Category Archives: Art News

Eastside Projects: Eloise Colbourne on volunteering at the gallery and their current exhibitions

I have just completed my first year at the University of Birmingham and I have been volunteering at Eastside Projects since Easter. It was a trip to Eastside Projects during my Object and Medium module that inspired me to start volunteering there because I am very interested in contemporary art and I like the gallery’s culture and ethos. Working at Eastside has provided me with many invaluable opportunities to develop my skills and knowledge of this area of the art world, including helping during gallery installations. Furthermore, I have been able to attend very interesting talks and late night gallery openings, as well as being introduced to curators, artists and like-minded students. Volunteering at Eastside Projects is something I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in contemporary art and information on becoming a volunteer can be found on the gallery’s website (http://www.eastsideprojects.org/volunteering/). The current exhibitions are Silks by Samara Scott and YOU AND ME HERE WE ARE by Roger Coward, and I hope that this post explains a little bit more about how the gallery functions as well as serving as a taster of the current exhibitions.

Eastside Projects

eastside1

Eastside Projects is a contemporary art space in Digbeth. The gallery is curated by artists who commission experimental contemporary art exhibitions in order to demonstrate the use of art in society. The city of Birmingham’s motto is ‘Forward’ and this is displayed all over the city through official documents, civic buildings and street signs. However, Eastside Projects believe that Birmingham should have a new motto: ‘Layered’. This is because, as described in Eastside Projects User’s Manual, Birmingham Council can be symbolised as a hammer; forever knocking things down in order to move ‘forward’ and start again. In response to this, Eastside Projects propose that instead of always knocking things down with the negative connotations of Birmingham’s motto of ‘forward’, art and artists should be involved in every level of the development of the city. In this way, the city could have an ‘alternative urban landscape’ where cultural history could coexist. The gallery is an interesting and eclectic mix of artworks past and present. When exhibitions finish, the gallery holds on to parts of the exhibitions (for example the door handle, black pleasure, chairs and table cloths) to create the ever evolving and layered landscape that is Eastside Projects. Currently at the gallery are the exhibitions ‘Silks’ by Samara Scott and ‘You and Me Here We Are’, by Roger Coward which are open until July 11th. Further information on both of the artists is available to explore at the gallery. Eastside Projects is very inviting and friendly, with an endless supply of tea available at the honesty café. It is well worth the visit Wednesday – Saturday 12-5pm during the week, and particularly on Digbeth First Fridays.

 

Samara Scott, Silks

eastside2

Noodles, glitter hairspray, household chemicals and pistachio shells are just some of the misused materials poured and pooled into the recently dug up holes in Eastside projects concrete floor. Samara Scott’s new exhibition ‘Silks’ combines and contrasts products you could find in a supermarket and demolishes our intrinsic desire for order and perfection. Realistically, the very notion of order and perfection is flawed. We walk into shops daily and scan the isles methodically and meticulously for the products we want. We never question why a yam from Africa is in the same location as Ribena manufactured in Poland. Products are ordered by their packaging and advertising materials, but Scott argues this is only to make us feel in control. In Silks, Scott blends these materials together in her pools of disorder and chaos, she works with no clear structured idea of what she wishes to produce because this would destroy the emphasis of the show. In this way, the flat paintings in the ground depict instances of beauty clashing together with moments of scum, like the splodges of milk plopped into the pond of oil.

The works are alive and fragile, with the materials constantly evolving as they decay, rot, and in the instance of the salt crystals – grow. So called man-made materials are not stable, and these microbiomes are in a continuous state of flux. The publication ‘Lonely Plant’, which is about Scott’s residency in Turin, discusses the way she explores ‘the life span of materials in their interaction with processes of decomposition and intermingling’. The very title of the exhibition ‘Silks’ connotes the artist’s desire to express movement and fluidity. Scott’s works take influence from Wabi-Sabi, which is the Japanese world view or aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The miniature worlds are sensual, tangible and above all mysterious. The swirling colours and contrasts of textures make this exhibition a sensory delicacy and the exhibition is a fascinating visit. It will be interesting to watch the ponds change as they evolve and decay throughout the exhibition.

Roger Coward, YOU AND ME HERE WE ARE

eastside3

The Artist Placement Group (APG) was established in London in the 1960s. The organisation’s aims were to reposition the role of the artist within a wider social context, including government and commerce. It also played a key part in the history of conceptual art during the 1960s and 1970s. Roger Coward is a filmmaker who created a series of films and plays with residents and this exhibition explores Coward’s 1975 APG in Small Heath, Birmingham. Coward was the first artist to be placed in a government department on an open brief as negotiated by AGP and the Department of the Environment. The purpose of the urban studies, which were initiated by the Department of the Environment, was to develop a new approach to making improvements to environments such as Small Heath.

Coward worked with four other artists – Gavin Brown, Roland Lewis, Evadne Stevens and Frances Viner. Crucially, the group emphasised the importance of art in society. They trained three community groups to use video in order to present their views on the environment to the City Council officials and these are included in the film ‘Spaghetti Junction’. By encouraging the use of VTR (video tape recording), local residents were able to communicate effectively and vividly with political representatives and officials as well raising awareness amongst their own community. Coward offered video training so that the community could produce films about the issues they faced and said ‘all I did was supply the equipment needed and explained how it worked. They then made the film on their own.’ The exhibition is a fascinating exploration into the integral use of art in society and the way it can function to deliver a comprehensive and articulate argument to people in power.

The exhibition includes original material from 1975, such as the film ‘The Most Smallest Heath in the Spaghetti Junction’ as well as a symposium ‘The Studio in Society’ (Saturday 4th July), and a revival of two plays which were performed in Digbeth in 1975 which will take place on the 5th and 6th July.

Eloise Colbourne

Tagged ,

Cleaning Charles Le Brun’s Portrait of Everhard Jabach and his family at the Met

LeBrun half and half

A fascinating video below documenting Michael Gallagher’s painstaking, 10-month restoration of Charles Le Brun’s 1660 Jabach family portrait at the Met in New York.

LeBrun rolled

The picture, which is 355 years old, was it’s fair to say in much need of a bit of t.l.c. It’s surface was muddied by that all-too-familiar old, discoloured varnish, which, as this video amply demonstrates, really does make a significant difference to the appearance and impact of a painting. There was also a whopping great fissure in the canvas near to the top edge, as well as other, more minor, losses at various places on the picture’s surface. This video, as well as its associated blog, reveals the intricacies and work involved in repairing an old work such as this one and returning it to a former glory. It also demonstrates fairly effectively, I’d say, the hard and meritorious work that scrupulous restorers are continually engaged in in order to preserve major works of art for the future.

Jamie

Abstraction at the RBSA: Undergraduate curator Emily Robins explains what it takes to put together an archive exhibition

Thirteen artworks, two volunteers, one exhibition. This autumn the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) will present their latest archive exhibition, Abstraction at the RBSA. The show is being curated entirely by two University of Birmingham undergraduate students, Tate Gronow and me, Emily Robins.

I’ve been volunteering at the RBSA for a while now, primarily in their archive department. I usually spend my time responding to archive enquiries from members of the public and updating the museum databases, while also researching and organising collection and archive material. In November 2014 I was offered an opportunity that would be the envy of art history students across the country, a chance to curate in its entirety a public exhibition at a prestigious local gallery. It was, quite clearly, an opportunity not to be missed!

Tate and Emily are pictured here with Joan Woollard's  'The Races', which is one of the Artworks up for adoption. Woollard was the first female president of the RBSA.

Tate and Emily are pictured here with Joan Woollard’s The Races, which is one of the Artworks up for adoption. Woollard was the first female president of the RBSA.

Since January, Tate and I have been working on this rather exciting undertaking. Our chosen theme for the exhibition is ‘Abstraction’ and we began by searching the archive for interesting pieces which fitted that category. We came across a wide variety of works and decided on a roughly chronological approach to the exhibition, charting abstraction as a concept from works in the Impressionist style towards pieces such as Caged Yellow (1996, RBSA) by William Gear, which are fully abstract in their use of line, tone and colour. We were then able to start preparing all the written interpretation needed for the exhibition, including text panels and exhibition labels, as well as marketing material such as articles and press releases.

Initially, I have to admit, I was slightly intimidated by the prospect of this project, but find myself facing each new challenge with enthusiasm, continuing to push myself out of my comfort zone. The sheer amount of written material required for the exhibition was something which I found daunting at first, but, I have now come to enjoy this part of the process the most! My eyes have well and truly been opened to the nitty-gritty aspects of curating and all that it involves, and I am relishing the entire experience.

The RBSA is first and foremost an artist-led charity, and therefore, fundraising remains a core part of the gallery’s ethos. Without the dedication and support of volunteers and donors, opportunities like this, a chance to curate my own public exhibition, would not be possible. Having worked behind the scenes as a volunteer I’ve been lucky to see some of the treasures in the RBSA’s collection which cannot be on display because of their fragile condition. The Adopt-an-Artwork fundraising scheme helps to restore these beautiful works, so that they can go back on exhibition and be appreciated by RBSA visitors for years to come.

We are currently fundraising for some conservation costs of objects in the exhibition, please visit RBSA’s website to find out how you can ‘adopt an artwork’ to support us! – http://www.rbsa.org.uk/collection-archive/new-adopt-an-artwork/

'Seascape' by Norma Rhys Davies, shown here, is in desperate need of conservation in order for it to be included in our exhibition.

Seascape by Norma Rhys Davies, shown here, is in desperate need of conservation in order for it to be included in our exhibition.

While volunteer roles often focus specifically on one particular department such as marketing, conservation or education, this project has allowed us to dip our toes in a whole variety of roles. Each week we are gaining new experiences, skills, and insights, not just on gallery practice but the arts sector more broadly. Although it has been hard work I think we can both agree that we’ve benefited from gaining curatorial experience as well as being involved in less familiar aspects, like public engagement and fundraising. Overall, this opportunity is definitely proving to be a fully hands-on, immersive and irreplaceable experience for budding art-world professionals such as ourselves!

Of course, Tate and I still have much more left to do over the coming months, including the exhibition install, preparations for our opening private view (watch this space for invites!) and a full events programme of talks and workshops to finalise. Look out for further blogs on the Golovine updating you on our progress!

Abstraction at the RBSA opens on the 5th of October.

REGISTRATION NOW OPEN: House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities

Yayoi Kusama, I'm Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Registration is now open for the conference House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticitieswhich will take place on 3 and 4 July 2015 at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. The conference has been co-organised by our very own Fran Berry and Jo Applin (University of York).

The keynote speakers are Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Julia Bryan-Wilson (University of California, Berkeley).

Other speakers include: Sarah Blaylock (UC Santa Cruz), Amy Charlesworth (Open University), Agata Jakubowska (Adam Mickiewicz University), Teresa Kittler (UCL), Alexandra Kokoli (Middlesex University), Megan Luke (University of Southern California), Barbara Mahlknecht (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna), Alyce Mahon (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Robles (University of Bristol), Harriet Riches (Kingston University), Giulia Smith (UCL), Catherine Spencer (University of St. Andrews), Amy Tobin (University of York).

For further details and to register (tickets £10), please visit the conference website.

House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities is co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham, University of York, and the Oxford Art Journal.

banner

Whodunit? The Fitzwilliam’s “New Michelangelos”. Continued.

Rider, detail

Following my earlier post about the Bronze Panther Riders, sensationally revealed to the world as Michelangelos the other week by the Fitzwilliam Museum, the acclaimed Michelangelo scholar Prof. Frank Zöllner has waded into the debate and made his thoughts on the attribution known. Unfortunately for the Fitzwilliam (not to mention the owner of the bronzes, who must’ve been pretty chuffed with the Museum’s findings), Zöllner isn’t convinced.

Writing for Die Welt (available here, with a summary in English here), Zöllner raises a number of serious objections to the attribution, a number of which had already come up in my interview with David Hemsoll about the Panther Riders.

Like Hemsoll, Zöllner doubts whether Michelangelo could have gone off and turned these large and complicated bronzes out without leaving some indication of them behind in the contemporary documents. Vasari and Condivi acknowledge that Michelangelo designed bronzes, including the Julius statue for Bologna, but nowhere do either of them mention a pair of monumental panther riders. Nobody else from the 16th century mentions them either.

Zöllner also points out, as Hemsoll had, that the execution of the bronzes, if they are by Michelangelo, must have involved some sort of collaboration; it is simply impossible that Michelangelo will have produced them single-handedly, and in secret. We should want to know, then, about what that collaboration might have looked like and who it could have involved, in order to determine Michelangelo’s role in it.

