Category Archives: Debate

The Bosch Research & Conservation Project, a new Bosch exhibition and a Bosch party

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch (probably about 1450-1516). Bosch–who, possibly, is my favourite artist of all time–is most well known today as the creator of what are amongst the most innovative (I refuse to use the term “strange” as people too often do) pictures ever to have been produced. These include the monumental and monumentally fascinating so-called Garden of Earthly Delights triptych that is now in the Prado.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480s (?), Prado, ,Madrid

Less well known, though, is the controversy that surrounds the artist, his life and his works. Bosch’s life is for the most part shrouded in mystery–we possess just a few scant references to the artist from his time, which, moreover, tend to be of a bureaucratic kind (e.g. “1486-7: Bosch joined the Confraternity of Our Lady”) and therefore tell us barely anything concrete about the artist’s beliefs or opinions. We possess no firm information about who Bosch painted most of his pictures for either (with a few, notable, exceptions), and no contracts for works have come down to us. Bosch is in other words an enigma: on the whole we lack the kind of information that might otherwise help us to understand better his pictures; his activities are hard to pin down; and the views or beliefs that inspired his works are graspable only in the vaguest sense.

Inevitably this has all only served to support the problematic rhetoric that surrounds Bosch’s name and which skews interpretations of his art. Bosch is, for example, often viewed as some kind of heretic, who, we are told, lived a secluded–or “hermetic”, to quote Wilhelm Fraenger who is responsible for what it perhaps the silliest contribution to Bosch scholarship–life at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, his hometown in what was then north Brabant, which he never permanently left. There, we’re sometimes lead to believe, Bosch worked alone, in complete isolation, and as a result “unorthodox views” flourished that apparently inspired his “heterodox” iconography.

Needless to say that none of that holds true for me. I do think that if we look hard enough at the facts that are available, few though they are, and if we look really carefully at his pictures, we do stand to gain real insights into his art and are able to understand them in their proper (rather than imagined) contexts: artistic, spiritual, and religious. There’s not time here to go into this but let me just say that Bosch clearly was a practising Catholic–he after all held a senior position in a lay confraternity that was devoted to the Virgin (!)–and this should, though it hasn’t always, provide the basis for any interpretations of his pictures. This way we can do away with the erroneous and completely unhelpful point of view that Bosch was a heretic and that the keys to ‘unlocking’ his pictures lie in the realm of the esoteric.

Much scholarship recently has endorsed this view. And next year things look to set to improve even more, with the appearance of a brand new two volume monograph on Bosch that is the result of the 5 year long Bosch research and conservation project (BRCP), the appearance of which will coincide with the opening of a remarkable exhibition that will be held at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Noordbrabants museumJheronimus Bosch – Visions of a genius (12 Feb. – 8 May 2016).

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

The exhibition promises to be a must-see for all sorts of reasons, but not least because the show will feature the largest collection of Boschs ever to have been assembled in ‘s-Hertogenbosch since they were produced in that city over half a millennium ago. The organiser Charles de Mooij really has done a tremendous job managing to secure nearly ALL of the surviving Bosch paintings for his show, which is no mean feat if we take into account that he had not a single authentic Bosch to offer in exchange (though he did of course have knowledge gathered as a result of the BRCP). What’s more a couple of these are real coups, including the Haywain triptych, which is heading back home all the way from Madrid where it’s been for over 400 years! Other loans have been secured from collections in New York, Rotterdam, Paris and Venice (but apparently not London, as far as I can tell? Which is odd, since the National Gallery’s Bosch is one of the finest examples, to my mind, of Bosch’s less well known activities as a painter of more modest pictures intended as aids for domestic devotions… ). The show will in other words provide an unprecedented opportunity to study a large number of Bosch’s works alongside one another, in the city where they were made; a truly unique opportunity.

