Dr Kim Woods (Open University)
Wednesday 15 March
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre
Many statues and works of sculpture made in the late Gothic and Renaissance period are represented with mouth open, as if caught in a mid-utterance. These ‘speaking statues’ have received remarkably little comment from art historians. What are these speaking statues saying? How can we tell? What do viewers ‘hear’ and how are they intended to respond?
Might this the illusion of speech be just another aspect of the illusion of life that constituted such a strong theme in late Gothic art and the Renaissance? Accents of an intensely lifelike character might serve not just to impress but to enhance the persuasive character of a work of art and encourage interaction with the viewer. Understood this way, the illusion of speech is one aspect of a portfolio of persuasive virtuoso features that served artistic purposes but also had the capacity to engage a response on the part of the viewer.
Alternatively, could it be that the illusion of speech is an aspect of animism, the suggestion that a statue is in some essential sense alive? Legends have certainly come down to us recounting stories of statues coming to life and speaking to the onlooker. A more conservative alternative is that the illusion of speech enhanced the potential surrogacy of the statue: in other words that a statue apparently speaking or acting echoed the hopes of the viewer that the figurehead the statue represented would also speak or act on the viewer’s behalf.
There is another possibility: that a speaking statue is actually ‘saying’ something quite specific that the viewer in some sense would have ‘heard’ as part of their viewing experience. It is not difficult to find instances where this was undoubtedly the case. It begs many questions though. What exactly does a specific statue ‘say’? Who decides what it ‘says’ and indeed whether it speaks at all? Were there conventions of ‘speaking’ that a period eye might understand and we no longer do? The aim of this paper is to begin to unravel this illusion of speech and the agency it implies.
Kim Woods is a senior lecturer in Art History at the Open University. She specialises in northern European late Gothic sculpture c.1330-c.1530, materials of sculpture and cultural exchange. Her first single-authored book, Imported Images (Donington, 2007), concentrated on Netherlandish wood sculpture. Since then she has been working on alabaster sculpture and her new book, Cut in Alabaster 1330-1530, a study of a material and its European traditions will be published by Harvey Miller in 2017. Her co-published Open University work includes the Yale/Open University Renaissance Art Reconsidered volumes (2007); Medieval to Renaissance, the first volume of the Tate/Open University Art and Visual Culture series (2012); and most recently a chapter on Spain and the New World for European Art and the Wider World, 1415-1550, the first volume of the new Open University course Art and its Global Histories, to be published by Manchester University Press in 2017.