Bringing Historical Concepts to life: first-year trip to Tate Modern and the National Gallery

Rebecca Savage gives her account of the recent first year trip to London…

The University of Birmingham provides the ideal opportunity to study paintings at first hand at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which, as any lecturer will tell you, is an invaluable resource given that the study of painting from powerpoint slides and text books is no substitute for the real thing. It is, however, always exciting to see pictures outside the grounds of the university and a couple of weeks ago the first years (accompanied by some second-year students and, of course, our lecturer, David Hemsoll) visited Tate Modern and the National Gallery on a whistle stop tour of the capital.

Many of us started with the current exhibition at Tate Modern – Works on Paper – a display of drawings, etchings and poetry by the late Louise Bourgeois. These provided an intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable insight into the artist’s interior monologue, displaying private drawings made by the artist late at night, while also demonstrating her talents outside the sculptural work for which she is best known.

The Tate’s collection also gave us all the opportunity to grapple with some of the questions we have been thinking about in our recent module ‘Historical Concepts’ in which we have been learning about a number of activities and questions involved in the study of art history. Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept Waiting certainly linked in with themes of ‘what is an artist?’ given the seemingly simplistic process involved in the production of the work and its distance from the traditional criteria for defining ‘fine art’. The jury was also undecided as to whether Michael Baldwin’s work Untitled Painting can be considered art at all, although it did raise questions on the purpose of a painting as a reflection of the real world.

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

After a quick break for an overpriced lunch or coffee (let’s face it everything seems expensive on a student budget!) and a desperate run for the coach, which, David insisted, ‘would not wait for us’, we made our way to the bustling Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.

At this point I admit I had a mission. I am writing my first ‘Historical Concepts’ essay on Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and was eager to see first-hand the famous detail of the floorboards and clothing I had been reading so much about. I wasn’t disappointed, after an initial period of confusion (the gallery doesn’t seem that big until you start looking for a single, specific, painting) I found the portrait in a small room. I can honestly say that seeing the colours, technique and brushwork up close has brought it alive for me. Also, I was rather lucky that a group tour happened to be talking about this painting whilst I was looking at it, so I was able to have a sneaky listen in to what they were saying!

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The National Gallery gave everybody the perfect opportunity to see some of the art discussed in lectures and seminars actually in the flesh. We were able to point out the iconography in Antonio de Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St Sebastian presented recently in one of David’s lectures as well as appreciating Berthe Morisot’s images, which we have discussed with lecturer Fran Berry in the module ‘Concepts of Modernism’.

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

I think we would all agree that our visit to the big city has certainly assisted us with our studies. Whether that’s by seeing specific works, helping us to discover new artists, or, more generally, reminding us of the scope of work there is to be discovered, it has definitely demonstrated to me how much we have already learnt.

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