Category Archives: Debate

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.


Research Seminar Thursday 26th February: Imogen Wiltshire, ‘Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of Actor-Network Theory’

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Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of
Actor-Network Theory
Imogen Wiltshire
(University of Birmingham) 

Thursday 26 February, 5.15 pm
Barber Institute Photograph Room


‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,  published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,
published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

This paper examines the Occupational Therapy courses that László Moholy-Nagy developed at the New Bauhaus in Chicago during the Second World War through the lens of Actor-Network Theory. As is widely known, Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus, which later became the Institute of Design, in Chicago in 1937 after his emigration from Nazi Germany via London to the US. Less well known, however, and forming the focus of this paper is that in Chicago in 1942 he applied Bauhaus educational techniques, based on investigating materials and gaining tactile experience, for therapeutic purposes, especially for injured war veterans. The New Bauhaus’ Occupational Therapy training courses proposed, significantly, a new function for art within modernism and constitute important historical intersections between art practice and rehabilitation.
Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a methodology developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon, amongst others, which so far has had little attention in the Humanities. By challenging the notion of a fixed ‘social’ and the concept of ‘context’ (such as a preconceived social context) into which subjects of enquiry are located, this theory is arguably pertinent to art history, particularly in view of Latour’s suggested solution of instead tracing associations between human and non-human actors in a network. Accordingly, while this paper analyses the dissemination of Bauhaus pedagogic approaches for rehabilitative training in the 1940s, it also offers less concrete, more exploratory methodological suggestions about the possible relevance and uses of Actor-Network Theory.

All welcome!

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.


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.


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


Conference, Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham, UK: Friday 3 July – Saturday 4 July 2015.

Keynote speakers: Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Julia Bryan-Wilson (University of California, Berkeley)

Laurie Simmons, Blonde/ Red Dress/ Kitchen, 1978

Laurie Simmons, Blonde/ Red Dress/ Kitchen, 1978

This conference is motivated by the premise that it is appropriate for feminist art history to re-visit and newly configure theoretical, methodological and political debate around modernist, postmodernist and contemporary artistic practice in relation to the domestic. Having been a significant focus of 1980s feminist art-historical scholarship, domesticity has since been eclipsed in feminist analysis by focus on corporeality, subjectivity and globalisation, amongst other significant concepts. This conference seeks to evaluate the intellectual and political gains, and potentially losses, to be made from investing once again in existing feminist theoretical frameworks, including the materialist, the psychoanalytical and the postcolonial. It also invites contributions framed by alternative or more recent modes of feminist enquiry, including those constituted through the framework of artistic practice itself. The sexual politics of domestic, artistic, and scholarly labour, productive agency, and the obedient or disobedient domestic imaginary might constitute one focus. However, these are by no means the only or defining parameters of this conference’s aim to engage with a feminist politics and practice of home making and unmaking since the late nineteenth century.

This conference is particularly timely in the light of art and art history’s ‘new’ domesticities. These include queer art history’s turn towards the domestic as a site for imagining, making and inhabiting space within or without the hetero-normative, and recent art-historical and curatorial projects focusing on modern and contemporary art practice and the home, but in which the question of feminism is downplayed in favour of more generalised concepts of subversion, labour and belonging. More broadly, the rise of the ‘new domesticity’ within popular culture continues to proliferate, such as the cult of the cupcake, knitting groups, home-baking television programmes and, more generally, 1950s ‘housewife’ design aesthetics. Contrast, for example, the discursive de-politicisation of today’s home-making in art and mass culture with the actively feminist domestic ambivalence of 1970s artistic practice, exemplified by Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and Laurie Simmons’ Early Color Interiors (1978). Finally, we might remember that these new domesticities and today’s artistic and art-historical practices take place in spite of, and as a product of, ongoing global, domestic, social and economic inequalities, violence, and oppression, even in the so-called ‘post-feminist’ West.

This two-day conference invites proposals from art historians of up to 500 words for papers of 30 minutes. Proposals should be sent to Dr Francesca Berry (Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham) at and Dr Jo Applin (Department of History of Art, University of York) at by Sunday 15th February 2015. Please also attach a brief biographical note and institutional affiliation.

The conference is supported by the University of Birmingham, the University of York, and Oxford Art Journal.

Research Seminar #3: Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts): Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

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Thursday 13th November 2015, 5:15pm

Barber Photograph Room

Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts)

Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire


Collage practices based around the recuperation and juxtaposition of found printed images have long been a staple of the critical and curatorial reception of Surrealism. This seminar, however, considers just one, so far virtually undocumented instance of Surrealist collage, cubomania, developed under siege conditions in wartime Bucharest by the poet Gherasim Luca and pursued by him for some five decades. The simple procedure of cutting photographs or reproductions into regular squares so as to re-assemble them into grids adopts a deceptively modest format, but Luca’s accompanying theoretical framework sees the results as miniature testing-grounds for some surprisingly challenging ideas, harnessing the tensions between erotic desire and violent revolutionary consciousness that might eventually be applied to a transformation of the world itself.

Enquiries to Jamie Edwards:

Research Seminar No.2: Sandy Heslop, ‘Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100′

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Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series 2014 – 15

Thursday October 23rd, 5:15, Barber Photograph Room

Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia)

Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100


All welcome. Refreshments served!

Enquiries to Jamie Edwards at

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



Are computers sending art historians straight to the dole queue? Not likely . . .

Dole queue

‘Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists’, reported Matthew Sparkes in yesterday’s Telegraph. The article was reporting on a paper put together by a bunch of computer scientists from the Computer Science department at Rutgers, State Uni. of New Jersey, and is available online here.

The gist of the article is this: the identification of similarities between works of art has long been the prerogative of art historians, but now computers, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, are ready to take their place, being capable of identifying instances of formal similarities between given works of art that have hitherto elided the experts.

‘One important task for art historians is to find influences and connections between artists’ say, quite rightly, Babak Saleh, Kanako Abe, Ravneet Singh Arora, and Ahmed Elgammal — the paper’s authors. We’re off to a good start.

But things quickly go awry . . .

‘It must be mentioned that determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’ This is mad as far as I’m concerned. Michelangelo never declares that his conception of God from the Sistine Ceiling was inspired by Ghiberti’s similar airborne God from the Gates of Paradise, but on the basis of formal and circumstantial evidence, which is to say it looks a damn lot like it and Michelangelo will have seen Ghiberti’s sculptures daily in his youth, I think we can say that it’s probably the case. But this isn’t my real issue with the paper; the article does after all acknowledge that instances of artistic influence proposed by art historians are usually demonstrably right, even if there is no “proof”. For example, we might not know FOR CERTAIN that Francis Bacon ever saw Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (do we? Raphael’s Julius II makes for just as neat a comparison?), but since the former’s picture of a seated, grand, albeit tormented, bloke really does look like the latter’s Papal portrait, then there most likely IS a relationship. Hence the comparison has found its way into the mainstream literature on Bacon.

Velzquez, Innocent X

Bacon, after Velzquez, Innocent X

My problem instead is with some of the previously undiscovered, but for my money far-fetched, relationships between works of art that the computers have apparently managed to unearth, as well as some of the frankly flippant, if not wholly misguided, claims the authors make along the way. (An important caveat here: the authors do admit that ‘We are not asserting truths but instead suggesting a possible path towards a difficult task of measuring influence.’) Let’s look at some of them.

‘Although the meaning of a painting is unique to each artist and is completely subjective, it can somewhat be measured by the symbols and objects in the painting.’ Art historians will nowadays wince at those words, and Roland Barthes will probably have had chickens . . .

‘The earliest style is the Renaissance period with artists like Titian and Michelangelo during the 14th to 17th century.’ Notwithstanding the arbitrariness of the period style classifications that the article leans on more generally (Renaissance, Romanticism, Baroque, Pop, Abstract Contemporary, American Modernism, Post-Impressionism…etc.), this statement is a bit worrying… Pedantry, perhaps, but Michelangelo and Titian weren’t about in the 14th century or the 17th, and if we’re being picky, traditional narratives of art history don’t usually include 17th-century art under the rubric of the Renaissance.

And the most major problem, I think, is this clanger:

‘Paintings do not necessarily have to look alike, but if they do, or have reoccurring objects (high-level semantics), then they might be considered similar.’

My issue here is that they’re effectively saying that even if pictures don’t look alike to the eye, computers, with all their mathematical wizardry and algorithms, can nevertheless spot relationships that otherwise defy human perception. Problem here, of course, is that people make artworks, not computers, and so if two artworks by two artists don’t look alike to the eye, then it is really doubtful whether there ever was a meaningful relationship between them. Common sense, which computers don’t possess, dictates as much.

See: Frédéric Bazille’s Studio 9 Rue de la Condamine (1870) and Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barber Shop (1950). The computers threw this up as a match, and ‘After browsing through many publications and websites, we concluded, to the best of our knowledge, that this comparison has not been made by an art historian before.’ The authors’ faith in the technology is thus vindicated. But, hang on, there’s probably a very good reason why art historians have never spotted a relationship between Bazille’s Studio and Rockwell’s Barber Shop, which is that they simply don’t look sufficiently alike to warrant the positing of anything more than a coincidental relationship between them. Which is precisely what the next sentence says: ”The painting might not look similar at the first glance, however, a closer look reveals striking similarity in composition and subject matter, that is detected by our automated methodology . . . [emph. mine]’ I don’t buy it. And what the authors neglect to mention is what we, that is to say art historians, call iconographic conventions. Bazille’s picture belongs to a rich tradition for showing artists working in their studios, and perhaps Rockwell did, either knowingly or inadvertently, look to that that tradition for his Barber Shop. That’s a sound art historical judgement. But it doesn’t mean that Rockwell was influenced by Bazille. The authors also fail to mention whether there is any inkling whatsoever that Rockwell knew Bazille’s work(s)? These are the kinds of questions art historians ask, whereas computers, it seems, do not. Or perhaps can’t ask?

Bazille and Rockwell

Similarly, the paper heralds the similarity between Georges Braque’s Man with a Violin and Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Still Life as a “discovery”. Nah, not really. Braque and Picasso were immediate contemporaries, they knew one another(!!) and were pioneers of a movement retroactively called Cubism. A perusal of any monograph on cubism will generate Braque’s and Picasso’s names alongside one another and show ample similarities between their art. So, not a discovery after all. . .

Picasso and Braque

If you read the paper, you’ll quickly find that there’s loads of technical jargon, equations and mind-boggling graphs which apparently bestow scientific robustness on the findings:


Long equation

Erm…. I’m struggling. The tables and charts don’t exactly shed any more light, either:


And what on earth is this?


. . . answers on a postcard, please.

I can’t help but think that all this is a case of all fur coat and no knickers, and that the jargon simply conceals the fact that the computer’s supposed discoveries don’t stand up to the scrutiny of art historians. It’s nonsence masquerading as scientific art history. I really don’t think, for example, that Bazille’s and Rockwell’s pictures look sufficiently alike to warrant the claim that there IS a relationship. And this is where art historians differ from computers: art historians, or else, the good ones, weigh-up their proposals against a balance of probabilities, and posit relationships between artists and their works only where there is a demonstrable formal relationship that is meaningful, and, moreover, can be substantiated by consideration of the likelihood that X artist had seen Y’s Picture. That’s what art historians do, and, on the basis of this article, are capable of doing infinitely better than a machine.

Suffice it to say that I don’t think we can expect to see queues of bereft-looking art historians at the Job Centre any time soon . . .

Jamie Edwards

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