Category Archives: Student Experience

Working at White Cube: Graduate Hang Nguyen on her recent internship

A view of the Archives department. The  boxes contain exhibition material dating from approx. 1999 onwards

A view of the Archives department. The boxes contain exhibition material dating from approx. 1999 onwards

Since graduating from the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies at The University of Birmingham, I thought life could only get easier with a degree under my belt. I started the summer as an optimistic graduate, thinking “Yeah, I’ve got this” for every job/internship/work experience placement that I applied for. This feeling of optimism lasted about two weeks. I made out over thirty applications but only heard back from one, at the White Cube Gallery.

I applied to the White Cube through their website, after visiting their Bermondsey gallery in the summer and having been impressed with what I saw. I sent a long cover letter detailing everything I knew about contemporary art, thanks, in no small part, to the BA I’d just finished at Birmingham, in the hope that my application would stand out. Luckily, it paid off!! I was invited to interview with the Head of Archives who decided that I was a good enough candidate to be her intern and assistant. Thus began my journey as an Archive Editorial Intern for White Cube Gallery.

A view of the 9x9x9 room which had a Rachel Kneebone exhibition, 399 days. Through this room is the door to the massive warehouse and private viewing rooms

A view of the 9x9x9 room which had a Rachel Kneebone exhibition, 399 days. Through this room is the door to the massive warehouse and private viewing rooms

On my first day at White Cube, I was given a tour of the gallery. The gallery is a refurbished 1970’s warehouse and the space is amazing. There are three major exhibition spaces as well as an archive space, private viewing rooms, office space, a warehouse, and auditorium and a bookshop. The warehouse is one of the best spaces: the gigantic space houses loads of works of art and I was lucky enough to see pieces by the likes of Marc Quinn, Eddie Peake and Jac Lierner, which were being photographed and stored.

In my role as Archive Editorial Intern, I was expected to manage the White Cube’s archive. The gallery holds a comprehensive archive with material dating from Jay Jopling’s first charity auction. Every single artist represented by White Cube has archive material, which ranges from press articles, letters and other ephemera (I found an artist’s paint palette during one of my trawls through the boxes). As an intern, I was expected to maintain this archive by requesting material from exhibitions that the artists in question were involved in, and organise them properly in hard and digital formats. This entailed corresponding with international and national galleries and museums to acquire this material.

A view of the archive room. The wall shows the sign from the first gallery space and all the invites for the exhibitions there which were self-portraits of the artists

A view of the archive room. The wall shows the sign from the first gallery space and all the invites for the exhibitions there which were self-portraits of the artists

In the second year of my BA degree I did a module called ‘Inside the Gallery’, and the module played a formative role in my decision to pursue a career in the professional art world. After curating a hypothetical exhibition and working on the interpretation material for the exhibition, which is the main output of the Inside the Gallery module, I decided that working in a gallery was exactly what I wanted to do. What’s more, the knowledge and experience I gained from the module was a considerable help during my internship, because I was already aware of the ways in which galleries operate, especially when it comes to marketing, publishing and the press. It also helped me during my exhibition material requests as I felt comfortable taking the responsibility of corresponding directly with other art institutions and understood my responsibility in maintaining the White Cube archive.

A view of the archive room at White Cube. The glass cabinet contains the material of my Tracey Emin archive exhibition. A Damien Hirst spot painting is hung on the adjacent wall. This room is used for conferences as well as research

A view of the archive room at White Cube. The glass cabinet contains the material of my Tracey Emin archive exhibition. A Damien Hirst spot painting is hung on the adjacent wall. This room is used for conferences as well as research

One of the projects I was given during my internship was to curate an exhibition on Tracey Emin, based on archival material that the White Cube possesses and features writings by Emin. This exhibition had to be visually powerful as well as representative of the White Cube’s holdings of Emin’s material. The focus was to be on Emin’s solo exhibitions and notable projects, such as her column for The Times Magazine and her contribution to the Olympics. The material I had at my disposal, the contents of the archive, includes hand-written letters to Jay Jopling as well as postcards sent by Emin from her holidays to the staff at the London gallery. There is, in short, a wealth of material in the archive, which is regularly used by the gallery as promotional objects or research material.

Image from a Tracey Emin event where she spoke about her inspiration for her exhibition

Image from a Tracey Emin event where she spoke about her inspiration for her exhibition

My internship lasted several exhibitions. The Gallery mounted shows on David Hammons, Tracey Emin, Etel Adnan and Liza Lou and Senga Nengudi, all of which I was able to contribute directly towards. Everything I did had a purpose for the archive. As an intern, I didn’t think I would get so much responsibility working in the gallery but I was responsible for the artists’ bibliographies and publications. The internship also allowed me to visit other galleries and join in with the events at White Cube, such as private views, talks and lectures. I had the privilege of attending a private view of Anselm Kiefer’s Royal Academy exhibition which was guided by Tim Marlow.

A view of work by Anselm Kiefer in the Royal Academy

A view of work by Anselm Kiefer in the Royal Academy

My experience at the Barber Institute, where I regularly volunteered during my degree and where the Art History department is based, the RBSA, where I worked during my degree, and the White Cube has demonstrated quite clearly that not every gallery works in the same way, and my combined experience has introduced me to a wealth of careers that are possible in the arts sector. The internship also allowed me to develop my understanding of contemporary art and its processes. I did work directly for artists studios, like Jake and Dinos Chapman and Mona Hatoum, which has given me a valuable insight into the way artists mediate between dealers and their consumers.

Christies

From my experience, I would definitely advise sending out loads of CVs because you never know what you might get. During my time at White Cube, I was also offered work experience with Christie’s House Sales department. A placement I applied for in August, I was offered a chance to work there in November for two weeks. Things like that can happen – you get nothing and then suddenly two things come at once! The past year after graduation has been incredibly valuable for my own personal development and I think I finally have an idea of what I actually want to do. My final piece of advice to all would-be graduates is not to worry about securing a job straight away, particularly in the arts sector, gaining the professional experience through voluntary or unpaid work is just as important as the knowledge gained from the degree…so I guess…just go for it!

Hang Nguyen

 

Funding for Work Experience 

The Department is pleased to announce the Matt Carey-Williams and Danny Roark Awards, a generous donation funded by one of our alumni that will allow undergraduate students to apply for bursaries of c. £300-500 to enable them to undertake internships, work experience and placements.

The University of Birmingham UK Professional Work Experience scheme also offers financial support for undergraduates (except final years) to undertake work experience in the UK in the summer vacation. Find out more here. The deadline for applications is 29 March. Last year, History of Art student Olivia Weightman received funding to undertake work experience at Christie’s. Read about her experience here.

The Association of Art Historians (AAH) also runs an Internship Award. There are two awards of up to £2,000 each towards placement-related expenses such as accommodation, travel and food. The Internship Award supports both full-time and part-time placements/ internships. The deadline is 1 April.

View Festival of Art History, Institut français, London

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

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

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

With the new semester in full swing, there’s no shortage of events to get yourself along to in the Barber Institute and elsewhere on campus. Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Tuesday 27th January 2015 at 5pm in the Muirhead Tower Room 121.

The next CeSMA seminar is being given by Erica O’Brien, an art historian from Bristol University. Her paper is entitled ‘Family and faith: sensory experience and devotional memory in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy’.
MofB

All welcome!

This Spring the Barber celebrates the research of recent and current postgraduate students from the University’s art history department in this mini lecture series.

Pam Cox (4th Feb.)

An Open and Shut Case? An Exploration into Jan de Beer’s Joseph and the Suitors and the Nativity at Night

Faith Trend (18th Feb.)

Venice Through the Eyes of its Artists: Canaletto and Guardi’s Landscape Paintings

Jamie Edwards (4th March)

Il fiammingo in Italia: Netherlandish artists and the allure of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries

All welcome!

The return of the Institute's Jan de Beer

The return of the Institute’s Jan de Beer

  • Wednesday 18th March: Special Lunchtime Lecture ‘How many Brueghels make Four?’, Ruth Bubb (conservator), 1:10pm, Lecture Theatre 

Find out more about the mysterious ‘behind the scenes’ world of art conservation with paintings conservator Ruth Bubb, who has just completed the restoration of the Institute’s Peasants binding faggots by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

All welcome!

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

The Barber Institute’s full programme of events for January through to April is available here.

  • Monday 16th March: Cadbury Research Library’s Annual LectureCivic Life: Oliver Lodge and Birmingham, Dr James Mussell (Associate Professor, University of Leeds), 12:00-12:50, Muirhead Tower Lecture Theatre G15

Free and all welcome but booking is required. Please email special-collections@bham.ac.uk to reserve a place.

  • Wednesday 18th March: Cadbury Research Library seminar: Ten Books that Changed Medicine, Professor Jonathan Reinarz (Director of The History of Medicine Unit, The University of Birmingham), 13:00-14:00, Cadbury Research Library – Chamberlain Seminar Room

Free and all welcome but booking is required. Please email special-collections@bham.ac.uk to reserve a place.

The Barber Association

The Barber Association

The Barber Association’s programme for Spring is now available here! Highlights include: 

  • Thursday 19 February: BEDFAS at the Barber: THE INSIDE STORIES: The Real Stories behind the Most Intriguing Cases of Nazi Looted Art,  6-8.15pm (Gallery viewing and refreshments at 6pm; Lecture at 7pm) 

Free for Barber Association members (usually £10). No booking required!

  • Wednesday 18th March: Art History Speed Workshop: Sight and Sound, 2:30-4, Barber Galleries 

Free but booking is required. To reserve a place email education@barber.org.uk

(To find out more about the Speed Workshop, see here and here.)

  • Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies research seminar schedule for the Spring term is now available. Seminars take place at 5:15 in the Barber Photograph Room. The line-up is as follows: 

Thursday 29 January

Rosalie van Gulick (University of Utrecht; Barber Institute)

“Utter lack of true dramatic feeling”: Exploring Jan Steen’s The Wrath of Ahasuerus

Thursday 5 February


Richard Taws (University College London)

Trickster, Charlatan, Apparition, King: Representing Royal Impostors in Post-Revolutionary France 

Thursday 26 February

Imogen Wiltshire (University of Birmingham)

‘Better Than Before’?: Actor-Network-Theory and László Moholy-Nagy’s Occupational Therapy Courses 

Thursday 5 March TBC


Sophie Bostock (Qatar Museums)

Thursday 12 March

Gaby Neher (University of Nottingham)

Title TBC 

Thursday 19 March


Jamie Edwards (University of Birmingham)

Seeing Spiritually and Seeing the Spiritual: Seeking some Perspective on Pieter Bruegel’s Paintings 

Thursday 26 March


Abigail Harrison Moore (University of Leeds)

Palpitatingly Modern Luxury: Electrifying the Country House

 

 

 

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

CALL FOR PAPERS

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 f.berry@bham.ac.uk and Dr Jo Applin (Department of History of Art, University of York) at jo.applin@york.ac.uk 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.

Bringing Historical Concepts to life: first-year trip to Tate Modern and the National Gallery

Rebecca Savage gives her account of the recent first year trip to London…

The University of Birmingham provides the ideal opportunity to study paintings at first hand at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which, as any lecturer will tell you, is an invaluable resource given that the study of painting from powerpoint slides and text books is no substitute for the real thing. It is, however, always exciting to see pictures outside the grounds of the university and a couple of weeks ago the first years (accompanied by some second-year students and, of course, our lecturer, David Hemsoll) visited Tate Modern and the National Gallery on a whistle stop tour of the capital.

Many of us started with the current exhibition at Tate Modern – Works on Paper – a display of drawings, etchings and poetry by the late Louise Bourgeois. These provided an intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable insight into the artist’s interior monologue, displaying private drawings made by the artist late at night, while also demonstrating her talents outside the sculptural work for which she is best known.

The Tate’s collection also gave us all the opportunity to grapple with some of the questions we have been thinking about in our recent module ‘Historical Concepts’ in which we have been learning about a number of activities and questions involved in the study of art history. Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept Waiting certainly linked in with themes of ‘what is an artist?’ given the seemingly simplistic process involved in the production of the work and its distance from the traditional criteria for defining ‘fine art’. The jury was also undecided as to whether Michael Baldwin’s work Untitled Painting can be considered art at all, although it did raise questions on the purpose of a painting as a reflection of the real world.

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

After a quick break for an overpriced lunch or coffee (let’s face it everything seems expensive on a student budget!) and a desperate run for the coach, which, David insisted, ‘would not wait for us’, we made our way to the bustling Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.

At this point I admit I had a mission. I am writing my first ‘Historical Concepts’ essay on Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and was eager to see first-hand the famous detail of the floorboards and clothing I had been reading so much about. I wasn’t disappointed, after an initial period of confusion (the gallery doesn’t seem that big until you start looking for a single, specific, painting) I found the portrait in a small room. I can honestly say that seeing the colours, technique and brushwork up close has brought it alive for me. Also, I was rather lucky that a group tour happened to be talking about this painting whilst I was looking at it, so I was able to have a sneaky listen in to what they were saying!

