Monthly Archives: March 2016

Review of The Journal of Art Historiography: Issue 13, December 2015

Faith Trend

The Journal of Art Historiography is a unique journal dedicated specifically to the specialised field of art historiography. It has been successfully edited since its conception by the University of Birmingham’s own Richard Woodfield and was the basis for the university’s recent summer symposium series. Each issue is packed full of articles, translations, reviews and reports of the highest academic standard and this abundant yet critically weighty output is what has made the journal an authority in the area of historiography. Indeed, the Dictionary of Art Historians calls it ‘the major research organ of the field’.

For those who attended the Birmingham art historiography symposium back in 2013 you will be delighted to see two articles by familiar faces in the most recent issue of the Journal: the University of Birmingham’s Daniel Reynolds and collaborator Rebecca Darley reflecting on their role as curators of the recent coin exhibition Faith and Fortune, and Australian academic Catherine De Lorenzo’s article on ‘The hang and art history’.

Darley and Reynolds curated the successful and long running coin exhibition, Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage at the Barber between November 2013 and January 2015. Their article focuses on how the duo and their team decided to shake up the traditional method of numismatic exhibition display and instead present the coins in a revolutionary manner with the aim of engaging and educating a wider and more diverse audience. As Darley and Reynolds explain, the field of numismatics has long been seen as a rather esoteric and dry area, with exhibitions doing very little to sway audiences from these preconceptions. Exhibitions of numismatics have also, on the whole, focused on the visual and aesthetic qualities of the coins, and have been limited by the typical presentation method of the coins – placed in rows on pH-neutral cloth covered board, separated from their accompanying labels. With the Faith and Fortune exhibition, Darley and Reynolds chose to mount the coins on a large Foamex board integrated around the text which focused largely on the coins economic qualities.

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One of the cabinets showing how printed boards were used to mount the coins to encourage visitor engagement with the objects and their interpretation.

The team’s decision to focus on representing the coins as economic artefacts marked another break in tradition and reminds the viewer that coins were not typically meant to be perceived as art. Their aim, as the article states was to ‘reflect upon the multiple ways in which seeing and interacting with coins gave the objects value in the late antique world and how the coins in turn generated networks of shared expectation, rhetoric and material exchange which defined people’s lives.’ Darley and Reynolds then go on to weigh up the limitations and opportunities that the space at the Barber provided them with, other factors that had to be considered in the lead up to the exhibition, as well as general reflections on the successes and failures of the exhibition as a whole. In particular they highlight the research that has been stimulated by the exhibition, achieving a key aim of theirs to make the exhibition a ‘a forum for research rather than purely dissemination.’ The account provides a fascinating background to the exhibition and those of our readers who managed to see the exhibition will be able to judge for yourselves how successful you believe Darley and Reynolds to be in achieving their goals.

Catherine De Lorenzo’s article ‘The hang and art history’ is, as mentioned earlier, another one which may be familiar with our readers who attended the 2014 conference. De Lorenzo’s paper is one strand of a wider research project analysing exhibitions of Australian art over the last 50 years and focuses in particular on the subject of Aboriginal art, the increase in its recognition and acknowledgement as ‘quintessentially Australian’, and the implications this has on art history. Tony Tuckson’s Australian Aboriginal Art (1960-61) is the key example that De Lorenzo works with and she gives a fascinating and in-depth analysis of the ‘cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional’ curatorial strategies that directed the exhibition. While De Lorenzo touches on the curatorial and art historiographical legacies of Tuckson’s exhibition it would be interesting if she had looked at other exhibitions in the same level of detail, however I suspect that will be forthcoming as part of the goals of the wider research project that she is a part of. De Lorenzo’s article ultimately demonstrates how much the museum sector has changed over the past 50 years in its handling and understanding of Aboriginal art and how it can be further shaped in the future to continue to educate both scholars and the public on Aboriginal art and its essential place within the canon of Australian art history.

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The book that followed Tuckson’s exhibition

Further Birmingham art historians Matthew Rampley and Nóra Veszprémi are to be found in the reviews section. Rampley considers Vlad Toca’s Art Historical Discourse in Romania, 1919-1947 and suggests that the work does not constitute a particularly deep critical analysis but praises it for providing ‘a useful start to the discussion of an understudied subject.’ While Veszprémi provides a response to Rebecca Houze’s Textiles, Fashion and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress, which is incredibly detailed and thorough, giving real insight into the many highlights of Houze’s text.

Another article which may hold particular interest for our readers is Claire Farago’s review of The Lives of Leonardo, a subject of great discussion among the writers and readers of our blog. Farago looks in depth at Thomas Frangenberg and Rodney Palmer’s collection of articles taken from a symposium in 2006 on the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography. Farago highlights the central theme of the book as considering the legacy of Vasari’s Lives and her fascinating review of the book makes it one to perhaps recommend to our undergraduates in the future as they tackle Vasari in their first year. While generally praising of the book on the whole, Farago is withering in her disdain of the lack of female contributors to the volume, a reminder to us all that there is still a great deal of work to be done in balancing out the field. Indeed our first years have recently been tackling the problems that arise when men are solely responsible for our understanding of artists biographies.

I have barely touched the surface of the multitude of articles contained in December’s issue of the Journal of Art Historiography, so richly packed as it is with such an abundant range of pieces. However, I hope I have done enough to whet the appetite and encourage our readers to take a closer look at further articles in the journal. Anyone who would like to review one or two in greater detail is encouraged to get in touch.

 

To read the December issue and the 12 past issues the website is:

https://arthistoriography.wordpress.com/

What do our alumni do?

Every other year, the Department hosts an Art History Careers Event that is designed to give current students a taste of what kinds of careers will be open to them with their degrees in Art History from the University of Birmingham. This year, we managed to pin down two of the speakers–Dr Jennifer Powell and Becky Peake-Sexton–to record two short films about their own experiences post-University, to tell us a bit about where their degrees have got them. Take a look and below, and hopefully it’ll give you some food for thought about where you might go with your degree(s)!

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: WEDNESDAY 16 March

‘The Modernist Making of an International Rhythmic “Race”: Katherine Dreier’s Lithographs and Ted Shawn’s Dreier Lithograph Dance.’

Professor Robin Veder
(Penn State Harrisburg)

Wednesday 16 March
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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‘In the 1920s and 1930s, artist Katherine Dreier and dancer Ted Shawn believed they could make a new “race” by rhythmically stimulating viewers’ neuromuscular systems. Veder locates their joint contribution to American modernism within the overlapping discourses of physiological psychology, neurasthenia, and theosophy.’

Biographical Statement:

Robin Veder is Associate Professor of Humanities and Art History/Visual Culture at Penn State Harrisburg. She received her doctorate in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, and she has held post-doctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center for American Modernism, Harvard’s Garden and Landscape Studies Program at Dumbarton Oaks, and in spring 2016, the Institute for Advanced Study at Durham University. She is author of several articles on transatlantic art history, visual culture, history of the body, and landscape studies of the long nineteenth century, appearing in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, American Art, Visual Resources, Journal of Victorian Culture, Modernism/Modernity, and International Journal of the History of Sport. Veder’s book, The Living Line: Modern Art and the Economy of Energy, was published by the Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England’s Visual Culture Series in 2015.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

Birmingham Central Library. In Memorandum.

OLIVER STEVENSON (finalist)

Central Library

Central Library

The concrete heart of Birmingham is being destroyed. I, of course, am referring to John Madin’s brutalist masterpiece The Central Library.

 I remember the first time I visited Birmingham city centre, it was a few months before I started university in 2013. I got off a train at New Street and, having no idea where I was going, I walked to Victoria Square. There, peaking out from between the Town Hall and the Victorian Baroque Birmingham Museum was a huge concrete monolith of a building. I don’t remember much about that first visit three years ago but I remember the Central Library, though at the time I had no idea of its former function or about the ins and outs of British postwar concrete architecture. It’s jagged, angular concrete exterior struck my very core.

It is now, as was the fate of the second city’s Victorian library, being torn down by yellow cranes that appear in stark contrast to its muted colours; the demolition commenced before the final appeal to save the library had even begun. Birmingham City Council took a hammer to one of its most unique buildings, regardless of the fact that is one of the finest examples of Brutalist architecture in the UK and one of the finest examples of John Madin’s, one of the most brilliant Brummie architects, buildings. Though, shockingly, it is not the only of Madin’s buildings currently being demolished in Birmingham City centre. His incredible skyscraper stood at 103 Colmore Row, part of the Birmingham skyline for the last forty years, is also being taken down.

Central Library now.png

Why 103 Colmore Row, let alone the Central Library, have not been listed is still a point of contention for many people. Other outstanding examples of British brutalist have been: London’s Barbican Estate and Trellick and Balfron Towers, the UEA Ziggurat in Norwich and, closer to home, the New Street Signal Box (not five minutes walk from the Central Library) are all protected. Despite this, the Central Library, a remarkable example of postwar architecture that is so outstanding and unique to Birmingham and fits so well in to the city, with the entire Paradise Circus built just to house it has not been. Instead the city council have allowed it to be demolished, crushed in to nothing, razed it to the ground, in order to build another boring contemporary steel and glass structure as a gate between Victoria Square and Centenary Square. It is honestly a travesty, a real shame. A tragedy.

Colmore Row .png

103 Colmore Row

Signal Box

New St. Signal Box

It’s marmite nature may have divided Brummies and visitors alike but there is no way of denying that Central Library has been a distinctive, remarkable structure in the city since it opened in 1974. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact at some point I am going to get on a train from Selly Oak to New Street and it will not be there anymore, but it breaks my heart every time I go in to the city and a little bit more of it has been torn away.

So I’m writing this to say that, Birmingham Central Library, you magnificent brutal bastard, I will miss you. No matter how many t-shirts, postcards, tote bags and pin badges I buy with your unforgettable silhouette on it, I will miss you. 

Waldemar’s still unchaining the Renaissance (or not)

JAMIE EDWARDS AND FAITH TREND

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Just sat down to catch the latest instalment of The Renaissance Unchained, Waldemar Januszczak’s newest series for the BBC. We’re on to episode 3/4 now, and all of the previous shows are on the iPlayer. This week’s episode was called “Silk, Sex and Sin”. Important caveat, again, to what follows: I want to declare, right away, that I think we should be grateful that Waldemar is doing his bit, using his platform, to make sure that interest in Renaissance art doesn’t wane. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Mainly, this concerns a general mis-match between what Waldemar thinks he’s doing, saying, and achieving, and what he’s actually doing, what he’s actually saying. The series is supposed to unchain the Renaissance, to give new insights, to speak the unspoken. But it doesn’t.

I didn’t post about last week’s film yet, partly because I didn’t have time, and partly because I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t said before. Show 2 didn’t really seem to have a point: oh here’s Giotto, here’s Simone Martini, here’s Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo etc. etc. And then there was “wasn’t Jesus really ugly in the Renaissance?” I thought this series was supposed to be about unveiling a new side to the Renaissance? Well, none of those artists/subjects just mentioned are by any stretch of the imagination unfamiliar, even to the most pedestrian art enthusiast. To go back to my earlier point about show 1, if we really wanted to consider the untold Renaissance, wouldn’t we want to wonder, for instance, a bit more about such topics as: where have all the women gone? Might we not have spent less time raking over the dead familiar stuff, and spend a bit of time thinking about Sofonisba Anguissola, for example? And might we also not wonder why there aren’t many “Renaissance Women” to speak of in the first place? Waldemar was well up for highlighting that Vasari forgot about things going on outside Italy but what about Vasari’s even worse omission of women. Etc. etc.

At the end of show 2 I was still not convinced that the Renaissance was being unchained. Instead Waldemar simply espouses another potted history of the Renaissance–this is Gombrich’s Story of Art. So far it has featured all the well-known, mostly Italian, blokes (despite setting out to do the opposite), and, actually, all the old clichés. Since show 1 sought, so vehemently, to show that the Renaissance wasn’t an Italian phenomenon (even though everybody already knew that), I found it sort of funny that show 2 was all about Italian men…

Other annoyances:

Michelangelo battled not only with marble but with the ancients, too? Yeah, Waldemar (any old Michelangelo book will tell you that)! I also didn’t get the bit about “poor old Michelangelo” being duped by the Ancient sculptures, which, by the time they were dug up in the 1500s had lost their polychromy. But can we really be sure that if these sculptures had been found with paint still on them–and I’m not 100% sure that all Antique statues were painted (were they?)–that Michelangelo and others would have been less interested in the intrinsic visual properties of marble? I’m not so sure.

It’s also strangely ironic, I suppose, that at one moment in a show that claims to show new sides to the Renaissance, to cast light on hitherto neglected souls, that Waldemar did a piece to camera front of Senastiano del Piombo’s Flagellation (in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome; below). Michelangelo was involved in designing this fresco, yet that collaboration was not mentioned, and poor old Sebastiano didn’t even get a look in, wasn’t even mentioned. Instead we were whisked off to the Sistine Chapel, for Botticelli, Perugino, the big M, and so on and so on (not necessarily a bad thing, but incongruous given Waldemar’s supposed aims).

Waldemar--Piombo.png

There were plenty of other bold, wholly untrue claims. One was that nobody’s ever heard of, thinks about, or writes about Nicollò dell’Arca, who has been”written out”, Waldemar told us, of the story of the Renaissance: “you just don’t hear about Niccolò dell’Arca”. But that’s not quite true.

Anyway, those were my thoughts about show 2.

Anyway, felt compelled to write again, since show 3 was in many ways just as problematic. We’ve moved on to Venice. Splendid! There were lots of Bellinis, Carpaccios and all the rest, which are wonderful. But then, with Giorgione, the first big problem arose. We don’t know anything about Giorgione, true, but when Waldemar said that he had solved the mystery of Giorgione’s Tempest, he was, yet again, doing hard-working art historians a disservice. Waldemar, as though making a breakthrough, told us that he’d come up with a solution to the Tempest, which has troubled art historians, and told us the picture is actually based on Hesiod’s Theogony. Now that isn’t exactly “common knowledge”, granted, but the thing is it’s not (yet again) a Waldemar original (as he enthusiastically implied!). The idea that Giorgione’s famous picture was inspired by Hesiod was first proposed–as far as I know, and I could be wrong–by Ursula and Warren Kirkendale in 2015. Even if they weren’t the first, what is certainly true is that Waldemar isn’t. (Obviously I understand he need for TV drama, but would it have been so hard to say “as others recently have pointed out… and I agree…”? To put it bluntly, I don’t much like this kind of scholarly appropriation that Waldemar goes in for. True, a TV show doesn’t have the apparatus, nor the appetite, for dense, academic argumentation, but I think that there are ways of being scrupulous about acknowledging your sources without bogging the viewer down and which must always be done.)

Waldemar also went on to claim that it is only as a result of “recent research” that we now know that the glassworkers were moved to Murano, not only to protect the main city of Venice from fire, but also so that Venice could keep its glass blowing techniques a secret from their rivals. To his credit, Waldemar does not attribute this “recent research” to himself, but he still suggests that this is a recent revelation that he is sharing with his audience when it is a claim that has been asserted for centuries.

Ponte delle Tette (Venice)

At least in show 3 the women made it in–hurrah. Unfortunately this was in the way of the Ponte de le Tette, or Bridge of Tits. Obviously not the most empowering of guises in which women could make an appearance in Waldemar’s newfangled account of the Renaissance. Waldemar uses the bridge as a segue into discussing the audience grabbing aspect of this episode’s title–sex! In particular, he looks at Titian’s revolutionary portrayal of the female nude, which allows Waldemar to oggle Titian’s Danaë, the Rape of Europa, the Venus of Urbino and others. Titian was indeed a groundbreaking and consummate painter of the female nude. However, Waldemar completely ignores the really interesting aspects of these paintings, which is that despite all their sexiness a fair few of Titian’s mythologies (the ones with the most female nudes!) were commissioned by Spain’s Philip II, who just happens to have been one of the most powerful Catholics in the period of religious upheaval that we call the Reformations and Counter Reformations (an important context for understanding Titian, and, broadly speaking, all European art from the sixteenth century that Waldemar failed to mention). It might have been interesting, then, to think about how we can resolve or square the ostensible paradox that Titian’s sexy nudes were originally oggled by the very-Catholic, notoriously strait-laced Phillip!

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Waldemar failed to mention religion in his discussion of sex, failing to address what appear to be the inherent dichotomies and incongruities. But he did later go off to visit one of my favourite buildings in Venice–the Scuola di San Rocco–as an example of a religious building that is covered in the most amazing collection of Tintoretto paintings. He also mentioned Titian’s famous Assumption of the Virgin in the Frari, but once again, missed the opportunity to share any of the more interesting things about that painting, going instead for the more banal ones.Waldemar could, for example, have talked about the fact that Titian was one of the first artists to really consider the space he was painting for and the picture’s relationship with its surroundings. I got excited when Waldemar started his talk about the painting from in front of the choir screen, guessing that he was going to talk about the fact that the Assunta is meant to be gradually revealed to you and you move along the nave towards the altar, until you reach the choir screen, which, when opened, perfectly frames the altarpiece ahead. Titian, and later Tintoretto, wanted the experiences of the audiences to be interactive, awe-inspiring and above all, spiritual (you know, that revelationary moment in the Frari when you reach the choir screen and see get a full glimpse of the Virgin’s assumption into the Heavens). However Waldemar said nothing about it. It was such a missed opportunity to talk about something that was really a very Venetian, and very pioneering, approach.

Again, though, is Waldemar really bringing us anything new and exciting about the Renaissance that we didn’t already know by talking to us about Titian’s most famous painting? While it is indeed a very, very good painting there are numerous others that do not get the same attention that Waldemar could have talked about and which really would’ve highlighted an under-appreciated side of the (Venetian) Renaissance. Venice is full of masterpieces that are not as well known as the Assumption. Titian, along with Tintoretto and Veronese (who also gets a mention for, unsurprisingly, his stunning representation of fabrics) represent the triumvirate of the most famous Venetian painters of the Renaissance. But what about all the others? If Waldemar had really wanted to uncover a more hidden side, he could have given a voice to painters such as Francesco Montemezzano or Jacopo Bassano, who were both very competent artists working in the same period as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese but are nowhere near as well known. He might also have dwelled on Venice as an artistic crossroads, that played host to all sorts of artists as they moved about Europe.

All this week’s episode of The Renaissance Unchained did not really fulfill its brief of challenging “the traditional view of art’s most important epoch”. Instead it provided a watered down version of any good (or not so good) art history textbook, with some spurious “recent research” claims, and other breakthroughs, thrown in.

 

* Update

Bernard says:

The series is broadcasted early 2016, so probably filmed in 2015 and written maybe even earlier? Is it possible the Kirkindales and this Waldemar came to the same conclusion independently?

  • jamieedwards756 says:

    It’s possible, of course. But, being a skeptic, I guess I’m doubtful… It seems somehow too much of a coincidence, perhaps?! At any rate, I didn’t mean to make much of a big point about it. For me it’s just another (possible) example of how Waldemar can skew the truth by neglecting to mention that certain ideas are already out there in the world of art history.

 

 

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