Category Archives: Art News

What You Need to Know About Tracey Emin: A Grand Return

We are showcasing a series of blog posts written by our second year students as part of our Engaging Art History module which introduces students to ideas of public engagement in museums and galleries, and how to use the knowledge gained during their studies to speak to a wide range of audiences. Our first post is by Naomi Bruneel…

‘I’ve always been an advocate of women being able to tell how it feels’ – Emin

Very much to my excitement, Tracey Emin, who first rose to fame in the 1990’s as one of the Young British Artists, made a return to the London art scene since this February with her exhibition A Fortnight of Tears at the White Cube.


Emin at the press release of ‘A Fortnight of Tears’

After cutting ties with her American gallery in 2016 and retreating to the South of France, Emin has reappeared with her new exhibition ‘A Fortnight of Tears’, held at Bermondsey’s White Cube Gallery. The exhibition features a range of media including painting, photography, film, sculpture and drawing, as well as her infamous neon signs. The exhibition is a big ‘emotional time bomb’ which consists of Emin, as a now matured woman, looking back at her past experiences.

One thing you must understand about Emin’s work is that it is very personal and confessional. Her artworks often relate to her troubled teenage years and early adulthood. My Bed (1998) was her seminal piece that explored the raw and emotional period that followed her horrific abortion. She admits that ‘this bed probably saved my life’, after laying there for 4 days.

When first exhibited, the installation stirred a lot of commentary due its provocative nature: the bed included bottles of alcohol, contraception, tampons and underwear stained with bodily fluids. Reconnecting with the installation many years later, Emin states that it is like looking back at a ghost, a ghost of the woman she no longer is.

Emin Bed.jpg

You should also know that Emin is a strong advocate of gender equality and female liberation. Emin’s artworks are critical of the expectations of women having to marry and create a family. When Emin first fell pregnant, she was shocked as she had been previously told by a doctor that she would never be able to conceive. Now commenting on the absence of a husband and child, Emin believes that she chose the right path. She worries that she would have neglected her art and in turn resent her family. Emin states that when she does (temporarily) neglect her art, she becomes depressed and her body physically stiffens. Luckily for us (and Bermondsey’s White Cube Gallery), her body is in full swing again!

Since the beginning, Egon Schiele and Käthe Kollwitz have been inspirational figures behind Emin’s art, especially her drawings. In 2015, the Leopold Museum in Vienna exhibited more than 80 of Emin’s works alongside Schiele’s to show the rooted connection between the two artists. Similar drawings feature in ‘A Fortnight of Tears’: pink abstracted representations of the female body create an interesting, but also aesthetic, contrast with the clinical white gallery space.

The exhibition also features an ‘insomnia’ room, which displays 50 close-up bed selfies of Emin at her most wakeful hours – very much #nofilter.

Emin Insomnia.jpg

Make sure you don’t fall asleep and miss the ‘insomnia’ room in ‘A Fortnight of Tears’

Returning to her British roots, ‘A Fortnight of Tears’ explores how over the years, Emin has transformed from a young girl of alcohol and sex, to a woman of wisdom and compassion. Her emotions have remained at the forefront of her artworks and her passion is still their driving force. Even though we no longer see the vulnerability of a young adult, Emin displays her journey of growth, a path to which we can all identity with.

After seeing the exhibition, I’d highly recommend you pay a visit too!

Here are the details:

6 February 2019 – 7 April 201,

White Cube Bermondsey, 144 – 152 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ

Free Admission


Courbet’s Model “Revealed” …

JON STEVENS (MRes History of Art)

Oh dear! Why is it that when art history hits the headlines, it is often a banal example of an artistic ‘who-dun-it’ or, even, ‘who-was-it’. A week or so ago, a news item in the Guardian announced that one of the greatest mysteries in art history appears to have been solved.