Equally exciting is the promise of Bosch fever that is set to descend on ‘s-Hertogenbosch to coincide with the exhibition. The town, it is plain to see, is bristling with excitement about the upcoming opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of its most famous son: Bosch’s images are going to be projected all over the grote mark’t–where Bosch lived and operated his studio and where there now stands a bronze statue of Bosch (inspired by a portrait in the Recueil d’Arras that may or may not accurately preserve Bosch’s appearance) made in 1929 by the sculptor August Falise–, there are going to be 3D recreations of some of his most iconic inventions going up all over the place, there will be tours of the town’s most important sites connected to Bosch including St John’s, as well as circus performances, dances, processions, games, 15th-century food and drink, and so on and so on. Basically, a right old jolly in memory of Bosch, and I can’t wait.

Bosch in 21st-C 's-Hertogenbosch

Bosch in 21st-C ‘s-Hertogenbosch (image:

Statue of Bosch by August Falise, 's-Hertogenbosch

Statue of Bosch by August Falise, ‘s-Hertogenbosch

But for now it’s the promise of things to come as a result of the BCRP that has grabbed my attention. The research project’s main aim was to subject the largest number of Bosch paintings as possible to rigorous technical examination, ranging from dendrochronological analysis (panel dating) to x-radiography, as well as various other high-res imaging processes. The main goal was to get a better idea of Bosch’s working methods, techniques and his creative process, which is embarrassingly little understood (only a few articles that I know of have even entertained the notion that Bosch’s inventions are the result of a coherent creative process!). All this scientific work doubtless will help us to get a better grasp of Bosch’s iconography and its meanings.

And already this work has generated some really high quality, interesting and useful images that, for a few works anyway, have been made available online. There we find images in high-res, infrared and infrared refloctographic formats:

Detail: Female St (image:

Detail: Bosch, Crucified Female Female St., about 1500, oil on panel, Palazzo Ducale, Venice (image:

Detail: Hermit Sts triptych (image:

Detail: Bosch, Hermit Sts triptych, after 1500, oil on panel, Palazzo Ducale, Venice (image:

There’s also the nifty option to see all 3 types of image tiled simultaneously, with a drag feature for the viewer to play around with:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

It is especially nice in the example of Crucified Saint triptych, which usually lives in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale, to be able to get a proper up-close view of the donors which originally adorned the wings but were subsequently painted out:

Crucified female st (details: L: normal view; R: infrared reflectography)

Crucified female st (details: L: normal view; R: infrared reflectography revealing the overpainted donor portrait)

We’ve long known about the donor portraits but high quality, zoomable images have not before been readily available. Their existence might help us to test the hypothesis that the donors are dressed as Italians, and thus might provoke research that will in turn shed light on the whole Bosch and Italy problem. Did he go to Venice? Did he work for Italian clients? What’s the provenance of the Bosch paintings (there are 3 of them) in Venice? I’ve spoken about this before at conferences and in lectures, and maybe the appearance of the BRCP’s researches will help us to arrive at firmer answers. Indeed a suggestion that the research project might have yielded such conclusions is suggested by BCRP’s decision to specify that the female saint depicted by Bosch in this triptych is St Uncumber (a.k.a. Wilgefortis), since this has been a subject of considerable debate. Is it not St Julia? St Liberata? Granted, none of these–Uncumber/Wilgerfortis, Julia or Liberata–are what you could call familiar saints, but their identification is actually germane to the Italy question because Liberata and Julia are, if you will, Italian saints (i.e. their cults sprung up and were concentrated in Italy) which is important if the donor portraits really are of Italians, whereas St Uncumber/Wilgefortis was virtually unknown south of the Alps. So I eagerly await to see what the monograph has to say about this. (Maybe they’ve discovered something to do with a beard, since one of the more interesting things about Uncumber’s legend is that she was bearded at the time of her crucifixion, whereas Bosch’s saint is clean-shaven? I’ve already had a play with zooming-in on the saint’s mouth and chin area in normal view and in infrared photograph and have looked in vain for evidence of a beard. Is that a whisker-ish suggestion of facial hair? I don’t think it is… )

