Euston was painless due to my decision to purchase Travel Boggle, although the clatter of sixteen dice every three minutes was perhaps not overly popular with fellow passengers ….

Before we knew it, we were trekking down the Euston Road to St Pancras where we all made it through security and border control unscathed and the excitement began to set in. The Eurostar, like the Virgin train, was made infinitely better by Boggle – I even managed to rope in a few more players. Then suddenly, we were pulling into Gare du Nord, Paris. We piled into a coach and trundled through the city to our hostel which was, to everybody’s delight, lovely.

My friends and I pootled off to explore the surrounding streets and find food and drink before collapsing into bed to recharge before an art-filled week.

Tuesday 13 February (Louise Greenhill)

After a busy day of travelling, our first stop Tuesday morning was Musée d’Orsay, one of Paris’s most well know museums, with around 2,997,622 visitors in 2016. Its extensive collection is housed inside a nineteenth-century railway station, which means that the whole museum is filled with light, even on a rainy day in February. That, in combination with the surprisingly small crowds — although, we did get there early! — meant that this was my favourite museum of the trip. The collection comprises eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, many of which were originally in the Louvre. The museum’s collection includes paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, and old photographs, which, along with the architecture itself, means there’s something for everyone to enjoy. One of the highlights that we all got to study was Manet’s famous and, in its day, controversial painting Olympia, which was amazing to see and think about in real life having seen reproductions of it so many times since arriving at University.

d'Orsay d'Orsay2


Musée d’Orsay is situated on the banks of the Seine so after the visit we took a walk along the unusually high Seine, taking in the famous padlock bridge and the beautiful architecture. We also admired the traditional Parisian sight of a few brave book and art sellers, or “libraries forain, that were still out despite the freezing temperatures and light snow. Then we visited Sainte-Chappelle, a truly beautiful thirteenth-century building commissioned by Louis IX as an “architectural reliquary,” which, among other things, is famous for its original stained glass windows (miraculously, they survived the French Revolution). This is definitely a place worth visiting for those interested in the medieval history of Paris.

For lunch we found a suitably French-looking café and feasted on camembert and bread — all the walking on this trip definitely made us very hungry! We then took a leisurely stroll to Notre Dame, which, don’t get me wrong, is impressive but was somehow smaller than I had imagined ( … perhaps our expectations have been spoiled by Disney?).

The evening concluded with a visit to Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre by metro. Unfortunately, we did not have time do go inside Sacré-Coeur itself but were assured by several course mates that the interior is amazing. A favourite place for artists such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, Montmartre offers beautiful views of Paris from the top of the hill (be prepared for leg ache) and its old squares have lots of shops and restaurants to choose from.

Overall, the first day was a very interesting, action-packed start to what promised to be a brilliant week ahead!

Wednesday 14 February (Rozeena Jabeen)


Wednesday was the day we were all anticipating and dreading. Yes, it was the day to visit the Louvre, which we all knew had lots of amazing art on offer but had also heard all the horror stories about crowds, queues and hostile “selfie sticks”. The daunting task of navigating our way through as many wings as possible within a few precious hours was beyond me, but it was a challenge worth taking. After an initial introduction, we were free to make our own way through the museum.

Of course, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was certainly not to be missed and most of us had it our list of must-sees. All the horror stories we’d heard about seeing this picture — of tourists climbing on top of each other, elbowing one another, or even shoving a camera in someone else’s face — didn’t seem to hold true on the day we visited: we were able to slip in through the sides and take a glance at the revered artwork before moving on to the rest of the collection.

I’ve been to the Louvre a couple of times before so I was determined to view part of the collection I haven’t seen before, the Early Netherlandish works. I was desperate to see Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, especially after studying it in Dr Jamie Edwards’s Renaissance Art in Italy and Netherlands c.1400-60. In fact, many of us who had taken that module in the Autumn were really keen to go and see many of the works that we’d discussed. Unfortunately, however, the Early Netherlandish galleries were closed. Nonetheless, we were able to see many other wonderful northern works of art, albeit from a little later, by the likes of Bruegel, Brueghel, Rubens, van Dyck … Rembrandt … the list goes on ….


A little respite was in order so some of went to explore the subterranean shopping centre inside the Louvre, where, to my pleasant surprise, I found out that the French have a penchant, shall we say, for cat-themed gifts – who knew! We then re-fuelled at lunch, met up with everyone else and split into two groups. One group visited the Jeu de Paume photography museum with Greg, while the rest of us went to the Musée de l’Orangerie with Fran to feast our eyes on a whole bunch of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.


More serene and peaceful than the Louvre, the Musée de l’Orangerie allowed us to view and to think about the works more carefully. One of the first things we saw was Monet’s amazing Nymphéas (Water Lilies), which adorn an oval-shaped gallery that was designed by the artist himself. Due to its immense size, I was able to get extremely close to the picture and examine every quick brush stroke, thick application of paint and its vibrant colours. Besides works by Monet, we studied many a famous work by artists including Matisse, Cézanne, and Renoir. Overall, the Musée de l’Orangerie was definitely a gem, and a lovely change of pace compared to the Louvre.

Due to our aching feet, some of us went back to the hostel and then went to the hostel’s cafeteria for onion soup. We chit chatted about the day’s adventures and new friendships were born. It was the perfect way to end an inspiring and thought-provoking day.

Thursday 15 February (Beth Moody)

Thursday was the perfect Parisian day for those of us with a passion for modern art. It started with a trip to Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, the national art gallery of France that opened in 1977. Much like its British equivalent, Tate Modern, the building’s architecture is imposing and industrial. The enormous gallery contains a huge variety of collections of modern art, by artists such as Pollock, Braque, Kandinsky and Matisse. The grand scale of the gallery and vast art collection meant there was not enough time to view everything (which most of us were craving to do) and so was a popular place to return to on a free afternoons.


After crêpes for lunch, we split into two groups, one of which went to the Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporian, whilst the others went to the Picasso museum. I visited the Foundation Cartier, which had a Malick Sidibé exhibition entitled ‘Mali Twist’. This was a contemporary photography exhibition that celebrated not only the power of the photographic image, but the happiness of the Bamako community and the love amongst those within the community. The black and white photographs, accented by the bright yellow walls of the exhibition space, together with the rock and roll vibes and overarching expression of joy omitting from the photographs, made this exhibition definitely worth visiting. Everyone left feeling content and in a good mood.

In the evening, a group of us that hadn’t been already went to see the magnificent Notre Dame, followed by a stroll to Quartier Pigalle for some authentic French food and vin (of course!) – a lovely relaxing end to a busy, modern-art-filled day.

Friday 16 February (Elizabeth Shih)


In the morning, following an introduction by Fran, the focus was on architecture, visiting works by Hector Guimard, Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. The walk was not long, but most of us were feeling pretty frazzled after a fun and inspiring, but nevertheless tiring, art-filled week à Paris! The sun gave us a smile, so a flurry of Instagram posts seemed essential: #LeCorbusier.


In the afternoon, I intrepidly ventured out of the City for Versailles, and whizzed into the Hall of Mirrors. The Palace was opulent, but the garden got most of my attention. There were swans swimming in the pond, submerging their head into the water. I walked down to the fountain, and saw the golden frogs and a woman with infants on the top, gathering like a choir opening their mouths prepared to sing. I sat on a bench alongside the river in the garden of Versailles, taking it all in and reflecting on the week. Absolute tranquility!

I could have wandered aimlessly and timelessly around Versaille, but a group dinner in Montmartre beckoned. We went to Le Bouillon Chartier, which is over a hundred years old. It was founded for Parisian residents, and is beloved by tourists. The restaurant didn’t disappoint but was a little busy, not to mention loud, so my voice seemed to become part of the din. Nevertheless, we ordered some good wine and food and immersed ourselves in the Parisian atmosphere.

Van Gogh was said to be inspired by the French writer Guy de Maupassant to paint his Café Terrace at Night, who described the starlit night in Paris in his novel Yvette. This painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay, hanging in the same room as van Gogh’s self-portrait. I had seen both in real life just a few days earlier, on Tuesday during our visit to the Orsay. It was not the best representation of night, nor was it the best representation of Paris; but seeing it has made a lasting impression on me, and is a fond memory from our time in Paris.

Saturday 17 February (Hannah Binns)

And so we came to our final day in Paris. We’d all certainly given the city our all and experienced a good chunk of what it has to offer, but I’m sure we’ll all be back there soon to see all the things we didn’t have time for this trip. There was time, though, for a final bit of art history in the morning ….

Half of us went to Musée Rodin with Fran and the other went to Musée de Gustave Moreau with Greg. I had been looking forward to this particular trip all week and it did not disappoint. All the works are displayed in Moreau’s house. The first floor contains much of the artist’s furniture and memorabilia, while the second and third floors, where he had his studio, are home to a huge number of his paintings and sculptures.

I spent a long time on the very top floor looking at the various depictions of Salomé as I find late nineteenth-century femme fatale figures really interesting, partly thanks to studying art in fin-de-siècle Vienna last term with Dr Sam Shaw. Two of Moreau’s paintings of Salomé become the obsession of Des Esseintes in J K Huysmans’ 1891 novel, À Rebours, which I briefly studied in one of my English modules this year (I am a joint honours student, Art History and English). Moreau’s paintings of Salomé, through their featuring in Huysmans’ novel, also had a profound effect of Oscar Wilde who I also studied as part of the same English module. When Wilde wrote his play Salomé in 1891, he sent Moreau an inscribed copy by way of acknowledging the effect that Moreau’s works had had on him.

After a fantastic morning, a few of us headed for a final coffee and sandwich before we had to return to Birmingham, a city that, for all its charm, does not have quite the same calibre of baguettes. We all gathered at the hostel quite early, a definite feeling of fatigue hanging over us by this point. When the time came, we all boarded a coach, tootled to Gare du Nord, checked in and eventually climbed aboard the Eurostar back to London. Boggle made a brief appearance, but even I, renowned Boggle enthusiast, was too tired for many rounds. Then, before we knew it, we had made it to London Euston and were Birmingham-bound.

Truly, it was truly an incredible week. I’m sure that I speak for the whole group when I say that I am so grateful to Fran, Greg and Sara Tarter for making it so interesting, enjoyable and memorable!



Life, Art and the Spaces in Between: Reflections on “The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velásquez” by Laura Cumming, “War and Turpentine” by Stefan Hertmans and “The Last Days of New Paris” by China Miéville


Last year, prior to my arrival in the Department of Art History, I read three books, which had a lasting impact on me. Reflecting further on these books, I realised that, among other things, they all have something intriguing to say about the relationship between art and life: about the uncertainty and indeterminacy between the real and the invented and the dreamed and the experienced.

In this piece, I have tried to articulate some of my reflections and to explain how these three books, each in their own way, seems to inform and enrich the continual dialectic between art and life. In doing this, my hope is that I might encourage those of you, who haven’t read the books, to seek them out; you will be well rewarded. And for those of you who might have read one or more of them, I hope that you find my take on them of interest.

Vanishing Man

In February last year I took a trip to Madrid and Seville with my wife. Our visit would provide a long-awaited opportunity to see the magnificent collection of Goya’s work in the Prado; not least the assembly of his ‘Black Paintings’. In Foyle’s bookshop, just before we left, Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velásquez caught my eye. I read it on the train, on our flight and finished it in our hotel, so that by the time of our visit to the Prado, I found that Velásquez was competing for my attention with Goya.

Laura Cumming’s book tells two interwoven stories. In the first story she relates her personal encounter with Velásquez, when she spent time in Madrid grieving for the early death of her father, the painter James Cumming. At first, she tells how she couldn’t bring herself to enter the Prado but when she does and – as she is searching for works by El Greco, one of her father’s favourite artists – she comes upon Las Meninas and like many before her she is overwhelmed by the experience.

The second story is about John Snare, a provincial Victorian bookseller from Reading, who dabbled in art dealing. In 1845, in his mid-twenties, he spots a painting up for auction at nearby Radley Hall. It is described as ‘A portrait of Prince Charles, later Charles I’ and in the catalogue it is suggested that it might be by Van Dyck. Snare was an autodictat, who had already acquired enough knowledge to question this attribution. He knew that the young king-to-be had visited the Spanish court in 1623 on a fruitless mission to arrange an advantageous marriage; might it have been possible that he had his portrait done at this time by the court painter Velásquez? Little was known about Velásquez’s works in England in the mid 1800’s. There were a handful of examples in private collections and, of these, several had misleading attributions. However, first-hand accounts of Velásquez’s works on display in the Prado were beginning to circulate and Snare was convinced that this painting was the genuine article.

John Snare spent the rest of his life trying to prove that this painting, which he acquired for the sum of only £8 (less than £1000 in today’s money), was a lost masterpiece by Velásquez. Laura Cumming first came across the story when she found a pamphlet by Snare that he published in 1847, prior to the painting being put on show in London. ‘The History and Pedigree of the Portrait of Prince Charles’ is a testament to Snare’s thorough research – at a time when little had been published on Velásquez and when what was available was often highly misleading – and it shows his tenacity in seeking out sources, when many doors would have been closed to him.

Art as an all-consuming obsession

Laura Cumming’s recounts the many vicissitudes of Snare’s travels with his beloved painting. The painting is a popular success wherever it is shown; many reputable observers are persuaded that it is indeed a Velásquez and Snare uncovers more evidence to support his case; although gaps and contradictions remain. On the way, he has many misfortunes and he makes a number of enemies; the painting is possessed twice and he pays substantial sums to redeem it; his ownership of the painting is contested leading to a tortuous trial in Edinburgh, which he eventually wins; by then, however, he has absconded taking his painting with him to America. Ultimately, the Velásquez is all he has; his business has been bankrupted and his marriage is over. Yet still he feels compelled to press his claims; it is not for money, as he receives several substantial offers for the work, rather, it is to prove his point.

Snare’s fortunes improve in America. His painting is generally lauded but sadly he misses its greatest triumph; he dies before it is shown to general acclaim at the Metropolitan Museum in 1889. After that, the painting returns home to his family. It is shown one more time in his hometown and then it unaccountably vanishes from history. Laura Cumming pursues every conceivable lead and goes down some fascinating paths but, in the end, the object of John Snare’s magnificent obsession remains elusive. Could the painting have been by Velásquez? And might it be hanging somewhere forgotten and unrecognised? Cumming interlaces the many questions about the lost painting with her own reflections on Velásquez’s life and practice.

Going back to Laura Cumming’s midwinter encounter with Las Meninas, last February, I followed in her footsteps. Arriving at the Prado as soon as it opened, I was able to spend 30 minutes almost undisturbed with this celebrated painting. Much has been written about Las Meninas and many artists have marvelled at it. In 1865, Éduard Manet stood entranced before it and later wrote to Charles Baudelaire that Velásquez was “the greatest painter that ever was”. Almost a century later, Picasso obsessively painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in one year and, late in his career, Francis Bacon spent long hours – after the galleries were closed to the public – trying to comprehend this “amazingly mysterious painter”.

Art as a mysterious illusion

Velásquez is a master of illusion. The figures in Las Meninas are life-size and as you approach the painting you are caught by the quizzical gazes of the little princess and her attendant dwarf in the foreground, of the chamberlain in the rear doorway, of the ghostly presences of the king and queen in the mirror (who might be standing beside you) and, above all, of the artist himself poised before his canvas. You find yourself as the latest participant in a drama that has been played out for over 350 years.

Yet as you draw closer, the illusion dissolves before your eyes. The paint surface becomes a pattern of “dots, dashes, flicks and spatters of paint”, which only a moment ago represented the shimmering dress of the princess, the soft fur of her dog, the indistinct image in the mirror and the glint in the artist’s eye. Because Velásquez’s technique is so baffling, there is a danger (as Cumming notes) that we assume “the illusion is all there is”.

Art as a balm for troubled minds

Yet Velásquez’s illusionism is only the means by which he explores both the outward appearance and the inner lives of his subjects; whether they are effete kings, arrogant aristocrats, looked-down-upon servants or ridiculed court entertainers. This was brought home to me most forcefully when I passed into the ‘Dwarves and Buffoons’ room. The name of the room may jar in a modern context but (as Cumming eloquently suggests) Velásquez’s intimate portraits of the two dwarfs, Francisco Lezcano and Sebastián Morra, and the full-length portrait of the court performer, Pablo de Valladolid, are works of compelling empathy and psychological insight. Their images have stayed with me since my visit and I can fully understand how they acted as a kind of balm for Cumming’s pressing grief.


Last June, I attended some lectures in Oxford on American art by David Lubin. I had met him earlier in the year, following a research seminar he gave at the Department. Before his final lecture, we had coffee together and, when I told him of my possible research interest in late 19th century Belgian art, he enquired if I had read War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. I had not heard of the book and purchased it on my return. On the back cover, War and Turpentine is described by the New York Times as a “masterly book about memory, art, war and love”; it is a sweeping family history written by the Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans about his grandfather, Urbain, and the tumultuous times he lived through from his birth in 1891 until his death in 1981.

In writing the memoir, Hertmans drew heavily on two notebooks, which his grandfather gave him before he died at the age of 90. In the notebooks, his grandfather recollects his early life in Ghent, his experiences as soldier in the Belgian Army in the Great War and his return home. Hertmans reconstructs his grandfather’s life from a rich amalgam of extracts from the notebooks (skilfully edited), personal memories and his imagining of his grandfather’s inner life.

Art as an article of faith

The book opens with Hertman’s catching a glimpse of his grandfather in old age “silently weeping” over a reproduction of what we later discover is Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus. He goes back in time to describe his grandfather’s impoverished upbringing in Ghent at the turn of the 20th century. Urbain’s father, Franciscus, is a jobbing artist, spending his time restoring murals and paintings for Catholic churches and monasteries around Ghent, working long hours for “starvation wages”. Franciscus is a man of absolute faith; it suffuses his whole being and the life of his family. The young Urbain is fascinated by his father’s calling and spends his spare time acting as his assistant. Then out-of-the-blue, Franciscus is commissioned to create some original murals for a church in Liverpool, this is a great opportunity and he leaves the family for several months. On his return, the family have little time to celebrate his achievement. He is ill and dies from pneumonia.

Hertman’s quotes selectively from his grandfather’s notebooks in his rich account of his upbringing in Ghent and of the hardships he and his family endure, particularly after Franciscus’s early death. Then, in the second section of the book, his grandfather’s experiences in the Great War are related more or less verbatim from his notebooks. Writing thirty years after the event, Urbain gives a visceral and gut-wrenching account of the horrors of the German invasion of neutral Belgium. In the first few months of the war, over 5,000 civilians are executed in reprisal for Belgian resistance to the invasion and the Belgian army, in which he is a corporal, suffers catastrophic losses.

Art as a refuge from unspeakable horror

Miraculously, Urbain survives the first chaotic battle of Schiplaken and he lives to fight through the war on the front at Yser. He suffers serious injuries and on three occasions he is sent to convalesce in England. The first time he ends up in Liverpool and, as he recovers, he remembers the murals created by his father, Franciscus. He scours the city for the church or monastery where they might be found, without luck. Then, one day wandering along the docks, he stumbles into a cloister and there before him is a mural of St.Francis. He recognises his father’s hand immediately. He is enthralled by the experience, all-the-more-so when he notices St Francis’ face. It is a likeness of his dead father and then he looks at one of the shepherds standing by the saint and he sees…his own face, as a child.

This is a revelatory episode and it is not entirely clear whether this is a real experience or an intense dream or both? He searches for the cloister again but he never finds it.

Urbain is much decorated for his heroism but he ends the war a disillusioned man, not only because of the horrors he has witnessed but also because, as a Flemish speaker, he is never promoted above the rank of sergeant-major.

Art as an escape from a humdrum and loveless life

On his return to Ghent, Urbain finds work with the railways and he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter, Maria Elena. The final words in his notebooks attempt to describe his passionate love for her. But tragedy strikes again, his young wife-to-be is struck down by the Spanish flu that sweeps Europe after the war. He is inconsolable but, after a time, he agrees to marry her older sister, Gabrielle, and they settle down to a humdrum and loveless life together. At this time, he turns to painting and “this becomes his only escape”.

He is a relatively talented amateur painter, who has no truck with modernism. He turns out competent still-lives and workmanlike copies of the works of the Dutch painters he loves, including Van Dyck and Rembrandt. When he is 45, the traumas of the past catch up with him and he has the first of several breakdowns. He is pensioned off and spends the rest of his days painting; this is how Stefan remembers him. Then, in his seventies, he decides to tell the story of his life; for thirteen years he labours over this until he reaches his early meetings with Maria Elena and he can’t continue. Five years later, he dies leaving the notebooks to his grandson.

Art as an expression of overwhelming loss

In the final part of the book, Stefan Hartmans tries to untangle his grandfather’s life and the reasons for the sadness that seems to have engulfed him. He recalls that in summer, the family would go on almost weekly pilgrimages to Bruges and, after his grandfather’s death, he finds a well-thumbed copy of Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, the notorious Symbolist novel, which dissects the grief felt by a man who has lost his young wife and the false hope he experiences when he meets a woman who has an uncanny likeness to her. Folded into the pages of the book are some mementoes, a half-finished sketch and a reproduction of the Rokeby Venus. Does this provide some clues to his grandfather’s silent tears?

(The grandfather’s attachment to Bruges-la-Morte was of particular interest to me as this novel triggered off some of my own research interests)

In a second revelatory passage, he finds a collection of old photos of Maria Elena and he goes back to his grandfather’s careful copy of the Rokeby Venus, which had been found in the attic. It provides him with an almost unbearable testament to his grandfather’s love for Maria Elena and the sense of loss he carried with him until his death.

new paris

The Guardian’s review of China Miéville’s genre-bending The Last Days of the New Paris described it as a “dazzling scholarly fantasy”. Being unfamiliar with Miéville’s works – this was enough to attract my interest. The novella opens in Paris in 1950; but it is a Paris still under Nazi occupation in which strange forces battle for control of the city. A young freedom fighter, Thibaut, leads one of the factions, Le Main á Plume or The Feathered Hand, which is based on an historical grouping that sought to keep Surrealism alive in Paris during the occupation and which was linked to the French resistance.

However, this is Paris after the mysterious ‘S-blast’, which shortly after the occupation, unleashed all the powers of Surrealism on the Nazis. Nine years later, Paris, which is isolated from the rest of France, is engulfed in an unending conflict that pits a cast of Surrealist manifestations or ‘manifs’ against unspeakable subterranean devils or monsters conjured up by the Nazis.

Art becomes life, life becomes art: the Surrealists’ invocation

The range and extent of Surrealist and other references in the novella is extensive and it reminded me of the many different artists who were drawn into Surrealism and of the substantial and only recently fully recognised contribution to the movement by women artists. These references are explained in notes that accompany the account and these notes maintain the conceit that The Last Days of New Paris had been related to Miéville by Thibaut in his old age. When I first tried to read the book, I found it difficult to visualise the references, most of which refer to specific artworks. But I was fortunate to come across an online guide, called Graphic Annotations of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris by Nicky Martin, which reproduces nearly all of the artworks that inspired the ‘manifs’. With this in hand, I was able to relish the diversity and richness of Miéville’s sublime metafiction; a work in which art comes to life and in which boundaries of all kinds are constantly crossed and re-crossed.

A few of his imaginings. The first ‘manif’ to appear is of a curious machine smashing though the Nazi barricades; it appears to be a sort of tandem. “Only one woman rode…the other was a torso, jutted from the bicycle itself…” It is Leonora Carrington’s 1941 drawing I am the Amateur of the Velocipede brought to life. The Velo crashes on the “Surrealist side of the street” throwing its human rider onto the ground before careering off again. The woman is dying, she seems to be a foreign agent, she mutters “Fall Rot” or “Code Red” before she dies.

Thibaut senses that the Nazi forces are about to launch some kind of new offensive to break the stalemate, which has kept Paris in a state of limbo. He sets off on a journey across the blighted ruins of the city. On the way, he encounters a succession of ‘manifs’, which although they are ‘on his side’ seem to have a life of their own. And he passes a number of landmarks transformed by ‘irrational embellishments’ (as suggested in a 1933 article by seven Surrealists which proposed modifications to a number of Paris sites). For example, he finds the church of Sacré Coeur is now “a tram depot, painted black” as imagined by André Breton.

En route, he is joined by two companions, Sam, a journalist apparently from the outside world, and by an ‘exquisite corpse’, which is reproduced at the front of the book. It is perhaps the most famous image of its kind and was ‘assembled’ by André Breton (head), Jacqueline Lamba (torso) and Yves Tanguy (legs) in 1938; one of many products of the Surrealist’s version of the parlour game, Consequences.

Fleeing poetry for reality or fleeing reality for poetry?

The novella moves back and forward in time. We learn that when the teenaged Thibaut joined the Main á Plume he recited their mantra “We refuse to flee poetry for reality. But we refuse to flee reality for poetry” as part of his entry test. The action switches to Marseille in 1941, where a group of (real) Surrealists, awaiting safe passage out of France, play invented games. One of these is based on a Surrealist card pack usefully detailed in the notes and illustrated in Martin’s guide. The game is joined by a crazed occult rocket scientist, Jack Parsons; his arrival has very unexpected consequences that lead to the later developments in Paris.

The division between real and invented characters and between fictional and imaginary events becomes increasingly difficult to divine as Miéville’s phantasmagorical imagination runs riot. Amidst all of this strangeness, the novella reaches a climax with further perverse surprises; Thibaut confronts what might be seen as the ultimate Nazi ‘manif’ and he has a final encounter with ‘the banality of evil’. Thibaut survives, he “takes a deep breath and steps across the boundary into New Paris, the old city” and life and art return to normal. Or do they?

Five months in Paris

As our second years head off to Paris for their Study Trip, one of our lecturers, Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange, tells us about her recent fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study, based in the beautiful Hotel de Lauzun on the banks of the Seine…

From September until the end of January this academic year I was lucky enough to be a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Paris so I could pursue my research project on early modern women’s writings and libraries.


Outside the Hôtel de Lauzun, home of the Institute for Advanced Study, with fancy 19th- century drainpipe…

The Institute offers residents an office in the beautiful Hotel de Lauzun, overlooking the banks of the Seine, and the opportunity to conduct their research in an interdisciplinary environment: amongst the other fellows were neuroscientists, musicologists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists from America, Europe and the Middle East. Being in Paris for five months meant I was able to access on a regular basis the archives and libraries that hold the majority of the primary sources for my project, as well as meet researchers and academics working in similar areas. In addition, I had the opportunity to see some amazing art, not least two very different exhibitions – one on Northern Renaissance artists at the French court and the other an installation by Sophie Calle, of which more in a later post.

The gilded balcony of the Hôtel de Lauzun hints at the lavish interior

The hôtel particulier where the Institute for Advanced Study is based sits on the Quai d’Anjou, on the Ile Saint-Louis, a short walk from Notre-Dame cathedral.  It was designed by Charles Chamois and built between 1656 and 1660 for the financier Charles Gruyn (d. 1680), a member of the rising middle classes whose wealth allowed them to invest in property and engage in activities usually reserved for the nobility. The interlaced initials G and M can be found throughout the decorated rooms and might refer to Gruyn and his wife, Geneviève de Möy although it has also been suggested that the letters refer entirely to Geneviève herself, and that she may also have had a hand in the choice of the decoration of some of the rooms. Another symbol found through the hôtel is a wild boar: “Gruyn” being the noise that a pig makes in French,  Charles chose a wild boar (slightly more “heraldic”-seeming than a pig!) as his symbol.

Top of the staircase, reworked in the 19th century

Unlike many other residences of this kind, the building still contains much of its original decoration. The façade, however, is quite plain, and was probably intended to draw attention away from the more elaborate interior. Only the gilded balcony perhaps gave a hint to passers-by of what lay inside. The positioning of the main living rooms on the first floor of the building allow for an impressive view of the river, as well as protection from any flooding (though during my last few weeks in Paris the Seine was incredibly high and many galleries and libraries were on standby for evacuation).

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The view from my office…with the Seine at over 6 metres high.

Standing in the ante-chambre on the first floor, one has a view through all the doorways which are designed to appear as if they fit one into the other, like Russian dolls.

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View through the doorways on the first floor

The rooms are decorated with gilded panelling and painted ceilings displaying themes from classical antiquity. Some of these, such as the Triumph of Ceres and Diane and Endymion, were painted by Michel Dorigny (1616-65), a pupil of Simon Vouet. The Hôtel acquired its modern name from a later owner, the Duke of Lauzun and it remained in the hands of various aristocrats until the French Revolution. During the 1840s, parts of the hôtel were rented out as apartments to Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier. Not only did Baudelaire write part of his famous Fleurs du mal while living here, but he and Gautier used the hôtel as a meeting place for the Club des Haschischins (the hashish-eaters), a society which was interested in experimenting with drugs like cannabis and opium. Other famous names, like the Three Muskateers’ author, Alexander Dumas, and the painter Eugène Delacroix, were also members of the club.

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Ceiling of the ‘Music Room’, with Paris and Venus (right) and Venus and Adonis (left). In the centre, above the grisaille cartouche, are the initials GM

Since the early twentieth century, the building has been a heritage site and is now owned by the city of Paris. The Institute for Advanced Study has been housed there since 2013.

Bayeux Tapestry to return to the UK … 900 (or so) years after it left!



Much speculation this morning about an announcement, due to made tomorrow by Emmanuel Macron, who, it is thought, has agreed to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to the UK. Usually exhibited at the appropriately named Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Normandy, it will be the first time that the tapestry — which isn’t technically a tapestry at all, since it is embroidered (and, interestingly, usually thought that most of the embroidering was undertaken by women) — has been in the UK since it was produced here (? Kent) in the 1070s (? finished by 1077). The agreement is being hailed/”spun” as evidence of the strength of Anglo-French relations following Brexit … hmm. More here.

Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch



“Orchestra” from the Hell wing of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1490; Prado, Madrid

Markus Stenz conducts.

Markus Stenz conducts:

2016 was a big year for Bosch. Put on to mark the 500th anniversary of his death, major retrospectives of his work were staged at the Prado and the Noordbrabants Museum in the artist’s hometown of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, while 2016 also saw the publication ( … finally) of the findings of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, in two sumptuously-illustrated tomes.

One thing I missed among all of this, though, was the appearance of a major new choral work inspired by the painter and his work, composed by Detlev Glanert of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and performed in November 2016 in Sint-Janskathedraal, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It’s a gripping listen, which merges the structure of the requiem mass with thirteenth-century poems and songs, alongside the accusatory roaring of David-Wilson Johnson, whose initial summoning of Bosch — who must subsequently stand and defend himself against charges of sin — is just ever-so-slightly terrifying. As Andrew Clements put it, the Requiem is ‘an outstanding choral achievement, a work of great power and intensely vivid invention, which uncannily finds musical parallels to Bosch’s surreal imagination, and to the extremes of his visions of heaven and hell, grandeur and intimacy.’ Well worth a listen and widely available to buy, but also on Spotify. 

Alternatively, want to know what the ‘butt music’ being played in the Hell wing of Bosch’s Earthly Delights sounds like — the music being conducted by a hideous pink monster with an enormously wide beak, and whose sheet music has been tattooed to some poor guy’s arse (pic. at top of post)? Go here.

Review: Wanting to Say: Finding a Place in the Past (New Art Gallery Walsall)

ROZEENA JABEEN (second year joint honours student in History of Art and English)


The Wanting to Say: Finding a Place in the Past exhibition, now on at The New Art Gallery Walsall (13 October – 22 December 2017), opened as part of Black History Month, alongside the launch of Midlands Art Papers on 12 October. The exhibition examines works from the region’s public art collection and presents them in reference to themes including storytelling, history, memory and identity. Curators Dr Greg Salter and Dr Kate Nichols, from the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham (where I’m currently studying Art History as an Undergraduate), put together an exhibition that I found very interesting and thought-provoking, not least of all because it sums up what we might call an evolving West Midland’s identity: it’s a wonderfully multicultural place, whose identity might still be taking shape but which is partly already defined by diversity. In fact, the exhibition provides a great opportunity to view a series of works side-by-side that explore the ways in which artists – who may well have been marginalised by the official art establishment – have nevertheless found a place for themselves in the past, partly through their art, and features works by black, LGBTQ, Jewish and Irish artists.


Eugene Palmer, Wanting to Say I, 1992; The New Art Gallery Walsall.
(Image from:



The title of the show Wanting to Say was taken from Eugene Palmer’s Wanting to Say I (1992), a work that is exhibited in the exhibition, which shows a black woman looking out at the viewer from what appears to be ship’s porthole. As such, this work immediately brings to mind histories of slavery and of (forced) migration; but, significantly, it also evokes black selfhood in the contexts of movement, which is conveyed most successfully by the steady gaze of the painting’s female subject. Indeed, I found this work particularly fascinating as Palmer encourages an awareness on the part of the viewer of the dynamics of looking itself, of looking and being looked at, and their implications, and forges a moment of self-recognition that is intended to be unsettling: in the history of western art, it is exceptionally meaningful to find a female figure that returns the gaze of a viewer, and this is perhaps especially true of a black female figure. For in the western tradition – and, certainly, this is the case in pre-modern art – women in art are conventionally represented as objects to be looked at: as passive objects that are subject to the heterosexual male gaze. However, in this exhibition, Palmer’s work, which is positioned alongside other works relating to the theme of ‘on the move,’ asks the viewer, or even compels the viewer, to enter into a dialogue about the histories of migration, about identity, movement, ownership and empire, women’s agency, and so on.


Sophie Anderson, Scheherazade; The New Art Gallery Walsall.
(Image from:


Another work in the show, Sophie Anderson’s Scheherazade, especially fascinated me as it depicts the narrator of The Arabian Nights: a collection of tales I read as a child and which deeply resonate with me because of my Islamic and South Asian background. Perhaps in spite of the Victorian inclination towards “Orientalism” here, Scheherazade displays a woman whose ability to tell stories ensures her survival; a woman that again presents a sense of self and of agency, articulated once more through her direct gaze. Contextually, Anderson was a pioneer for women artists, as it was still very difficult for women to train and practice successfully as artists; Anderson, however, was one of the first women artist to have a painting purchased for a public collection in 1871. In the history of Western art, women, not only as subjects in art but as actual artists, have traditionally been marginalised if not actually debarred from the art world, yet Anderson challenges this notion by asserting, to a degree, female agency and autonomy that may well have been intended to inspire women viewers who, by and large, were confined to the gendered space of the home and the role of housewife.

This show, then, draws on a range of artistic traditions, stories, and fragments from the past and is a reminder of how migration shaped British art and how the western tradition in art has operated a system of exclusion rather than inclusion, which, when it is brought out into the open and subjected to scrutiny, can hopefully pave the way for greater inclusivity in the future. The Wanting to Say: Finding a Place in the Past exhibition at The New Art Gallery Walsall is an enlightening and thought-provoking show: it is fascinating for me to see how diverse artists working across time found a place for themselves in the past through their art. The exhibition also reveals some insight into what research and projects the lecturers of the Art History, Curating and Visual Studies Department here at The University of Birmingham get up to – which is encouraging to upcoming graduates such as myself!

Photographer Freddy Fabris recreated Old Master paintings with a cast of car mechanics — and it’s so good!

Jamie Edwards

Stumbled across this online and think it’s great. Photographer Freddy Fabris decided to recreate a series of Old Master paintings as photographs, and in the place of Christ, disciples eating bread, seventeenth-century anatomists, etc., he used car mechanics from a garage in America’s Midwest. As Fabris explained to Huffpost:

For many years I wanted to pay homage the great Renaissance masters. Translating painting into photography was a challenge I looked forward to. I wanted to respect the look and feel of the originals, but needed to come up with a conceptual twist that would create a new layer to the original. To take them out of their original context, yet maintain their essence.

I’ve selected a few of my favourites below, and reproduced them alongside the original work that inspired Fabris; you can view the whole series here.

Fabris Anatomy 2

Fabris, Anatomy Lesson (from The Renaissance Series)


Rembrandt Tulp

Rembrandt van Rijn, Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp,1632; The Hague


Fabris Creation

Fabris, Creation of Adam (from The Renaissance Series)

Michelangelo Creation

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Creation of Adam (from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling)


Fabris Rembrandt

Fabris, Rembrandt-esque Portrait (from The Renaissance Series)

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Rembrandt, Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Second Year Mimi Buchanan on her Work at Auctioneers, Biddle and Webb

Mimi has is a recipient of an award from the Matt Carey-WIlliams and Danny Roark fund, a generous donation by one of our alumni that allows our undergraduate students to apply for bursaries to cover costs of travel, accommodation etc., to enable them to undertake internships, work experience and placements. More information on University bursaries can be found here.

During the third week of my first year, an email was sent out to History of Art students regarding an opportunity to work as a saleroom assistant at Biddle & Webb Auctioneers. Having experienced freshers’ week and the full cost of enjoying university life, I was keen to take on some part-time work. This opportunity seemed perfect, not only providing some extra pocket money but a chance to be trained in a field of work relevant to my degree. In fact, it seemed too good to be true, but I emailed in a CV and covering letter, not really expecting to hear anything back. To my surprise, a week later, I received a reply saying that I had been shortlisted for an interview. The interview process was informal, the applicants were asked questions as a group and shown the basics of what we would be doing day to day. We were then asked to write a report on how we would develop their marketing through social media. A few days later I received another email saying that I’d got the job! To anyone at university who is considering applying for their first job, even if the application process is long and stressful, it is definitely worth the effort! And even if you aren’t successful (as has been the case for me on several other occasions), it is good practice for other opportunities you will go on to apply for.


One of the best things about working at Biddle & Webb is seeing the amazing pieces of history we sell – this ‘Votes for Women’ sash belonged to a suffragette from Birmingham and was sold in our May sale!

Biddle & Webb is a Birmingham based auctioneers which sells antiques, paintings and jewellery, as well as wine, property and commercial items. It is a family run organisation which was established over 60 years ago. One of the first things you notices as you enter the building is the relaxed atmosphere of this professional environment. Everyone is polite and happy to answer any queries you may have. As a new employee, this settled my nerves and made me feel comfortable working there very quickly. Another student on my course was employed alongside me and being trained together made the experience a lot more relaxing and fun! After settling in I was kitted out with uniform, including various fleeces (as the sale room gets very cold during winter!) making me feel an official part of the team. I was also given steel toe capped boots which, although practical, are extremely heavy and therefore a struggle when walking to Selly Oak station, half asleep at 8am on a Saturday morning!

My principle role is working as a trainee antiques cataloguer. I am learning how to analyse an antique object visually, identifying details such as its maker, its material, the period in which it was made, etc. I then write up a description and upload details of the object to an online catalogue. As well as antiques, I have catalogued paintings and wine. When I started, I was thrown into the deep end, contributing to antiques cataloguing from my first day. Although at first a daunting task which required a lot of guidance, I soon got to grips with the basics and can now confidently catalogue a lot of items without assistance. My passion for studying art objects has developed further through this training and has encouraged my interest in undertaking post graduate study.


Cataloguing a collection of LPs and festival memorabilia for the June Sale

I also have to opportunity to observe valuations carried out by more experienced colleagues and complete administrative work for them. This is helping me to gain a better idea of how to value various types of antique objects and to understand changing trends of popularity in the antiques world. On auction days, which occur on the second Saturday of every month, I operate the online auction system, either on or on Biddle & Webb’s real time bidding server. Through this role I have developed the ability to work well in a fast-paced work environment. Also, often I am given a large amount of lots to catalogue in a short time space, which has certainly made me more diligent and I enjoy being busy.

The work I’ve been doing is also relevant to working in a gallery as I have learnt how to lay out the sale rooms in a way that is accessible for customers and I’ve become interested in how the way that objects are arranged in a room can enhance the viewer’s experience.

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Cataloguing a painting by George Holt, an artist from Wolverhampton who paints and makes collages of abstract compositions

In the future, I would like to become a specialist in antiques or painting so I could combine my passion for history of art, the knowledge I have gathered through my academic study, and the skills I have learnt at Biddle & Webb. I would particularly like to work in a high end, international, auction house, where the work environment is fast-paced and exciting, such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

I feel very lucky to be doing part-time work which is relevant to my degree as it has helped me to gather and nurture my interests, through the wide-ranging roles I undertake. I feel it has opend up a number of career paths in the art world. To anyone daunted by taking on work, whether it be to earn some money to support university life, or to gain relevant experience, I would say don’t hesitate, it will be worth your time. You’ll develop invaluable skills that you will use throughout your professional life, and hopefully enjoy it too!

Settler States: Cultural Studies of the Colonies – a conference at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 23-24 May 2017

Professor Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll is organising a conference on art history in settler states. It will also feature papers by our very own Dr Kate Nichols and Dr Greg Salter – read on to find out more!

The legacy of cultural studies has included a potential expansion of art histories beyond a geographic complacency, singular notion of heritage and time. In the birthplace of cultural studies, global art history in Birmingham studies the perspectives of artists outside the Euro-American academy. This conference focusses on what can be learned and written about art history in settler-colonial states. Taking the expansion of objects, methods, and the canon into account, how can we rewrite the art history of settler states? In realising that the current frameworks for working with Indigenous art are ill-equipped to handle the challenges and reality of our globalized world, Art History in Settler States will focus on developing new tools to respond to the various dynamics of settler-colonial societies that were a part of the British Empire.

Burning of the Boyd, Whangaroa Harbour, 1809 by Walter Wright

Burning of the Boyd, Whangaroa Harbour, 1809 by Walter Wright

Keynote speakers from five countries – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The United States and South Africa – will guide this analysis. The colonisation of these nations, defined at the time as virgin or empty land, sought to replace the Indigenous population in order to inhabit the land themselves. The Anglo model of setter-colonialism also colonised any prior settlers and thereby enforced a subsequent pattern of forced and voluntary migration. For these nations the settler is not a homogenous or fixed figure, but one upon whom the history of settlement has been inscribed. We will explore comparisons to exploitation colonies like India, and to the problems of other settlements around the world.

By replacing the narrative of nationhood with an emphasis on the processes and impacts of the settler-invader, settler-colonial art history responds to the indigenous challenge to recognise that colonising practices continue to structure daily life in countries that have generally preferred to think of themselves as post-colonial. Thereby, settler-colonial art history is not only about the settlers, it is also art history authored by settlers who are cognisant of their historical position and who actively seek new ways to respond to both ethical and epistemological dilemmas created by settler-colonialism.

For more information on the speakers and the project see:

The conference will take place in the Barber Lecture Theatre, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TS, United Kingdom from the 23-24 May 2017.
The conference is free to attend and open to the public.

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll joins us as Professor of Global Art

This year, the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies welcomed Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll who joins us as Professor of Global Art.  An expert in global contemporary art and colonialism as well as the history of museums and collecting, she completed a Ph.D. in 2009 on Aboriginal Art at Harvard University, with the thesis entitled: Imaging Nation: The Resilience of Indigenous Australian Art and its Colonial Representation. Following her studies at Harvard, Khadija lectured at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, University College London and the University of Cambridge.

Photograph of Professor Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

This year Khadija has lectured on the MA module Criticism and Methods and Theorising Exhibitions. Next academic year she will be teaching a new final year undergraduate special subject entitled Global Contemporary Art as well as contributing to the design of a new Art and Law module. Also engaged in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Khadija is organising a conference on Art History in Settler States: Cultural Studies of the Colonies with Settler Colonial on 23-24 May 2017, which we’ll be posting about shortly.

Khadija is the author of Art in the Time of Colony (2014), a book that investigates encounters between colonial visual cultures, unveiling new perspectives through complex biographies of five key objects. Among numerous published articles her most recent work includes articles ‘The Art of Dissident Domesticity’, a collaboration with Jesse Shipley and Michal Murawski in Social Text and ‘Botanical Conflicts: Marianne North’ in Third Text. She is also co-editor of the journal Third Text as well as a regular contributor to Art Monthly Australasia. She is also currently working on a book entitled Fragile Crown: Empire, Collection, Restoration.

As an artist, Khadija has exhibited at the Venice Biennale, Savvy Contemporary Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin, Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Marrakech Biennale. Her work ranges from writing to performance and video installations, and often focusses on alternate histories. She has also curated/co-created various international exhibitions such as The Lost World (Part 2), Kranich Museum, Vienna Zocolo, and Homebase IV Berlin. Currently, she is the artist in residence at Border Criminologies within the Law Faculty at Oxford University, where she works on an immigration detention archive, and a play which premiered in Switzerland at the Konzerttheatre Bern on March 16, 2017.

Together with that of Dr Gregory Salter, Professor Carroll’s appointment significantly expands our teaching and research expertise in modern and contemporary art.

Read more about Khadija on her birmingham profile here.

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