What was this mystery? Apparently, some new research has revealed (I use the word advisedly) that the model for Gustave Courbet’s notorious painting of a naked woman’s torso and genitalia – L’Origine du Monde – was not Joanna Hiffernan, as previously thought, but Constance Quinéaux. I can’t imagine that many people regarded the identity of the model for this work as a great mystery — or for that matter especially interesting, given the myriad other more profound and powerful analyses that this image of female objectivity opens up — but the way this story was reported by various news outlets, including the Guardian and the BBC, was problematic in other ways.

To start with the painting itself. It was commissioned in the mid nineteenth-century by Khalil Bey, a wealthy Ottoman diplomat based in Paris, who had a taste for erotic art. He apparently hung it in his private chambers hidden behind a green curtain. The truncated and foreshortened woman’s body in the picture lies uncovered and exposed, with the white bed sheet drawn back; the woman is objectified and denied any identity (which, apart from anything else, rather undermines the importance of scholarly debate around the supposed model). Bey apparently displayed his painting to selected male guests by theatrically drawing the curtain back. And, although I have only seen reproductions of the painting, it seems to me that it amounts to little more than a piece of voyeurism.

For many years, the painting was not shown in public. Apparently, it was thought that, while discerning and educated men could appreciate it as a ‘work of art’, ordinary people, rather like ‘the servants’ in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, might be corrupted by it. To maintain this conceit, it was given the overblown title of ‘The Origin of the World’. It was painted in 1866, seven years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species; this made the painting either hopelessly unscientific, if you accepted the idea of evolution by natural selection, or blasphemous, if you subscribed to the idea of a creator god. But of course the title was just a false cover, designed to give the painting some kind of specious respectability.

The press coverage of the story makes matters worse, much worse. The BBC in its report tries to stick to the facts, as it were. But their whole approach is undermined by the photoshopped image, which precedes their article. This shows a woman spectator standing in front of the painting with the back of her head and her long hair obscuring the offending genitalia. To replace the male gaze with the female gaze in this way is unbelievably crass; in trying to be discrete, the BBC has instead added a new dimension to the notion of objectification.

The Guardian makes little attempt to be measured. Their news item engages in some titillating speculation about the model’s dark pubic hair; this matches Quineaux’s “beautiful black eyebrows” whereas Hiffernan had a “mane of flaming red curls”. Jonathan Jones in his Guardian article entitled Who posed for the ‘Mona Lisa of vaginas’? is more obviously prurient. Although he places the Mona Lisa reference in quotation marks, it is clear that this is his idea of a joke and he continues in this vein.

Jones, who previously subscribed to the view that Courbet’s model was Joanna Hiffernan, is a bit miffed by this new research as it means he will have to amend a book he is writing. However, he salaciously accepts that there is ‘a blazing piece of contradictory evidence’ to the contrary. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop Jones pondering that ‘it is particularly tempting to imagine Hiffernan’s features hidden under that white sheet’. He goes on to use the story as a pretext for speculating about the ‘carnal dimension’ of some paintings that did feature Joanna Hiffernan, who apart from modelling for Courbet briefly, was James McNeill Whistler’s mistress and muse. Hiffernan features in all of Whistler’s ‘Symphonies’, including the Barber Institute’s own Symphony in White No III, but it is her appearance as a prostitute in Whistler’s Wapping that most exercises him.

I could go on but I suggest that you access the offending articles for yourself by looking at the BBC’s news item , the Guardian’s news item and the Jonathan Jones article. Further thoughts are welcome!

Photographer Freddy Fabris recreated Old Master paintings with a cast of car mechanics — and it’s so good!

Jamie Edwards

Stumbled across this online and think it’s great. Photographer Freddy Fabris decided to recreate a series of Old Master paintings as photographs, and in the place of Christ, disciples eating bread, seventeenth-century anatomists, etc., he used car mechanics from a garage in America’s Midwest. As Fabris explained to Huffpost:

For many years I wanted to pay homage the great Renaissance masters. Translating painting into photography was a challenge I looked forward to. I wanted to respect the look and feel of the originals, but needed to come up with a conceptual twist that would create a new layer to the original. To take them out of their original context, yet maintain their essence.

I’ve selected a few of my favourites below, and reproduced them alongside the original work that inspired Fabris; you can view the whole series here.

Fabris Anatomy 2

Fabris, Anatomy Lesson (from The Renaissance Series)


Rembrandt Tulp

Rembrandt van Rijn, Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp,1632; The Hague


Fabris Creation

Fabris, Creation of Adam (from The Renaissance Series)

Michelangelo Creation

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Creation of Adam (from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling)


Fabris Rembrandt

Fabris, Rembrandt-esque Portrait (from The Renaissance Series)

Rembrandt Portrait .png

Rembrandt, Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Art Detective “doing” Bosch.


“There’s so much in him ….” Him being Hieronymus Bosch. True.

Garden 2

Earthly Delights in the 2016 Bosch exhibition

Here’s Waldemar Januszczak being interviewed by the brilliant Janina Ramirez, as part of her Art Detective podcast series, on the subject of Bosch’s so-called Earthly Delights (1480s or 1490s; Prado, Madrid). Worth a listen; it does well, on the whole, to avoid, if not rubbish, some of the nonsense that people have had to say about Bosch, and this particular picture, in the past (including the “crazy idea” that this picture had something to do with Adamites!). It does a good job too to emphasise the basic religious significance of this picture, despite what you might think when you look at it for the first time.

There are some problems, though. It’s not all that exceptional, for instance, that Bosch ended up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady, as this was family tradition. (Though it might be exceptional that Bosch, as a painter, achieved such a senior position: he rapidly rose to the status of sworn brother, a promotion from “ordinary member,” and artists didn’t tend to occupy such an elevated position.) Most problematic, though, is the idea, rehearsed here, that the triptych was an altarpiece (  “… of course it was,” says Januszczak), which was set up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady’s chapel. OK, so a copy — they say here — might later have sat on the altar there ( … though I can’t remember what the evidence is for this? is there any? don’t think there is); and it is a triptych. But neither of those things mean that the original was an altarpiece.

For a start, not all triptychs were altarpieces; that’s the kind of assumption that led to the bonkers Adamites theory. (Put simply, that theory arose because if the triptych is assumed to have been an altarpiece, then it follows that it can’t really have sat on a Christian altar, can it? Sorry: the imagery just doesn’t fit there, for this image bears no sensible correlation with what actually goes on at a Christian altar …. So people went scurrying about to find alternative “altars”. Cue: the Adamites, whose altar, adorned with Bosch’s picture, presided over all the orgiastic sex. Err ….)

Any anyway, more compellingly, all the evidence — and when we’re dealing with Bosch, evidence is a rare commodity so should be seized upon whenever it’s available — suggests that the triptych was commissioned by a “local noble” for a domestic, albeit very grand, setting. That noble was Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau.

The triptych is first documented in the Nassau Palace of Coudenberg in Brussels in 1517: it was seen there by Antonio de Beatis (see, if you can, Gombrich, ‘The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight,’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967); Steppe, ‘Jheronimus Bosch. Bijdrage tot de historische … ,’ in Steppe (ed.), Jheronimus Bosch … (1967) ). At that time, in 1517, the triptych was in the possession of Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda, Engelbrecht’s nephew (the latter died in 1504 without direct legitimate heirs, so his property went to Henry). Current thinking is that Engelbrecht commissioned the triptych in the 1480s or 1490s (though disagreement reigns over which decade it was). Neatly, we do know that Engelbrecht visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1481, to attend the 14th Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece; and coincidentally, the first time that we find Bosch mentioned as a painter in his own right in the surviving documentation comes from that very year, when “Joen the Painter” sold shares in the Bosch family house at ‘s-Hertogenbosch to his older brother Goessen. Engelbrecht visited again in 1496, in the entourage of Philip the Fair. (The latter, we know as a matter of fact, was a patron of Bosch’s: in 1504, presumably with Engelbrecht once more in tow, Philip the Fair was in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and asked Bosch to produce a large triptych for him showing the Last Judgement. Inevitably — though not necessarily — this leads to speculation that Engelbrecht might have suggested to Philip that Bosch was an artist to be aware of!) And given that the Nassau owned a property nearby at Breda, we can guess that Engelbrecht, as well as Henry, actually visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch quite regularly, for business as well as pleasure.