Finally, Zöllner also criticised the weight given by the Fitzwilliam to the drawing in Montpellier, which forms the basis of their re-attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo and is, according to them, exactly the same as the bronzes. However as Hemsoll had pointed out and now Zöllner as well, the drawing in Montpellier is not identical with the sculptures. They in fact differ in a number of important respects, including the relative proportions of the panthers and their riders and the twisted position of the riders’ bodies. There’s also the problem that the drawing is thought to be a copy of a Michelangelo drawing, but can we say for sure that it is?

Michelangelo fabre drawing Panther

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Zöllner signed off by criticising both the British press and the Fitzwilliam’s experts for the way in which the proposed attribution was reported, as though it was a done deal and that they had, indeed, “discovered new Michelangelos”. In reality, it seems as though we have a far way to go before we can claim, with any certainty, that the Panther Riders really are by Michelangelo.

Jamie

View Festival of Art History, Institut français, London

Exciting news! Following on from a successful first year, View Festival of Art History is back in 2015 with a fantastic programme of events from 27th February – 1st March!

View is an incredibly student-friendly festival, with many free events on offer, and £5 student tickets are available for several talks and tours across London venues. The festival has been organised by the Institut Français, where many of the events are taking place, including a presentation by University of Birmingham postgraduate Lauren Dudley who won first prize in the Student Papers competition! Lauren will be giving her paper, ‘Sublime Ruins’, which looks at Hubert Robert, La démolition de l’église Saint-Jean-en-Grève, c.1797–1800 (France) and John Piper, Coventry Cathedral, 15 November, 1940, 1940 (UK), on Saturday 28 February.

The festival presents an exciting opportunity for anyone interested not only in art history, but conservation, heritage, languages and the makings of civilisation and culture as a whole.
Look out for an article from our View student representative Emily Robins, second-year History of Art student, who will be reporting back about the festival, or why not check it out yourself?
Details about the festival and its programme are available here:
http://viewfestival.co.uk/ – hope to see you there!
Tagged , , ,

Whodunit? Jamie Edwards talks to David Hemsoll about the Fitzwilliam’s “new Michelangelos”.

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Last week, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge revealed to the world that they have “discovered” not one but two statues that they believe can be attributed, fairly confidently, to Michelangelo (1475 – 1564). Each of the sculptures, which are made of bronze and are roughly a meter tall, shows a naked, muscular man riding triumphantly on the back of a ferocious-looking panther. And, if the Fitzwilliam’s findings are correct, it makes the Panther Riders the only works in bronze by Michelangelo to have survived; a medium in which he is known to have worked—or intended to work—on at least three separate occasions.

Rider, detail

The Riders have, to be sure, been associated with Michelangelo before. In the 19th century, when the Riders were in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild (from where they get their alternative name “The Rothschild Bronzes”) they were considered authentic Michelangelos (on what basis, I wonder?). However, when Rotschild’s bronzes were exhibited in Paris in 1878, several connoisseurs voiced their doubts about the attribution, and over the course of the subsequent 130-or-so years the association of the bronzes to Michelangelo has been pretty well put to bed. Since then the bronzes have been given to a whole bunch of other artists, including Willem Danielsz Van Tetrode (1505 – 87), and, according to Sotheby’s in 2002, the circle of Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporary Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 71).

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Now experts brought together by the Fitzwilliam reckon they have gathered ‘compelling evidence’ in favour of attributing the Panther Riders firmly to Michelangelo once and for all, thus resolving an artistic whodunit that has limped on for over a century. The tide began to turn in favour of Michelangelo’s authorship in 2002, when Prof. Paul Joannides, who has played an instrumental role in the latest re-attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo, got the chance to study the Riders for the first time at Sotheby’s. Exactly what Joannides made of them in 2002 is hard to say, but, perhaps tellingly, the statues were labeled as “circle of Michelangelo” when they were shown in the Royal Academy’s bronze exhibition in 2012. What is clear is that the bronzes grabbed Joannides’s attention, and last autumn he made a discovery that galvanised serious interest in the status of the bronze Riders. In Montpellier’s Musée Fabre there is a sheet of studies, the largest of which is a Virgin embracing the Christ Child, which is thought to be a copy of drawings made by Michelangelo done by one of his pupils at some point in the first decade of the 1500s, more precisely, at about 1508. And the Montpellier sheet of studies is important because there is, in the lower right corner, a study for a nude riding on the back of a panther, which is to say, precisely the same subject that we encounter in the Rothschild bronzes.

Michelangelo fabre drawing Panther

If the Montpellier sheet of studies really does preserve now-lost designs by Michelangelo then we can say, on the basis of this evidence, that the subject matter, at least, of the bronze Panther Riders can be traced back to Michelangelo. The Fitzwilliam have done exactly this, with Victoria Avery going one step further, declaring in a video for the BBC (below) that the Montpellier drawing shows the composition of the Rotschild bronzes ‘precisely’. And taking this as their point of departure, the Fitzwilliam has subsequently gathered a range of experts—from Joannides to Prof. Peter Abrahams, a clinical anatomist—, who have compiled a dossier of evidence to show that the Panther Riders really are the only surviving bronzes by Michelangelo.

With this in mind, I met with my supervisor David Hemsoll, whose interests lie in 15th– and 16th-century Italian art and architecture and who has published on Michelangelo, to get his thoughts on the Fitzwilliam’s findings, and to consider their evidence. Here’s our conversation:

 

First question, had you ever come across these statues before?

No [laughs].

I ask because this isn’t, or so I read, the first time that the Panther Riders have been associated with Michelangelo. Apparently they were thought to be by Michelangelo in the 19th century, but were then removed from his oeuvre in the 20th, and they’ve since been attributed to a number of other sculptors, including Cellini. So you’ve never encountered them?

No . . . Well, there are a lot of things that are associated with Michelangelo. That’s the trouble. I haven’t come across these in the sense that I felt I should be paying them much attention . . . So, [laughing] I guess, I don’t know if I’ve come across them.

No well I think that most people had shelved them. But the first bit of new evidence there is and that has led to the latest re-attribution to Michelangelo is this drawing in Montpellier, which, they say, is a faithful copy of lost Michelangelo drawings done by a student of his. And one of them shows a nude riding a panther. By drawing a comparison between the sculptures and the drawing on that sheet in Montpellier, they say there’s conclusive evidence to establish a link between the bronzes and Michelangelo. What do you make of that comparison? Because Avery says they’re exactly the same but they’re not, are they?

Well, no. The drawing isn’t exactly the same as the sculptures. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

The thing is the usual way people have made clamorous attributions in the past—and those include the Crucifixion in Sta. Spirito, Florence, the two panel paintings [the Entombment and the “Manchester Madonna“] in the National Gallery, the Cupid in New York, as well as the recently-acquired Torment of St. Anthony by the Kimbell Museum in Texas—well, the usual way of determining an attribution, is that you see something in the primary sources, the biographies of Vasari and Condivi, and you produce something which seems to match them, and then you build your case on the basis of that. Some people will then either agree or they’ll disagree about the similarities. Now, so what you’re doing here is that you are immediately highlighting the first problem with all this, and that is that these works [the Panther Riders] are not mentioned in any primary source. And this is quite surprising, given their size, their quality of execution, and their striking and unusual subject matter. So the problem is that you would have expected works like this produced by Michelangelo to have been recorded or mentioned, however inaccurately, in the literature. So that, that’s the problem. So you’re right that the drawing produced provides some basis for a proposed attribution . . . Are you going to ask me about the other factors . . . ?

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Yes, I’m going to ask you about the other evidence.

Well perhaps we want to treat them all together. There is a drawing. And that could be said to support this attribution.

Well, on the basis of that, because it’s the drawing that got them going with this, the Fitzwilliam wheeled in a clinical anatomist, who said, and this is a quote apparently, that the anatomy is “textbook Michelangelo” so, you know, the abdomens and the bellybuttons and all the rest of it. The anatomist concluded that the artist responsible for these sculptures obviously had a command of human anatomy–he even found a tendon in the arch of a foot. So this is grist to their mill, that an anatomist is impressed with the bodies of the panther riders, since everybody knows that Michelangelo was all about human anatomy, and that he dissected cadavers etc. And then there’s the other bit of evidence. They’ve done some science and x-rayed the statues and found that the cast is thick and heavy, which is a telltale sign, they say, of 15th– or 16th-century manufacture.

Yes, well, that’s their evidence. And, as evidence, it looks, well I wouldn’t quite say convincing . . . but it’s quite powerful.

Yes, they obviously think so. Those are their three bits of evidence.

Yes, that’s it. Those are the three bits of evidence. And taken together it’s quite a powerful case although you could point to slight problems with all those pieces of evidence. As far as the drawing’s concerned, it’s by a follower of Michelangelo and not by Michelangelo, and it doesn’t show the same composition as the bronzes, insofar as the nude figure on the back of the panther is much smaller in the drawing than it is in the sculptures. Then the business about the anatomy, well that does seem to suggest that the sculptures have got something to do with Michelangelo. The other way to think about this is to compare the sculptures to other known works by Michelangelo from this period, especially the David and especially the Dying Slave, in the Louvre, and there are some apparent similarities which are quite great. Then the question about the bronze casting, well that’s very interesting and the Fitzwilliam have got great expertise on this, so their conclusions that the bronze casting, and the thickness of the bronze, point to a date of around the early 1500s, is, again, powerful evidence. So I agree that the case is, in some respects, powerful . . .

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

So they’ve made a fair case.

Yes, well, it’s quite powerful in some respects, and less powerful in others.

Such as?

Well some people could have said, and maybe they have but I haven’t noticed, that the subject matter is comparable to sculptural ideas from the late 15th century and into the 16th, in particular the idea of the suggestive naked body of a man. That’s an idea that was almost an obsession of Michelangelo’s tutor, his de facto tutor in sculptor, Bertoldo di Giovanni, who produced all sorts of sculptures of this kind. And one particular point of similarity is that the possible Michelangelos show one figure who is clean-shaven, and one who is bearded, and there’s a pair of sculptures by Bertoldo, which make up a kind of pair, which have again one figure that is clean-shaven and one figure that wears a beard. All this could be put into an argument that would link the bronzes to Michelangelo.

The problem, the main problem, as I see it, is the fact that they’re made of bronze and they’re very big. The difficulty is that it might be conceivable that Michelangelo could, almost secretly or in an unnoticed way, make a pair of sculptures out of bronze by doing it in his back garden or kitchen, with nobody else noticing that it was going on, and then perhaps giving it away to someone, but the trouble is that works made out of bronze imply a collaboration with somebody. And once that idea is brought out into the open, the nature of the collaboration needs to be qualified and Michelangelo’s role in it would then have to be established. What we might be saying is that Michelangelo did some studies for a sculpture that was then made in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo produced full-scale models, which were then cast in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo just told a few people that you could make sculptures in such a way, and gave them some pointers, and they were duly cast in bronze by another person. What’s absolutely impossible is that Michelangelo would have, as it were, gone away by himself and made these large bronze sculptures, all by himself, without any assistance—that’s just not possible. So if we are going to believe that they’re by Michelangelo then we have to understand better the circumstances of their making, and we need to have a better understanding of a possible context for the making of bronze figures of such scale, because they are a meter tall in height, in order to really substantiate the kind of claim that is being made, which has to have been in the form of some sort of collaboration. So that’s the difficulty I have.

So it’s impossible? To suppose that Michelangelo just knocked them up, by himself, in his kitchen or wherever? Is that just not how it was done?

No. You need a workshop of people to make these things. And they’re very difficult to produce alone.

Is that what will have happened with, say, the over life-size Julius II sculpture, which, as Vasari and Condivi say, was made in bronze by Michelangelo and put up in Bologna in 1506?

Yeah. The Julius sculpture presumably was made by people who were good at casting in bronze, and they worked in collaboration with Michelangelo who helped them produce a sculpture, or model, which then could have been cast in bronze. I mean he could have done a lot of work on it but what he didn’t do was create the molds and everything, and pour the molten bronze into the molds, and then take the bronze out of the molds and then do all the immensely laborious finishing off on the sculpture. So that has to have been a collaboration. And other, early works, done in bronze by Michelangelo—there’s a documented bronze David, again described by Vasari—must likewise have involved some sort of collaboration. So if we were able to understand better how these collaborations came about then we would be in a better position to understand possible circumstances that would support the attribution of the Panther Riders to Michelangelo. So that’s the problem I have . . .

Well, that seems to be a reasonable concern.

What is clear is that it’s untrue to say that Michelangelo was entirely restricted to sculpting in marble because there are quite a lot of things, or references in the early sources, to Michelangelo’s involvement in the design, or the making of, sculptures in bronze. The statue of Julius II, for the city of Bologna, is a conspicuous example because it must have been very big, but he did also intend, for example, to make bronze reliefs for the Julius tomb. And he wouldn’t have been making all those things by himself.

 

In short then, at this stage the attribution seems plausible but there are unanswered questions. Perhaps answers to those questions will be forthcoming when the Fitzwilliam hosts its international conference on Monday 6 July 2015, when they will present the full findings. In the meantime, the Panther Riders, which are privately owned, are on public display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 9 August 2015.

Jamie

To fringe or not to fringe? And other dilemmas for fashionistas in art . . .

A silly, but harmless, video here by Sotheby’s Jonquil O’Reilly ahead of their Old Master sale in New York on 29 January. It’s about fashion and style in pictures: what does, say, a certain hairstyle tell us about the date of a picture, or what does a toga tell us about who’s who in a Carpaccio? And what’s the deal with the chaps in tights? Watch the video to find out . . .

Jamie

Laughing with Mary Beard. And a (not so) Laughing Cavalier.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Last night I went to hear Prof. Mary Beard–esteemed Cambridge don, TV presenter and keen blogger–deliver a lecture at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the topic of laughter in ancient Rome, which is also the subject of Beard’s latest book: Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up.

The lecture, as we’d expect, was brilliant. Mary exhibited a masterful, and often playful, combination of overwhelming intelligence and an endearing ability to deal with complex ideas in an accessible way, without coming across as at all patronising. (As a non-Classicist, I followed the whole thing and didn’t feel inadequate at any point.) The talk essentially asked: what did Romans laugh at? when did they laugh? and what does this tell us about society, politics, and power relations in ancient Rome?

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

For instance, let us consider–as we did with Mary–the story related by the Roman historian and politician Cassius Dio in his enormous eighty-volume history of Rome from the the 3rd century CE. The story takes us back to the Colosseum in the year 192 CE. Dio is sat in the front row (where the important people sat, with women and slaves packed in at the back, 100ft above the Colosseum’s arena floor) watching (squinting if you’re a woman or slave) the emperor Commodus parading himself about in an elaborate display of Imperial might that dragged on for 14 whole days; on one day, Commodus slew 100 bears, on another he participated in scripted gladiatorial combat, etc. Word had got out before this spectacle that Commodus had intended to masquerade as Hercules (as he was apparently prone to doing–see the above bust of Commodus-as-Hercules from the Capitoline museum) and fire deadly arrows into the assembled crowd, and this provides the backdrop to the episode that caused Dio’s laughter. In Dio’s words:

[The emperor] killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head… and the bloody sword. He said absolutely nothing, but with a grin he shook his own head, making it clear that he would do the same to us. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot by the sword for laughing at [the emperor]… if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others [to do the same]… so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.

So it’s basically an ancient instance of biting your lip. And it’s interestIng, as Mary explained, because it gives us a sense that we are experiencing Roman life, and laughter, at first hand, and it provokes the modern scholar to address what it is in this episode that Dio found funny, what the episode tells us about the relationships between emperor and his subjects in ancient Rome, and gets us to think about the social function of laughter: Is Dio’s laughter an act of insubordination, a mocking of, via the medium of laughter, the pumped-up pretensions of the emperor; or is it (what we’d call these days) nervous laughter? And, for that matter, what kinds of problems, methodological and empirical, does such a question pose for the modern historian?

All this was dead interesting. But what struck me was the resonance that all this has with my own work on Pieter Bruegel. I was lucky enough to get to chat to Mary afterwards, and I mentioned how her interest in laughter in the ancient world mirrored by interest in laughter in the 16th century in the Netherlands, and, in particular, the question of whether people laughed at Bruegel’s pictures of peasants or not, which, as I’ve said before, has been the subject of great controversy since the 1970s. Did people really laugh at Bruegel’s representations of the rural poor? And was this laughter, if there ever was any, condescending? Or was it democratising–a Rebelaisian carnivalesque form of laughter that acts a social leveller (according to Bakhtin’s classic study)? And, what’s more, what evidence is there that can support our view either way? Can we ever really know what people laughed at in their lounges and dining rooms in the 1550s and ’60s (just like can we ever know what Dio found funny sitting in front of an ostrich-head-wielding Commodus in the Colosseum in 192?)?

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

This is where the (not) Laughing Cavalier comes in. We all know Frans Hals’s picture of a Cavalier because the sitter is laughing; its fame rests, by and large, on the fact that the sitter is a jolly chap, enjoying a giggle at this or that. But, as Mary pointed out (and perhaps this is in the literature on Hals already, but I am no expert), the portrait of the cavalier only earned its title of “Laughing Cavalier” about a century ago. Before then, the picture was notable (if written descriptions of it are anything to go by) because of the curly moustache that the sitter is sporting. In other words, modern sensibilities find that the portrait shows a laughing man, whereas this was lost on, or else wasn’t considered to be the most striking aspect of the picture for, earlier viewers. This was one of Mary’s chief points. That although the sound of laughter, and for that matter the rendering of that sound in print–“hahahae” in Terence’s 161 BCE Eunuch–is remarkably universal, what rouses that laughter is not universal, and has changed over the course of history as  sensibilities and cultural conventions likewise adapt.

Frans Hals, "Laughing" Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

Frans Hals, “Laughing” Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

This is all germane to my work and is certainly food for thought. Can we ever reconstruct what Bruegel’s audience found funny? Did people really laugh at peasants? Peasants in art, for that matter? On the face of it Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Feast isn’t funny, but is this a bit like Hals’s Cavalier, which is to say that do we struggle to see what was funny in Bruegel’s picture because we are no longer socially predisposed to find the poor intrinsically funny? Is it the case that mockery of the poor is nowadays considered taboo, morally reprehensible, and that this is quite different to the situation in the 16th century, which scarcely batted an eyelid at serfdom?

Finally, in case you’re wondering, are Roman jokes from Antiquity funny? Did we indeed laugh along with Mary? Well, none of the jokes related by Mary in her lecture roused genuinely raucous laughter (indeed this was part of her point about the socio-historical contingency of laughter, and not a criticism) but one of them, which only came out during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture, was a gem, and, what’s more, is a joke told by a woman (women otherwise frequently being the butt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes!). It’s preserved in Macrobius’s Saturnalia and the comic is Julia, daughter of the emperor Augustus, who was, on all accounts, infamously promiscuous. The joke goes:

When those who knew of [Julia’s] disgraceful behaviour were amazed how her sons looked like her husband Agrippa even though she gave her body to any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enjoy, she said, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship’s hold is full.”

Simply, hilarious. Surely as funny now as it must’ve been in Antiquity! As for why it’s funny? Perhaps Mary’s book sheds light . . .

Jamie Edwards

Probing Leonardo.

Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Yesterday, we had a Leonardo being cleaned. Today, it’s a Leonardo painting being photographed, with a mega good camera.

Pascal Cotte, of Paris’s Lumiere Technology, has spent 3 years subjecting Leonardo’s hugely famous portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an Ermine to a technique called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), and has apparently discovered that poor old Cecilia once LACKED her posh, furry companion.

LAM works by firing a series of powerful lights at paintings, and a computer then registers the differences in the amounts of light that is reflected, thus revealing insights into what paintings look like beneath their uppermost layer. It is this procedure that has yielded the discovery that Leonardo’s portrait once showed Cecilia without the ermine, then showed her with a regular ermine, and then, finally, with the steroid-pumped ermine we see in the picture today.

Leonardo Ermine

The portrait, which is dated to about 1490, shows Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s chief Milanese maecenas. It has always been thought that the portrait was originally conceived with the ermine, as a signifier of Cecilia’s love for Ludovico, who was supposedly nicknamed “the white ermine”. That explanation still stands. But the real significance of all this is that it sheds light on Leonardo’s practices who, clearly, continued to play around with ideas even once a painting was well underway, as well as the specific circumstances surrounding the execution of the portrait. Why did Leonardo add an ermine to what otherwise seems to have been a finished portrait of Cecilia? Perhaps Cecilia requested it herself. Or Ludovico. So he added one. Thus portrait version #2. But then the portrait underwent another change, with the ermine becoming curiously bulky and sporting lion’s paws. Thus portrait version #3, the final one. Why modify the ermine? Perhaps this bit’s Leonardo’s invention, who, rather than choosing to represent Ludovico with a scrawny ermine (version #2), tried to flatter the Duke by envisioning him in the guise of a bodybuilding ermine. All interesting stuff . . .

 

Jamie Edwards

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 350 other followers

%d bloggers like this: