Join first year History of Art student Jess Bishop in the Barber Institute Galleries, responding to 61 rapid-fire questions about studying art history at the University of Birmingham (à la Vogue’s 73 Questions) …. Click on link in the caption below.
Join first year History of Art student Jess Bishop in the Barber Institute Galleries, responding to 61 rapid-fire questions about studying art history at the University of Birmingham (à la Vogue’s 73 Questions) …. Click on link in the caption below.
It is the pleasure of the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies to advertise the below research event, co-organised by Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange and Dr Jamie Edwards. All welcome!!
Speculations, Traps and Interpretations: Networks in 15th and 16th Century Art and Music
Wednesday 23rd January
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre
Please confirm attendance for catering purposes (T.B.Roleston@bham.ac.uk)
2.35 Reindert Falkenburg, ‘Speculations on the ‘Book of Nature’ in Pieter Bruegel’s Road to Calvary’
3.00 Michel Weemans, ‘Muscipula diaboli: Bruegel’s Triumph of Death (c. 1562) as Trap Image’
4.10 Andrew Kirkman, ‘Visual-Aural Force fields in the Late Middle Ages’
4.25 Jamie Edwards, ‘An Exegetic Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Census at Bethlehem (1566)’
4.40 Discussion / Round table
JON STEVENS (MRes History of Art)
Oh dear! Why is it that when art history hits the headlines, it is often a banal example of an artistic ‘who-dun-it’ or, even, ‘who-was-it’. A week or so ago, a news item in the Guardian announced that one of the greatest mysteries in art history appears to have been solved.
What was this mystery? Apparently, some new research has revealed (I use the word advisedly) that the model for Gustave Courbet’s notorious painting of a naked woman’s torso and genitalia – L’Origine du Monde – was not Joanna Hiffernan, as previously thought, but Constance Quinéaux. I can’t imagine that many people regarded the identity of the model for this work as a great mystery — or for that matter especially interesting, given the myriad other more profound and powerful analyses that this image of female objectivity opens up — but the way this story was reported by various news outlets, including the Guardian and the BBC, was problematic in other ways.
To start with the painting itself. It was commissioned in the mid nineteenth-century by Khalil Bey, a wealthy Ottoman diplomat based in Paris, who had a taste for erotic art. He apparently hung it in his private chambers hidden behind a green curtain. The truncated and foreshortened woman’s body in the picture lies uncovered and exposed, with the white bed sheet drawn back; the woman is objectified and denied any identity (which, apart from anything else, rather undermines the importance of scholarly debate around the supposed model). Bey apparently displayed his painting to selected male guests by theatrically drawing the curtain back. And, although I have only seen reproductions of the painting, it seems to me that it amounts to little more than a piece of voyeurism.
For many years, the painting was not shown in public. Apparently, it was thought that, while discerning and educated men could appreciate it as a ‘work of art’, ordinary people, rather like ‘the servants’ in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, might be corrupted by it. To maintain this conceit, it was given the overblown title of ‘The Origin of the World’. It was painted in 1866, seven years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species; this made the painting either hopelessly unscientific, if you accepted the idea of evolution by natural selection, or blasphemous, if you subscribed to the idea of a creator god. But of course the title was just a false cover, designed to give the painting some kind of specious respectability.
The press coverage of the story makes matters worse, much worse. The BBC in its report tries to stick to the facts, as it were. But their whole approach is undermined by the photoshopped image, which precedes their article. This shows a woman spectator standing in front of the painting with the back of her head and her long hair obscuring the offending genitalia. To replace the male gaze with the female gaze in this way is unbelievably crass; in trying to be discrete, the BBC has instead added a new dimension to the notion of objectification.
The Guardian makes little attempt to be measured. Their news item engages in some titillating speculation about the model’s dark pubic hair; this matches Quineaux’s “beautiful black eyebrows” whereas Hiffernan had a “mane of flaming red curls”. Jonathan Jones in his Guardian article entitled Who posed for the ‘Mona Lisa of vaginas’? is more obviously prurient. Although he places the Mona Lisa reference in quotation marks, it is clear that this is his idea of a joke and he continues in this vein.
Jones, who previously subscribed to the view that Courbet’s model was Joanna Hiffernan, is a bit miffed by this new research as it means he will have to amend a book he is writing. However, he salaciously accepts that there is ‘a blazing piece of contradictory evidence’ to the contrary. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop Jones pondering that ‘it is particularly tempting to imagine Hiffernan’s features hidden under that white sheet’. He goes on to use the story as a pretext for speculating about the ‘carnal dimension’ of some paintings that did feature Joanna Hiffernan, who apart from modelling for Courbet briefly, was James McNeill Whistler’s mistress and muse. Hiffernan features in all of Whistler’s ‘Symphonies’, including the Barber Institute’s own Symphony in White No III, but it is her appearance as a prostitute in Whistler’s Wapping that most exercises him.
I could go on but I suggest that you access the offending articles for yourself by looking at the BBC’s news item , the Guardian’s news item and the Jonathan Jones article. Further thoughts are welcome!
Each year, 2nd year History of Art students embark on a University-funded, week-long study trip to a European city, in order to study its art, architecture and culture up-close as part of the module Art History in the Field. In the past, students have visited, among other cities, Rome, Berlin, and Brussels. This year, however, the destination was Paris, led by lecturers Dr Fran Berry and Dr Greg Salter, and Sara Tarter (PhD student and teaching associate). Here, 2nd years Hannah Binns, Louise Greenhill, Rozeena Jabeen, Beth Moody and Elizabeth Shih tell us all about what they got up to ….
Monday 12 Febuary (Hannah Binns)
In the ever-bustling New Street Station, we all gathered bright and early on Monday morning to set off for Paris. Some, me and one other nervous traveller, arrived a solid hour early and watched as everyone else gently congregated by Pret in various states of awakeness. Some light competition about who had packed most efficiently, the distribution of the various train tickets, and several litres of coffee later, and we were off. The Virgin train to Euston was painless due to my decision to purchase Travel Boggle, although the clatter of sixteen dice every three minutes was perhaps not overly popular with fellow passengers ….
Before we knew it, we were trekking down the Euston Road to St Pancras where we all made it through security and border control unscathed and the excitement began to set in. The Eurostar, like the Virgin train, was made infinitely better by Boggle – I even managed to rope in a few more players. Then suddenly, we were pulling into Gare du Nord, Paris. We piled into a coach and trundled through the city to our hostel which was, to everybody’s delight, lovely.
My friends and I pootled off to explore the surrounding streets and find food and drink before collapsing into bed to recharge before an art-filled week.
Tuesday 13 February (Louise Greenhill)
After a busy day of travelling, our first stop Tuesday morning was Musée d’Orsay, one of Paris’s most well know museums, with around 2,997,622 visitors in 2016. Its extensive collection is housed inside a nineteenth-century railway station, which means that the whole museum is filled with light, even on a rainy day in February. That, in combination with the surprisingly small crowds — although, we did get there early! — meant that this was my favourite museum of the trip. The collection comprises eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, many of which were originally in the Louvre. The museum’s collection includes paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, and old photographs, which, along with the architecture itself, means there’s something for everyone to enjoy. One of the highlights that we all got to study was Manet’s famous and, in its day, controversial painting Olympia, which was amazing to see and think about in real life having seen reproductions of it so many times since arriving at University.
Musée d’Orsay is situated on the banks of the Seine so after the visit we took a walk along the unusually high Seine, taking in the famous padlock bridge and the beautiful architecture. We also admired the traditional Parisian sight of a few brave book and art sellers, or “libraries forain,” that were still out despite the freezing temperatures and light snow. Then we visited Sainte-Chappelle, a truly beautiful thirteenth-century building commissioned by Louis IX as an “architectural reliquary,” which, among other things, is famous for its original stained glass windows (miraculously, they survived the French Revolution). This is definitely a place worth visiting for those interested in the medieval history of Paris.
For lunch we found a suitably French-looking café and feasted on camembert and bread — all the walking on this trip definitely made us very hungry! We then took a leisurely stroll to Notre Dame, which, don’t get me wrong, is impressive but was somehow smaller than I had imagined ( … perhaps our expectations have been spoiled by Disney?).
The evening concluded with a visit to Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre by metro. Unfortunately, we did not have time do go inside Sacré-Coeur itself but were assured by several course mates that the interior is amazing. A favourite place for artists such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, Montmartre offers beautiful views of Paris from the top of the hill (be prepared for leg ache) and its old squares have lots of shops and restaurants to choose from.
Overall, the first day was a very interesting, action-packed start to what promised to be a brilliant week ahead!
Wednesday 14 February (Rozeena Jabeen)
Wednesday was the day we were all anticipating and dreading. Yes, it was the day to visit the Louvre, which we all knew had lots of amazing art on offer but had also heard all the horror stories about crowds, queues and hostile “selfie sticks”. The daunting task of navigating our way through as many wings as possible within a few precious hours was beyond me, but it was a challenge worth taking. After an initial introduction, we were free to make our own way through the museum.
Of course, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was certainly not to be missed and most of us had it our list of must-sees. All the horror stories we’d heard about seeing this picture — of tourists climbing on top of each other, elbowing one another, or even shoving a camera in someone else’s face — didn’t seem to hold true on the day we visited: we were able to slip in through the sides and take a glance at the revered artwork before moving on to the rest of the collection.
I’ve been to the Louvre a couple of times before so I was determined to view part of the collection I haven’t seen before, the Early Netherlandish works. I was desperate to see Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, especially after studying it in Dr Jamie Edwards’s Renaissance Art in Italy and Netherlands c.1400-60. In fact, many of us who had taken that module in the Autumn were really keen to go and see many of the works that we’d discussed. Unfortunately, however, the Early Netherlandish galleries were closed. Nonetheless, we were able to see many other wonderful northern works of art, albeit from a little later, by the likes of Bruegel, Brueghel, Rubens, van Dyck … Rembrandt … the list goes on ….
A little respite was in order so some of went to explore the subterranean shopping centre inside the Louvre, where, to my pleasant surprise, I found out that the French have a penchant, shall we say, for cat-themed gifts – who knew! We then re-fuelled at lunch, met up with everyone else and split into two groups. One group visited the Jeu de Paume photography museum with Greg, while the rest of us went to the Musée de l’Orangerie with Fran to feast our eyes on a whole bunch of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.
More serene and peaceful than the Louvre, the Musée de l’Orangerie allowed us to view and to think about the works more carefully. One of the first things we saw was Monet’s amazing Nymphéas (Water Lilies), which adorn an oval-shaped gallery that was designed by the artist himself. Due to its immense size, I was able to get extremely close to the picture and examine every quick brush stroke, thick application of paint and its vibrant colours. Besides works by Monet, we studied many a famous work by artists including Matisse, Cézanne, and Renoir. Overall, the Musée de l’Orangerie was definitely a gem, and a lovely change of pace compared to the Louvre.
Due to our aching feet, some of us went back to the hostel and then went to the hostel’s cafeteria for onion soup. We chit chatted about the day’s adventures and new friendships were born. It was the perfect way to end an inspiring and thought-provoking day.
Thursday 15 February (Beth Moody)
Thursday was the perfect Parisian day for those of us with a passion for modern art. It started with a trip to Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, the national art gallery of France that opened in 1977. Much like its British equivalent, Tate Modern, the building’s architecture is imposing and industrial. The enormous gallery contains a huge variety of collections of modern art, by artists such as Pollock, Braque, Kandinsky and Matisse. The grand scale of the gallery and vast art collection meant there was not enough time to view everything (which most of us were craving to do) and so was a popular place to return to on a free afternoons.
After crêpes for lunch, we split into two groups, one of which went to the Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporian, whilst the others went to the Picasso museum. I visited the Foundation Cartier, which had a Malick Sidibé exhibition entitled ‘Mali Twist’. This was a contemporary photography exhibition that celebrated not only the power of the photographic image, but the happiness of the Bamako community and the love amongst those within the community. The black and white photographs, accented by the bright yellow walls of the exhibition space, together with the rock and roll vibes and overarching expression of joy omitting from the photographs, made this exhibition definitely worth visiting. Everyone left feeling content and in a good mood.
In the evening, a group of us that hadn’t been already went to see the magnificent Notre Dame, followed by a stroll to Quartier Pigalle for some authentic French food and vin (of course!) – a lovely relaxing end to a busy, modern-art-filled day.
Friday 16 February (Elizabeth Shih)
In the morning, following an introduction by Fran, the focus was on architecture, visiting works by Hector Guimard, Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. The walk was not long, but most of us were feeling pretty frazzled after a fun and inspiring, but nevertheless tiring, art-filled week à Paris! The sun gave us a smile, so a flurry of Instagram posts seemed essential: #LeCorbusier.
In the afternoon, I intrepidly ventured out of the City for Versailles, and whizzed into the Hall of Mirrors. The Palace was opulent, but the garden got most of my attention. There were swans swimming in the pond, submerging their head into the water. I walked down to the fountain, and saw the golden frogs and a woman with infants on the top, gathering like a choir opening their mouths prepared to sing. I sat on a bench alongside the river in the garden of Versailles, taking it all in and reflecting on the week. Absolute tranquility!
I could have wandered aimlessly and timelessly around Versaille, but a group dinner in Montmartre beckoned. We went to Le Bouillon Chartier, which is over a hundred years old. It was founded for Parisian residents, and is beloved by tourists. The restaurant didn’t disappoint but was a little busy, not to mention loud, so my voice seemed to become part of the din. Nevertheless, we ordered some good wine and food and immersed ourselves in the Parisian atmosphere.
Van Gogh was said to be inspired by the French writer Guy de Maupassant to paint his Starry Night Over the Rhône, who described the starlit night in Paris in his novel Yvette. This painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay, hanging in the same room as van Gogh’s self-portrait. I had seen both in real life just a few days earlier, on Tuesday during our visit to the Orsay. It was not the best representation of night, nor was it the best representation of Paris; but seeing it has made a lasting impression on me, and is a fond memory from our time in Paris.
Saturday 17 February (Hannah Binns)
And so we came to our final day in Paris. We’d all certainly given the city our all and experienced a good chunk of what it has to offer, but I’m sure we’ll all be back there soon to see all the things we didn’t have time for this trip. There was time, though, for a final bit of art history in the morning ….
Half of us went to Musée Rodin with Fran and the other went to Musée de Gustave Moreau with Greg. I had been looking forward to this particular trip all week and it did not disappoint. All the works are displayed in Moreau’s house. The first floor contains much of the artist’s furniture and memorabilia, while the second and third floors, where he had his studio, are home to a huge number of his paintings and sculptures.
I spent a long time on the very top floor looking at the various depictions of Salomé as I find late nineteenth-century femme fatale figures really interesting, partly thanks to studying art in fin-de-siècle Vienna last term with Dr Sam Shaw. Two of Moreau’s paintings of Salomé become the obsession of Des Esseintes in J K Huysmans’ 1891 novel, À Rebours, which I briefly studied in one of my English modules this year (I am a joint honours student, Art History and English). Moreau’s paintings of Salomé, through their featuring in Huysmans’ novel, also had a profound effect of Oscar Wilde who I also studied as part of the same English module. When Wilde wrote his play Salomé in 1891, he sent Moreau an inscribed copy by way of acknowledging the effect that Moreau’s works had had on him.
After a fantastic morning, a few of us headed for a final coffee and sandwich before we had to return to Birmingham, a city that, for all its charm, does not have quite the same calibre of baguettes. We all gathered at the hostel quite early, a definite feeling of fatigue hanging over us by this point. When the time came, we all boarded a coach, tootled to Gare du Nord, checked in and eventually climbed aboard the Eurostar back to London. Boggle made a brief appearance, but even I, renowned Boggle enthusiast, was too tired for many rounds. Then, before we knew it, we had made it to London Euston and were Birmingham-bound.
Truly, it was truly an incredible week. I’m sure that I speak for the whole group when I say that I am so grateful to Fran, Greg and Sara Tarter for making it so interesting, enjoyable and memorable! Here’s a drawing I made to give to Fran, Greg and Sara to say thanks for such a wonderful trip:
BY JON STEVENS, MRES HISTORY OF ART
Last year, prior to my arrival in the Department of Art History, I read three books, which had a lasting impact on me. Reflecting further on these books, I realised that, among other things, they all have something intriguing to say about the relationship between art and life: about the uncertainty and indeterminacy between the real and the invented and the dreamed and the experienced.
In this piece, I have tried to articulate some of my reflections and to explain how these three books, each in their own way, seems to inform and enrich the continual dialectic between art and life. In doing this, my hope is that I might encourage those of you, who haven’t read the books, to seek them out; you will be well rewarded. And for those of you who might have read one or more of them, I hope that you find my take on them of interest.
In February last year I took a trip to Madrid and Seville with my wife. Our visit would provide a long-awaited opportunity to see the magnificent collection of Goya’s work in the Prado; not least the assembly of his ‘Black Paintings’. In Foyle’s bookshop, just before we left, Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velásquez caught my eye. I read it on the train, on our flight and finished it in our hotel, so that by the time of our visit to the Prado, I found that Velásquez was competing for my attention with Goya.
Laura Cumming’s book tells two interwoven stories. In the first story she relates her personal encounter with Velásquez, when she spent time in Madrid grieving for the early death of her father, the painter James Cumming. At first, she tells how she couldn’t bring herself to enter the Prado but when she does and – as she is searching for works by El Greco, one of her father’s favourite artists – she comes upon Las Meninas and like many before her she is overwhelmed by the experience.
The second story is about John Snare, a provincial Victorian bookseller from Reading, who dabbled in art dealing. In 1845, in his mid-twenties, he spots a painting up for auction at nearby Radley Hall. It is described as ‘A portrait of Prince Charles, later Charles I’ and in the catalogue it is suggested that it might be by Van Dyck. Snare was an autodictat, who had already acquired enough knowledge to question this attribution. He knew that the young king-to-be had visited the Spanish court in 1623 on a fruitless mission to arrange an advantageous marriage; might it have been possible that he had his portrait done at this time by the court painter Velásquez? Little was known about Velásquez’s works in England in the mid 1800’s. There were a handful of examples in private collections and, of these, several had misleading attributions. However, first-hand accounts of Velásquez’s works on display in the Prado were beginning to circulate and Snare was convinced that this painting was the genuine article.
John Snare spent the rest of his life trying to prove that this painting, which he acquired for the sum of only £8 (less than £1000 in today’s money), was a lost masterpiece by Velásquez. Laura Cumming first came across the story when she found a pamphlet by Snare that he published in 1847, prior to the painting being put on show in London. ‘The History and Pedigree of the Portrait of Prince Charles’ is a testament to Snare’s thorough research – at a time when little had been published on Velásquez and when what was available was often highly misleading – and it shows his tenacity in seeking out sources, when many doors would have been closed to him.
Laura Cumming’s recounts the many vicissitudes of Snare’s travels with his beloved painting. The painting is a popular success wherever it is shown; many reputable observers are persuaded that it is indeed a Velásquez and Snare uncovers more evidence to support his case; although gaps and contradictions remain. On the way, he has many misfortunes and he makes a number of enemies; the painting is possessed twice and he pays substantial sums to redeem it; his ownership of the painting is contested leading to a tortuous trial in Edinburgh, which he eventually wins; by then, however, he has absconded taking his painting with him to America. Ultimately, the Velásquez is all he has; his business has been bankrupted and his marriage is over. Yet still he feels compelled to press his claims; it is not for money, as he receives several substantial offers for the work, rather, it is to prove his point.
Snare’s fortunes improve in America. His painting is generally lauded but sadly he misses its greatest triumph; he dies before it is shown to general acclaim at the Metropolitan Museum in 1889. After that, the painting returns home to his family. It is shown one more time in his hometown and then it unaccountably vanishes from history. Laura Cumming pursues every conceivable lead and goes down some fascinating paths but, in the end, the object of John Snare’s magnificent obsession remains elusive. Could the painting have been by Velásquez? And might it be hanging somewhere forgotten and unrecognised? Cumming interlaces the many questions about the lost painting with her own reflections on Velásquez’s life and practice.
Going back to Laura Cumming’s midwinter encounter with Las Meninas, last February, I followed in her footsteps. Arriving at the Prado as soon as it opened, I was able to spend 30 minutes almost undisturbed with this celebrated painting. Much has been written about Las Meninas and many artists have marvelled at it. In 1865, Éduard Manet stood entranced before it and later wrote to Charles Baudelaire that Velásquez was “the greatest painter that ever was”. Almost a century later, Picasso obsessively painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in one year and, late in his career, Francis Bacon spent long hours – after the galleries were closed to the public – trying to comprehend this “amazingly mysterious painter”.
Velásquez is a master of illusion. The figures in Las Meninas are life-size and as you approach the painting you are caught by the quizzical gazes of the little princess and her attendant dwarf in the foreground, of the chamberlain in the rear doorway, of the ghostly presences of the king and queen in the mirror (who might be standing beside you) and, above all, of the artist himself poised before his canvas. You find yourself as the latest participant in a drama that has been played out for over 350 years.
Yet as you draw closer, the illusion dissolves before your eyes. The paint surface becomes a pattern of “dots, dashes, flicks and spatters of paint”, which only a moment ago represented the shimmering dress of the princess, the soft fur of her dog, the indistinct image in the mirror and the glint in the artist’s eye. Because Velásquez’s technique is so baffling, there is a danger (as Cumming notes) that we assume “the illusion is all there is”.
Yet Velásquez’s illusionism is only the means by which he explores both the outward appearance and the inner lives of his subjects; whether they are effete kings, arrogant aristocrats, looked-down-upon servants or ridiculed court entertainers. This was brought home to me most forcefully when I passed into the ‘Dwarves and Buffoons’ room. The name of the room may jar in a modern context but (as Cumming eloquently suggests) Velásquez’s intimate portraits of the two dwarfs, Francisco Lezcano and Sebastián Morra, and the full-length portrait of the court performer, Pablo de Valladolid, are works of compelling empathy and psychological insight. Their images have stayed with me since my visit and I can fully understand how they acted as a kind of balm for Cumming’s pressing grief.
Last June, I attended some lectures in Oxford on American art by David Lubin. I had met him earlier in the year, following a research seminar he gave at the Department. Before his final lecture, we had coffee together and, when I told him of my possible research interest in late 19th century Belgian art, he enquired if I had read War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. I had not heard of the book and purchased it on my return. On the back cover, War and Turpentine is described by the New York Times as a “masterly book about memory, art, war and love”; it is a sweeping family history written by the Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans about his grandfather, Urbain, and the tumultuous times he lived through from his birth in 1891 until his death in 1981.
In writing the memoir, Hertmans drew heavily on two notebooks, which his grandfather gave him before he died at the age of 90. In the notebooks, his grandfather recollects his early life in Ghent, his experiences as soldier in the Belgian Army in the Great War and his return home. Hertmans reconstructs his grandfather’s life from a rich amalgam of extracts from the notebooks (skilfully edited), personal memories and his imagining of his grandfather’s inner life.
The book opens with Hertman’s catching a glimpse of his grandfather in old age “silently weeping” over a reproduction of what we later discover is Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus. He goes back in time to describe his grandfather’s impoverished upbringing in Ghent at the turn of the 20th century. Urbain’s father, Franciscus, is a jobbing artist, spending his time restoring murals and paintings for Catholic churches and monasteries around Ghent, working long hours for “starvation wages”. Franciscus is a man of absolute faith; it suffuses his whole being and the life of his family. The young Urbain is fascinated by his father’s calling and spends his spare time acting as his assistant. Then out-of-the-blue, Franciscus is commissioned to create some original murals for a church in Liverpool, this is a great opportunity and he leaves the family for several months. On his return, the family have little time to celebrate his achievement. He is ill and dies from pneumonia.
Hertman’s quotes selectively from his grandfather’s notebooks in his rich account of his upbringing in Ghent and of the hardships he and his family endure, particularly after Franciscus’s early death. Then, in the second section of the book, his grandfather’s experiences in the Great War are related more or less verbatim from his notebooks. Writing thirty years after the event, Urbain gives a visceral and gut-wrenching account of the horrors of the German invasion of neutral Belgium. In the first few months of the war, over 5,000 civilians are executed in reprisal for Belgian resistance to the invasion and the Belgian army, in which he is a corporal, suffers catastrophic losses.
Miraculously, Urbain survives the first chaotic battle of Schiplaken and he lives to fight through the war on the front at Yser. He suffers serious injuries and on three occasions he is sent to convalesce in England. The first time he ends up in Liverpool and, as he recovers, he remembers the murals created by his father, Franciscus. He scours the city for the church or monastery where they might be found, without luck. Then, one day wandering along the docks, he stumbles into a cloister and there before him is a mural of St.Francis. He recognises his father’s hand immediately. He is enthralled by the experience, all-the-more-so when he notices St Francis’ face. It is a likeness of his dead father and then he looks at one of the shepherds standing by the saint and he sees…his own face, as a child.
This is a revelatory episode and it is not entirely clear whether this is a real experience or an intense dream or both? He searches for the cloister again but he never finds it.
Urbain is much decorated for his heroism but he ends the war a disillusioned man, not only because of the horrors he has witnessed but also because, as a Flemish speaker, he is never promoted above the rank of sergeant-major.
On his return to Ghent, Urbain finds work with the railways and he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter, Maria Elena. The final words in his notebooks attempt to describe his passionate love for her. But tragedy strikes again, his young wife-to-be is struck down by the Spanish flu that sweeps Europe after the war. He is inconsolable but, after a time, he agrees to marry her older sister, Gabrielle, and they settle down to a humdrum and loveless life together. At this time, he turns to painting and “this becomes his only escape”.
He is a relatively talented amateur painter, who has no truck with modernism. He turns out competent still-lives and workmanlike copies of the works of the Dutch painters he loves, including Van Dyck and Rembrandt. When he is 45, the traumas of the past catch up with him and he has the first of several breakdowns. He is pensioned off and spends the rest of his days painting; this is how Stefan remembers him. Then, in his seventies, he decides to tell the story of his life; for thirteen years he labours over this until he reaches his early meetings with Maria Elena and he can’t continue. Five years later, he dies leaving the notebooks to his grandson.
In the final part of the book, Stefan Hartmans tries to untangle his grandfather’s life and the reasons for the sadness that seems to have engulfed him. He recalls that in summer, the family would go on almost weekly pilgrimages to Bruges and, after his grandfather’s death, he finds a well-thumbed copy of Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, the notorious Symbolist novel, which dissects the grief felt by a man who has lost his young wife and the false hope he experiences when he meets a woman who has an uncanny likeness to her. Folded into the pages of the book are some mementoes, a half-finished sketch and a reproduction of the Rokeby Venus. Does this provide some clues to his grandfather’s silent tears?
(The grandfather’s attachment to Bruges-la-Morte was of particular interest to me as this novel triggered off some of my own research interests)
In a second revelatory passage, he finds a collection of old photos of Maria Elena and he goes back to his grandfather’s careful copy of the Rokeby Venus, which had been found in the attic. It provides him with an almost unbearable testament to his grandfather’s love for Maria Elena and the sense of loss he carried with him until his death.
The Guardian’s review of China Miéville’s genre-bending The Last Days of the New Paris described it as a “dazzling scholarly fantasy”. Being unfamiliar with Miéville’s works – this was enough to attract my interest. The novella opens in Paris in 1950; but it is a Paris still under Nazi occupation in which strange forces battle for control of the city. A young freedom fighter, Thibaut, leads one of the factions, Le Main á Plume or The Feathered Hand, which is based on an historical grouping that sought to keep Surrealism alive in Paris during the occupation and which was linked to the French resistance.
However, this is Paris after the mysterious ‘S-blast’, which shortly after the occupation, unleashed all the powers of Surrealism on the Nazis. Nine years later, Paris, which is isolated from the rest of France, is engulfed in an unending conflict that pits a cast of Surrealist manifestations or ‘manifs’ against unspeakable subterranean devils or monsters conjured up by the Nazis.
The range and extent of Surrealist and other references in the novella is extensive and it reminded me of the many different artists who were drawn into Surrealism and of the substantial and only recently fully recognised contribution to the movement by women artists. These references are explained in notes that accompany the account and these notes maintain the conceit that The Last Days of New Paris had been related to Miéville by Thibaut in his old age. When I first tried to read the book, I found it difficult to visualise the references, most of which refer to specific artworks. But I was fortunate to come across an online guide, called Graphic Annotations of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris by Nicky Martin, which reproduces nearly all of the artworks that inspired the ‘manifs’. With this in hand, I was able to relish the diversity and richness of Miéville’s sublime metafiction; a work in which art comes to life and in which boundaries of all kinds are constantly crossed and re-crossed.
A few of his imaginings. The first ‘manif’ to appear is of a curious machine smashing though the Nazi barricades; it appears to be a sort of tandem. “Only one woman rode…the other was a torso, jutted from the bicycle itself…” It is Leonora Carrington’s 1941 drawing I am the Amateur of the Velocipede brought to life. The Velo crashes on the “Surrealist side of the street” throwing its human rider onto the ground before careering off again. The woman is dying, she seems to be a foreign agent, she mutters “Fall Rot” or “Code Red” before she dies.
Thibaut senses that the Nazi forces are about to launch some kind of new offensive to break the stalemate, which has kept Paris in a state of limbo. He sets off on a journey across the blighted ruins of the city. On the way, he encounters a succession of ‘manifs’, which although they are ‘on his side’ seem to have a life of their own. And he passes a number of landmarks transformed by ‘irrational embellishments’ (as suggested in a 1933 article by seven Surrealists which proposed modifications to a number of Paris sites). For example, he finds the church of Sacré Coeur is now “a tram depot, painted black” as imagined by André Breton.
En route, he is joined by two companions, Sam, a journalist apparently from the outside world, and by an ‘exquisite corpse’, which is reproduced at the front of the book. It is perhaps the most famous image of its kind and was ‘assembled’ by André Breton (head), Jacqueline Lamba (torso) and Yves Tanguy (legs) in 1938; one of many products of the Surrealist’s version of the parlour game, Consequences.
The novella moves back and forward in time. We learn that when the teenaged Thibaut joined the Main á Plume he recited their mantra “We refuse to flee poetry for reality. But we refuse to flee reality for poetry” as part of his entry test. The action switches to Marseille in 1941, where a group of (real) Surrealists, awaiting safe passage out of France, play invented games. One of these is based on a Surrealist card pack usefully detailed in the notes and illustrated in Martin’s guide. The game is joined by a crazed occult rocket scientist, Jack Parsons; his arrival has very unexpected consequences that lead to the later developments in Paris.
The division between real and invented characters and between fictional and imaginary events becomes increasingly difficult to divine as Miéville’s phantasmagorical imagination runs riot. Amidst all of this strangeness, the novella reaches a climax with further perverse surprises; Thibaut confronts what might be seen as the ultimate Nazi ‘manif’ and he has a final encounter with ‘the banality of evil’. Thibaut survives, he “takes a deep breath and steps across the boundary into New Paris, the old city” and life and art return to normal. Or do they?
Mimi has is a recipient of an award from the Matt Carey-WIlliams and Danny Roark fund, a generous donation by one of our alumni that allows our undergraduate students to apply for bursaries to cover costs of travel, accommodation etc., to enable them to undertake internships, work experience and placements. More information on University bursaries can be found here.
During the third week of my first year, an email was sent out to History of Art students regarding an opportunity to work as a saleroom assistant at Biddle & Webb Auctioneers. Having experienced freshers’ week and the full cost of enjoying university life, I was keen to take on some part-time work. This opportunity seemed perfect, not only providing some extra pocket money but a chance to be trained in a field of work relevant to my degree. In fact, it seemed too good to be true, but I emailed in a CV and covering letter, not really expecting to hear anything back. To my surprise, a week later, I received a reply saying that I had been shortlisted for an interview. The interview process was informal, the applicants were asked questions as a group and shown the basics of what we would be doing day to day. We were then asked to write a report on how we would develop their marketing through social media. A few days later I received another email saying that I’d got the job! To anyone at university who is considering applying for their first job, even if the application process is long and stressful, it is definitely worth the effort! And even if you aren’t successful (as has been the case for me on several other occasions), it is good practice for other opportunities you will go on to apply for.
Biddle & Webb is a Birmingham based auctioneers which sells antiques, paintings and jewellery, as well as wine, property and commercial items. It is a family run organisation which was established over 60 years ago. One of the first things you notices as you enter the building is the relaxed atmosphere of this professional environment. Everyone is polite and happy to answer any queries you may have. As a new employee, this settled my nerves and made me feel comfortable working there very quickly. Another student on my course was employed alongside me and being trained together made the experience a lot more relaxing and fun! After settling in I was kitted out with uniform, including various fleeces (as the sale room gets very cold during winter!) making me feel an official part of the team. I was also given steel toe capped boots which, although practical, are extremely heavy and therefore a struggle when walking to Selly Oak station, half asleep at 8am on a Saturday morning!
My principle role is working as a trainee antiques cataloguer. I am learning how to analyse an antique object visually, identifying details such as its maker, its material, the period in which it was made, etc. I then write up a description and upload details of the object to an online catalogue. As well as antiques, I have catalogued paintings and wine. When I started, I was thrown into the deep end, contributing to antiques cataloguing from my first day. Although at first a daunting task which required a lot of guidance, I soon got to grips with the basics and can now confidently catalogue a lot of items without assistance. My passion for studying art objects has developed further through this training and has encouraged my interest in undertaking post graduate study.
I also have to opportunity to observe valuations carried out by more experienced colleagues and complete administrative work for them. This is helping me to gain a better idea of how to value various types of antique objects and to understand changing trends of popularity in the antiques world. On auction days, which occur on the second Saturday of every month, I operate the online auction system, either on thesaleroom.com or on Biddle & Webb’s real time bidding server. Through this role I have developed the ability to work well in a fast-paced work environment. Also, often I am given a large amount of lots to catalogue in a short time space, which has certainly made me more diligent and I enjoy being busy.
The work I’ve been doing is also relevant to working in a gallery as I have learnt how to lay out the sale rooms in a way that is accessible for customers and I’ve become interested in how the way that objects are arranged in a room can enhance the viewer’s experience.
In the future, I would like to become a specialist in antiques or painting so I could combine my passion for history of art, the knowledge I have gathered through my academic study, and the skills I have learnt at Biddle & Webb. I would particularly like to work in a high end, international, auction house, where the work environment is fast-paced and exciting, such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s.
I feel very lucky to be doing part-time work which is relevant to my degree as it has helped me to gather and nurture my interests, through the wide-ranging roles I undertake. I feel it has opend up a number of career paths in the art world. To anyone daunted by taking on work, whether it be to earn some money to support university life, or to gain relevant experience, I would say don’t hesitate, it will be worth your time. You’ll develop invaluable skills that you will use throughout your professional life, and hopefully enjoy it too!
Over the course of my second year I became very conscious of the fact that I wanted to gain more experience in the art world and at art institutions. I heard about the Bold Tendencies Art Trainee Internship through the History of Art department around February when I had already done lots of thorough research on the opportunities available to me. So, the first piece of advice I can give is that there is always more out there than what you have already found, so don’t be disheartened if you have yet to find work experience or internships!
Although there were some immediate challenges surrounding the opportunity – namely that it was unpaid and in London – I still put in my application in the hopes that I would be accepted. In the meantime, I began to research the University’s bursaries and funding and work on my application. I found out about the Internship Bursaries that the Careers Network provide, and went to a workshop and presentation about them which I would also really recommend as they give you tips on your application. It was a long process that included an application, a presentation and an interview, but it was absolutely worth it. You can even put in an application before you have a secured place at your internship. There are so many resources in the Careers Network that are of use to students – you just have to go looking for them. Their bursaries for unpaid or low-paid internships are a fantastic opportunity to go and do for experiences you wouldn’t have previously thought you would be able to do.I was able to do this internship because of the help I was given from the University.
The organisation I interned at, Bold Tendencies, is based in a multi-storey car park in Peckham in South East London. As a not-for-profit arts organisation they provide many different things for the local community. On the rooftop there are sculptural installations across the two floors. They also have a wide and varied events programme which includes the resident orchestra Multi-Story, and education initiatives working with local schools and families. Every year they commission new artworks for the site, some of which become permanent installations. This year their most popular commission was an installation by a contemporary artist called Simon Whybray: he transformed the entrance foyer and stairwells of the car park by painting them bright pink. There are other installations on site by contemporary artists such as Richard Wentworth and Adel Abdessemed.
There is something quite different about volunteering a day a week (or less) to an institution to having the opportunity to work three or more days a week, over an extended period of time with the same team, getting to know everyone at an institution. While I had learned a lot from volunteering at other galleries on an ad-hoc basis, this was an entirely new experience. I got to know everyone far quicker; people remembered who I was (especially when I went the extra mile!), and I got a far better sense of how a gallery is run on a daily basis.
Internships and volunteer work usually entail the work that others don’t have time to do, or perhaps the more menial tasks. But this is what you are there for: to be helpful. In return you may get to help with more complicated ventures or plans but you have to prove yourself first. I had to do a variety of things during my time at Bold Tendencies, some more exciting than others. I worked on the front desk, greeting visitors and talking to them about the artworks and the events programme; I would help set up the site and the installations; I completed administrative tasks like maintaing the mailing list and invoices; I worked on a film set; during events I would be ticketing and on the box office; and throughout the internship I contributed to the Gallery’s blog, Instagram and twitter.
One of the best parts of working for five weeks for Bold Tendencies was all the different people I got to meet, and the lectures that they organised for us. I got to meet professionals in different roles in the industry and get a better insight into all the different roles that exist in the industry. I was given advice and inspiration by all the different people I met and it was definitely one of the highlights because it gives you hope for your own future career goals.
Because I had expressed an interest in education in galleries, I was asked by the director of gallery to stay on a bit longer and help with a project with the Head of Education. The gallery was having an event at the end of the season to announce their new charity status and to present their past education initiatives. These initiatives, the new charity status and their future ambitions, were all published in a ‘Prospectus’ and I was given the role of ‘Prospectus Coordinator’. Through this I got more hands on experience with coordinating a project and learnt a lot. To me this proves that any experience is what you put into it: I worked hard during my time there and ended up being given more responsibilities as a result.
The Bold Tendencies Art Trainee Programme is an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in a contemporary art organisation, network with people in the industry, and learn and experience new things. If this is something you’re highly passionate about, I could not recommend it more. My experience this summer was fantastic and I made life-long friends in the other interns!
Since 2010, The University of Birmingham and The University of Melbourne have been offering the International Museum and Collections Award, a unique exchange program where successful students are offered the opportunity to engage with and work in the museums and cultural collections of the partner institution. Our Undergraduate Emily Robins applied this year, and following a successful interview, has won a place on the scheme and will be off to spend the Summer working in Melbourne!
Huge congratulations to Emily from all of your peers and staff in the Department. We’re not jealous at all…:
Emily has agreed to write reports for us about her experiences whilst in Australia–so watch this space.