Monthly Archives: March 2015

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

JAMIE EDWARDS

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.

 

 

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

%d bloggers like this: