61 Questions with first year History of Art student Jess Bishop

Join first year History of Art student Jess Bishop in the Barber Institute Galleries, responding to 61 rapid-fire questions about studying art history at the University of Birmingham (à la Vogue’s 73 Questions) …. Click on link in the caption below.

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CLICK HERE (link to Youtube)





Last week at Sotheby’s in New York, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s full-length Portrait of Muhammed Dervish Khan was sold for $7.2 million, which is a record price for a woman artist working before the modern era which is taken to start in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

For the Golovine, which takes its name from Vigée Le Brun’s enchanting Portrait of Countess Golovine  (one of the most popular artworks in the collection of the Barber Institute), this is a moment for modest celebration. Whatever one thinks about the grossly inflated prices of the current art market, this valuation of Vigée Le Brun’s painting marks another important step in the reassessment of the historical contribution made by women artists.  The Barber Institute acquired Portrait of the Countess Golovine in 1980. It was a far-sighted purchase; Vigée Le Brun had her first major retrospective two years later in 1982 and her reputation has been growing steadily since then.

An article by Sarah Bochiccio, published to coincide with the sale, reconsiders the work of Vigée Le Brun. The article ends with an assertion by Professor Anne Higonnet that “she was, in a way, the most radical painter of the period”. A bold claim but one she supports with an intriguing argument; you can read it here


Research afternoon: Speculations, Traps and Interpretations

It is the pleasure of the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies to advertise the below research event, co-organised by Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange and Dr Jamie Edwards. All welcome!!

Speculations, Traps and Interpretations: Networks in 15th and 16th Century Art and Music

Wednesday 23rd January


Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

Please confirm attendance for catering purposes (T.B.Roleston@bham.ac.uk)

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Pieter Bruegel, Carrying of the Cross, 1564; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna


2.30 Welcome

2.35 Reindert Falkenburg, ‘Speculations on the ‘Book of Nature’ in Pieter Bruegel’s Road to Calvary

3.00 Michel Weemans, ‘Muscipula diaboli: Bruegel’s Triumph of Death (c. 1562) as Trap Image’

3.25-3.50 Discussion

3.50-4.10 Break

4.10 Andrew Kirkman, ‘Visual-Aural Force fields in the Late Middle Ages’

4.25 Jamie Edwards, ‘An Exegetic Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Census at Bethlehem (1566)’

4.40 Discussion / Round table

5.00 Finish

In the footsteps of Walter Benjamin

Jon Stevens (MRes student, History of Art)

In mid-December, I visited Paris. On my first evening, I wandered through the lanes and alleyways of the Marais. Returning to my room, I looked up and saw a street sign illuminated by a single lamp. It read: Passage Walter Benjamin (1892-1940); German art historian and philosopher.


I knew that Benjamin had written extensively about Paris and that he had lived there towards the end of his turbulent and tragic life. But I was surprised and moved to find him remembered in this way. The passage was very short, perhaps 20 metres, running between the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue de Roi de Sicile. Back in my room, on a website called Les Rues de Paris, I found that Passage Walter Benjamin had only been there since March 2017, when it was renamed by the City of Paris. I also discovered that there was plaque to Benjamin, placed ten years earlier, at 10 Rue Dombasle in the 15th Arondissment, where Benjamin spent what were to be his final years.

All of this set me pondering. I was in Paris to attend an exhibition of the works of Fernand Khnopff and I had allowed a full day for this, including a literary study tour. On my final day, I had been planning to revisit the Musée D’Orsay. Now, I wondered if I might visit Rue Dombasle instead and see where that led me?

On the morning concerned, I looked up Rue Dombasle on Google Maps. It was close to the Convention metro station, so it would be easy to reach. But another destination a few streets away appeared on my screen: this was the intriguingly named Musée de Service des Objets Trouvés. A short Wikipedia piece about it revealed:

(this is) a small museum of articles maintained by the Lost and Found Department of the Paris Police…it contains a number of unusual items that have not (yet) been claimed by their owners…including a lobster found at Paris-Orly Airport…a funerary urn lost in the subway station near Père Lachaise Cemetery…(several) skulls…and a wooden leg.

Surely I had to seek out this strange museum and its bizarre contents. The idea of the lobster, in particular, appealed to me… Could by any chance the lobster still be in residence…Even more absurdly, could it be the very lobster that the mystic poet Gérard de Nerval, who inspired Baudelaire, used to take for a walk on blue ribbon around the gardens of the Palais-Royal in the mid-nineteenth century?

The Rue Dombasle proved to be an unassuming residential street and I soon found the apartment block at number 10. It was six stories high, in a vaguely Art Deco style. The plaque read: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), German philosopher and writer, translator of Proust and Baudelaire, lived in this building from 1938 to 1940.


Benjamin came to Rue Dombasle in early 1938. He had left Berlin in 1933, no longer able to live there safely following the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists. He led a peripatetic existence for several years but he now decided to settle in Paris, even though many of his friends were urging him to escape to America. He resumed work on his magnum opus, the Passengenarbeit, which he had been wrestling with for over a decade. (I knew it as The Arcades Project but the reference to ‘passages’ in the German title seemed particularly apt). I stood outside the entrance and I imagined Benjamin setting out each day to work at the Bibliothequé Nationale or to visit friends and colleagues or to attend exhibitions. Then I thought of his belated flight from Paris in June 1940, as millions of refugees fled south before the Nazi invasion of France. Eventually he reached Marseille and, in late September, he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain but, on being told the border was now closed, he was stranded. A day or so later, in despair, he committed suicide*.

On that sombre thought, I left the Rue Dombasle and walked to the nearby Rue des Morillons, where the Musée de Service des Objets Trouvés was officially located. However, when I arrived at the given address there was no museum to be seen. Perhaps the museum of lost objects had itself been lost? I imagined that Benjamin would have enjoyed the irony of this! Then I saw a small notice posted on a door opposite; this informed me that the entrance to the Bureau des Objets Trouvés was in an adjoining street. Round the corner, I joined a group of people seeking to collect their lost or stolen belongings. Having filed past security, I climbed to the first floor of a shabby building: over some double doors was a time-worn sign:


I entered a large waiting room. At the far end was a queue of people in front of a desk, behind which was a kind of conveyor belt that contained hundreds of sets of keys. I joined the queue, which moved quickly. When I got to the front, I asked the young woman behind the desk if I could visit the ‘museum of lost objects’, which I understood was open to the public by appointment. She looked a bit flustered but she appeared to know what I was talking about. She picked up a phone and rang another member of staff. She talked for some time but, when she returned to me, she said, “Hélas monsieur…the museum is no longer open to the public”.
Later in the day, I returned to the centre of Paris and I decided to have a final look at Passage Walter Benjamin and to follow it into the old Jewish Ghetto in the heart of the Marais. Benjamin’s ‘passage’ leads directly onto Rues des Ecouffes (of which it was originally an extension). At the end, it strikes the main thoroughfare through the Ghetto, Rue des Rosiers. Edmund White, in his enchanting book, The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (which I had to hand) writes that in this neighbourhood can be still be found:

shops selling the Torah and Hannukah candelabra, kosher delicatessens, the remains of an old ritual bathhouse and two synagogues… (it is) a gathering place for eastern European Jews with their poppy seed cakes and strudels as well as North African Jews with their gooey baklavas and charred falavel…on a warm day the Rue des Rosiers is so crowded with flâneurs that cars can barely push their way through.

And so it was at lunchtime when I visited.

But when I doubled back I found myself in a quiet square, with a school on one side. On the far side I saw a street sign: Parvis des 260 Enfants; pupils of L’École des Hospitalièrs Saint-Gervais deported and murdered because they were born Jewish.


The harsh reality of the Paris Ghetto and of Walter Benjamin’s fateful flight from the city came sharply back to me. According to a press cutting I accessed, 260 Jewish children had been deported from the school in two raids in July 1942. Of those 260 children only four survived. One of whom, Samuel-Milo Adoner aged 93, had been present at the dedication of the courtyard by the Mayor of Paris, which had taken place a few weeks before my visit.

