Category Archives: The View from Abroad

Congratulations Emily Robins!

Melbourne 2

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.







I’m just back from a scorching (and I mean scorching!) hot Madrid, where I went to see the Prado’s new exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition. It’s on until 11.9.2016, so you have plenty of time to see it. And all told, I think that you should–I am glad I came and the exhibition was good. It brings together a diverse collection of works by Bosch and others, active in his milieu and workshop, from collections all over the world, from Lisbon to London, Valencia to Venice via Vienna, which complement the permanent holding of the Prado that houses the largest collection of Boschs anywhere in the world.

Bosco, entrance
I’ll get the moaning out of the way first, though. And the first major gripe concerns the crowds. As always with a “blockbuster” such as this one, there were simply far too many people crammed into the exhibition rooms (which aren’t exactly huge) and there was, as a result, lots of elbowing people out of the way to actually see anything. The exhibition promised to be remarkable, and in some ways it was. But my enjoyment of it–even as a committed Boschiophile–was certainly mired by the number of people crammed in. Entrance to this show is by timed slot (a fairly common strategy now) but I think they should also have capped the visitors for each slot at a much lower limit. Seriously, Prado: this was not enjoyable.

The kind of behaviour on display amongst people in the crowds was also baffling, as well as irritating. There were so many people planted firmly right in front of each of Bosch’s large triptychs, wielding odd little magnifying glasses, zooming in on individual bits of the picture. The irony, of course, is that nobody in Bosch’s day looked at his pictures in this way, which is to say with the aid of magnification instruments. I couldn’t help wonder: what do people actually gain from doing this? Or, perhaps better, what do they think they gain from it? For those with impaired vision, I do of course see the value of such aids… but it can’t be the case that every single person using these things in that room yesterday morning had severely depleted vision. So what was going on? An equally large amount of people usually spent about 5 or so minutes hogging precious space in front of the pictures reading the free little brochure that was picked up at the entrance to the show. Now, I get that people want to know “stuff”, including “facts”, about what they’re looking it (especially when they’ve paid to look at it). But this was frustrating because often these people took only a cursory glance at the picture in question after reading the brochure, before moving on to the next. Why, then, spend 10 mins hogging the space and obscuring the view of someone else, who perhaps wants to look first and read later. The same goes for those damn audio guides!

A particular low point of visiting the exhibition was being told off by a cantankerous fellow visitor (coincidentally, one holding a brochure, headset and magnifying glass…) for standing too close to the pictures: “If you stand back”, she said, “more of us can see the picture”. Well, sorry, but this misses the point entirely. I went to the Prado to look at these pictures closely. And, as I said to my partner (who courageously braved the crowds with me!), by getting up close, pondering over the individual parts of the picture, and discussing them, we were responding to Bosch’s paintings exactly as he would’ve intended, and as viewers in the late 15th and earlier 16th centuries would’ve done. Point is, I guess, that if more people put down the brochure, the headset and magnifying glass (sigh) and pondered the pictures up close for a few minutes and then moved on, the whole experience would’ve been less irritating.


Image: Prado

Garden 1

Image: Prado

Garden 2

Image: Prado

Also baffling to us was the cavalier disinterest that many of the visitors had in some of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition. One of the nicest design features in this exhibition are the little “islands” they have created for displaying Bosch’s large triptychs such as the Epiphany, Haywain and, of course, the Garden of Earthly Delights (which you can make out in the above pictures). This is so that you can see what’s painted on the exteriors of the wings: either beautiful, and carefully executed grisailles, or a wayfarer etc. Yet nobody else except for us seemed to be taking advantage of this display. I, in fact, spent longer looking at the frankly stunning grisaille on the back of Bosch’s Epiphany triptych depicting the Mass of S Gregory–shown below–than I spent looking at the interior, because to catch a glimpse of the latter meant negotiating a semi-frenzied mob, whereas we enjoyed an unobstructed view of the back (and, let’s be honest, these paintings are immensely interesting and exceptionally beautiful!) Similarly, nobody else really bothered to look at Bosch’s exceptional–not to mention rare–drawings that are dotted about the place, including the famous Tree Man; ditto the virtuoso carvings by Adriaen can Wesel, which formed part of a carved altarpiece commissioned in 1475 by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to which Bosch belonged, for their chapel inside S John’s church (this is to say that these are carvings that Bosch definitely will have known well); ditto a c.1600 manuscript copy of Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura y pintores antiguos, which, written about 1560, contains one of the earliest ever critical appraisals of Bosch and his art, in which de Guevara raises some very interesting observations about Bosch’s decorum, naturalism and (most pertinently, given recent controversies ignited by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project) the number of imitations and pastiches of Bosch’s works doing the rounds already by 1560, not to mentioned outright knock-offs; and ditto the so-called Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II Nassau, of about 1475, which depicts the person who, in all likelihood, commissioned the Garden from Bosch… I could go on, but won’t. Point is, there was lots to see in this show–and I enjoyed seeing all these things–but lots of other people crammed in weren’t looking.

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

That was a fairly big moan and I am sorry to go on at length, but I hope it conveys some of the more frustrating aspects of visiting this exhibition. But, putting all that to one side and reflecting on it a bit more in retrospect, the exhibition was a little basic but good (by monographic exhibition standards anyway, and overlooking, for now (!), some of the unanswered questions and reservations I have). They’ve clearly spent a bit of money on it, it flows well, looks attractive and they’ve considered the likes of me, who want to see, say, the backs of the wings properly. Overall,  it’s good.

The show is organised thematically rather than chronologically. As the little leaflet conceded, we can hardly ever agree amongst ourselves on the chronology of Bosch’s oeuvre–though, for my money, good attempts have been made to do just that–so to even attempt a chronological hang would’ve been sort of futile. A chronological hang will also have disrupted the suspense-building that comes from having (predictably but not wrongly) the Garden of Earthly Delights as its crescendo. Had the curators adopted a chronological hang, this couldn’t have happened, since the Garden would have featured nearer the start, given that even the Prado now admits that the Garden is an early work, not a late one (they now think the Garden was made in the mid-1490s; myself and others think 1480s). It addresses seven main themes: “Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch”; “The Childhood and Ministry of Christ”; “The Saints”; “From Paradise to Hell”; “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works”; and “The Passion of Christ”.

“Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch” locates visitors in the city where Bosch lived and worked throughout his life, from which Bosch took his chosen name that he used to sign his works (his actual name was Jheronimus van Acken; “Hieronymus Bosch” was thus a bit of an advert, his signature functioning to say: “this is by Jerome from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, if you want a painting such as this, come visit me there”). This section includes van Wesel’s carvings; a c.1530 view of the mark’t at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where Bosch lived from 1462 (we know which house was Bosch’s and can see it in the painting); the portrait of Bosch from Lampsonius’s Pictorum aliquot Germaniae Inferioris Effigies, published in 1572 in Antwerp by Volcxken Diericx, the widow of Hieronymus Cock (it was a shame that Diericx’s role in bringing this publication to fruition was not made more explicit, with only Cock himself being explicitly named as publisher in the exhibition’s bumf… recognition of successful women in art history still clearly has a way to go); and three engravings by Bosch’s direct contemporary in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the architect and engraver Alart du Hameel. This section also boasted the triptych showing the Ecce Homo, produced in Bosch’s studio in around 1500. This work is exceptional. For one its predella has survived, which is quite unusual for Bosch and shows the instruments of the Passion. And secondly, the donors depicted on the wings have actually been convincingly identified as Peter van Os (municipal secretary of s’-Hertogenbosch and fellow sworn brother of Bosch’s in the Brotherhood of Our Lady) and his wife Henricxken van Langel, who died early in 1501 (possibly from complications arising during childbirth; note the swaddled baby at the feet of Henricxken on the right wing). The Ecce Homo is thus a rare instance in Bosch’s oeuvre for which we can identify a patron. A rather odd inclusion in this section, given its localised remit, is the manuscript copy of du Guevara’s Comentario… , which, though I was happy to see it, didn’t really fit in with the aim of locating Bosch and his art in the artistic and social ferment of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

“The Childhood and Ministry of Christ” takes as its focus the Prado’s Epiphany triptych. This work–genuinely one of Bosch’s most complex, not to mention most beautiful–is set in some kind of artistic context alongside the: c.1475 Adoration from New York (a work that was once believed to be autograph, then fell from favour, but has risen again recently and is proclaimed here as being genuine on the basis of new technical examination); another Adoration from Philadelphia (traditionally associated with Bosch and his workshop); a drawing showing the Wedding Feast at Cana by a follower of Bosch (which relates to a bunch of paintings of the Ecce Homo, none of which were exhibited, that are believed to be copies after a lost prototype by Bosch); and du Hameel’s engraving of Thistle Leaves from about 1490, which relates to the African Magi in the Epiphany, whose fabulous costume features a similar thistle design on the shoulder and collar. It was great to be able to see these works collected together and to compare them, which really drives home the immense quality of the Epiphany triptych.

But, having seen them all alongside one another, I do struggle to see how the Philadelphia Adoration can seriously be counted among Bosch’s autograph works. The former, which is here dated to 1495-1516, is supposed to be contemporary with or painted after the Epiphany triptych but I just don’t see how somebody responsible for the Epiphany can have turned out at the same time the Philadelphia Adoration, which is altogether much cruder and less impressive. Admittedly some workshop involvement is here acknowledged. And sure, the painted surface of the Philadelphia picture has suffered extensive wear from cleaning, which has perhaps eradicated some of its original subtlety and its maker’s skill. But it is nevertheless perhaps telling that the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has revised the date of the Philadelphia painting to 1495-1520, which possibly takes us beyond Bosch’s death, thus admitting the possibility that it is a solely workshop production (or even the work of a follower, imitator or pasticheur). The catalogue rejects the BRCP’s finding: “no explanation for the latter end of the range [i.e. 1520] is given”; yet the catalogue is similarly guilty, in which the BRCP’s suggestion is offhandedly dismissed without further qualification.

“The Saints” section–very large in scope–includes what must figure as being amongst Bosch’s most fantastical pictures: no fewer than three renditions of the Temptation of S Anthony (Lisbon and two from the Prado), as well as the fragment of Anthony’s Temptation from Kansas, only this year authenticated as an autograph fragment. Also here are: the Saint Wilgefortis (?) Triptych from Venice; the Job Triptych from Bruges (the latter by a follower), the Saint John the Baptist from the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid and Saint John the Evangelist from Berlin, the Ghent Saint Jerome, Rotterdam Saint Christopher, and drawings by a follower of Beggars and Cripples. 

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; Prado Museum

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; 1495-1520 (?) Prado Museum

This section and the exhibition’s pronouncements on attributions again betray the fraught relationship between the Prado and the BRCP. Let’s take  just one example: the Prado’s Temptation of St Anthony (above)Regular readers will remember that the Antony is one of two loans that the Prado withdrew at the eleventh hour from the Bosch exhibition held earlier this year at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Problem is, the BRCP has rejected the attribution of this picture to Bosch. It believes it was done by a follower, in the 1530s or 40s. Others have previously chimed in to this effect: Fischer in 2013 called it a workshop production, executed in Bosch’s lifetime; the 2001 Rotterdam exhibition ascribed it to Bosch or follower (and, as Vermet told me, the Prado threatened withdrawal of the loan then, too, if its status was undermined); and as far back as 1987, Marijnissen put a big ? over the Anthony. The catalogue and show maintain the attribution to Bosch, and previously the Prado has dismissed objections to Bosch’s authorship on the grounds of unfair connoisseurial subjectivity; the catalogue upholds this view, stating that no “technical or stylistic evidence [supports] these conclusions”, and it also places emphasis on the fact that dendrochronological analysis has shown that the panel on which it is painted could have been used from 1464, within Bosch’s lifetime. The catalogue then launches into an extensive formal and technical analysis of the painting which, for them, all points to Bosch’s authorship (including panel prep. and the execution of underdrawings). For me, I’m not sure–on some scores, it’s a bit like splitting hairs. But for what it’s worth, I did think that the picture looked a bit “flat” when I saw it. I am also troubled by the catalogue’s emphasis on the dating of the wood and the way it manipulates this evidence to support its own ends. The catalogue finds it unlikely that a panel would have sat in storage for some 70, even 80, years before it was worked on, which is precisely what the BRCP’s conclusions presuppose as being a routine occurrence. Yet, the Prado’s own dating of the picture, to 1510-15 (the last half-decade of Bosch’s life), similarly assumes that panels did sit in storage for ages, just for a shorter period of time (about 5o years). I can’t get my head around this: I don’t see how you can criticise the BRCP for believing that panels lay around unused for 80 years but at the same time state that this panel did indeed go unused for 50.

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Sticking with this section of the exhibition for a moment, I was also struck by the Prado’s decision that the woman being crucified in the Venice triptych is S Wilgefortis. The identification of this figure is by no means certain and has been hotly debated: Julia? Liberata? Eulalia? Wilgefortis? I haven’t yet been able to get to the bottom of why we suddenly apparently know that it is Wilgefortis (the BRCP also plump for this identification; and, to be fair, other arguments have been proffered in favour of is). The catalogue itself is evasive on the issue, if not confused: it mentions the Julia identification, which relates to the question of whether Bosch visited Italy, since Julia’s cult flowered in Brescia; it mentions the troubling fact that the saint in Bosch’s painting doesn’t appear to have a beard, which is one of Wilgefortis’s main attributes; it adds to the mix by raising Silver’s interesting proposal that it is Eulalia, a patron saint of Barcelona, adding that the donors on the wings were ‘notables of that city’ (which confuses me because I’ve always been led to believe that the obscured donor portraits are of Italians?). What appears to have swung it is Zanetti’s testimony of 1771, which describes the triptych, seen in the Doge’s Palace, as a “saint, male or female, on the cross”. The catalogue extrapolates from this that the saint must at one point have donned a beard–why else would Zanetti have been confused about the saint’s sex? But I’m still baffled: when and why did the beard go? No trace of it has been found (as the catalogue admits). One resolution it does tentatively offer, however, is that Bosch himself removed the beard, so as “not to offend” the taste of an Italian audience; but this is hardly satisfactory, since why would Italian clients want a depiction of an obscure saint (Wilgefortis was practically unknown south of the Alps), and, moreover, a representation of an obscure “Northern saint” that has been divested of its main identifying attribute. This still doesn’t quite make sense to me–it didn’t make sense when I last saw the triptych in Venice, and it still doesn’t now.

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

Bosch, Haywain; after 1500, Prado, Madrid

“From Paradise to Hell” really focusses on the Haywain triptych, which is positioned in close proximity to the so-called Visions of Hereafter panels from Venice and the Last Judgment from Bruges. It’s a natural grouping: the Hereafter panels present two opposing spiritual ends, election (the Ascent and Eden) and damnation (Fall of the Damned and Hell), the latter of which plays out in the Last Judgment, both of which complement the essential eschatological message espoused by Bosch in the Haywain, which is that in Eden (left wing) Original Sin was introduced into the world; the central panel shows the outcome of this, a world overrun by gluttony and selfishness in which everybody snatches what they can from the enormous stack of hay (the proverbial basis is: “The world is like a haywain, and each man takes what he can”); while Hell, on the right, shows the inevitable consequence of all this–eternal damnation. The Haywain is both staggeringly beautiful in execution and wickedly, subversively satirical in its message–note that even nuns and a fat monk are complicit in the vast cavalcade of irreverence that trundles across the central panel.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is an unabashed celebration of Bosch’s largest and most visually spectacular surviving work. Ample space is provided both in front of and behind the triptych, which is raised on an island in the middle of a large room. Displayed alongside it on the walls are reproductions of infra-red reflectographs and X-radiographs, which reveal to the visitor the changes that Bosch made during the execution of the Garden. Also displayed here is the famous Tree-Man drawing (relating to the enigmatic figure in the Hell wing of the Garden), the Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II of Nassau, most likely the patron of the Garden, as well as The Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy and the manuscript of the Vision of Tundale by Simon Marmion. This section speaks for itself; the design of the room bestowing grandeur on the Garden that befits its status as Bosch’s most iconic work. Happily for me, but somewhat inexplicably, fewer people seemed to want to linger in front of this work than they did some of Bosch’s others, so I got to walk straight up to it and enjoy it. It really is a staggeringly inventive work that testifies to Bosch’s abundant imagination. Its message is–like the later Haywain–conventionally eschatological but it is told in daring ways. It’s easy to imagine the kind of joy that this picture brought to an art-lover and bibliophile such as Engelbrecht, and likeminded friends assembled in front of it in his Brussels palace. Surely it functioned there as a visually captivating “conversation piece”, in the literal sense of that term, in which Bosch provides a frankly gluttonous amount of food for thought.

I was also pleased to see that the Prado now not only endorses the suggestion that Engelbrecht was the work’s patron but also concedes that this must have bearing on the triptych’s date, which must have been executed before 1504 (the year of Engelbrechts’s death). On both scores, the Prado unfortunately lagged behind. Experts, namely, Vermet, have been arguing that the Garden is early and most probably commissioned by Engebrecht for some time. (As an aside, but an important one nonetheless, the catalogue rather unfairly, in my view, glosses over the careful scholarship done in this regard. It, for example, summarily dismisses Vermet’s arguments (plural) in this respect, citing instead only the 2001 exhibition catalogue, co-edited by Vermet, and accusing him of having no evidence to support a date in the 1480s, which is patently and misleadingly untrue… as anybody familiar with the literature will know. Once more, this brings into sharp focus the sometimes rather nasty nature of the “politics of art”.)

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

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

The highlight of “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works” is the grouping of Bosch’s Pedlar (Rotterdam), Ship of Fools (Paris), Allegory of Intemperance (more familiarly Gluttony, New Haven) and the Death of Miser (Washington), which originally were all part of a triptych that has since been dismembered. The central panel is lost: we have no idea what its subject was or the fate that befell it (though the drastic, heavy-handed dismemberment might suggest that the central panel was already in ruinous condition–a fire?). The Pedlar, Ship of Fools, Allegory of Intemperance, and the Death of Miser constituted the wings of the triptych. The two wings were detached and sliced down the middle, to separate the interior sides from the exterior. The two halves making up the Pedlar (originally the backs of the wings–that the Pedlar was the closed view is suggested strongly by its semi-grisaille colour) were then fixed together and sawn into an octagonal shape to make the picture now seen in Rotterdam. What was originally the interior left wing was then spliced horizontally to create two separate paintings (the Ship of Fools and Allegory of Intemperance), while the Miser remained pretty much as it was. Given that these fragments are now widely dispersed, I had never seen them alongside one another until now. Thinking about their themes standing in front of them all, I had the chance to think a bit harder about the likely subject of the non-extant central panel which must, in a similar vein to the Haywain, have focussed on unbridled human sin and folly (precisely the themes announced in the wings; while the pedlar, originally seen on the outside, reminded the viewer of their status as a pilgrim, who must negotiate the vicissitudes of human life–thus the interior functioned as exempla contraria).

Also here, in the “World and Men”, is the so-called tabletop showing the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things, which, especially since the BRCP’s findings came out, is another “controversial” work. The Prado ascribe it without reservation to Bosch’s hand; the BRCP, following other, earlier arguments, reject such an attribution. Either way, it is a very interesting picture and its quite fun here to be able to walk around the tabletop to view each of Bosch’s representations of the Deadly Sins, in ways that Phillip II must have been prone to doing in his private apartment at El Escorial, where it was from 1574 until Phillip’s death.


Bosch or follower (?), Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things; Prado, Madrid

“The Passion of Christ” does what it says on the tin. A range of works are on show here, from the London Christ Mocked (assuredly by Bosch and one of his more austere and restrained works but, for me, one of his most moving) to the Passion Triptych from Valencia, made by a follower of Bosch’s (possibly in his workshop), for the wife of Henry III of Nassau, who inherited the Garden from his uncle, Engelbrecht. Also here was the Entombment of Christ drawing from the BM, which is hesitatingly associated to Bosch’s hand here (though compelling evidence suggests it was not done by Bosch, and years ago, in fact, the then keeper of Netherlandish drawings and prints at the BM, An van Camp, told me in no uncertain terms that the drawing is by a follower).

Overall this exhibition is worth seeing–it is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works by Bosch and his contemporaries in a single place. It is a visually stunning romp through Bosch’s art and Bosch’s world–the exhibition’s design certainly, for my money, does justice to the quality of the works involved. The partner objected to the lighting, which here and there is a bit severe. (The glare on the reverse of the S John on Patmos picture, for example, did make it very hard indeed to see the beautifully executed and subtle little monsters lurking about in the very dark background surrounding the grisaille Passion tondo.)

The shop has a veritable cornucopia of the usual tat, from pencils to iPhone cases, as well as the now seemingly-customary high-end items including rather pricey silk scarves (does anybody actually buy these?!?). I was obviously only really tempted by the catalogue, available in English or Spanish, edited by the exhibition’s curator Pilar Silva Maroto (400 pages, paperback, €35). This richly-illustrated catalogue boasts a number of essays that shed further light on Bosch and his art, with individual entries on each object included in the show.

The show runs until 11.9.2016. General admission is €16; concessions priced at €8.

First-year Camila Poccard reviews ‘Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona’ in Buenos Aires

 golovine article-2

I was in Argentina recently and whilst I was there I visited an exhibition Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona at the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latino Americano de Buenos Aires/ Museum of Latin-American Art of Buenos Aires). The exhibition displayed a large collection of the work of Argentine artist Antonio Berni, the majority of which was created from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. The MALBA is one of the only art galleries in Buenos Aires that was purpose built to be an art gallery and consequently it has a modern, bright and clean interior, which seemed juxtaposed with Berni’s hectic and vibrant work.



Berni, ‘Juanito y su familia mirando el televisor’, 1974

The exhibition focused on a period in Berni’s career when he began to paint two fictitious characters he invented, Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel, to help explore social issues of large Latin American cities. This exhibition was the first of its kind to gather so much of Berni’s ‘Juanito and Ramona’ works, and MALBA collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to do so.

Juanito Laguna is portrayed as a young boy from a poor neighbourhood or shantytown, who collects garbage. Although his situation is bleak, he still retains his hopes and dreams, which Berni himself discusses in this video. This sense of hope can be seen, for example, in the painting of Juanito playing with a toy airplane and gazing up at a spaceship, dreaming of opportunities. As this was painted around the time of the moon landings, Berni makes Juanito like any other boy of his time who dreams of going to space, perhaps making him a relatable, contemporary character.


Berni, ‘Juanito Laguna y la aeronave’, 1978

Ramona Montiel, on the other hand, was created as a character to represent lower-class women. She becomes a prostitute in order to earn enough money to live and, through her character, Berni comments on the sex trade, the status of women, and also the lack of professional opportunities afforded to women.


Berni, ‘El Examen’, 1976



Berni, ‘Juanito Laguna going to the factory’, 1977

The paintings of Juanito in particular are large in size and striking. Berni was a very experimental artist and used new techniques in his artworks. Whilst he uses oil paints for the background and to paint Juanito himself, the work is dominated by collaged industrial waste and garbage that Berni collected. These objects protrude from the paintings, creating a 3D effect. The amount of metal used in the paintings is also quite jarring, as it reminds the viewer of the environment in which poor children represented by Juanito live. Instead of painting Juanito’s clothing, Berni places real items of clothing onto the canvas, often using popular clothes of the time, suggesting further how the character represents a particular class of children. However, the artist is also perhaps making a statement about how capitalist society and consumer culture fuel poverty. By using real, relevant and contemporary objects and popular culture to explore social issues, Berni creates in a way more ‘real’ characters. In fact, his characters have since taken on a life of their own in Argentina, becoming folks legends, incorporated into the lyrics of tango music and folks songs, as well as in poems and stories.


Berni, ‘Juanito the Scavenger’, 1978

In Juanito the Scavenger, the child is lost in a sea of industrial waste and garbage, and his face looks despondent. This painting depicts the common practice of children in slums rummaging in garbage for things to sell. Even though the scene is bleak, Berni’s use of colour brings life into the painting. I found that even though the paintings are gripping and have a serious political message, Berni’s use of colour makes them accessible and almost child-like. It suggests the vibrancy of Latin America, whilst also reminding viewers that Juanito is just a boy.

Overall I found the exhibition fascinating; it compiled so much of Berni’s work and was a testament to this experimental stage in his career. The exhibition was large and comprehensive, spread across different rooms over three floors, encompassing printmaking, sculpture as well as painting; I think it was a triumph. The exhibition opened in October in 2014 and proved to be very popular. Although Berni’s paintings were created in the late 1950s through to late 1970s, the social and economic issues they explore still plague many large Latin American cities today, so the political meaning of these paintings is still gripping and relevant.

Camila Poccard (1st-year History of Art student)


Prague, Pilsner and Palaces: Study Trip Abroad 2015

Every year in February, second-year BA History of Art students at the University of Birmingham go on a Study Trip to examine the art and architecture of a major artistic centre abroad, such as Paris, Berlin or Rome. Emily Martin and Anna Stileman report on this year’s trip to Prague…

This year’s second-year Art History Study Trip was to the art hub of Prague, led by Professor Matthew Rampley. Courageously his wife, Dr Marta Filipová, herself a Czech art historian, and University of Birmingham PhD student Kristine MacMichael agreed to come along and share their knowledge with us. The striking image of the Jan Hus memorial greeted us on our first day in the city, as it impressively stands over the square of the Old Town. Hus’ gaze took in the historical churches and decorated buildings, as well as wonderfully brightly coloured preparations for the Chinese New Year. The amount of art we saw, admired, and discussed over pints of Pilsner beer during our trip was incredible. The entire city of Prague is a work of art with its cobbled streets, painted facades and Gothic churches.

Jan Hus

Jan Hus Memorial, Old Town Square


Enjoying some Pilsner


The Czech Republic is a country which appears to have been in a constant battle to define its own national identity. The complicated history is intimately entwined with the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire and all this is what makes its collection of art, found throughout the city in its numerous palaces, so interestingly dynamic, if not a bit strange. Take St. Vitus Cathedral as an example. A testament to Gothic architecture but re-worked so many times that it reflects the interests of its nineteenth-century renovators as much as its original architects. Of note are the more contemporary stained glass windows by the Czech artist Alfons Mucha, who is well known for his Art Nouveau posters in Paris, but was also an ardent Czech patriot during the 1920s. We saw his Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 large canvases, on the penultimate day of our trip and it was a favourite for many of the group. The cycle of canvases grouped together in Veletržní palác are powerful in their patriotic display of the history of the Czech nation. However, the works were sadly viewed as too archaic in their day, and displayed since 2012 in the Veletržní palác, alongside the rest of the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century collections of the national gallery, is contrary to the works’ art-historical context.

Slave Epic

Alfons Mucha, The Slav Epic; Master Jan Hus Preaching at Bethlehem Chapel, 1916

The visit to the Senate of Parliament of the Czech Republic in Wallenstein Palace (Valdštejnský palác) gave us a glimpse of where the country is governed. Its appearance did not disappoint. Our guide took us on a tour through magnificent rooms, such as the seventeenth-century Main Hall with the slightly outrageous ceiling mural by Baccio del Bianco (note the Italian name) which features the seventeenth-century aristocratic General Valdštejnský as Mars the god of war. In addition, the Knight Hall was extraordinary with walls covered in veal leather tapestries pressed with various motifs. The Czech Republic’s variable heritage is evident by the way in which this is so casually neighboured by Venetian mirrors of the nineteenth century. Perhaps even more perplexing is how the official Parliament assembly room was originally the palace horses’ stable.

Vitkok hill

View from Vítkov Hill

On the last day, those of us who had a chance to see Vítkov Hill Memorial were glad we did. Not only was it a perfect position from which to see panoramic views of the city, but offers an amazing insight into the Czech’s era of Communism. The Communist occupation is also evidently shown in the architecture of the New Town (Nové Mĕsto).


National Mem

National Memorial, Vítkov Hill

In Prague the people are kind, the beer is cheap and the opportunity to see stunning works is all around. The remarkable thing about Prague is that the palaces and buildings, regardless of when they were built and what historical prominence they hold, all manage to fit into the landscape. Something so bold as the National Memorial on Vítkov Hill looks down on the churches and small building complexes with their red roofs, and yet doesn’t seem out of place. The friezes by Alfons Mucha do not appear juxtaposed to St. Vitus Cathedral. Prague is an eclectic city, but one which suits its own style.

By Emily Martin and Anna Stileman




An obligatory Prague selfie…



Lyon’s Fête des Lumières: Commercialist extravaganza or installation art at its finest, asks French and Art History student Marianne Thomas

The city of Lyon, located in the heart of the French hexagon, is a beautiful and vibrant one, bursting with a wide spectrum of cultural events that is ever-surprising in its variety and seemingly never-ending in its frequency. It’s arguably little wonder then, that after choosing Lyon to be the location of my compulsory Year Abroad last year, I was just as excited to experience the weekly art markets and the annual film festival as I was to explore the city itself. However, there was always one highly-acclaimed event that stood out in the calendar more than most and that I looked forward to from September onwards: Lyon’s annual Fête des Lumières, coming to town on 6th December.


The city of Lyon

The city of Lyon


A gigantic festival of lights, it’s not difficult to see why just the idea of the Fête des Lumières held such appeal for the History of Art student in me. Each year on the first weekend of December, every corner of Lyon is illuminated: building-sized video installations, pyrotechnics and dazzling light displays stretch from the concrete housing-block communities of the inner suburbs to the sprawling, fountain-laden squares of the city centre, and transform after-dark Lyon into a living, breathing canvas. Thousands of artists apply each year with the hope of securing a small area of the city to show off their expertise in their chosen field; the festival undoubtedly gives many installation artists an unparalleled opportunity to exhibit their work in an imaginative way outside of the gallery.

Subsequently, after seeing numerous photos of the spectacles offered by previous years, I was understandably excited to see what 2013 would bring, and assumed that the citizens of Lyon – being lucky enough to have this event on their doorstep – would feel the same.



An installation in one of the city’s squares, December 2013


Nevertheless, in the lead-up to December, I found that, upon talking to local residents, most of them didn’t seem to share in my excitement. Some groaned with dread at the thought of the imminent collapse of public transport in the wake of all the tourists, but many more bemoaned the fact that the festival had become so commercial in recent years and that the “true spirit” of it had been masked by gimmicks and consumerism. After learning more about the history and facts of the Fête, it became clear that both of these viewpoints were fairly understandable.

After all, amazingly, Lyon’s Fête des Lumières is the third most-visited annual festive event in the world, with only Rio Carnival and Oktoberfest beating it in the leaderboard. That’s to say that, on average, four million tourists flock to Lyon every year for an event that is barely advertised outside of the city itself, and is practically unknown in the UK. Suddenly, the transport-related anxiety made a lot of sense. The argument of the Fête being overrun by commercialism also seems to follow on pretty naturally; the origins of the festival are far from concrete, but the generally-accepted version of the narrative is that the Fête is a tribute to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from the plague during the 1600s, and that lighting up building façades and placing candles in windows is the Lyonnais way of giving thanks for the miracle. However, it’s easy to see that this prominent spiritual aspect of the festival could be easily forgotten amongst the bright lights and fireworks.

So when the Fête des Lumières finally rolled around in December, I was no longer sure what to expect. Was it going to prove to be the commercialist extravaganza that I’d been warned about, or the enormous, explosive art installation that I’d hoped for?



The town hall ‘on fire’


I was pleased to find that it was predominantly the latter. Although perhaps many art critics would not consider a festival of lights to be an example of installation art in its traditional sense, there is no reason to dismiss it from the category altogether. The way in which the existing architecture of the city was moulded to fit each artist’s requirement was extraordinary: with the use of incredibly-intricate lighting projections, the town hall and fine art museum were seen to be “demolished”, before being rebuilt into a rainforest and then an underwater kingdom, amongst many other creative destinations.


The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden


An existing mural painted onto the side of a local boulangerie was “animated”, its characters brought to life, while the banks of the Rhone river were transformed into a light-up orchestra. Of course, the streets were fit to burst with bodies cramming to see the spectacles, and the sheer number of stalls enthusiastically selling mulled wine was much higher than I would have expected, but a touch of consumerism didn’t mean that the event could not still be regarded as a prime example of the flexibility of installation art.

In fact, witnessing the festival made me think back to a question that all History of Art students will be very familiar with from the first few nervous weeks of first year: What is Art? It doesn’t always have to be a Pre-Raphaelite painting from the National Gallery, or even the most recent and most ‘out-there’ Damien Hirst creation. At its basis, art is arguably about producing a reaction, and there’s no question that the Fête des Lumières continues to do that year after year, showcasing the best talent of this specific artistic niche in an unorthodox, citywide exhibition that celebrates and the Lyonnais landscape and adds a touch of magic to it too.

So if you ever want to experience an installation exhibition with a difference, Lyon in December may just be the place to go. It may not be “high art”, but it certainly shows how adaptable and all-encompassing art can be, and you’ll never be short of a glass of vin chaud as you watch architecture metamorphose before your eyes.

Marianne is studying a History of Art and French. To find out more about this degree programme see here. Read Marianne’s other report on living and working in Lyon here.

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When in Rome . . . Ella on this year’s Art History in the Field trip

Some of the group by the Colosseum

Some of the group in the Colosseum

The long-anticipated second year field trip finally came in reading week this February, and what a trip we had! On our return everyone, from the entire department to our friends and family, enviously asked us how the trip had gone – a question to which we all replied positively. In fact we wished we were still there, not only for the fabulous weather in the high 20s but also for the little routine we had got into. Early starts with a quick breakfast at the hotel and then on to visit amazing museums, galleries and beautiful churches. This would be followed by a delicious lunch of antipasti, fresh pizza or pasta, more art, and then an equally sumptuous dinner with a final leisurely stroll back through Rome by night – heaven! Closer to our time of departure and on our return, the trip became collectively known simply as ‘Rome’, and is still referred to now fondly by all of us. The trip is such a great opportunity to study works of art in situ and a really exciting element for any second year Art History student at Birmingham University.

At Gatwick!

At Gatwick…perhaps before we knew the flight was cancelled!!

Arriving at Gatwick to find our flight cancelled was not a fantastic start. Yet witnessing everyone’s – including our lecturer David’s – faces looking up, baffled, at the departure boards, for me, was one of my fondest memories of the trip: you have to laugh! On a positive note, the cancellation resulted in a complimentary night in London’s “best” Travel Lodge and a flight the next day to Pisa, and then a coach through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to our final destination – Rome. The scenic views and buildings we passed were spectacular and allowed the group to bond.

Rome - walking the cobbles

Rome – Walking the Cobbles

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

Rome - pasta and pizza

Pizza and past in Rome

So, why is a Rome a good location for a study trip, then? Well, where to begin…as second year Art Historian Maysie said, there are simply ‘too many reasons’. All of us agreed that the variety of art available in Italy’s capital city was a massive advantage. From antique ruins, statues and sarcophagi to contemporary installations in the Modern Art Museum, there really is something for everyone’s taste and research interest. There’s even a few Monet’s in the Modern Art Museum.

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri's broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri’s broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

As part of our studies in the second year, we take a Research Techniques module which is designed, though a literature review, to complement the Study Trip, by encouraging us to choose and research an object that we will study in situ in advance of the trip. This exercise is also great preparation for our final year dissertation which is also on a single art object. This early preparation for our final year is, for me and my colleagues, one of the many attractions of studying art history at Birmingham University.

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Students in the statue gallery in the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna

Seeing the actual objects or art works that we had selected to research for our summer term presentation – the assessment for this module – was a real highlight and pleasure. People in the group have chosen a range of items, ranging from a contemporary photograph by Gabriele Basilico to Bernini’s famous David sculpture, and the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano. The rich diversity of our research interests and objects rendered the trip really interesting, as on multiple occasions we would go and see each other’s object, just out of the desire to learn more from our peers.

Another selfie...this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing. Vatican Museums

Another selfie…this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing in the famous sculpture in the Vatican Museums


Group shot in St Peter’s

One of my highlights of Rome was the day that we spent with one of the PhD students, Jamie, who accompanied us on the trip (read what else Jamie got up to here). We spent the day walking through Rome and visited the object of Sophie’s research, the Villa Farnesina. This villa built by Agostino Chigi, a rich banker and treasurer of Pope Julius II, contains some spectacular frescos by Raphael and his workshop. All of us enjoyed learning about the Chigi’s exciting and extravagant parties which were hosted in the villa in the summer months. There would have been music, dancing, food, and plenty of wine.

Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Raphael’s Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Although we had an itinerary drawn up by our lecturers, Liz and David, including some of Rome’s main attractions, we also had some free time to explore the city. Thus on some mornings and afternoons we visited other areas of interest and soaked up our cultural surroundings. As the hotel we stayed in was central to all areas of Rome, we could walk to pretty much everything on foot. The metro offered a quick and cheap alternative if we were feeling tired, but walking is so much more rewarding as treasures can be uncovered around every corner. The Trevi Fountain takes you by surprise, appearing amongst shops and cafes when turning around a corner, and it is astonishing when illuminated by night.

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

Although the aim of the study trip was obviously for academic purposes, and we all learnt so much, we still had plenty of fun. Rome will definitely be a highlight of my time here at Birmingham University studying Art History.

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

On the trail of Pieter Bruegel. . . (again)


Doria Pamphilj

Gallery inside the Doria Pamphilj

Researching Pieter Bruegel for my PhD has taken me all over Europe – I know, lucky me (as a colleague and friend of mine joked, it’s a tough old life being an art historian). My most recent jaunt in the name of research took me to Italy. Rome and Naples, to be precise.

We know that Bruegel spent a significant period of time in Italy from at least 1552 to ’55. His southern “wanderjahr” is shrouded in mystery, and we don’t know a great deal about what he got up to whilst in Italy. We can be fairly sure that he had arrived in Southern Italy by 1552, that he was in Rome in 1555 working with Giulio Clovio, and that he headed back to Antwerp, going via the Alps, shortly thereafter. My trip, though, wasn’t motivated by a gratuitous wish to walk in Bruegel’s footsteps. Instead, I wanted to study a couple of Bruegels that are in Italian collections and I’ve never got round to seeing.

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

The first was Bruegel’s Bay of Naples, which hangs in the delightful, if not slightly mad, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Whenever I’ve been in Rome before, I’ve never managed to squeeze this in, so it was right at the top of my list of priorities. (I was also in Rome to lend a pair of hands with the 2nd year Undergraduates’ study trip, and since they’d got waylaid at Heathrow because of a flight cancellation–post about the trip to follow soon, but here’s last year’s!–I took the opportunity to go straight to the Pamphilj.)

The Doria Pamphilj has a pretty old fashioned way of doing things. The walls are stacked high with pictures (it reminded me of those old engravings that show how how less-good artwork was “skied” at exhibitions put on by the European Academies), and the gold leaf frames usually feature just a handwritten artist’s name, done with a Sharpie, I expect. Anyway, after much squinting to make sure I didn’t miss the Bruegel 7 feet above my head, I saw it, down low, at eye level, inscribed in an elegant hand “Bruegel”. (If you’re interested, the Bruegel is the ninth picture along on the bottom row from the left in the heading photo.)

It’s really a rather staggering picture. It’s fairly small but absolutely crammed full with detail. We know it’s Naples, despite the jetty being circular, which is wrong because it is square, because we can make out certain topographical features on the bay such as the Castel Nuovo. The picture must have been painted from memory by Bruegel, usually, it is said, about 1560, but with the aid of drawings Bruegel made in situ during his Italian sojourn. Scholars have in the past been reluctant to accept this picture’s authenticity, mostly, I think, because it isn’t signed. However seeing it has allayed any suspicions I might have had. So much of the picture is characteristically Bruegel and for me it has a particular significance in relation to Bruegel’s activities as a miniaturist. We know Bruegel did miniatures, and the Bay of Naples is clearly the work of an artist who was comfortable working in miniature; the rigging of the ships is especially remarkable and diligently executed, as are the ships’ crews, clambering about on deck, which, although tiny, are really quite impressively rendered. Exactly why Bruegel should have produced a pretty much accurate, topographical, view of the bay of Naples in the first place is something I’m now curious to explore a bit more: did other people do topographical sea/landscapes in the mid-16th century? And who would want one on their walls?

Museo di Capodimonte

Museo di Capodimonte

Bruegel's Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Having looked at Bruegel’s depiction of the Bay of Naples, which is now in Rome, the next day I jumped onto a train from Rome for Naples to see two other Bruegels that are housed in that city’s Capodimonte Museum. Now, I can’t say that Naples is somewhere I’d rush back to for a week’s holiday, but the Capodimonte is a real gem. Perched high up on a hill away from the hustle and bustle, not to mention dangers(!), of the frantic city centre, the Capodimonte is a real haven and full of stellar works of art. It was also practically deserted, probably because of Naples’s bad rep. Masaccio’s really wonderful Crucifixion from the dismantled Pisa Polyptych is there, as is Titian’s Danaë and Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. Particularly wonderful also are some cartoons by Michelangelo (some figures for the Pauline Chapel frescoes and the cartoon for Venus and Cupid composition, which is positioned alongside a roughly contemporary painting after that design). But the real treat was Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope, both from 1568. I’ve written about the Blind Leading the Blind at length before in my MPhil thesis, and seeing it was just great. I learned loads from looking at the picture in real life that you just can’t get from poring over reproductions in books – there are all kinds of details in the picture that just don’t come across in a book. Meanwhile, I was surprised by the Misanthrope‘s size, which, I’d imagined, would’ve been much smaller than it is. Standing in front of it, you can just picture that painting up on some well-to-do bloke’s or woman’s wall, where it was doubtless gathered around as an object of discussion. All this just goes to show, as I’ve said before on this blog, that you really do stand to gain so much more from seeing all this stuff in real life…


The View from Lyon: French and Art History student Marianne Thomas on French culture and local schools…with a large helping of Chantilly

As a Joint Honours student, I’ve always considered myself very lucky to be able to profit from the variety of opportunities offered by both of my very different subjects: French and History of Art. However, this September, I felt even more fortunate (if also very nervous) because I was getting ready to begin my opportunity of a lifetime: living and working in la belle France!

After some thorough researching of French towns and cities through the ever-reliable medium of Wikipedia, I decided upon Lyon as my city of choice. The photos certainly seemed to hold the promise of a place that had everything: from the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, lined with speciality Lyonnais restaurants and crèperies, to the beautiful Romanesque architecture of the Basilique de Fourvière, Lyon appeared to be packed with interesting things to see, do and, of course, eat. Besides which, surely the fact that it’s twinned with Birmingham had to be a good omen?

The Roof Tops of Lyon

The Roof Tops of Lyon

It didn’t disappoint. My first few weeks were busy to say the least, filled up with being a tourist in my new home. After meeting lots of other people who were in the same situation as me, most of my time was spent exploring Lyon, test-driving my French and attempting to maintain the Art History side of my brain with a few trips to the sprawling Musée des Beaux Arts in the city centre. Only time will tell (or, fourth year, to be more precise) as to whether I’ve succeeded with the latter. However, I also faced the fun of tackling the notoriously difficult French administration process; setting up an electricity account in French via a phone call to a mumbling and irritable EDF man who kept putting me on hold had to be the highlight. I also had to brace myself for starting my new job.

Under the archways of ornate Fourvière

Under the archways of ornate Fourvière

Rather than be an Erasmus student in Lyon, I’ve opted to work as an English language assistant, helping students between the ages of 11 and 15 to improve their language and communication skills. I chose this option because I thought it would give me the chance to experience something that I would otherwise never see and, with no prior teacher training whatsoever, it’s fair to say that an ‘experience’ is certainly what I’ve had so far! I work in two middle schools in a suburb of Lyon, where many children face numerous social difficulties at home which, in turn, frequently have an impact on their schoolwork and, perhaps more importantly, on their behaviour. Consequently, there have been many situations where I’ve been standing in front of a class of fifteen Year 10s whose French grammar is worse than mine (and that really is saying something) and the pupils have no interest in learning anything related to English besides whether I’ve met One Direction. When all is said and done, however, I really am enjoying it. I’ve also been very fortunate to have supportive and welcoming colleagues, and in fact, I’ve found that most people I’ve met in France so far have taken the same approach. Even though Lyon is a big city – the 2nd largest in France – it’s often surprising how small and cosy it feels, and that’s largely due to its generally welcoming attitude and multicultural society.

Marianne has also mastered the art of ordering chocolat chaud avec Chantilly!

Marianne has also mastered the art of ordering chocolat chaud avec Chantilly!

All in all, to use the clichéd-but-incredibly-true viewpoint adopted by so many Year Abroad returners: this really is proving to be a wonderful experience. So far, I’ve had the chance to not only become fairly knowledgeable about Lyon itself, but also explore the nearby cities and towns of Geneva, Annecy and Avignon, all of which offered me their own unique insights into aspects of European culture, architecture and history, and I’m looking forward to visiting more Francophone culture hotspots this semester.


Le Palais des Papes, Avignon



Even though it will undoubtedly be very strange to return to Birmingham in September – especially considering that all of my previous History of Art classmates will have already left, dissertations complete and graduate caps in hand – I really would recommend combining History of Art with a language if the option presents itself, however terrifying the thought of a Year Abroad might be. You’ll get an amazing insight into an entirely different culture and even better, you’ll finally be able to pronounce all of those foreign-language Art History terms that no-one can ever say!

You can find out more about combining Art History with a language here. And Single Honours students of Art History are also eligible to study abroad for a semester in their second year!

Another Birmingham student, Clara Mciver, listed her top five reasons for studying abroad in this article for the Huffington Post.

Thoughts from Vienna….


Bruegel Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I’ve heard it said before that doing art history from the books is easy. It was Prof. Mary Beard, Cambridge Classicist of A Don’s Life fame, that said it, who is married to Robin Cormack, the art historian. Now inasmuch as I’d say that doing art history from the books is only as easy as doing any humanities subject from the books, and that researching and putting together a coherent argument about art history is only as easy as doing the same in, say, History, English and, indeed, Classics(!) etc., I have a new-found empathy for Beard’s statement after this weekend.

I’ve been in Vienna. My PhD’s on Pieter Bruegel’s paintings and the lion’s share of the surviving ones are displayed in Vienna at the Kunsthistoriches Museum. The  Bruegels assembled here are the ones that were in the Habsburg Imperial collection, having been collected by Emperor Rudolf II and his brother the Archduke Ernst of Austria, who were both apparently dead keen on Bruegel’s art. It’s these (less the ones that the Habsburgs lost and are now elsewhere) that I came to see this weekend. 

I wanted to put some of my thoughts–gleaned from hours pouring over the books and trawling JSTOR, etc., as well as looking at other Bruegels in Europe–to practice in front of the pictures themselves. And let’s just say that things quickly get tricky when you’re face-to-face with the things.

Bruegel, Peasant Feast

Take the Peasant Wedding Feast. Painted around 1568, the literature about this picture (and all of Bruegel’s peasants for that matter) usually says 1 of 2 things. 1 school of thought says that the peasants are emblems of sin, intended to represent drunken gluttony and supposedly put up on the wall to be seen by posh people who would renounce the peasantry and deplore their lack of table manners, keenness for booze etc. School of thought number 2, however, says that the peasants are emblems of fun, and that posh Antwerpers would have had a laugh at the peasants and their rustic, bumbling ways. According to this reading the pictures were looked at in lieu of actually going out into the countryside to mingle with the farmers, which wealthy Antwerp citizens were fond of doing in the mid-1500s. 

The premise underlying both is that Bruegel’s peasants were looked at by people who were in no way themselves peasants. Panel paintings in general would indeed have been prohibitively expensive and well out of the reach of the poor in the sixteenth century. A fair amount of evidence also exists to permit the conclusion that Bruegel’s panels were especially pricey. Moreover, we’ve learned recently that the Peasant Wedding was probably owned by Jan Noirot, Master of the Antwerp Mint who was a member of Antwerp’s upwardly mobile, mercantile class and who had 5 Bruegels in total. And so it seems that the premise is correct: that peasants in (Bruegel’s) art weren’t looked at by the peasants.

But trying to figure out which of the moral or non-moral readings is closest to the mark when you’re looking at the Peasant Wedding proves impossible.

Are the wedding celebrants really gluttonous drunks? Sure, a couple swig from their big beer jugs in a way that makes them look like the sixteenth-century’s equivalent to the modern-day binge drinker, but where’s all the vomiting, falling over and fistycuffs that we see in older art showing the drunken fallout of a peasant wedding or kermis? Meanwhile, the food itself is pretty simple and I don’t reckon these peasants would ever have been accused, as was sometimes said of peasants at this time, of squandering their meagre earnings on lavish food that was above their station. Meanwhile, the bride herself looks positively demure, happy (well she is newly-wed after all!) but demure all the same. And what about the cute kid at the front eating with his fingers? Although some might think this is intended to say “the apple never falls far from the tree” and that the child has acquired the same bad habits and ill-manners as his elders, is it not simply the case that kids from all kinds of backgrounds eat with their fingers and that it never raises an eyebrow?

So you could say that the picture is fairly innocent. It hardly seems to be the case that Bruegel wanted to make a bad example out of the peasantry.

But at the same time, and turning to the other side of the debate, what’s actually funny about this picture? Although we might like to think that in the 1500s sensibilities were different and that they might have laughed at stuff we now don’t, there really is nothing outrageous happening in the Peasant Wedding that might have raised a smile, and there’s no pun being illustrated or funny gesture being performed that may have roused laughter. Looking at it today, I think it’s pretty naïve to think that Bruegel’s original audience found peasants implicitly funny irrespective of what they’re actually shown to be doing, which in this case is simply celebrating a wedding over beer and porridge. Proof again comes from older art. For example, look up Sebald Beham’s peasants and his images of them shitting and drunkenly canoodling. These may well have been funny (the scatological has always tended to induce laughter) but they’re funny in exaggerated ways that emphasise debauchery in ways that Bruegel’s are not.

And so the comic reading is as tough to swallow as the moral one.

In other words, the essential binary that has become the norm in investigations about Bruegel’s peasants falls apart when you scrutinise the pictures in reality. Standing in front of the Peasant Wedding today, I realised that while the picture may well have been owned by a well-to-do man (although Noirot did ultimately become bankrupt AND was implicated in a murder!) the ways we’ve approached understanding the pictures in this context hitherto is simply flawed. This is of course great, because it means there’s much left to say. But it is still a realisation that comes from confronting the picture in real life, devoid of an accompanying essay telling you this or that.

Bruegel, Nester

Bruegel, Suicide of Saul, 1562, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Equally perplexing are some of the other Bruegels. Is the nest robber in the Peasant and a Nest Robber really stealing from the bird’s nest? And what’s the peasant doing for that matter? Is he pointing? What at? And why? And why’s he stumbling headlong into a brook? The Suicide of Saul is simply weird because you can barely see the suicidal Saul and the picture’s dizzying amount of detail is even more staggering given the picture’s tiny dimensions – something you can only appreciate properly when you see it, because dimensions given in books fail to provide the same realisation. And what about the Children’s Games? Who was supposed to look at that? Why? What purpose does a picture showing kids playing serve? (Although you can read a good article about the last of these questions in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, which is available online here.)

Bruegel, Children's Games, 1560, oil on panel, Kunsthistoriches

So Beard’s words apparently have a ring of truth in them – the abundant literature tells us this and that about Bruegel’s moral or not pictures, which we might at the time believe, but it seems difficult to give credence to either view when you’re actually in the Bruegel gallery in Vienna. This is of course an example of why seeing art in real life is so important: it forces you to think outside of what you’ve read and question some of the presumptions that sway your way of thinking about things. I’d already done this, of course (you don’t get a PhD by re-hashing all the old stuff), but seeing the pictures really brings it home.

Akademie der bildenden künste, Vienna

Bosch, Last Judgment

Meanwhile, a whole other can of worms was opened up when I popped to the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden künste, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Kunsthistoriches. It’s basically the same set-up as the Barber (that is, it’s a picture gallery that’s part of an educational establishment, this time the fine art academy) and I went there to see Bosch’s Last Judgment, which he did probably at some time around 1500. Staring at the Last Judgment I found myself wondering: why didn’t Bosch paint any genitals? Christian propriety of course dictated that genitals shouldn’t be shown too much (Michelangelo got into enough trouble because of that, whose Last Judgment (1530s) in the Sistine was called ‘disgraceful’ by Biagio da Cesena, who deemed it worthy of a bathhouse on account of all the bits that were on display), and so usually artists avoided the problem by showing their nudes with artfully placed and folded legs or bits of cloth. Others though had no problem with it and showed genitals, and, if you think about it, in last judgments it was probably rather meaningful to show the corporeal, fleshy, body in all its nakedness since the subject is after all about the Judgment of sins, among them lust. In his picture, sometimes Bosch adopted the strategy of having artfully posed people who aren’t exposing their genitals, thus alleviating the problem. But he does also have naked people with splayed legs, and when he does he has just put a rather odd smudge of flesh-coloured paint where the genitals should be. Perhaps, then, Bosch was more of a prude than the rhetoric surrounding this “outlandish” artist would have us believe? Infamously, for example, Wilhelm Fraenger argued that Bosch was actually a heretic who worked for the “Adamites”, an underground sect that celebrated the pre-Fall sinlessness of sex and had orgies and stuff. And although I never really believed it anyway, the Vienna picture makes me think that this really is quite wrong and that Bosch’s pictures really were made for the conventionally religious. Who knows. It just struck me as being odd… No doubt I’ll have a think about it and look it up in the books.


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A Perfect Opportunity for a Perfect End to a Year in Medieval Poitiers

Joint Honours Student Holly Wain on using her French and Art History skills to work for the journal Cahiers de civilisation médiévale.

As my days at the University of Poitiers drew to a close, I was determined to make the most of the last weeks of my Year Abroad in France. During my course, I was lucky enough to have translation classes with Stephen Morrison, a researcher specialising in the medieval period and director of the Centre for Medieval Studies in Poitiers (CESCM). I began speaking to him about my course at Birmingham and my interest in medieval art history and, then later, about possible work experience at the research centre. I am grateful for all his efforts, as in June I began work at the centre’s journal, the Cahiers de civilisation médiévale.

The journal began in 1958 and covers a variety of areas including philosophy, art history, literature, and musicology. It aims to bring together summaries of topics that deepen understanding in medieval civilisation and articles are submitted by researchers from all over the world. The articles include a short summary abstract in English, and literature reviews were also often published in both English and French. I was therefore given a range of pieces to translate, which was not only brilliant practice for my French but allowed me to learn about subjects I had never come across before such as the celtic ‘evil eye’ which cropped up while translating a review of a work by Jacqueline Borsje. Some of the texts tackled extremely specific areas of the early medieval period so there were sentences that I did not even understand in English! However, in the three weeks that I was there I did manage to translate substantial amounts of text. I was able to develop my translation skills immensely as I had to work around difficult sections to be able to communicate their broader sense.

The Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, where I worked under the direction of editor Blaise Royer.

The Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, where I worked under the direction of editor Blaise Royer.

It was very fortunate that the weeks I spent at the journal coincided with the annual conference held by the centre, the Semaines d’études médiévales in which students from many different countries flock to Poitiers to hear speakers present a variety of papers. I was very kindly invited by Blaise and the team to attend the opening lecture by Piotr Skubiszewski from the University of Warsaw on a manuscript found in Poitiers and the tradition of author ‘portraits’. Back at the journal, the team took a lot of interest in my own studies, for example I was able to attend the lecture by Stephen Morrison the topic of which was relevant to my own dissertation project, an early fifteenth-century tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. I gained an insight into the Lollard movement whilst also practising my French! I could not have asked for more.

A flyer presents the conference, detailing the great international presence among the speakers.

A flyer presents the conference, detailing the great international presence among the speakers.

The three weeks spent at the journal were often overwhelming as the team were working on lots of  different projects . As well as translation, I gained experience in the digitisation of previous issues of the journal and the translation of searchable terms for the Brepols database of the International Medieval Bibliography which is primarily linked to the University of Leeds. I worked with Karine Corre who looks after the indexation of books for the development of the database. It is a mammoth task with hundreds of books being sent in. I often felt sorry for her as I entered the office in the morning to find her surrounded by piles of yet more new books! I was also given access to the database so I could use it for my own research. Karine was extremely helpful and we found several very promising articles for my dissertation.

The site of the CESCM, Hôtel Berthelot (although due to building works the team at the journal were relocated, so I spent my time in a much less picturesque university building!)

The site of the CESCM, Hôtel Berthelot (although due to building works the team at the journal were relocated, so I spent my time in a much less picturesque university building!)

After finishing exams and feeling like my year abroad was fading away, work experience at the Cahiers was a brilliant insight into the world of medieval research and the demands of translation. The team were extremely welcoming and enabled my year abroad to be more than lessons at the University, but a full experience in the medieval world of the CESCM.

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