Monthly Archives: October 2014

Research Seminar No.2: Sandy Heslop, ‘Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100’

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Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series 2014 – 15

Thursday October 23rd, 5:15, Barber Photograph Room

Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia)

Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100

Pastoral

All welcome. Refreshments served!

Enquiries to Jamie Edwards at jle756@bham.ac.uk

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Rachel Coombes Reviews ‘Art and Life’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery (4th June – 21st September 2014)

Tucked away in South East London, Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain’s first purpose-built art gallery, designed by the architect Sir John Soane. Opening to the public in 1817, the gallery houses an esteemed and important permanent collection, made up largely of works by 17th and 18th century European Old Masters, including Rembrandt, Poussin and Van Dyck. In recent years, it has also run a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions, which include ‘Modern British’ among its themes. The gallery’s latest show, ‘Art and Life’, which closed towards the end of September, belonged to this strand; it focused on the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, whose work can be seen on permanent display in Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. The exhibition covered roughly a decade (1920-31) of these artists’ careers, a period which coincided also with their relatively short-lived marriage. The couple were part of a British avant-garde scene working in the first half of the 20th century. The final rooms of the exhibition showed the work of the Nicholsons’ painter-friends Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, which revealed a similar gaucheness of style. While none of these artists are particularly well-known now (having been neglected in the complexities of the European modernist scene), they were not unsuccessful during their lifetime. But it was the Nicholsons’ artistic partnership, thriving as it did on a shared love of the British countryside and a similar artistic sensibility, which made the exhibition so insightful.

Richard Dorment described this exhibition as ‘an exercise in tedium’, pointing out the drab use of colours in the landscape paintings and the pseudo-naivety of the draughtsmanship (The Telegraph, 2nd June 2014). It is true that the inclusion of the occasional ungainly, gawky horse – added to the landscape as if it were a piece of fuzzy-felt – suggests a self-consciously naive approach, as seen in Walton Wood Cottage no. 1 (1928). But the overriding effect is one of charming, and bold, unfussiness rather than glaring ineptitude. Dorment seems insensitive to the simple fact that the predominance of sombre greens and browns in the Nicholson’s Cornish and Cumberland panoramas is the result of a sincere painterly response to a particular atmosphere. Winifred’s Cumberland landscape scene Northrigg Hill (1926) is a case in point: hung alongside a version of the scene painted by the couple’s friend Christopher Wood, it has a convincing vigour to it which Wood’s painting lacks. It is as if she has filtered her strongest sensations and visual memories of the place into one atmospheric and evocative scene, sacrificing mere imitation for immediate sensation. The bold contours of the hedgerows, zigzagging across the undulating land lead the eye into the misty blue distance, which blends almost seamlessly into the folds of cloud of a typically overcast English sky.

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, 1926

A different kind of sensual immediacy – of equal potency but greater delicacy – is apparent in Winifred’s still life paintings of flowers on windowsills. In these paintings, her sensitive use of colour gives the very real impression of petals glowing translucently in sunlight. The painter described the coloristic sensitivity which governed her approach to the painting Anemones (1924): “I added sunflowers, canary poppies, buttercups, dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink and all my yellows broke into luminosity”. Many of Winifred’s canvases are suffused with daubs of varying shades of pink; one shade in particular she recommended to her husband in 1925: ‘Have you tried Jaune capucine Foncé, it’s rather a good pale pink [sic].’ That same year, the exact colour appears in Ben’s Cubist-inspired still-life, Jamaïque.

Winifred Nicholson, Anemones, 1924

Besides her brief excursion into pure abstraction during the 1930s – as represented in this exhibition by White and Black Eclipse (1936) – Winifred was to remain attached to domestic still-life as her primary subject matter throughout the rest of her career. As a result it is perhaps unsurprising that she has been consigned to art historical obscurity. Despite the fact that Ben Nicholson’s serious pursuit of geometric abstraction did not begin until beyond the prescribed scope of the exhibition in the mid-1930s, the final room featured several of these austere works. Perhaps this curatorial decision was intended as a reminder of what he is best known for today, or, as Dorment implies, of his relevance to Modernism. One cannot help drawing comparisons between his rather sudden move into abstraction and the broader formal experiments among the avant-garde artists on the continent. But, contextualising these later works within an art historical modernist ‘narrative’ serves only to denigrate the earlier works to which this exhibition is dedicated. They are in themselves interesting, exploratory attempts to communicate genuine responses to their favourite parts of the British countryside.

Rachel Coombes

Semester 1 Programme

EMREM – the postgraduate forum for Early Medieval, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern studies – launches its Autumn programme. First event – a conference workshop – this Wednesday.

The EMREM Forum

EMREM would like to announce their programme of events for the semester. 

Wednesday 15th October 2014 2.30-3.30pm

 Peter Gelling Library, room 315 Arts Building

Conference Workshop

Wednesday 29th October 2014 2.30-3.30pm

Computer Room 3rd floor ERI Building

Estoria de Espanna Presentation and Demonstration

Wednesday 12th November 2014 2.30-3.30pm

Peter Gelling Library, room 315 Arts Building

Research Presentation Session

Wednesday 26th November 2014 2.30-3.30pm

 Peter Gelling Library, room 315 Arts Building

Manuscripts, Libraries and Archives

Wednesday 10th December 2014 4-7pm

Fage Libray, Arts Building

End of Term Wine Reception

sem 1 programme

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AAH Art History Careers Day: Saturday 25 October, Barber Institute

We’re delighted that this year’s Association of Art Historians (AAH) Careers Day is taking place at our very own Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham on Saturday 25 October.

The event will introduce a range of careers opportunities which are available to art history students. There will be a series of informal talks by speakers from leading cultural institutions who will share their professional experiences and expertise in areas including curatorship, art management, gallery marketing and education, and research. 

Tickets (includes lunch and refreshments):

AAH members £8; non-members £12

Places are limited and tickets must be bought online in advance:

 www.aah.org.uk/events/careers-in-art-history 
Speakers:
Reyahn King (Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, West Midlands)
Dr Connie Wan (Pop Art Curator, Wolverhampton Art Gallery)
Sarah Shirley-Priest (Senior Specialist and Branch Manager, Bonhams)
Jane Thompson Webb (Conservator, Birmingham Museums Trust)
Alex Jolly (Learning & Access Assistant, Barber Institute of Fine Arts)
Hannah Carroll (Marketing Officer, Birmingham Museums)
Carly Hegenbarth (Doctoral Researcher, University of Birmingham)
Chris Packham (Careers Consultant, Arts and Law, University of Birmingham) 

This event is supported by the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham.

Join our Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1469125306681559/

For enquiries, please contact the event co-organisers:
Imogen Wiltshire: ixw713@bham.ac.uk
Charlotte Stokes: charlotte.j.stokes@gmail.com
Ana Bilbao: aebilb@essex.ac.uk

AAH Careers Day Barber Institute

 

Laughing with Mary Beard. And a (not so) Laughing Cavalier.

JAMIE EDWARDS

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Last night I went to hear Prof. Mary Beard–esteemed Cambridge don, TV presenter and keen blogger–deliver a lecture at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the topic of laughter in ancient Rome, which is also the subject of Beard’s latest book: Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up.

The lecture, as we’d expect, was brilliant. Mary exhibited a masterful, and often playful, combination of overwhelming intelligence and an endearing ability to deal with complex ideas in an accessible way, without coming across as at all patronising. (As a non-Classicist, I followed the whole thing and didn’t feel inadequate at any point.) The talk essentially asked: what did Romans laugh at? when did they laugh? and what does this tell us about society, politics, and power relations in ancient Rome?

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

For instance, let us consider–as we did with Mary–the story related by the Roman historian and politician Cassius Dio in his enormous eighty-volume history of Rome from the the 3rd century CE. The story takes us back to the Colosseum in the year 192 CE. Dio is sat in the front row (where the important people sat, with women and slaves packed in at the back, 100ft above the Colosseum’s arena floor) watching (squinting if you’re a woman or slave) the emperor Commodus parading himself about in an elaborate display of Imperial might that dragged on for 14 whole days; on one day, Commodus slew 100 bears, on another he participated in scripted gladiatorial combat, etc. Word had got out before this spectacle that Commodus had intended to masquerade as Hercules (as he was apparently prone to doing–see the above bust of Commodus-as-Hercules from the Capitoline museum) and fire deadly arrows into the assembled crowd, and this provides the backdrop to the episode that caused Dio’s laughter. In Dio’s words:

[The emperor] killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head… and the bloody sword. He said absolutely nothing, but with a grin he shook his own head, making it clear that he would do the same to us. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot by the sword for laughing at [the emperor]… if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others [to do the same]… so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.

So it’s basically an ancient instance of biting your lip. And it’s interestIng, as Mary explained, because it gives us a sense that we are experiencing Roman life, and laughter, at first hand, and it provokes the modern scholar to address what it is in this episode that Dio found funny, what the episode tells us about the relationships between emperor and his subjects in ancient Rome, and gets us to think about the social function of laughter: Is Dio’s laughter an act of insubordination, a mocking of, via the medium of laughter, the pumped-up pretensions of the emperor; or is it (what we’d call these days) nervous laughter? And, for that matter, what kinds of problems, methodological and empirical, does such a question pose for the modern historian?

All this was dead interesting. But what struck me was the resonance that all this has with my own work on Pieter Bruegel. I was lucky enough to get to chat to Mary afterwards, and I mentioned how her interest in laughter in the ancient world mirrored by interest in laughter in the 16th century in the Netherlands, and, in particular, the question of whether people laughed at Bruegel’s pictures of peasants or not, which, as I’ve said before, has been the subject of great controversy since the 1970s. Did people really laugh at Bruegel’s representations of the rural poor? And was this laughter, if there ever was any, condescending? Or was it democratising–a Rebelaisian carnivalesque form of laughter that acts a social leveller (according to Bakhtin’s classic study)? And, what’s more, what evidence is there that can support our view either way? Can we ever really know what people laughed at in their lounges and dining rooms in the 1550s and ’60s (just like can we ever know what Dio found funny sitting in front of an ostrich-head-wielding Commodus in the Colosseum in 192?)?

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

This is where the (not) Laughing Cavalier comes in. We all know Frans Hals’s picture of a Cavalier because the sitter is laughing; its fame rests, by and large, on the fact that the sitter is a jolly chap, enjoying a giggle at this or that. But, as Mary pointed out (and perhaps this is in the literature on Hals already, but I am no expert), the portrait of the cavalier only earned its title of “Laughing Cavalier” about a century ago. Before then, the picture was notable (if written descriptions of it are anything to go by) because of the curly moustache that the sitter is sporting. In other words, modern sensibilities find that the portrait shows a laughing man, whereas this was lost on, or else wasn’t considered to be the most striking aspect of the picture for, earlier viewers. This was one of Mary’s chief points. That although the sound of laughter, and for that matter the rendering of that sound in print–“hahahae” in Terence’s 161 BCE Eunuch–is remarkably universal, what rouses that laughter is not universal, and has changed over the course of history as  sensibilities and cultural conventions likewise adapt.

Frans Hals, "Laughing" Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

Frans Hals, “Laughing” Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

This is all germane to my work and is certainly food for thought. Can we ever reconstruct what Bruegel’s audience found funny? Did people really laugh at peasants? Peasants in art, for that matter? On the face of it Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Feast isn’t funny, but is this a bit like Hals’s Cavalier, which is to say that do we struggle to see what was funny in Bruegel’s picture because we are no longer socially predisposed to find the poor intrinsically funny? Is it the case that mockery of the poor is nowadays considered taboo, morally reprehensible, and that this is quite different to the situation in the 16th century, which scarcely batted an eyelid at serfdom?

Finally, in case you’re wondering, are Roman jokes from Antiquity funny? Did we indeed laugh along with Mary? Well, none of the jokes related by Mary in her lecture roused genuinely raucous laughter (indeed this was part of her point about the socio-historical contingency of laughter, and not a criticism) but one of them, which only came out during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture, was a gem, and, what’s more, is a joke told by a woman (women otherwise frequently being the butt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes!). It’s preserved in Macrobius’s Saturnalia and the comic is Julia, daughter of the emperor Augustus, who was, on all accounts, infamously promiscuous. The joke goes:

When those who knew of [Julia’s] disgraceful behaviour were amazed how her sons looked like her husband Agrippa even though she gave her body to any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enjoy, she said, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship’s hold is full.”

Simply, hilarious. Surely as funny now as it must’ve been in Antiquity! As for why it’s funny? Perhaps Mary’s book sheds light . . .

 

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