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The National Gallery gave everybody the perfect opportunity to see some of the art discussed in lectures and seminars actually in the flesh. We were able to point out the iconography in Antonio de Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St Sebastian presented recently in one of David’s lectures as well as appreciating Berthe Morisot’s images, which we have discussed with lecturer Fran Berry in the module ‘Concepts of Modernism’.

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

I think we would all agree that our visit to the big city has certainly assisted us with our studies. Whether that’s by seeing specific works, helping us to discover new artists, or, more generally, reminding us of the scope of work there is to be discovered, it has definitely demonstrated to me how much we have already learnt.

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

UoB crest

DEPARTMENT OF ART HISTORY, FILM AND VISUAL STUDIES RESEARCH SEMINAR SERIES 2014 – 15

Thursday 13th November 2015, 5:15pm

Barber Photograph Room

Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts)

Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

Cubomania

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: jle756@bham.ac.uk

AAH Careers day at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, by MRes student, Holly Wain

This year the Association of Art Historians’ Careers Day, organised by the AAH student Committee, was held right here on campus at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 25 October 2014. This was a great opportunity to listen to the wise words of speakers from a range of arts and heritage institutions without having to travel across the country! The day was split into several talks with the opportunity for informal questions over tea breaks and lunch.

AAh careers day

AAH student committee member and UoB PhD student, Imogen, who organised the careers day

The speakers represented a really wide range of careers in the arts and heritage sector. This was refreshing to see as it is easy to assume that arts and heritage is limited to museums and galleries. Here, I felt that a wide range of interests had been taken into account. For example, the first speaker was Reyahn King, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands – I found her talk particularly interesting as, recently, I have become more interested in pursuing a career in the protection of historic buildings. This is a sector that can appear quite confusing as organisations range from government funded bodies to charities and trusts. Also, there is a distinction between practical conservation and those who manage the strategy and policies. I found Reyahn’s talk very useful as she gave details on her first roles after graduation. Reyahn gave a very positive message to reassure undergraduates, explaining that she did not take the obvious route to work at HLF, but that this was completely fine as you can experience different areas of the sector and still be gaining skills that can be used elsewhere.

Alex careers

Alex is pictured here talking about museum education

Alex Jolly, Learning and Access Assistant at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, gave us an insight into the roles involved in a museum’s education department. As well as giving a detailed view of the strategy behind making the collections accessible and enjoyable for a wide range of people, Alex gave some helpful general advice for job searching in the sector. I picked up some new websites for searching for job opportunities, for example Engage.org and National Museum Directors Council website. Alex also stressed that when applying for those first jobs after graduating you should not be afraid to apply for a role if you feel under qualified, as it is enthusiasm and ideas that count.

Hannah careers day

Former UoB History of Art student, Hannah, is shown here talking about her career path

Hannah Carroll, a former History of Art student at the University of Birmingham, explained the day-to-day tasks involved in her role as a Marketing Officer at Birmingham Museums. Hannah encouraged students to volunteer as much as possible to gain a sense of what each role entails and what you would be most suited to. This was important to Hannah as she had never seen herself going into the marketing side of things until she gained that practical work experience.

Connie careers

UoB graduate, Connie, presented on her experience as Pop Art curator

For those looking ahead to a career as a curator, Dr Connie Wan discussed her role as Pop Art Curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. She gave us details about her career path, including her collaborative PhD, before explaining her role as a curator. Connie explained that, although the common belief is that a curator ‘points and chooses’, there is, in fact, a whole host of other activities involved in her role: for example, travelling around the world to carry out research in different archives and building relationships with contemporary artists. Connie started out studying graphic design and moved on to research nineteenth-century art before her role as Pop Art curator. She encouraged us to see our lack of knowledge in certain areas not as a hindrance but, rather, an opportunity to learn. I think these words were definitely a reassurance to all students in the audience!

Carly careers 2

UoB doctoral researcher, Carly, talked about her local oral histories project, Digbeth Speaks

The day also included a talk by Carly Hegenbarth, a History of Art PhD student at the University of Birmingham. She presented the academic side to careers in the arts and gave a detailed view of the work involved in further study. Carly’s talk emphasised the rewarding nature of doctoral research in discovering new knowledge, as well as the opportunities to get involved in activities outside of your own research. For example, Carly managed a HLF-funded oral histories project, Digbeth Speaks, in 2013.

Jane careers

Jane can be seen here presenting case studies of her work in conservation

The more practical side to museums was presented by Jane Thompson-Webb, Conservator at Birmingham Museums. Jane began by giving us a detailed account of the different types of work involved in caring for the collections and then gave examples of the projects that she had undertaken, showing the astonishing results with ‘before and after’ photos. Jane described the different career paths available for those interested in a future in conservation, from university postgraduate courses to apprenticeships. [To find out about the current volunteering opportunities at Birmingham Museums with the Conservation department, click here].

To close the day Chris Packham, Careers and Employability Consultant for the Careers Network in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham, gave us some tips on networking and keeping up to date with what is going on in our chosen fields via Twitter and LinkedIn.

I would like to thank all the speakers for a very informative day with lots of advice and tips for starting out with job searches and applications. I also really appreciated the positive outlook that all the speakers had for our prospects as History of Art graduates.

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

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie Edwards

A Sixteenth-Century Summer: Rosalind Burgin talks about working on an Undergraduate Research Scholarship

When I was procrastinating on campus during the spring term 2014, I decided to leaf through the ‘paid summer scholarship opportunities’ that had been emailed to my student account. I fell in love with one of the project outlines for an Undergraduate Researcher. The Undergraduate Research Scholarship (UGRS) scheme gives UG students the opportunity to work as a paid research assistant for 5 weeks over the summer, under the (refreshingly relaxed) supervision of an academic. It sounded more appealing than bar work to say the least. The project that caught my eye was entitled “Anne de Graville at the French Court: Her Library, her Religion and her Works” and was being run by Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange in the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies. Anne was an enigmatic noblewoman in the early sixteenth century, who owned a fascinating library and composed two known literary works at the behest of Queen Claude of France, wife of the more famous Francis I. One of these works was a reworking of Boccaccio’s Teseida, which was also the inspiration for Chaucer’s Knights Tale in which two knights fight for the hand of Emilia; the other was an adaptation of Alain Chartier’s Belle dame sans mercy in which a lady refused the advances of a knight. The aims of the project were enticingly broad: ‘Find out more about the books in her library’, ‘explore the culture of the French court’ and ‘study the implications of Anne’s own works’. Two hours later, I had written, re-written various application drafts, sent off the least pretentious version after seeking the advice of many friends, and embarked upon forcing the whole thing out of my mind before I could get too excited.

Anne de Graville presenting her book to Queen Claude of France

Anne de Graville presenting her reworking of Boccaccio’s Teseida to Queen Claude of France (BnF, Arsenal, ms 5116, fol. 1v)

The second year of my Modern Languages  degree (in French, Italian, and Spanish) had lead to me take an interest in early modern Art History, as some of my preferred modules had been Italian Studies’ classes on Dante and the Italian Renaissance, and the Hispanic Studies’ department’s module on Medieval Iberian literature and culture. I was especially intrigued by portrayals of women as muses of the Italian Renaissance, temptresses of the Middle ages and as various manifestations of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy.

Libro de buen amor

Libro de buen amor – the ‘Book of Good Love’ – one of the main sources studied on the Medieval Iberia module

Upon reading the UGRS brief, I realised that I had never studied works about women, by women. Researching Anne de Graville would be an opportunity not only to investigate the roles and portrayals of women, but also to observe the cloak-and-dagger techniques of early modern women who sought to actively engage in the debate over their position in society without being dismissed as uncourtly, radical rebels.

To my delight, I was offered the scholarship and couldn’t wait to get started. I frequently told my family and friends how excited I was, although there was the persistent fear of ‘Not Finding Anything’. As part of the project I would be meeting regularly with Liz to discuss my progress and findings, and I had nightmarish visions of meekly admitting to her that I had read lots, discovered nothing and had no insights to offer. From here came perhaps the best lesson I learned through the UGRS: research can’t be compared to filling in answers in an exam paper, or gathering enough information to fit the word limit on an essay. I remember Liz telling me to inform her if I came up against ‘dead ends’, and it was refreshing to realise that finding limited resources on one line of enquiry was Okay, and Not Finding Anything can still be progress.

