Prague, Pilsner and Palaces: Study Trip Abroad 2015

Every year in February, second-year BA History of Art students at the University of Birmingham go on a Study Trip to examine the art and architecture of a major artistic centre abroad, such as Paris, Berlin or Rome. Emily Martin and Anna Stileman report on this year’s trip to Prague…

This year’s second-year Art History Study Trip was to the art hub of Prague, led by Professor Matthew Rampley. Courageously his wife, Dr Marta Filipová, herself a Czech art historian, and University of Birmingham PhD student Kristine MacMichael agreed to come along and share their knowledge with us. The striking image of the Jan Hus memorial greeted us on our first day in the city, as it impressively stands over the square of the Old Town. Hus’ gaze took in the historical churches and decorated buildings, as well as wonderfully brightly coloured preparations for the Chinese New Year. The amount of art we saw, admired, and discussed over pints of Pilsner beer during our trip was incredible. The entire city of Prague is a work of art with its cobbled streets, painted facades and Gothic churches.

Jan Hus

Jan Hus Memorial, Old Town Square

Pilsner

Enjoying some Pilsner

IMG_7693IMG_7792

The Czech Republic is a country which appears to have been in a constant battle to define its own national identity. The complicated history is intimately entwined with the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire and all this is what makes its collection of art, found throughout the city in its numerous palaces, so interestingly dynamic, if not a bit strange. Take St. Vitus Cathedral as an example. A testament to Gothic architecture but re-worked so many times that it reflects the interests of its nineteenth-century renovators as much as its original architects. Of note are the more contemporary stained glass windows by the Czech artist Alfons Mucha, who is well known for his Art Nouveau posters in Paris, but was also an ardent Czech patriot during the 1920s. We saw his Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 large canvases, on the penultimate day of our trip and it was a favourite for many of the group. The cycle of canvases grouped together in Veletržní palác are powerful in their patriotic display of the history of the Czech nation. However, the works were sadly viewed as too archaic in their day, and displayed since 2012 in the Veletržní palác, alongside the rest of the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century collections of the national gallery, is contrary to the works’ art-historical context.

Slave Epic

Alfons Mucha, The Slav Epic; Master Jan Hus Preaching at Bethlehem Chapel, 1916

The visit to the Senate of Parliament of the Czech Republic in Wallenstein Palace (Valdštejnský palác) gave us a glimpse of where the country is governed. Its appearance did not disappoint. Our guide took us on a tour through magnificent rooms, such as the seventeenth-century Main Hall with the slightly outrageous ceiling mural by Baccio del Bianco (note the Italian name) which features the seventeenth-century aristocratic General Valdštejnský as Mars the god of war. In addition, the Knight Hall was extraordinary with walls covered in veal leather tapestries pressed with various motifs. The Czech Republic’s variable heritage is evident by the way in which this is so casually neighboured by Venetian mirrors of the nineteenth century. Perhaps even more perplexing is how the official Parliament assembly room was originally the palace horses’ stable.

Vitkok hill

View from Vítkov Hill

On the last day, those of us who had a chance to see Vítkov Hill Memorial were glad we did. Not only was it a perfect position from which to see panoramic views of the city, but offers an amazing insight into the Czech’s era of Communism. The Communist occupation is also evidently shown in the architecture of the New Town (Nové Mĕsto).

 

National Mem

National Memorial, Vítkov Hill

In Prague the people are kind, the beer is cheap and the opportunity to see stunning works is all around. The remarkable thing about Prague is that the palaces and buildings, regardless of when they were built and what historical prominence they hold, all manage to fit into the landscape. Something so bold as the National Memorial on Vítkov Hill looks down on the churches and small building complexes with their red roofs, and yet doesn’t seem out of place. The friezes by Alfons Mucha do not appear juxtaposed to St. Vitus Cathedral. Prague is an eclectic city, but one which suits its own style.

By Emily Martin and Anna Stileman

 

 

IMG_7745

An obligatory Prague selfie…

 

IMG_7856

Second-year student Patricia Nistor reviews ‘Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden’

Last term second-year History of Art student Patricia Nistor spent a Semester Abroad in Leiden at one of the most reputable universities in The Netherlands. She describes her experience as follows: “I developed a wide range of skills but also had a lot of fun, making for what were probably the best four months of my life.”  While in Amsterdam she took the opportunity to visit the exhibition Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden at the Stedelijk Museum, which is now on at Tate Modern, and wrote a review for The Golovine…

‘Painting?! Are you kidding me?’ was my first reaction when I found out we were going to see the Marlene Dumas exhibition at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. I consider myself a lover of all arts and all periods alike, but I was virtually convinced that painting has to be on its deathbed in the 21st century. There seemed to be no potency left for painting in a time where new media and new approaches are competing fiercely for our attention. Needless to say that Marlene Dumas is the exception that proved me wrong.

The Image as Burden is a retrospective of works created in the last 40 years by the South African-born artist Marlene Dumas. The Stedelijk is a particularly powerful place to hold such an exhibition, as it was the museum where she took part in her first group exhibition in 1978. The inclusion of the artist, then only 25, reinforces the museum’s position as a maker, rather than follower of canon.