The Prado endorses this view concerning Engelbrecht’s likely patronage, as did the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP Catalogue Raisonné, 2016). Not least this is because the triptych’s provenance can be traced from Engelbrecht-Henry Nassau into the possession of Phillip II of Spain, and, by extension, from there into the Prado in 1933. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that when Phillip sent the triptych to the monastery of El Escorial, in 1593, it was not placed in a religious setting there either … it was placed instead in the royal apartments, in the Gallery of the Infanta.)

Januszczak surely knows this story about the triptych’s provenance: after all, displayed in the very same room as the Earthly Delights in the 2016 Prado exhibition was a portrait of the triptych’s likely patron, Engelbrecht, done in the 1480s by the so-called Master of the Princely Portraits. (You can just about make this out in photograph above, in the display cabinet.)

So, good and interesting podcast. But let’s not forget the evidence.

** Shameful plug, and tenuous link, alert: the podcast mentions Bruegel, and in case you’re interested, I’m giving a lecture about Bruegel at the Holburn Museum in Bath on March 22, to coincide with their exhibition Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty. More here.

Bosch, Bosch, Bosch


In a few days’ time, the exhibition Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a genius will close the Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Most of the works are then being shipped to Madrid, where, on the 31st May, another Bosch exhibition will open at The Prado: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition (31.05.2016 – 11.09.2016). The trailer (which has a curious voiceover) is here:

Regular readers will remember that the Prado and Noordbrabants museum have come to blows this year (the 5th centenary year of Bosch’s death), mainly over the Bosch Research & Conservation Project’s findings. The findings call for the “downgrading” of several works previously thought to be by Bosch that are held by the Prado. This led, at the eleventh hour, to the Prado’s decision to withdraw the Cure of Folly and St Anthony from the show in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Those works will now be included in the Prado’s own exhibition, which will also include the monumental (so-called) Garden of Earthly Delights (1480s) that the Prado owns (and obviously didn’t lend to the Nordbrabants Museum).

Turner and his Fighting Temeraire make the new twenty quid note


New 20£

The Bank of England have revealed the design of its new £20 note (above), which will begin circulating in 2020. It features Turner’s 1799 Self-Portrait (now in the Tate Britain) and his almost ubiquitously familiar painting The Fighting Temeraire, of 1839 (NG, London; below). Also featuring on the note will be Turner’s famous quote ‘Light is therefore colour’, a phrase first uttered by Turner in an 1818 lecture delivered at the RA.

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

The new design is the result of a landmark public vote, the first time that the public was invited to nominate candidates to feature on a new note. The bank ended-up with a list featuring some 29,000 nominees, 590 of which were artists. From these, a shortlist was drawn up: Turner, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hepworth, William Hogarth, and designer Josiah Wedgwood, and eventually Turner won.

This story has been the subject of some controversy. Rightly, it was pointed out that women are conspicuous only by their relative absence from the new batch of notes–by 2020, the £5, £20 and £50 notes will feature portraits of notable blokes, whereas only one woman (besides HMQ Elizabeth II, obviously) has got a look in: Jane Austen, who will feature on the £10 note from 2017. Caroline Criado-Perez, head of the campaign for more women to appear on banknotes, was rightly, I think, miffed that only one woman made it on to the Bank’s list of five notable historical figures for inclusion on the new notes, quipping that “I guess the Bank of England thinks one woman out of five historical figures ticks off their gender quota.” The Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, meanwhile, has admitted that although diversity was a consideration in the decision nevertheless conceded that “further progress” could be made in this regard.