One memory of the project that stands out in my mind is the day that I visited a library in Manchester to investigate a 15th century manuscript relevant to the project. As part of my Medieval Iberian module, I had previously had the opportunity to delve into Birmingham’s own Cadbury Research Library, to pour over manuscripts from the 14th-16th century. I loved how doodles in the margins were not acts of vandalism, but invaluable insights into the reading experience of someone who had handled the works centuries before. During the research project, I had become rather tired of leafing through secondary sources, and I wanted to examine original texts to see for myself what all the fuss was about. One of the main focuses of my research was Alain Chartier’s 15th century work, La Belle Dame Sans Mercy, which Anne de Graville adapted to create one of her own works, the Rondeaux. I knew all about various interpretations and analyses of this important text about courtly love, but it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen any versions of the original work. During a half-hearted Google search, I stumbled across an article on the Chetham’s Library website, featuring “The manuscript of a selection of the works of Alain Chartier (ca. 1385-1430)”. Chetham’s Library is in central Manchester, and I was staying at my parents’ house that was less than an hour away.

Chethams

Slightly ashamed of how excited I was, I picked up the phone to arrange a visit. I felt like a child, phoning up school pretending to be my mother, as I said I was a ‘researcher interested in investigating one of your manuscripts’. They didn’t call me out and expose me as a clumsy 19-year-old Undergrad however, and I set up an appointment to see the manuscript the next day. When I arrived at the library, part of me was expecting to be presented with a protective display case, thick gloves and an overbearing supervisor to protect the 15th century manuscript, even though I knew from my experience in Birmingham that I might just be able to pick it up. I was lead into a grand, wooden-panelled reading room and presented with the text that I had studied so intensely that it felt legendary. I was struck by how sturdy it was, and how vibrant the illuminations were. I spend the whole day gawping at its pages and delving into its history – who had it belonged to, where it had been bought, and could it possibly have passed through any circles relating to Anne de Graville’s court?

chartier1

The opening page of Chetham Library’s copy of Chartier’s works

At the end of the day I photographed the pages most intriguing to me, wrote up any notes I had made on its history, and bid the friendly librarians farewell. I was touched by how pleased they were to see me; they wanted me to keep in touch with any findings that came of my visit to the library, and they were interested in the research project. This ties in to the most poignant thing I have learned through the project: the value of contributing to an academic community, using each other’s materials and developing  existing analyses. I had read about interactions between writers at the early modern court, in that each new text was created as part of a dialogue with previous writers and their works, and it amused me to see this replicated in the study of manuscripts as well. Each new article on La Belle Dame Sans Mercy would address the works of previous academics; just as Anne de Graville’s Rondeaux was her response to Alain Chartier’s original.

Chartier2

The beginning of the Belle dame sans mercy in Chetham’s copy

The scholarship has been an invaluable experience for me, teaching me more about the research process, and how to manage my workload when I don’t have a simple question to answer or goal to reach. My growing interest in early-modern literature has been indulged, and I am becoming increasingly familiar with the study of manuscript culture. Liz’s enthusiasm and encouragement combined with my fascination with the debates that I came across in the articles I read have made the world of academia seem enticing rather than daunting, and I hope this opportunity proves to be an influential one in my future academic choices.

 

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

 

UoB crest

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

Barber Photograph Room, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, The University of Birmingham

Thursdays 5.15pm

Refreshments served

 

 

AUTUMN TERM

 

Thursday 9 October

Tamar Garb (University College London)

Photo Albums and Fancy Dress: Encounters with the African Archive

(Note the venue for this seminar is: Strathcona Lecture Theatre 1)

 

Thursday 23 October

Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia)

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

 

Thursday 13 November

Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts)

Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

 

Thursday 27 November

Lucy Reynolds (University of Arts London, Central Saint Martins)

A collective response: Feminism, film, performance and Greenham Common

 

Thursday 11 December

Jamie Edwards (University of Birmingham)

Piety, Peasants, Proverbs, and other Peculiar Pictures: Making sense of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings

 

 

SPRING TERM (titles of papers t.b.c.)

Thursday 22 January

Anna Gruetzner-Robins (University of Reading)

 

Thursday 29 January (t.b.c.)

Rosalie van Gulick (Utrecht University; Barber Institute)

 

Thursday 5 February

Richard Taws (University College London)

 

Thursday 26 February

Imogen Wiltshire (University of Birmingham)

 

Thursday 12 March

Gaby Neher (University of Nottingham)

 

Thursday 26 March

Abigail Harrison Moore (University of Leeds)

 

Enquiries Autum term: Jamie Edwards at JLE756@bham.ac.uk

Enquiries Spring term: Imogen Wiltshire at IXW713@bham.ac.uk

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