A beard? Normal and infrared photography image of mouth and chin

A beard? Normal and infrared photograph image of mouth and chin

Another important aim of the project is to refine Bosch’s oeuvre, which in the early 20th century expanded massively but was then narrowed and now looks set to be narrowed again. Though refining what is already a small(ish) corpus of works may seem regrettable, it is of the upmost importance for Bosch studies to be able to separate what’s Bosch from what’s not Bosch in order to provide a firm and accurate starting point for scholarly investigation. We know as a matter of fact, for example, that Bosch was not only copied or imitated in his own day but that he actually enjoyed a revival in the mid-1500s, when a number of imitators, pasticheurs and outright forgers (we can still read for ourselves grumblings from the 1560s about this!) made careers for themselves on the back of a vogue for all-things Bosch.

The “Bosch Renaissance” on the art market in the Netherlands in the mid-1500s is perhaps best illustrated by the engraving showing the Big Fish eat the Little Fish, which was published in Antwerp in 1557 by Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Dierix:

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver) and Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, engraving, 1557

When Cock released this engraving he ran it with the inscription ‘Hieronijmus Bos inuentor’, that is “Hieronymus Bosch designed this image”. We know, however, that that is a fib, since the preparatory drawing for this engraving was made by Pieter Bruegel–who is the focus of my Ph.D.–who signed and dated it “brueghel” 1556. Cock in other words replaced Bruegel’s name with Bosch’s in order to ride the wave of Bosch’s fame and popularity at a time when Bruegel’s own reputation was still in its ascendancy.

Given that the example provided by Cock’s redacting of Bruegel’s name in favour of Bosch’s is but one example of a much wider phenomenon it does strike me as being really important to figure out what is Bosch and what isn’t. This isn’t to say that Bosch’s posthumous reputation and his “Renaissance” in the mid-1500s isn’t an important and interesting topic in and of itself–I am, in fact, very interested in it and part of my thesis touches on it. It’s also not to say that works “demoted” from Bosch’s oeuvre are not important–simply by becoming “not Boschs” doesn’t de-value these works or make them any less interesting from an art historical point of view. But what it is to say is that to get a proper grip on Bosch, who up to now has proven to be so slippery, we need to know what he actually did. It’s a simple aim, but in reality has proven vexing. The BRCP, however, does seem to have made a number of interesting discoveries, which are now starting to emerge.

First there’s the idea that the Prado Museum’s famous “tabletop” showing the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things might NOT, after all, be by Bosch’s hand.* The team have concluded that the underdrawing on this panel as well as its overall execution are not consonant with Bosch’s techniques and therefore attribute the work to a follower of Bosch’s (perhaps one who worked in Bosch’s studio, which is to say that this work has been deemed “close to Bosch” but not quite close enough). This really is an interesting conclusion since the tabletop has been traditionally feted as an exemplary early work of Bosch’s in which some principal characteristics of his art are announced. This reputation was of course partly formed on the basis of the picture’s stellar provenance, since this is one of the many works by Bosch, or perhaps better “works by Bosch”, that by 1560 had found their way into the collection of King Phillip II of Spain.

Follower of Bosch (?), Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, about 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Follower of Bosch (?), Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, about 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

The team have also rejected, once and for all, the authenticity of the Carrying of the Cross in Ghent’s Museum voor Schone Kunsten. As of Jos Koldeweij, Paul Vandenbroeck, Bernard Vermet’s exhibition catalogue of 2001 we’ve had doubts about this work but the BRCP have amassed evidence that solidifies this work’s status as being “in the style of” or “after Bosch” rather than “Bosch”. The BRCP is even more convinced than Koldeweij, Vandenbroeck and Vermet had been that the execution of the picture just isn’t right. The framing also points to the 1520s as the probable date of this work’s production, which takes us to after Bosch’s death in 1516.

After Bosch (?), Christ Carrying the Cross, 1520s (?), oil on panel, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

After Bosch (?), Christ Carrying the Cross, 1520s (?), oil on panel, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

If these findings are likely to irk the owners of the pictures concerned–the Prado apparently is disinclined to accept them–one private collector’s luck is definitely in. For if the BRCP has trimmed the corpus of Bosch paintings by at least 2, it has enlarged the graphic corpus by at least 1:

Bosch, Hell landscape, pen and ink, private collection (photographed by Klein Gotink and Robert Erdmann for the BRCP)

Bosch, Hell landscape, pen and ink, private collection (photographed by Klein Gotink and Robert Erdmann for the BRCP)

This drawing, which is not new in the sense that I’ve never seen it before but is new in terms of its newly-proposed status, has long been thought to have been done by a follower of Bosch. Having thoroughly re-examined the sheet, however, the BRCP have determined that there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, and it will go on display as such, as a bona fide Bosch, in the Noordbrabants museum’s upcoming exhibition.**

All told this makes for pretty exciting stuff. On the basis of what we’ve already seen, it looks as though the show and the new monograph will mark something of a watershed moment in Bosch studies, forcing us to reassess some of the received knowledge about the artist and his activities, and giving us cause to think in new and innovative ways. What I really hope is that the show will inspire renewed interest in Bosch and generate probing and innovative new scholarship–and I suspect that it will.

In the meantime, though, we have a new documentary film to look forward to, which takes us behind-the-scenes of the BRCP. It premieres at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam on November 20 before being shown on TV next Feb. (in the Netherlands anyway, but I’m hoping that it will somehow be made available in the UK as well). The trailer is below, and I noted with interest Matthijs Ilsink’s reluctance to commit to making even a vague suggestion on camera about which works the project might end up wanting to remove from Bosch’s oeuvre. ‘I’ll end up in political matters- no comment’, he says, which is a telling example, I think, of the kinds of frictions that can arise between art historians and museums and collectors on the back of this kind of research (CAUTION: trailer begins with awful owl squawking):

*UPDATE 1: Renowned Bosch scholar Dr Bernard Vermet kindly writes to let me know that for him and others the tabletop’s authenticity has been out of the question for ages. Turns out my grasp of the literature in this particular respect isn’t as tight as it should be–tut, tut!

**UPDATE 2: The same Vermet tells me that when the sheet was auctioned in 2003 it went for 10 times the estimate–so, as he says, “at least 2 persons were convinced it was by Bosch already then.” Quite!


More clamorous attributions: yet another pair of “new Michelangelos”?

1 pair of sculptures (Atlantes consoles) Michelangelo Buonarroti. Study by the Art Research Foundation. Sculptures, walnut, polychromated, each 61 x 39 x 14 cm, circa 1494, each carved out of a glued and mortised and tenoned rectangular block made up of three parts. Previously unknown (not mentioned in either Vasari or Condivi). (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

1 pair of sculptures (Atlantes consoles) Michelangelo Buonarroti. Study by the Art Research Foundation. Sculptures, walnut, polychromated, each 61 x 39 x 14 cm, circa 1494.  (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti presented to the world. (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Hitherto unknown pair of sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti presented to the world. (PRNewsFoto/Art Research MT GmbH)

Granted, I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but with the dust barely settled on the Panther Riders, which were revealed to the world just a few months back as “newly-discovered Michelangelos” (ahem) by the Fitzwilliam Museum–you can read my and Dr David Hemsoll’s thoughts about those here and here–a Swiss authentication firm has without hesitation revealed that the two sculpted wooden putti above, which form a pair of consoles, are “in fact the work of Michelangelo.” The firm in fact reckons that it has dispelled “any…doubts” that the putti are by Michelangelo’s hand. You can read their press release for yourself here, but it’s worth thinking for a bit about their main evidence and weigh-up just how far we can be sure that these sculptures are indeed the work of Michelangelo.

The main thrust of the evidence concerns the date and likely place of origin of the sculptures; in their own words: “The study analyzes the plausibility of the object’s time of origin using technical and scientific methods.” What they’ve discovered is that the present layer of polychromy and bonding substances are original. Not only that, the technique and materials point to Italy as the place of manufacture and “the time of origin as circa 1494”. This approximate, but surprisingly precise (which is say, suspiciously engineered), date was then “confirmed” by scientific dating of the wood using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, which “showed that the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability.” Having thus “established” that the putti were made in Italy in 1494, they embarked upon stylistic analysis, comparing the sculptures to authentic works by Michelangelo. This is all to say that somebody involved had from the get-go a hunch, however wishful, that these might be by Michelangelo and so having decided on the date and place of production by means of science, let’s actually think about this in terms of art and try and prove this basic proposition. Backwards though this method of working may be (when dealing with art it seems sensible to me to begin with considerations of an artistic kind) this is, in any case, what they came up with:

In the study, the subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo. For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history, the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates.

In addition, it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work. This fact should dispel any remaining doubts that this pair of sculptures are in fact the work of Michelangelo.”

Err. This all seems to me dubiosuly vague evidence, underscored by the irresistible desire to discover new Michelangelos at the expense, it seems, of proper art historical rigour. Let’s consider the individual bits of evidence.

The polychromy and binding materials may well be original and may well point to Italy in the later 15th century. I’m sure they have abundant scientific facts to support this thesis that obviously were not regurgitated in the press release–the function of a press release being, of course, to be pithy and engender unabated excitement in the press. But what this evidence cannot do is generate the precise result that the putti were made in 1494. The dendrochronology (wood dating) cannot even determine such a date. For the benefit of the uninitiated, their statement that “the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability” doesn’t mean that the wood dating showed that sculptures were definitely made in 1494. Rather what the wood dating will have shown is that “the sculptures are made out of wood which is from a tree felled at some point in the later 1400s”. To be sure, the results can sometimes even say “a tree felled in 1491” etc., thus giving a terminus post quem, but never, ever says “was produced in 1494”. In other words the wood dating will have generated a broader time period for the sculptures (let’s say, the 1490s), and the researchers themselves have decided to pronounce the date as being 1494 (their what they call “assumed” date for the sculptures’ production). So we have to ask: why pick that date?

And we needn’t look far for the answer. The 1490s is after all the decade when Michelangelo the sculptor was born and the earlier years of that decade were especially frenetic and experimental. Michelangelo’s biographers Vasari and Condivi both relate that it was the young artist’s time in the Medici sculpture garden from 1490-92 that really ignited his interests in carving. During his time in the Medici court and in the following few years Michelangelo sculpted an all’antica Head of a Faun (lost), the Battle of the Centaurs relief and Madonna of the Steps, the latter in rilievo schiacciato, or “squashed relief”, in purposeful imitation of Donatello’s pioneering technique; Michelangelo also did a little Hercules (also lost), and in the very cold winter of 1493-4 even made a snowman in Piero de’ Medici’s courtyard (lost, obviously); at about the same time Michelangelo also carved a Sleeping Cupid, which, infamously, was fraudulently sold–apparently unbeknownst to Michelangelo–as a genuine antique to Cardinal San Giorgio (also lost). Crucially the middle years of the 1490s also saw Michelangelo embark on the carving of a wooden Crucifix for the church of S. Spirito–apparently as a gift in exchange for the wardens of the church having allowed Michelangelo to dissect cadavers in the crypt there!–as well as two sculpted Saints for S. Domenico in Bologna, and, most importantly, an Angel bearing a candelabrum for the same church.

This is all to say that at around 1494, Michelangelo was demonstrably a busy sculptor and, moreover, is known to have been sculpting in wood, as well as producing more utilitarian, or else “functional”, statuary such as the candelabrum, which might well justify the belief that he would have also carved in wood a pair of consoles (what the putti are reckoned to be). In other words, 1494 is a neat date that coincides with some important documented and still extant works by Michelangelo… So 1494’s a good date. But, and here’s the problem, the science could never have generated that precise a date. The science, which is to say the materials and techniques of the polychromy, as well as the wood dating, will, as I’ve said, have thrown up a vaguer result and definitely not anything near as firm as “made in 1494”. This I think leads to the skeptical but inevitable conclusion that that date 1494 was purposefully selected by the authors of the study because of the attractive correspondence between this date and Michelangelo’s known output during this early stage in his career. To put all of that another way, the date 1494 was ostensibly engineered because the study set off with the a priori purpose of proving that the putti are by Michelangelo, and the available science was subsequently deployed in order to sustain that premise, with the scientific results being manipulated to suit predetermined conclusions (i.e. made in 1494, during Michelangelo’s ascendancy as a sculptor); the science did not generate this result.

Michelangelo, Crucifix, about 1493, polychromed wood, S Spirito, Florence

Michelangelo, Crucifix, about 1493, polychromed wood, S Spirito, Florence

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs, about 1492-3, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs, about 1492-3, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Madonna of the Steps, about 1491, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Madonna of the Steps, about 1491, marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo, Angel bearing candelabrum, 1494-5, marble, S Domenico, Bologna

Michelangelo, Angel bearing candelabrum, 1494-5, marble, S Domenico, Bologna

“So what?” people will say, “that’s just how these things work”. Authors have hunches, and use both scientific and connoisseurial evidence to build a case. Vague wood dating results are often narrowed and refined in the way we’ve just encountered in order to bring unattributed works into line with a known artist’s activities. But the problem in this case is that the scientific result, and their consequent proposal that the consoles were made by Michelangelo in 1494, doesn’t gain any robustness or credibility by virtue of other, external evidence.

For a start and not unlike the bronze Panther Riders there is no mention of the putti consoles in the primary sources, namely Vasari and Condivi. I am surprised that having carefully selected the date of 1494 for the putti’s manufacture, that those behind the study weren’t more concerned that neither of Michelangelo’s biographers mention consoles, or wooden putti, or anything that feasibly could be related to the present works at all. This should at the very least have inspired some reticence or caution on their part about making the pronouncement that these sculptures are “without doubt” the work of Michelangelo. (It is important to remember at this point that the account provided by Condivi is especially useful in this connexion since Condivi’s account was sanctioned by Michelangelo himself, to the degree that it is not unreasonable to think of Condivi  as having been Michelangelo’s mouthpiece!) It is therefore troubling to say the least that there is no mention here, or anywhere else, of a pair of wooden consoles showing putti. Had Condivi or Vasari (or somebody else) mentioned wooden consoles, then there would be a sound foundation on which to build a case and to try and relate these sculptures to Michelangelo. We might also be more the wiser about why Michelangelo carved them: for where, why and for which patron? Indeed the lack of provenance for these works is a bit of a problem in general. Don’t they look a bit clean for wooden sculptures that are half a millennium old? This would suggest that they’ve been looked after well by a line of conscientious owners (or, less good for the authors given the importance of the materials, have been CLEANED!), and so we should want to know more about where they’ve been over the last 5 centuries.

Next there is the “connoisseurship” involved in supporting, but crucially not determining, this attribution which, we remember, is predicated on science and only backed-up by the art. First there’s the vagueness of their connoisseurial pronouncements which should and will raise eyebrows. What on earth does “The subject of Atlantes putti consoles is identified in 52 cases in the authenticated works of Michelangelo actually mean? Are they saying that they’ve identified 52 instances where Michelangelo did angels or putti? Or 52 instances where Michelangelo actually designed consoles decorated with putti? I can’t think of 52 of the latter?! Ditto “For comparisons with the authenticated work in the context of art history [… eh?], the overall design of the figures was identified in 71 cases, with 79 stylistic parallels from head to foot drawn in detail and documented in more than 100 photographic plates. And then there’s “it was impossible to find a single stylistic element on the sculptures which could not have been matched with the authenticated work“. Taken altogether, I think that what they’re saying here, without saying it, is that Michelangelo was interested in angels and putti, and that every individual bit of the putti’s anatomies can be compared with one work or another–whether that be a drawing, painting, or sculpture–by Michelangelo. But isn’t this all just a bit worryingly imprecise and unspecific? Of course you can compare one pec from a putto to another pec elsewhere of Michelangelo’s invention, or one toenail (or even in the case of the Panther Riders the shape of the pubic hair), and sure enough you’ll find similarities from such piecemeal connoisseurial dissections. But such an approach hardly seems robust. One should want to have some more precise, compelling examples? What’s more one should also want to know what the parameters were that circumscribed the selection of examples of Michelangelo’s works for comparative purposes. You can’t really, for example, enter into discussion here late works by Michelangelo in order to arrive at convincing arguments about the formal or stylistic merit of the putti because the putti are supposed to be very early, which should have imposed limits on which works were used for the purposes of stylistic comparison; or else, should have imposed limits on the number of works that can be used in order to arrive at useful, instructive, precise and convincing comparisons rather than generic ones. It is dead easy to say, for instance, that the abdomens of the putti, and the arrangements of the legs, bear a general resemblance to the Dying Slave–and I imagine that this is the sort of comparison that was indeed made–but the Dying Slave is a more accomplished work that postdates the putti by some two decades (…unless, of course, their dating of the putti is wrong in which case their entire thesis falls apart and needs to be started over).

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, mid-1510s, marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, mid-1510s, marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris

The best and most measured results would arise if the putti are compared to contemporary works, viz.,early  sculptures made by Michelangelo in the 1490s. Especially useful might be the wooden Crucifix, since it is wooden, as well as the candelabrum, given the similarities in type between the candle-holding angel and the console putti. But these comparisons aren’t especially instructive. The consoles are a million miles away from the Crucifix (which harkens back, apparently deliberately, to older Tuscan crucifixes that would have been ten a penny in the churches Michelangelo hung out in). The bent legs and hunched shape of the Angel candelabrum, meanwhile, is a bit better but then this comparison throws up the problem of the faces: the chubby Angel in Bologna has a soft, sweet face that is well-composed and clearly the work of an already accomplished sculptor, whereas the faces of the putti are decidedly ungainly, if not grotesquely ugly, and seem to me to be the work of an unsure hand. There’s something about the faces of the putti that just does not seem right. The putti’s hairstyles are also, er, problematic… Does Michelangelo ever do the kind of scraggy hair that we find here? Overall, the console putti lack the beauty and careful finish that we find in Michelangelo’s other angels or cherubs from this period, including those that we find in the paintings: the candelabrum angel’s face is fully in line with the faces of those in the so-called Manchester Madonna in London, for example, whereas the console putti are patently different to both. In short, from a connoisseurial point of view, might we not conclude that the putti are, to be crass, a bit ugly? And then we have to ask: did Michelangelo, one of the greatest sculptors ever to have lived, do ugly?

In short, I think that this proposed attribution once more leaves serious questions unresolved, with the quality of the art history involved leaving a fair bit to be desired. Certainly, the authors of the study have a long way to go before convincing any serious scholar (and consequently, I suppose, an auction house!) that the putti are the real deal. The lessons that could have been learned from the way that the Panther Riders were sensationally revealed to the world seem not to have been heeded, with the wish to attach Michelangelo’s name to a sculpture once more overriding the importance of careful art historical analysis. Science can–and in this case probably does–tell us that the wooden consoles were made in Italy in the later 1400s, but that’s not quite the same as telling us that “these are definitely by Michelangelo”.



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 . . .



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