On my return from Paris, I decided to capture my modest experiences following ‘in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin’; hence this account. It has also stimulated me into to delving further into Benjamin’s work and, in particular, his writings on the city. Graeme Gilloch, in his book, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, which I have just started to read, writes:

For Benjamin, the great cities of modern European culture were both beautiful and bestial, a source of exhilaration and hope on the one hand and of revulsion and despair on the other…the city for Benjamin was magnetic: it attracted and repelled him.

In a small way, my expedition across Paris (with a detour of my own) gave me an insight into both Benjamin’s ‘exhilaration’, as he wandered the streets of the city, and into the profound ‘despair’ he felt as darkness enveloped Europe leading to his suicide and to the slaughter of the children from L’École des Hospitalièrs Saint-Gervais.
*The details in this section have been supplemented by information from Chapters 10 and 11 of Howard Elland and Michael Jenning’s, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

Ways to Remember: Shrouds of the Somme

As the pressing concerns of intern(ation)al politics once more dominate the media, the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War are now fading from memory. However, a short-lived but compelling installation in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London offered a fitting and moving end to this anniversary.  Shrouds of the Somme, the work of the artist Rob Heard, represented the 72, 396 British and Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Battle of the Somme who have no known grave, and whose names can be seen engraved on the Thiepval Memorial in Northern France. Heard hand sewed tiny articulated figures – reminiscent of Action Man – into little white shrouds which were then placed on the grass in the Olympic Park, in front of Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbital sculpture.


The fact that the figures bound by Heard were articulated, meant that each one was individualised, and laid down on the grass with the head, legs and arms bent or straight, twisted or not, in whatever position the manipulation of the figure by sewing of the shroud had created. Many of the figures placed at the edge of the field had been given poppies or flowers by visitors and the effect of the rows and rows of tiny white bodies on green grass with dots of red recalled the lines of white crosses in the war cemeteries in Northern France and Belgium.


Those graves, however, mark the bodies of soldiers that had been found: Heard’s figures represent those men whose bodies were never recovered – and in just one battle in 1916 and from just one nation. As visitors walked around the grass, the names of ‘the missing’, their rank and age, were read out loud by a volunteer over a loudspeaker.


In addition to the 72, 396 figures laid out in rows, a second part of the installation included tiny wooden crosses commemorating the number of British and Commonwealth service men killed on each day of the war, accompanied by a shrouded figure. These too were adorned with poppies, little wreaths, and in some cases photos of relations that visitors had placed next to the particular day on which a relative had died. While there has debate in some circles about whether the Armistice should continue to be commemorated, now that we have reached 100 years on, the Shrouds of the Somme made present in a very poignant way the enormous tragedy of that conflict. It is hard to see how such loss cannot continue to be commemorated.


Lying on the autumn grass, the white shrouds of these figures had started to soak up the mud; around some, red and brown autumn leaves had gathered…it was as if the pure white shrouds, perhaps representative of the idealised notions of the war, and the innocence of its ‘doomed youth’, were beginning to change, the stains and the damp evoking in miniscule the horrors that the soldiers underwent in the trenches; the figures themselves were sinking into the earth, like the men they represent who lie unfound in the fields of France and Flanders.  EL’E




Frieze Sculpture 2018: Stumbling across art in Regent’s Park

Hannah Binns (Joint Honours History of Art with English Literature)

I visited London to interview somebody for my dissertation a few weeks ago and spontaneously decided to walk back to Marylebone through Regent’s Park. On my way, I discovered Frieze Sculpture 2018, an installation of sculptures by artists from around the world, curated by Claire Lilley. The first Frieze Sculpture was a resounding success last year and Lilley hoped this year’s exhibition would “give pause for thought as well as great pleasure.”

As someone who was not aware that this exhibition even existed, I was very excited to stumble across the twenty-five artworks. There were a couple of works that really stood out to me: Kathleen Ryan’s il Volatile (2018) and Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Senzenina (2018).

Kathleen Ryan_s il Volatile (2018)

Kathleen Ryan’s il Volatile (2018)

Ryan’s work depicts two bronze birds cast from clay sitting on a stainless-steel security bar and blends solid materials with delicate textures. Her work has been described as “weightless” and I totally agree. The softness with which Ryan has handled the materials gives the impression that one is witnessing a moment that might soon change when the birds fly away. While the public is forbidden from touching these works, nothing is stopping real birds from interacting with them which is particularly interesting with Ryan’s sculpture where the natural and the man-made birds sit side-by-side.

Gunn-Salie’s work shows a group of life-size crouching figures representing the Marikana massacre where police opened fire of a group of striking mineworkers in South Africa. The artist used police footage of the workers shortly before the police opened fire to create this sculpture that is an eerie memorial for the lives lost. Despite the fact that the artist has chosen to create figures without heads or hands, they seem very human which only adds to the ghostly feeling that the work has.

Haroon Gunn-Salie_s Senzenina (2018).

Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Senzenina (2018)

If you happen to be in London next time this show is on, I highly recommend having a look around. Exhibitions like this are such a wonderful way of making art accessible to people who don’t get to interact with it on a regular basis. I am really glad I decided not to take the tube that day or I would have missed out on seeing some fantastic art in a beautiful setting.

More information on Frieze Sculpture 2018 can be found here.

Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard

CAI LYONS (PhD student, History of Art)

The newest exhibition from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts — Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard — launched with a private showing on Thursday 18 October, and presents Vuillard through the context of his extremely close relationship with his mother, Madame Vuillard. While exploring the relationships between Vuillard and his mother — a relationship played out in literally hundreds of the artist’s works — the show also focuses on the portrayal of the domestic interior more generally, and private relationships between women, which made the show especially interesting and significant for me.

Edouard Vuillard, 'Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair'

Edouard Vuillard, ‘Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair’, 1900

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Professor John Holmes: The Pre-Raphaelites and Science

Talk by Professor John Holmes on Friday 19th October at 2pm in Arts Lecture Room 3.

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Birmingham is home to arguably the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world. The city was also one of the engines of science and industry in nineteenth century. These two sides of Victorian culture can seem worlds apart, with the Pre-Raphaelites retreating from the modern age into medieval fantasy. In this talk, John Holmes will show how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their close associates far from being medieval escapists, set out to create an art that would be scientific in its methods and modern in its outlook.

The talk is based on his recently published book, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science, which explores how the Pre-Raphaelite’s commitment to creating a new kind of art modelled on science – in which precise observation could lead to new discoveries about the natural world and about humanity – affected their practice across painting, sculpture, poetry and architecture through the nineteenth-century.

In the talk, he will consider some of the Pre-Raphaelites early and best-known paintings showing how they represent ‘investigations’ into nature and human psychology, as William Michael Rossetti, one of the original members of the group, put it in The Spectator in 1851. And, he will describe how their contemporaries, including the leading physician, Henry Acland, and, the critic, John Ruskin, took up Pre-Raphaelite art as a visual language to communicate science in a new natural history museum built in Oxford in the 1850s.

What united the Pre-Raphaelites with both scientists and theologians in the first half of the century was a shared commitment; firstly, to the Baconian method, founded on the close and detailed observation of the natural world; and, secondly, to natural theology, which asserted that all of nature is God’s creation and that revealing nature, through art or science, provided a direct insight into God’s purpose. John Holmes’ talk will focus on this period of collaborative working.

In his book, John Holmes considers how all of this changed in 1859 with the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This pivotal work subverted the idea of a creator God and challenged the Baconian inductive method so dear to the early Pre-Raphaelites. The book describes the fault lines that opened up post-Darwin, dividing scientists and theologians and also affecting the Pre-Raphaelite project. In the second half of the century, some of Pre-Raphaelites sought to adhere to their original principles (notably William Holman Hunt and John Millais) but others moved away from naturalism towards Aestheticism and Symbolism (notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones). In the latter case, John Holmes argues that, contrary to accepted thinking, there was still an important dialogue between Darwinian scientific materialism and the arts and that this found expression in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.

John Holmes is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham.

Register for this free event now

Courbet’s Model “Revealed” …

JON STEVENS (MRes History of Art)

Oh dear! Why is it that when art history hits the headlines, it is often a banal example of an artistic ‘who-dun-it’ or, even, ‘who-was-it’. A week or so ago, a news item in the Guardian announced that one of the greatest mysteries in art history appears to have been solved.

What was this mystery? Apparently, some new research has revealed (I use the word advisedly) that the model for Gustave Courbet’s notorious painting of a naked woman’s torso and genitalia – L’Origine du Monde – was not Joanna Hiffernan, as previously thought, but Constance Quinéaux. I can’t imagine that many people regarded the identity of the model for this work as a great mystery — or for that matter especially interesting, given the myriad other more profound and powerful analyses that this image of female objectivity opens up — but the way this story was reported by various news outlets, including the Guardian and the BBC, was problematic in other ways.

To start with the painting itself. It was commissioned in the mid nineteenth-century by Khalil Bey, a wealthy Ottoman diplomat based in Paris, who had a taste for erotic art. He apparently hung it in his private chambers hidden behind a green curtain. The truncated and foreshortened woman’s body in the picture lies uncovered and exposed, with the white bed sheet drawn back; the woman is objectified and denied any identity (which, apart from anything else, rather undermines the importance of scholarly debate around the supposed model). Bey apparently displayed his painting to selected male guests by theatrically drawing the curtain back. And, although I have only seen reproductions of the painting, it seems to me that it amounts to little more than a piece of voyeurism.

For many years, the painting was not shown in public. Apparently, it was thought that, while discerning and educated men could appreciate it as a ‘work of art’, ordinary people, rather like ‘the servants’ in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, might be corrupted by it. To maintain this conceit, it was given the overblown title of ‘The Origin of the World’. It was painted in 1866, seven years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species; this made the painting either hopelessly unscientific, if you accepted the idea of evolution by natural selection, or blasphemous, if you subscribed to the idea of a creator god. But of course the title was just a false cover, designed to give the painting some kind of specious respectability.

The press coverage of the story makes matters worse, much worse. The BBC in its report tries to stick to the facts, as it were. But their whole approach is undermined by the photoshopped image, which precedes their article. This shows a woman spectator standing in front of the painting with the back of her head and her long hair obscuring the offending genitalia. To replace the male gaze with the female gaze in this way is unbelievably crass; in trying to be discrete, the BBC has instead added a new dimension to the notion of objectification.

The Guardian makes little attempt to be measured. Their news item engages in some titillating speculation about the model’s dark pubic hair; this matches Quineaux’s “beautiful black eyebrows” whereas Hiffernan had a “mane of flaming red curls”. Jonathan Jones in his Guardian article entitled Who posed for the ‘Mona Lisa of vaginas’? is more obviously prurient. Although he places the Mona Lisa reference in quotation marks, it is clear that this is his idea of a joke and he continues in this vein.

Jones, who previously subscribed to the view that Courbet’s model was Joanna Hiffernan, is a bit miffed by this new research as it means he will have to amend a book he is writing. However, he salaciously accepts that there is ‘a blazing piece of contradictory evidence’ to the contrary. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop Jones pondering that ‘it is particularly tempting to imagine Hiffernan’s features hidden under that white sheet’. He goes on to use the story as a pretext for speculating about the ‘carnal dimension’ of some paintings that did feature Joanna Hiffernan, who apart from modelling for Courbet briefly, was James McNeill Whistler’s mistress and muse. Hiffernan features in all of Whistler’s ‘Symphonies’, including the Barber Institute’s own Symphony in White No III, but it is her appearance as a prostitute in Whistler’s Wapping that most exercises him.

I could go on but I suggest that you access the offending articles for yourself by looking at the BBC’s news item , the Guardian’s news item and the Jonathan Jones article. Further thoughts are welcome!

Carmen 2018

Here is re-blog of the post one of our lecturers has written about her recent trip to the CARMEN medieval network meeting in Finland to present a new research project…

Women and the Book

At the end of August, Women and the Book had its first proper outing, to the 2018 CARMEN 2018 Network Meeting at the University of Tampere in Finland. This was a great place to present this project, and to pick up a special commendation in the new CARMEN Project Prize.

CARMEN is a worldwide network of medievalists and its aim is to foster interdisciplinary dialogue on the Middle Ages between scholars, institutions, universities and research groups. The annual meeting is held in a different place every year and is focused around informative workshops and sessions rather than on a specific field or period. Thus this year there was the opportunity to hear about medieval research that is going on in Finland, and in Tampere in particular, and to attend workshops on prospective projects such as Pre-modern Manuscripts and Early Books in Conflict Zones – winner of this year’s Project…

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