Image 1

Marlene Dumas, ‘The Image as Burden’, 1993 © Marlene Dumas

The exhibition brochure opens with a quote that is key to what is on display: “images are always political. Something is always assigned to an image –this is a criminal, (…) that is erotic – and that’s what I am involved with: the psychology of perception’’. Dumas’ subject matter is incredibly wide and fluid: ranging from religion, war, race, love, death, guilt, and art itself – all converging in representing the theme we might call life itself. In the end, the power always lies in the hands of the viewer to decipher the meaning.

The varied subject matter in the exhibition is tied together by Dumas’ style and technique, and all her works somehow find a particular place within the pictorial universe she creates. Her art seems to be a construction of simplicity: all lines seem to be in the right place and the scarce amount of detail is perfectly controlled to achieve a vagueness but at the same time coherent figures.

Marlene Dumas, ‘Evil is Banal’, 1984 © Marlene Dumas

Another major characteristic in her art is reworking. Dumas never paints life directly; the mediation of photography is always present. She uses personal Polaroids as well as newspaper photographs as a basis as she launches into a radical decontextualisation and processing of visual culture. She ends up creating her own space where people are not exactly real but they are not imaginary either. In one piece, Jesus Serene, she uses existing images of Jesus, such as the one on the Turin Shroud, side by side with images of her friends. The result is an exploration of humanity itself, with the figures all seeming equal, genderless and not of any particular race.

Image 3

Marlene Dumas, Jesus Serene, 1994 © Marlene Dumas

Echoes from Dumas’ childhood in South Africa still deeply permeate her work. She unapologetically tackles feminism, race, grief and the naked body all at once in haunting pictures such as The Widow. She also works to include African figures ignored in the narrow Western standard of beauty. It is interesting to note how the Stedelijk chose to tiptoe around this issue, claiming the title of the exhibition refers to ‘the conflict between the painterly gesture and the illusion of the painted image’. Rachel Spence writing for The Financial Times offered an alternative reading of this. She reminds that South Africa was a country where representations of certain people were banned and that it ‘had become a country where images were regarded as bombs’.

Image 4

Marlene Dumas, ‘Naomi’, 1995 © Marlene Dumas

All in all, Dumas’ work probably owes its success to a strong mixture of emotional intensity and current political relevance. In this review, I barely touch the surface of the two hundred artworks displayed in the exhibition. The multiplicity of aspects and depth in her work would require many more words to be properly explored. However, this serves as a reminder that The Image as Burden is currently on at Tate Modern until 10 May 2015, and it is definitely a great opportunity to visit a wonderfully-curated exhibition of one of the most intriguing painters of our time.

Patricia Nistor (2nd-year History of Art student)

Second-year student Emily Robins visits the Newman Brothers Coffin Works…

With a touch of what some may deem to be ‘morbid curiosity’, I decided to spend a free Wednesday afternoon visiting Birmingham Conservation Trust’s latest project – the Newman Brothers Coffin Works. The slightly-misleading name ‘Coffin Works’ conjures up an image of a rather gloomy, depressing funeral parlour place but, to dispel some myths, this image couldn’t be further from truth. In fact, the Conservation Trust has succeeded in creating not only a sensitive portrayal of several aspects of the funerary industry, but also, more importantly, an intriguing time-capsule experience of factory life in the early 1960s. After 16 years of closure, and following a national campaign, this historic jewellery quarter business has been restored to the former glory of its post-war heyday.

On arrival I was greeted by staff in authentic 1960s uniforms and asked to ‘clock in’ using the original machine. It was pretty quiet for a Wednesday afternoon, so our tour guide, the exceptionally knowledgeable Robin, took me and two other visitors for a tour. We began with a brief history of the company. I was surprised to learn that Newman Bros had never actually made coffins, only handles, plates and shrouds. All of these objects are in keeping with the company’s Jewellery Quarter location and credentials. We headed over to the first stop on the tour, the ‘Stamp Room’. Here Robin provided a hands-on demonstration of the traditional equipment used to cut out coffin plates, crucifixes and other shapes from sheet metal. This was followed by an interactive experience in the storeroom, where we were invited to touch and examine designs used for handles and accessories. The room was full to the brim with all sorts of objects; I couldn’t help but admire the sheer quantity of original packaging and furniture still in-situ.

063

Inside the Stamp Room

068

Authentic Coffin-Handle Packaging and Embalming Chemicals

Afterwards, Robin took us through to the main office, again beautiful preserved and complete with the very Mad Men-esque addition of a drinks cupboard stocked with champagne! Here I was asked to answer the telephone and jot down the orders from a client on the other end of the line, half expecting the big boss to arrive back any minute!