I DO think, though, that we should acknowledge the Bank’s efforts to increase transparency and independence by involving the public in a vote (even if the final decision was made by a board headed by the Bank’s deputy governor, other high-fliers and some specially drafted in “advisors” etc.). I do also think–laying the gender inequality aside, if such a thing can ever be done–that Turner makes for a very appropriate choice. Turner is, after all, without doubt one of the preeminent and most important figures in British art history.

Theory no. 37,987,869*: the Mona Lisa really shows Leonardo’s gay lover


Mona Lisa

The Telegraph reports today the latest Mona Lisa theory.** Silvano Vincenti–the art detective, who has spent the last few years digging around in the ground beneath S Ursula’s convent in Florence looking for Lisa del Giocondo’s (née Gherardini) remains–has finally “come up with an answer to a question that has divided scholars for years – who was the Mona Lisa based on?”. Vincenti says that we’ve all been wrong for years, and that the Mona Lisa is actually not, strictly speaking, a portrait of Lisa at all. It’s really a portrait of Leonardo’s live-in assisatnt, and conjectured lover, Salai. Partly based on examinations of infra-red images, Vincenti says that the “androgynous” Mona Lisa is a fusion of Lisa’s face with the best bits of Salai; he says that the forehead, nose and that smile, are all Salai’s features. Underlying all this is the speculation that Leonardo and Salai were gay lovers–hence Vincenti’s comparison between the face of the Mona Lisa with the face of the Incarnate Angel, here reckoned to be a portrait of sorts of Salai, and notable because the angel has a stonking erection. Reading between the lines, the Mona Lisa thus goes from idealised portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife, to a secret homage to Salai, Leonardo’s gay lover.

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Frankly, Vincenti should’ve known better. The basic premise that the identification of the portrait’s sitter is ‘a question that has divided scholars for years’ is a false one. No scholar–or else, no serious one–actually doubts whether the portrait is a picture of Lisa, however idealised or imaginative it may, in many respects, be.

At any rate, it is frankly misleading to claim that even if Leonardo found Salai attractive, and even if he had, somewhere in his mind, Salai’s features when producing his pictures, that those pictures must then be understood as pictorial manifestations of Leonardo and Salai’s gay romance. This is a misunderstanding of the artistic process, what it entails and how it works. It’s also a rather naïve take on sexuality in the Early Modern period, during which relationships between older men and young boys would never have been understood according to a modern taxonomy of sexuality (gay, homosexual etc.). To say the Mona Lisa is actually about gay love, articulated in those terms, is simply anachronistic.

This latest theory is therefore a kind of dramatising and skewing of the known facts that gives rise, in this case, to a view not dissimilar to the wholly problematic interpretations of Michelangelo and Tomasso dei Cavalieri’s relationship and the works of art, poetry etc. that they exchanged.

Anyway, as Prof. Martin Kemp has been saying for years–and this is repeated in The Telegraph‘s article–we don’t actually know what Salai looked like. Vasari’s written description of him is generic, to say the least, and conforms to a standard type: “he was pretty and had curly hair”, basically. So any attempt to spot Salai’s features in Leonardo’s work is a lost cause from the off, and any results are wholly conjectural.

Thus Kemp’s view: “This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy…”.

To put that another way, this is Dan Brown stuff.


* This is, by the way, the second time Vincenti has peddled this “theory”. This is just a re-hashing. In 2011, he said the same.

** do wish people would stop referring to Leonardo as “da Vinci”.

Restoring Joachim Wtewael at the NG


Another excellent video by the National Gallery here, about the marvellous Jill Dunkerton’s work to restore their Raising of Lazrus (about 1605) by Joachim Wtewael. As Dunkerton explains, the picture was a right old mess just a few years ago, and this video charts her painstaking work to bring it back to something like its original glory.

Fascinating stuff, and another good example of how important conscientious conservation is for the preservation of important works of art for future generations to enjoy.

PS sorry about the lack of action recently (writing, writing, writing!). Many new posts coming next week!

Birmingham Central Library. In Memorandum.


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)


Waldemar .png

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).


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!

Titian, Frari .jpg

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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