069

The Big Boss’ Desk in the Office

Robin then ushered us upstairs to the last room on the tour, the ‘Shroud Room’. The name is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine; you might imagine a ghostly and dusty attic room. However, once again Newman bros challenged my assumptions as I entered a light and airy workshop, more befitting to a designer atelier. Piled high across every available surface were luxurious fabrics in numerous prints, textures and colours. By the windows sit sewing machines and workstations which appear as if they were only vacated a minute or so ago, whilst the factory girls nip out to lunch. Throughout the tour, keen eyes will be drawn to more of these authentic and detailed touches, which make a visit to the Coffin Works feel like as if you’ve stepped back in time. My personal favourites were touches such as the tea-break corner, complete with a variety of cups and cosies and listing how everyone prefers to take their hard-earned cuppa.

073

Box of Shroud Labels

074

Workspace in the Shroud Room

Robin finished the tour with some final reflections and anecdotes about the staff and personnel who spent the best part of their lives in these very rooms. Overall, I left the Coffin Works with the image of a workplace that was not without its eccentricities, but that nonetheless played a crucial role in the shaping of Birmingham as an industrial city; a role which will remain crucial as Newman Bros continues its transformative trajectory as not only a heritage attraction, but a perfectly preserved slice of social, cultural and manufacturing history.

Emily Robins (2nd-year History of Art student)

Another Michelangelo whodunnit . . . one nun, one ex-Vatican employee and one ransom demand for a stolen Michelangelo letter

Etienne Duperac's engraving of Michelangelo's finalised scheme for the new St. Peter's

Etienne Duperac’s engraving of Michelangelo’s finalised scheme for the new St. Peter’s

Yesterday the Italian newspaper Il Messagerro reported that the Vatican has received a ransom demand for the return of an autograph letter by Michelangelo which, unbeknownst to the outside world, was stolen from the Vatican archives in 1997. The letter is one of two documents that apparently went missing and is said to be written entirely in Michelangelo’s own hand, which is fairly unusual, since Michelangelo often dictated his letters to assistants who transcribed them for him to sign.

The facts, which are sketchy, are as follows. The documents were taken from the Fabricca di San Pietro, the archive of the department that oversees the maintenance of St. Peter’s basilica, which Michelangelo re-designed. According to a Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, who issued a statement after Il Messagerro published their report, the cardinal in charge of St. Peter’s, Angelo Comastri, has recently received a ransom demand for a “certain price” in exchange for return of the letter; Il Messagerro gave the price as €100,000 and claims that the request came from ex-Vatican employee who could get the documents back for the Fabricca. Father Lombardi added that the theft was first noticed by a nun who, in 1997, informed Vatican officials that the documents were missing. The ransom demand was ‘naturally refused’.

No further details have been made public at this stage. One BIG question, though, is why wasn’t the theft reported in 1997? The Vatican police are now investigating the theft, along with their Italian counterparts.

 

Jamie

 

ARTiculation Workshop: the Barber teams up with Ikon and UoB postgraduates to work with sixth formers passionate about art!

Back in October last year, Jen Ridding, Learning and Access Officer at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, invited History of Art PhD students to help deliver a workshop for sixth formers that she was planning in association with ARTiculation Prize.

ARTiculation is an annual national competition organised by The Roche Court Educational Trust, which invites sixth-form students to give a short presentation on a work of art, artefact, or architecture of their choice. The Midlands regional heat of the competition took place on 19 January at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, adjudicated by our very own Dr Richard Clay, Senior Lecturer in History of Art. Jen and Erin Libetta, Learning Assistant at Ikon, organised the workshop at the Barber to support students wishing to apply for the ARTiculation process. The workshop was also an opportunity for sixth formers who are passionate about art and might be interested in pursuing a Higher Education art-based course to test out their visual analysis skills in a University-based collection.

In preparation for our workshop with the sixth formers, we had a fantastic training session with Sarah Rowles, Director of Q-Art, an organisation that supports access to and development in art education. The training workshop was based on a ‘crit session’ that are normally held in art schools where students present their work to a group of peers who then respond and offer their interpretations of the work under scrutiny. For this workshop we adapted the crit format to consider artworks from the Barber’s collection. We all enjoyed and appreciated spending a Thursday afternoon upstairs in the Barber galleries analysing works that none of focus on in our own research!

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 15.56.44

Training session at the Barber with Jen Ridding, Erin Libetta & Sarah Rowles

The following week, 12 sixth formers from 3 local schools and colleges attended our workshop at the Barber, some of whom hadn’t visited the collection here on campus before. Lucy Salisbury, Head of Outreach at The Roche Court Educational Trust also joined us to participate and spread the word about ARTiculation. We began the session by watching a talk given at last year’s ARTiculation competition by Harr-Joht Takhar on BM&AG’s Man with Sheep by Ana Maria Pacheco. Harr-Joht was also at the workshop and was on-hand to share her experiences with the rest of the group. She emphasised how much she had enjoyed taking part previously as it enabled her to develop different skills, not only in presenting but also, for example, the ability to research a subject independently.

We then divided into groups, each led by one or two of us PhD students, to produce a list of questions we might ask when facing an artwork for the first time, such as ‘what kind of reaction does this work provoke’, ‘how was it made’ and ‘what is particularly striking about it’? Armed with our A3 sheets of probing questions, we went upstairs in the galleries where each group selected an artwork on which to test out their enquiries. Group 1 picked a nineteenth-century painting depicting a tranquil, green landscape, Group 2 selected a seventeenth-century bronze statuette of a horse and Group 3 opted for a large Renaissance painting representing an exchange between two figures amidst a crowd of people. Without looking at any labels for clues, insightful group discussions ensued about the possible reasons why the particular spot depicted in the landscape had been chosen, who might have owned a bronze sculpture of a horse, and who each of the figures might be in the Renaissance painting. Each group then gave a short informal presentation to everyone else about their findings.

IMG_1640

Group 1 analysing a landscape

IMG_1636

Group 2 discussing bronze horses

IMG_1621

Group 3 debating the identity of the figures in Paolo Veronese’s painting

Before the workshop, students were asked to bring along an image of their choice. We concluded the session with partner-work where the students swapped images in their pairs and spent a few minutes analysing one another’s artwork.

Overall we thoroughly enjoyed helping Jen and Erin to lead the workshop, and feedback indicates that the students enjoyed the opportunity to interrogate artworks in the Barber’s wonderful collection.

Erin Libetta said of this year’s ARTiculation heat at Ikon:

‘The ARTiculation Regional Heat, has been a highlight in Ikon’s calendar for the last four years. This year’s event was no exception, with seven speakers taking part from Sixth Forms across the Midlands and talks ranging from the subjects of architecture and illustration, to the very artworks that formed a backdrop to the proceedings, namely Ikon’s exhibition of work by Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year, Imran Qureshi. There was a fantastic atmosphere in the galleries, which were full of peers and teachers from the participating schools supporting their speakers. It was really encouraging to see students, that had taken part in taster ARTiculation Crit Sessions and Discovery Days, build the confidence to enter the regional heat, moreover securing runner-up positions.’

Ikon Heat 2015- Speakers Pic

ARTiculation participants with adjudicator, Dr Richard Clay

 

The winners of Ikon’s regional heat were:
First Prize Winner: Thomas Leung from Bancroft’s School for his presentation, The Turbine Hall.
Second Prize Winner: Javerya Iqbal from Holly Lodge High School for her presentation, Imran Qureshi, The Leprous Brightness (2011).
Third Prize Winner: Oscar Boyle from Kings School Worcester for his presentation, Cy Twombly,  Leda and The Swan (1962).

The final of ARTiculation takes place at Clare College, University of Cambridge this Saturday (7 March). The adjudicator will be Dr. Penelope Curtis, Director, Tate Britain.

 

Lauren Dudley & Imogen Wiltshire

Working at White Cube: Graduate Hang Nguyen on her recent internship

Since graduating from the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies at The University of Birmingham, I thought life could only get easier with a degree under my belt. I started the summer as an optimistic graduate, thinking “Yeah, I’ve got this” for every job/internship/work experience placement that I applied for. This feeling of optimism lasted about two weeks. I made out over thirty applications but only heard back from one, at the White Cube Gallery.

I applied to the White Cube through their website, after visiting their Bermondsey gallery in the summer and having been impressed with what I saw. I sent a long cover letter detailing everything I knew about contemporary art, thanks, in no small part, to the BA I’d just finished at Birmingham, in the hope that my application would stand out. Luckily, it paid off!! I was invited to interview with the Head of Archives who decided that I was a good enough candidate to be her intern and assistant. Thus began my journey as an Archive Editorial Intern for White Cube Gallery.

On my first day at White Cube, I was given a tour of the gallery. The gallery is a refurbished 1970’s warehouse and the space is amazing. There are three major exhibition spaces as well as an archive space, private viewing rooms, office space, a warehouse, and auditorium and a bookshop. The warehouse is one of the best spaces: the gigantic space houses loads of works of art and I was lucky enough to see pieces by the likes of Marc Quinn, Eddie Peake and Jac Lierner, which were being photographed and stored.

In my role as Archive Editorial Intern, I was expected to manage the White Cube’s archive. The gallery holds a comprehensive archive with material dating from Jay Jopling’s first charity auction. Every single artist represented by White Cube has archive material, which ranges from press articles, letters and other ephemera (I found an artist’s paint palette during one of my trawls through the boxes). As an intern, I was expected to maintain this archive by requesting material from exhibitions that the artists in question were involved in, and organise them properly in hard and digital formats. This entailed corresponding with international and national galleries and museums to acquire this material.

A view of the archive room. The wall shows the sign from the first gallery space and all the invites for the exhibitions there which were self-portraits of the artists

A view of the archive room. The wall shows the sign from the first gallery space and all the invites for the exhibitions there which were self-portraits of the artists

In the second year of my BA degree I did a module called ‘Inside the Gallery’, and the module played a formative role in my decision to pursue a career in the professional art world. After curating a hypothetical exhibition and working on the interpretation material for the exhibition, which is the main output of the Inside the Gallery module, I decided that working in a gallery was exactly what I wanted to do. What’s more, the knowledge and experience I gained from the module was a considerable help during my internship, because I was already aware of the ways in which galleries operate, especially when it comes to marketing, publishing and the press. It also helped me during my exhibition material requests as I felt comfortable taking the responsibility of corresponding directly with other art institutions and understood my responsibility in maintaining the White Cube archive.

One of the projects I was given during my internship was to curate an exhibition on Tracey Emin, based on archival material that the White Cube possesses and features writings by Emin. This exhibition had to be visually powerful as well as representative of the White Cube’s holdings of Emin’s material. The focus was to be on Emin’s solo exhibitions and notable projects, such as her column for The Times Magazine and her contribution to the Olympics. The material I had at my disposal, the contents of the archive, includes hand-written letters to Jay Jopling as well as postcards sent by Emin from her holidays to the staff at the London gallery. There is, in short, a wealth of material in the archive, which is regularly used by the gallery as promotional objects or research material.

Image from a Tracey Emin event where she spoke about her inspiration for her exhibition

Image from a Tracey Emin event where she spoke about her inspiration for her exhibition

My internship lasted several exhibitions. The Gallery mounted shows on David Hammons, Tracey Emin, Etel Adnan and Liza Lou and Senga Nengudi, all of which I was able to contribute directly towards. Everything I did had a purpose for the archive. As an intern, I didn’t think I would get so much responsibility working in the gallery but I was responsible for the artists’ bibliographies and publications. The internship also allowed me to visit other galleries and join in with the events at White Cube, such as private views, talks and lectures. I had the privilege of attending a private view of Anselm Kiefer’s Royal Academy exhibition which was guided by Tim Marlow.

My experience at the Barber Institute, where I regularly volunteered during my degree and where the Art History department is based, the RBSA, where I worked during my degree, and the White Cube has demonstrated quite clearly that not every gallery works in the same way, and my combined experience has introduced me to a wealth of careers that are possible in the arts sector. The internship also allowed me to develop my understanding of contemporary art and its processes. I did work directly for artists studios, like Jake and Dinos Chapman and Mona Hatoum, which has given me a valuable insight into the way artists mediate between dealers and their consumers.

Christies

From my experience, I would definitely advise sending out loads of CVs because you never know what you might get. During my time at White Cube, I was also offered work experience with Christie’s House Sales department. A placement I applied for in August, I was offered a chance to work there in November for two weeks. Things like that can happen – you get nothing and then suddenly two things come at once! The past year after graduation has been incredibly valuable for my own personal development and I think I finally have an idea of what I actually want to do. My final piece of advice to all would-be graduates is not to worry about securing a job straight away, particularly in the arts sector, gaining the professional experience through voluntary or unpaid work is just as important as the knowledge gained from the degree…so I guess…just go for it!

Hang Nguyen

 

Funding for Work Experience 

The Department is pleased to announce the Matt Carey-Williams and Danny Roark Awards, a generous donation funded by one of our alumni that will allow undergraduate students to apply for bursaries of c. £300-500 to enable them to undertake internships, work experience and placements.

The University of Birmingham UK Professional Work Experience scheme also offers financial support for undergraduates (except final years) to undertake work experience in the UK in the summer vacation. Find out more here. The deadline for applications is 29 March. Last year, History of Art student Olivia Weightman received funding to undertake work experience at Christie’s. Read about her experience here.

The Association of Art Historians (AAH) also runs an Internship Award. There are two awards of up to £2,000 each towards placement-related expenses such as accommodation, travel and food. The Internship Award supports both full-time and part-time placements/ internships. The deadline is 1 April.

Research Seminar Thursday 26th February: Imogen Wiltshire, ‘Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of Actor-Network Theory’

UoB crest

DEPARTMENT OF ART HISTORY, FILM AND VISUAL STUDIES RESEARCH SEMINAR SERIES 2014 – 15

Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of
Actor-Network Theory
Imogen Wiltshire
(University of Birmingham) 

Thursday 26 February, 5.15 pm
Barber Institute Photograph Room

 

‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,  published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,
published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

This paper examines the Occupational Therapy courses that László Moholy-Nagy developed at the New Bauhaus in Chicago during the Second World War through the lens of Actor-Network Theory. As is widely known, Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus, which later became the Institute of Design, in Chicago in 1937 after his emigration from Nazi Germany via London to the US. Less well known, however, and forming the focus of this paper is that in Chicago in 1942 he applied Bauhaus educational techniques, based on investigating materials and gaining tactile experience, for therapeutic purposes, especially for injured war veterans. The New Bauhaus’ Occupational Therapy training courses proposed, significantly, a new function for art within modernism and constitute important historical intersections between art practice and rehabilitation.
Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a methodology developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon, amongst others, which so far has had little attention in the Humanities. By challenging the notion of a fixed ‘social’ and the concept of ‘context’ (such as a preconceived social context) into which subjects of enquiry are located, this theory is arguably pertinent to art history, particularly in view of Latour’s suggested solution of instead tracing associations between human and non-human actors in a network. Accordingly, while this paper analyses the dissemination of Bauhaus pedagogic approaches for rehabilitative training in the 1940s, it also offers less concrete, more exploratory methodological suggestions about the possible relevance and uses of Actor-Network Theory.

All welcome!

Whodunit? The Fitzwilliam’s “New Michelangelos”. Continued.

Rider, detail

Following my earlier post about the Bronze Panther Riders, sensationally revealed to the world as Michelangelos the other week by the Fitzwilliam Museum, the acclaimed Michelangelo scholar Prof. Frank Zöllner has waded into the debate and made his thoughts on the attribution known. Unfortunately for the Fitzwilliam (not to mention the owner of the bronzes, who must’ve been pretty chuffed with the Museum’s findings), Zöllner isn’t convinced.

Writing for Die Welt (available here, with a summary in English here), Zöllner raises a number of serious objections to the attribution, a number of which had already come up in my interview with David Hemsoll about the Panther Riders.

Like Hemsoll, Zöllner doubts whether Michelangelo could have gone off and turned these large and complicated bronzes out without leaving some indication of them behind in the contemporary documents. Vasari and Condivi acknowledge that Michelangelo designed bronzes, including the Julius statue for Bologna, but nowhere do either of them mention a pair of monumental panther riders. Nobody else from the 16th century mentions them either.

Zöllner also points out, as Hemsoll had, that the execution of the bronzes, if they are by Michelangelo, must have involved some sort of collaboration; it is simply impossible that Michelangelo will have produced them single-handedly, and in secret. We should want to know, then, about what that collaboration might have looked like and who it could have involved, in order to determine Michelangelo’s role in it.

Finally, Zöllner also criticised the weight given by the Fitzwilliam to the drawing in Montpellier, which forms the basis of their re-attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo and is, according to them, exactly the same as the bronzes. However as Hemsoll had pointed out and now Zöllner as well, the drawing in Montpellier is not identical with the sculptures. They in fact differ in a number of important respects, including the relative proportions of the panthers and their riders and the twisted position of the riders’ bodies. There’s also the problem that the drawing is thought to be a copy of a Michelangelo drawing, but can we say for sure that it is?

Michelangelo fabre drawing Panther

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Zöllner signed off by criticising both the British press and the Fitzwilliam’s experts for the way in which the proposed attribution was reported, as though it was a done deal and that they had, indeed, “discovered new Michelangelos”. In reality, it seems as though we have a far way to go before we can claim, with any certainty, that the Panther Riders really are by Michelangelo.

Jamie

View Festival of Art History, Institut français, London

Exciting news! Following on from a successful first year, View Festival of Art History is back in 2015 with a fantastic programme of events from 27th February – 1st March!

View is an incredibly student-friendly festival, with many free events on offer, and £5 student tickets are available for several talks and tours across London venues. The festival has been organised by the Institut Français, where many of the events are taking place, including a presentation by University of Birmingham postgraduate Lauren Dudley who won first prize in the Student Papers competition! Lauren will be giving her paper, ‘Sublime Ruins’, which looks at Hubert Robert, La démolition de l’église Saint-Jean-en-Grève, c.1797–1800 (France) and John Piper, Coventry Cathedral, 15 November, 1940, 1940 (UK), on Saturday 28 February.

The festival presents an exciting opportunity for anyone interested not only in art history, but conservation, heritage, languages and the makings of civilisation and culture as a whole.
Look out for an article from our View student representative Emily Robins, second-year History of Art student, who will be reporting back about the festival, or why not check it out yourself?
Details about the festival and its programme are available here:
http://viewfestival.co.uk/ – hope to see you there!
Tagged , , ,

Whodunit? Jamie Edwards talks to David Hemsoll about the Fitzwilliam’s “new Michelangelos”.

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Last week, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge revealed to the world that they have “discovered” not one but two statues that they believe can be attributed, fairly confidently, to Michelangelo (1475 – 1564). Each of the sculptures, which are made of bronze and are roughly a meter tall, shows a naked, muscular man riding triumphantly on the back of a ferocious-looking panther. And, if the Fitzwilliam’s findings are correct, it makes the Panther Riders the only works in bronze by Michelangelo to have survived; a medium in which he is known to have worked—or intended to work—on at least three separate occasions.

Rider, detail

The Riders have, to be sure, been associated with Michelangelo before. In the 19th century, when the Riders were in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild (from where they get their alternative name “The Rothschild Bronzes”) they were considered authentic Michelangelos (on what basis, I wonder?). However, when Rotschild’s bronzes were exhibited in Paris in 1878, several connoisseurs voiced their doubts about the attribution, and over the course of the subsequent 130-or-so years the association of the bronzes to Michelangelo has been pretty well put to bed. Since then the bronzes have been given to a whole bunch of other artists, including Willem Danielsz Van Tetrode (1505 – 87), and, according to Sotheby’s in 2002, the circle of Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporary Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 71).

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Now experts brought together by the Fitzwilliam reckon they have gathered ‘compelling evidence’ in favour of attributing the Panther Riders firmly to Michelangelo once and for all, thus resolving an artistic whodunit that has limped on for over a century. The tide began to turn in favour of Michelangelo’s authorship in 2002, when Prof. Paul Joannides, who has played an instrumental role in the latest re-attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo, got the chance to study the Riders for the first time at Sotheby’s. Exactly what Joannides made of them in 2002 is hard to say, but, perhaps tellingly, the statues were labeled as “circle of Michelangelo” when they were shown in the Royal Academy’s bronze exhibition in 2012. What is clear is that the bronzes grabbed Joannides’s attention, and last autumn he made a discovery that galvanised serious interest in the status of the bronze Riders. In Montpellier’s Musée Fabre there is a sheet of studies, the largest of which is a Virgin embracing the Christ Child, which is thought to be a copy of drawings made by Michelangelo done by one of his pupils at some point in the first decade of the 1500s, more precisely, at about 1508. And the Montpellier sheet of studies is important because there is, in the lower right corner, a study for a nude riding on the back of a panther, which is to say, precisely the same subject that we encounter in the Rothschild bronzes.

Michelangelo fabre drawing Panther

If the Montpellier sheet of studies really does preserve now-lost designs by Michelangelo then we can say, on the basis of this evidence, that the subject matter, at least, of the bronze Panther Riders can be traced back to Michelangelo. The Fitzwilliam have done exactly this, with Victoria Avery going one step further, declaring in a video for the BBC (below) that the Montpellier drawing shows the composition of the Rotschild bronzes ‘precisely’. And taking this as their point of departure, the Fitzwilliam has subsequently gathered a range of experts—from Joannides to Prof. Peter Abrahams, a clinical anatomist—, who have compiled a dossier of evidence to show that the Panther Riders really are the only surviving bronzes by Michelangelo.

With this in mind, I met with my supervisor David Hemsoll, whose interests lie in 15th- and 16th-century Italian art and architecture and who has published on Michelangelo, to get his thoughts on the Fitzwilliam’s findings, and to consider their evidence. Here’s our conversation:

 

First question, had you ever come across these statues before?

No [laughs].

I ask because this isn’t, or so I read, the first time that the Panther Riders have been associated with Michelangelo. Apparently they were thought to be by Michelangelo in the 19th century, but were then removed from his oeuvre in the 20th, and they’ve since been attributed to a number of other sculptors, including Cellini. So you’ve never encountered them?

No . . . Well, there are a lot of things that are associated with Michelangelo. That’s the trouble. I haven’t come across these in the sense that I felt I should be paying them much attention . . . So, [laughing] I guess, I don’t know if I’ve come across them.

No well I think that most people had shelved them. But the first bit of new evidence there is and that has led to the latest re-attribution to Michelangelo is this drawing in Montpellier, which, they say, is a faithful copy of lost Michelangelo drawings done by a student of his. And one of them shows a nude riding a panther. By drawing a comparison between the sculptures and the drawing on that sheet in Montpellier, they say there’s conclusive evidence to establish a link between the bronzes and Michelangelo. What do you make of that comparison? Because Avery says they’re exactly the same but they’re not, are they?

Well, no. The drawing isn’t exactly the same as the sculptures. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

The thing is the usual way people have made clamorous attributions in the past—and those include the Crucifixion in Sta. Spirito, Florence, the two panel paintings [the Entombment and the “Manchester Madonna“] in the National Gallery, the Cupid in New York, as well as the recently-acquired Torment of St. Anthony by the Kimbell Museum in Texas—well, the usual way of determining an attribution, is that you see something in the primary sources, the biographies of Vasari and Condivi, and you produce something which seems to match them, and then you build your case on the basis of that. Some people will then either agree or they’ll disagree about the similarities. Now, so what you’re doing here is that you are immediately highlighting the first problem with all this, and that is that these works [the Panther Riders] are not mentioned in any primary source. And this is quite surprising, given their size, their quality of execution, and their striking and unusual subject matter. So the problem is that you would have expected works like this produced by Michelangelo to have been recorded or mentioned, however inaccurately, in the literature. So that, that’s the problem. So you’re right that the drawing produced provides some basis for a proposed attribution . . . Are you going to ask me about the other factors . . . ?

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Yes, I’m going to ask you about the other evidence.

Well perhaps we want to treat them all together. There is a drawing. And that could be said to support this attribution.

Well, on the basis of that, because it’s the drawing that got them going with this, the Fitzwilliam wheeled in a clinical anatomist, who said, and this is a quote apparently, that the anatomy is “textbook Michelangelo” so, you know, the abdomens and the bellybuttons and all the rest of it. The anatomist concluded that the artist responsible for these sculptures obviously had a command of human anatomy–he even found a tendon in the arch of a foot. So this is grist to their mill, that an anatomist is impressed with the bodies of the panther riders, since everybody knows that Michelangelo was all about human anatomy, and that he dissected cadavers etc. And then there’s the other bit of evidence. They’ve done some science and x-rayed the statues and found that the cast is thick and heavy, which is a telltale sign, they say, of 15th- or 16th-century manufacture.

Yes, well, that’s their evidence. And, as evidence, it looks, well I wouldn’t quite say convincing . . . but it’s quite powerful.

Yes, they obviously think so. Those are their three bits of evidence.

Yes, that’s it. Those are the three bits of evidence. And taken together it’s quite a powerful case although you could point to slight problems with all those pieces of evidence. As far as the drawing’s concerned, it’s by a follower of Michelangelo and not by Michelangelo, and it doesn’t show the same composition as the bronzes, insofar as the nude figure on the back of the panther is much smaller in the drawing than it is in the sculptures. Then the business about the anatomy, well that does seem to suggest that the sculptures have got something to do with Michelangelo. The other way to think about this is to compare the sculptures to other known works by Michelangelo from this period, especially the David and especially the Dying Slave, in the Louvre, and there are some apparent similarities which are quite great. Then the question about the bronze casting, well that’s very interesting and the Fitzwilliam have got great expertise on this, so their conclusions that the bronze casting, and the thickness of the bronze, point to a date of around the early 1500s, is, again, powerful evidence. So I agree that the case is, in some respects, powerful . . .

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

So they’ve made a fair case.

Yes, well, it’s quite powerful in some respects, and less powerful in others.

Such as?

Well some people could have said, and maybe they have but I haven’t noticed, that the subject matter is comparable to sculptural ideas from the late 15th century and into the 16th, in particular the idea of the suggestive naked body of a man. That’s an idea that was almost an obsession of Michelangelo’s tutor, his de facto tutor in sculptor, Bertoldo di Giovanni, who produced all sorts of sculptures of this kind. And one particular point of similarity is that the possible Michelangelos show one figure who is clean-shaven, and one who is bearded, and there’s a pair of sculptures by Bertoldo, which make up a kind of pair, which have again one figure that is clean-shaven and one figure that wears a beard. All this could be put into an argument that would link the bronzes to Michelangelo.

The problem, the main problem, as I see it, is the fact that they’re made of bronze and they’re very big. The difficulty is that it might be conceivable that Michelangelo could, almost secretly or in an unnoticed way, make a pair of sculptures out of bronze by doing it in his back garden or kitchen, with nobody else noticing that it was going on, and then perhaps giving it away to someone, but the trouble is that works made out of bronze imply a collaboration with somebody. And once that idea is brought out into the open, the nature of the collaboration needs to be qualified and Michelangelo’s role in it would then have to be established. What we might be saying is that Michelangelo did some studies for a sculpture that was then made in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo produced full-scale models, which were then cast in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo just told a few people that you could make sculptures in such a way, and gave them some pointers, and they were duly cast in bronze by another person. What’s absolutely impossible is that Michelangelo would have, as it were, gone away by himself and made these large bronze sculptures, all by himself, without any assistance—that’s just not possible. So if we are going to believe that they’re by Michelangelo then we have to understand better the circumstances of their making, and we need to have a better understanding of a possible context for the making of bronze figures of such scale, because they are a meter tall in height, in order to really substantiate the kind of claim that is being made, which has to have been in the form of some sort of collaboration. So that’s the difficulty I have.

So it’s impossible? To suppose that Michelangelo just knocked them up, by himself, in his kitchen or wherever? Is that just not how it was done?

No. You need a workshop of people to make these things. And they’re very difficult to produce alone.

Is that what will have happened with, say, the over life-size Julius II sculpture, which, as Vasari and Condivi say, was made in bronze by Michelangelo and put up in Bologna in 1506?

Yeah. The Julius sculpture presumably was made by people who were good at casting in bronze, and they worked in collaboration with Michelangelo who helped them produce a sculpture, or model, which then could have been cast in bronze. I mean he could have done a lot of work on it but what he didn’t do was create the molds and everything, and pour the molten bronze into the molds, and then take the bronze out of the molds and then do all the immensely laborious finishing off on the sculpture. So that has to have been a collaboration. And other, early works, done in bronze by Michelangelo—there’s a documented bronze David, again described by Vasari—must likewise have involved some sort of collaboration. So if we were able to understand better how these collaborations came about then we would be in a better position to understand possible circumstances that would support the attribution of the Panther Riders to Michelangelo. So that’s the problem I have . . .

Well, that seems to be a reasonable concern.

What is clear is that it’s untrue to say that Michelangelo was entirely restricted to sculpting in marble because there are quite a lot of things, or references in the early sources, to Michelangelo’s involvement in the design, or the making of, sculptures in bronze. The statue of Julius II, for the city of Bologna, is a conspicuous example because it must have been very big, but he did also intend, for example, to make bronze reliefs for the Julius tomb. And he wouldn’t have been making all those things by himself.

 

In short then, at this stage the attribution seems plausible but there are unanswered questions. Perhaps answers to those questions will be forthcoming when the Fitzwilliam hosts its international conference on Monday 6 July 2015, when they will present the full findings. In the meantime, the Panther Riders, which are privately owned, are on public display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 9 August 2015.

Jamie

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 341 other followers

%d bloggers like this: