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From Gothic Churches to Contemporary Art, via Smoky Underground Wine Cellars: The Second Years take on Prague, by James Quarterman

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View of Prague and the Vltava

Early morning on Sunday, 12th February. As Ubers drew up outside the Barber Institute and the sound of trundling suitcases filled the air, 30 or so 2nd Year Art Historians, accompanied by Matthew Rampley, Nora Veszprémi and Markian Prokopovych, boarded the coach and began the week-long study trip to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, as part of the module Art History in the Field. For this module, the students had to find a work of art, group or theme that particularly interested them, and undertake study in situ, all in preparation for a presentation in the summer term. As such, the lecturers organised tours of the major highlights of the city, and students were subsequently given optional extras or lots of free time to seek out their own interests. Prague has to be one of the most underrated capitals of Europe; easily on par with other major cities such as Paris, Berlin and Rome, but comparatively less well travelled. Over the course of the week the students and staff explored the great variety of fine and applied art, architecture, and design Prague had to offer, thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere, blessed by beautiful sunshine every day (and not shivering too much), in one of the finest cities in Europe.

We arrived at Václav Havel International Airport and were greeted by a guide, who took us  to the hotel, and gave us a brief rundown of the city and how to act like a local, as well as some very useful maps marking out major attractions, transport lines, and most importantly, good pubs. Arriving at our Communist-era hotel at Olšanká (personally I thought it was better than I expected it would be), we checked in and grabbed a bite to eat from local restaurants.

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Looking down Wenceslas Square

The first day of exploration was upon us. Group A began a walking tour with Markian of the medieval Old Town and across the famous Charles Bridge to the splendid Baroque masterpiece St. Nicholas Church. Meanwhile, Group B accompanied Matthew on a tour of the New Town, highlighting buildings and works of art from the nineteenth century onwards, a period of great nationalistic revival. As a member of Group B, I did Matthew’s tour first (more on Markian’s later). Starting at Josef Myselbek’s impressive nationalistic Monument to St. Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square, we walked down the grand Parisian boulevard, passing many interesting architectural designs, ranging from neo-classical and secessionist to art nouveau, art deco and modernist. We also briefly viewed David Černý’s parody of the Wenceslas monument, to which no description of mine can do justice. We passed the grand old Carolinum theatre (site of the premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni), the cubist House of the Black Madonna, and walked on past the much-restored Powder Tower and back to the Old Town Square (again, more on that later). Heading into the Jewish Quarter, we passed the distinctly Moorish Spanish Synagogue and the ancient Old New Synagogue and Jewish cemetery, finally ending up at the nineteenth century Rudolfinum, which had served as concert hall, art gallery, and seat of the Czechoslovak parliament.

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Exhibit in the Kampa Museum

After a much needed lunch break, students were given the option of visiting the Kampa museum (the only attraction in Prague open on a Monday), which housed a fine collection of Czech modern to contemporary art, and a series of paintings by the great early Czech abstract artist František Kupka. At other parts of the afternoon small groups went to the John Lennon wall, a random wall on the west side of the river which became a site for graffiti artists and disgruntled citizens to express their disapproval of the Communist regime. Nowadays it’s a great background for candid photography and Facebook profile pictures.

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The Cathedral

The second day of exploring was made up of a large chunk of free time and a visit to the Veletržni Palác, the former Trade Fair Palace and current site of the late nineteenth and twentieth century Czech, German and French art collections of the National Gallery with Matthew and Nora. My tour was in the afternoon, so myself and John visited the Hradčany (castle complex) on the north-western side of the town, within which is a veritable treasure trove of architectural complexity. The crowning jewel of the complex is the oft-photographed protruding Gothic spires of St. Vitus Cathedral, begun by Matthias of Arras in 1344 at the order of Charles IV on the occasion of Prague’s elevation to archbishopric, continued and expanded by Petr Parléř until 1399, and then worked on in patches by various architects over 100s of years, finally being completed in 1929. Walking inside and around this masterpiece of composite architectural styles, and on through the Prague Castle Gallery, Old Royal Palace and Basilica of St. George, was a feast for the eyes and an art historical mental workout too.

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In the Veletrzni Palac

Then it was time for the tour of the Veletržni Palác, which holds a fabulous collection of artworks by a great range of Czech artists such as Josef Manes, Alfons Mucha, Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubišta, Jan Zrzavý, František Kupka and Otto Gutfreund, as well as works by many foreign artists such as Delacroix, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Edvard Munch (the latter two artists had a profound effect on Czech sculpture and painting respectively). Such an impressive collection makes it one of the finest (and newest) modern art galleries in Europe, and walking around the complex ably guided by Matthew was one of my personal favourite experiences of the trip, leading me to make the shocking declaration that I, a lover of all things Renaissance, Italian and Baroque, preferred Prague’s modern works in comparison to its older ones.

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In Old Town Square

The third day was Group B’s walking tour of the Old Town with Markian (while Group A went off with Matthew round the New Town). Beginning in the Old Town Square next to Ladislav Šaloun’s extraordinary Monument to Jan Hus, an Art Nouveau masterpiece reminiscent of Rodin’s finest works, we analysed the layout of the square, and viewed the impressive Old Town Hall’s famous astrological clock bell-ringing at the striking of the hour. We journeyed into the first baroque St. Nicholas Church in Prague (there are two), and also into the contrastingly bare Hussite Church of Our Lady of Tyn, and explored the old town’s narrow streets, passing the Bethlehem Chapel (where Jan Hus first preached his sermons), and stopping off at a delicious hot chocolate café. From there we headed across the Charles Bridge, swarming with tourists of course but nonetheless very picturesque, and into the Malá Strana (Little Quarter), to visit the second, larger, St. Nicholas Church. Inside we witnessed a masterpiece of Baroque architectural design and trompe l’oeil ceiling painting that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Rome, magnificently decorated and theatrically grandiose.

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In the Castle Grounds

That afternoon a group of students accompanied Nora around the National Gallery collections of Old Master paintings in the Šternberk Palace, which holds works from the fourteenth through to the seventeenth century by foreign artists such as Lorenzo di Monaco, Benozzo Gozzoli, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Bronzino, Jan Gossaert, Peter Breughel the Elder, Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt – a fine collection of names if ever you saw one. To finish off the day we popped into the Schwarzenberg Palace across the square to view some works of Baroque and nineteenth century Bohemian artists.

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Vitkov Hill

The fourth and final full day of exploring started with a walk up to the National Memorial on Vitkov Hill, with the huge but relatively conventional twentieth century equestrian sculpture of Jan Zizka by Bohumil Kafka. Within the memorial were housed the Military Museum’s post-1914 collections, including exhibitions on Czech resistance during the 2 world wars, a tomb of an unknown soldier, and a rather creepy underground exhibit featuring the tomb and re-created mummification lab of Klement Gottwald, the first president of the independent nation of Czechoslovakia. However, for most of us the highlight was the café on the roof, which offered great views of the surrounding city and plenty of opportunities for photographs.

 

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The Church of the Sacred Heart

For the afternoon students were given two options: a walk with Markian around the Vinohrady district, or a visit to a Czech contemporary art museum with Matthew. I chose the former of these options, and was rewarded with a chance to see the less touristy side of Prague, which nonetheless had within its area a number of architecturally interesting buildings. The largest and most important of these was Jože Plečnik’s Church of the Sacred Heart, built between 1929-33, which looms over the gardens of the square in which it is situated. Inspired by a combination of early Christian basilicas and Egyptian temples, yet uncompromisingly modern, the church features a clock tower as wide as the building itself, with a glass clock resembling a rose window, measuring 7.5m in diameter. Inside one can gawp at the wide single-aisled interior with unfaced brick walls, marble floors, and a marble altar featuring statuary of Bohemia’s patron saints. Our walking tour also featured a Hussite church with concrete bell tower, a market pavilion and a few nationalist and neo-classical buildings.

Each and every evening the students took full advantage of Prague’s vibrant night life and enjoyed the local delicacies of the restaurants, bars and pubs. Amongst the locations frequented by students were smoky underground wine cellars (the Czech Republic has not yet banned indoor smoking in pubs and bars) filled with friendly locals, and thriving jazz bars which featured expert musicians performing all night long, some of whom undoubtedly had done so since the days of the Communist regime, when jazz was the musical language of rebellion. A plethora of pubs served hearty Czech food such as beef goulash, roast Moravian pork, and chicken schnitzel, all served with potato/bread dumplings and washed down with copious amounts of cheap (and exquisite) Czech beer and wine. And for those desiring more familiar tastes, one could find Italian, Chinese, Indian, American, Vegetarian and Vegan restaurants serving equally fine food and drink.

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Group Shot

All in all, this trip was incredibly enjoyable. Surrounded as we were by culture at every turn, every single student found something to enjoy in Prague, whether it be paintings by Old Masters, Czech nationalists or inspired modernists, great monumental sculptures and small scale portraits in bronze, buildings exquisitely crafted in every Western style under the sun, or simply the city’s ambience and novelty. Undoubtedly this trip was a highlight of this year for every student, and our thanks go to Matthew, Markian and Nora for organising and leading a trip from which we all have lasting memories.

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 15 MARCH

‘Speaking Statues’

Dr Kim Woods (Open University)

Wednesday 15 March
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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Abstract:
Many statues and works of sculpture made in the late Gothic and Renaissance period are represented with mouth open, as if caught in a mid-utterance. These ‘speaking statues’ have received remarkably little comment from art historians. What are these speaking statues saying? How can we tell? What do viewers ‘hear’ and how are they intended to respond?

Might this the illusion of speech be just another aspect of the illusion of life that constituted such a strong theme in late Gothic art and the Renaissance? Accents of an intensely lifelike character might serve not just to impress but to enhance the persuasive character of a work of art and encourage interaction with the viewer. Understood this way, the illusion of speech is one aspect of a portfolio of persuasive virtuoso features that served artistic purposes but also had the capacity to engage a response on the part of the viewer.

Alternatively, could it be that the illusion of speech is an aspect of animism, the suggestion that a statue is in some essential sense alive? Legends have certainly come down to us recounting stories of statues coming to life and speaking to the onlooker. A more conservative alternative is that the illusion of speech enhanced the potential surrogacy of the statue: in other words that a statue apparently speaking or acting echoed the hopes of the viewer that the figurehead the statue represented would also speak or act on the viewer’s behalf.

There is another possibility: that a speaking statue is actually ‘saying’ something quite specific that the viewer in some sense would have ‘heard’ as part of their viewing experience. It is not difficult to find instances where this was undoubtedly the case. It begs many questions though. What exactly does a specific statue ‘say’? Who decides what it ‘says’ and indeed whether it speaks at all? Were there conventions of ‘speaking’ that a period eye might understand and we no longer do? The aim of this paper is to begin to unravel this illusion of speech and the agency it implies.

Biographical Information:
Kim Woods is a senior lecturer in Art History at the Open University. She specialises in northern European late Gothic sculpture c.1330-c.1530, materials of sculpture and cultural exchange. Her first single-authored book, Imported Images (Donington, 2007), concentrated on Netherlandish wood sculpture. Since then she has been working on alabaster sculpture and her new book, Cut in Alabaster 1330-1530, a study of a material and its European traditions will be published by Harvey Miller in 2017. Her co-published Open University work includes the Yale/Open University Renaissance Art Reconsidered volumes (2007); Medieval to Renaissance, the first volume of the Tate/Open University Art and Visual Culture series (2012); and most recently a chapter on Spain and the New World for European Art and the Wider World, 1415-1550, the first volume of the new Open University course Art and its Global Histories, to be published by Manchester University Press in 2017.

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 1 MARCH

‘O Say Can You See: American Art, Propaganda, and the First World War’

Professor David Lubin (Wake Forest University & Terra Foundation Visiting Professor University of Oxford)

Wednesday 1 March
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

Co-organised with the American and Canadian Studies Centre, University of Birmingham

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Childe Hassam, Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917 (Addison Gallery, 1917)

Abstract:
In the mid 1910s, American artists, photographers, and graphic designers played an engaged and sometimes controversial role in helping their countrymen decide whether to intervene in the Great War or remain neutral. Focusing on a painting by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam, which shows a panoply of Allied flags flying above Fifth Avenue shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, David Lubin considers how patriotism, religion, gender, banking, and pacifism were all called into play visually as the First World War sucked America into its vortex.

Biographical Information:
David Lubin, the Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University and Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor at Oxford University, is the author of Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2016) and co-organizer of World War I and American Art, an exhibition now on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 22 FEBRUARY

‘Disalienation: ownership, performance, repatriation’

Professor Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (University of Oxford)

Wednesday 22 February
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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Penacho: Pracht & Passion exhibition installation view, Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, 2012. APA-PictureDesk.

Abstract:
This lecture reflects on a process of disalienation that drives repatriations, the performances, replications, and provenance research involved. In a case study I focus on the inbetweenness of ‘Montezuma’s Crown’ – el Penacho – which comes to stand for all museum objects, suspended in a shock-proof vitrine in the Weltmuseum in Vienna. While Mexican tourists press against the glass case, making a pilgrimage to see the crown as a way of connecting with a lost Aztec heritage, the uncertain provenance of the headdress makes this an ambiguous relic. The historical movement of the Penacho from Central America to Central Europe instead speaks of Austria’s thwarted imperial ambitions, while conservators’ insistence that the crown cannot be moved due to its fragility is now used as an excuse to rebuff demands by the Mexican government to repatriate it. I trace the various ways in which the Penacho straddles ontological and epistemological domains and how its suspension in the museum’s vitrine represents a metaphor for the political stalemate in which it is now caught. Relationships between art and ideology are refocussed through the lens of fascism, trauma, and colonial claims for restitution that refer to cases of Nazi looting. The lecture will present examples from contemporary art and museum practises that challenge notions of origin and forms of property ownership.

Biographical Information:
Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll is an artist and Professorial Fellow of Global Art History at the University of Birmingham. She is the author of the book Art in the Time of Colony, and related exhibitions that include Ore Black Ore in the Allegory of the Cave Painting at Extracity Antwerp; Investigated at Savvy Contemporary Berlin; Artists in Residence at the Pitt Rivers; Embassy Embassy at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin. Her installations and texts have been exhibited and performed at the Venice Biennale, Institute of Contemporary Art London, Pesta Bonka Festival Indonesia, and the Marrakech Biennale. An expert in contemporary art and colonialism as well as the history of museums and collecting, she wrote her M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard University about Aboriginal Art. She is an editor of the journal Third Text, and has also been the curator of various international exhibitions including Julie Gough: The Lost World (Part 2) which has just formed the basis of her most recent book The Important of Being Anachronistic: Contemporary Aboriginal Art and Museum Reparations.

She is currently completing an edited volume Botanical Drift: Economic Botany and its Plant Protagonists, and a book about the Immigration Detention Archive that she is adapting for the stage in a new commission from the Konzerttheatre Bern. She is also working on a book project that provides the basis for this lecture, Fragile Crown: Empire, Collection, Restitution, which is about the complexities of restitution arguments for the return of cultural property.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

What’s in a Bruegel? Not a “h,” according to Jonathan Jones

JAMIE EDWARDS

One of the things people often ask is ‘how exactly do you spell Bruegel: is it with the “h”? or without?’ Truth is, it’s both. Bruegel signed his name both ways, and, in his early career, there were other spellings besides those two main ones. In fact, if you wanted to be precise – and a bit of pedantry can go a long way – you could rephrase the simple question ‘is it spelled with the “h”? or without?’ as the much more cumbersome: ‘so is with the “h,” or without? but what about the “u”? should I include a diaeresis over the “u”? or is it a macron that I need?’ And, to be honest, it’s not just a matter of how it’s spelled, because there’s also the matter of how Bruegel styled his signature: is it lowercase, in italics? or is it uppercase, with all sorts of other idiosyncrasies thrown in for good measure (which letters should be given as a ligature, for instance?). For in the corpus of autograph paintings and drawings by Bruegel, all of these varieties and more are encountered: from ‘brūeghel,’ to ‘brueghel,’ to ‘BRVEGEL’. (This, by the way, is to say nothing about how people outside the Netherlands coped the artist’s name – to Italians, for instance, Bruegel’s Dutch name was not only a bit tricky to spell but also, I guess, difficult to pronounce, and so we find yet more variants: the Bolognese doctor Scipio Fabius, for instance, plumped, in 1561 and again in 1565, for ‘Petrus Bruochl’.)

What this all means, in reality, is that Pieter Bruegel willingly played around with how to spell his own name. In early works, from the 1550s, we find him using variants on the ‘brueghel’ type of signature (lowercase, in italics, often with the “h,” with all sorts of other variations); then, in about 1559, he decided to adopt, with greater consistency than before, the now more familiar form: ‘BRVEGEL’ (usually uppercase, sometimes with the “V” and “E” in ligature, and that pesky “h” now eliminated). Here’s how some of those signatures actually look in a few works by the artist (1. the 1556 drawing for the Big Fish Eat the Little Ones; 2. the 1559 Netherlandish Proverbs; 3. the 1559 drawing of Charity):

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It’s stating the obvious, but what this shows us is that Bruegel couldn’t quite make up his mind when it came to spelling his name and signing his works. Up until about 1559, that is. For from that date, he went as ‘BRVEGEL’. And the reason for this change is a simple one: for ‘BRVEGEL’ has a more Latinate feel than the decidedly Dutch ‘brūeghel‘ and its variants. The signature change was, in other words, about cultivating a particular image: the Latinising, or “Latinisation,” of the name signalling the artist’s social, cultural and intellectual pretensions. (If proof is needed, we can just cast about almost at random in Bruegel’s milieu and find other examples of people doing exactly the same thing: ‘Domenicus Lampsonius,’ to take just one example from Bruegel’s extended circle, is a Latinised version of ‘Dominique Lampsone’.)

That to me seems to be the most plausible explanation of what’s going on here. But, whatever the historical realities are, the ‘is it with the “h” or without’ cliché provided a nice tagline in Jonathan Jones’s recent article in The Guardian on the, in my view ill-conceived, subject of which Brueg[h]el matters; or, put in another way that comes closer to what Jones actually thinks, which Brueg[h]el was any good?

His article was prompted by the upcoming opening at the Holburne Museum in Bath of a new exhibition: Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty, which is the first exhibition ever mounted in the UK on the Brueg[h]el dynasty. I’ll be giving a lecture there in March, on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (that’s the Bruegel-without-the-“h”’s) Blind Leading the Blind and its copies. Jones, though, doesn’t think that such an exhibition is worth having, for ‘the only Bruegel worth bothering with is the one whose name is spelled without the “h,” ‘ which is to say, Bruegel the Elder. The “other Brueghels,” namely Bruegel’s sons Pieter Brueghel (usually called Pieter the Younger, to distinguish him from the father) and Jan Brueghel (usually called Jan the Elder, or “Velvet Breughel,” to distinguish him from his own son, Jan Brueghel the Younger … ) are, in Jones’s view, second-rate painters, scarcely worthy of being the focus of an entire exhibition. He simply can’t see why ‘British museums and art dealers such as Christies, which staged a Brueghel show in 2014, [are] so obsessed with these lesser painters?,’ the “lesser painters” in question being the Brueghels with the “h”.

As we’ve now seen, it ain’t quite that simple: as I said a moment ago, a bit of pedantry goes a long way, so let’s just remember that the Elder Bruegel also had the “h”. But, the bigger point here concerns Jones’s idea that Bruegel the Elder’s children produced pictures that are inherently or automatically inferior to their faither’s: Bruegel’s genius produced masterpieces; the Brueghels’ servility produced copies, feeble pastiches, or else pretty inoffensive still lifes:

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Bruegel without the “h,” Blind Leading the Blind, 1568; Capodimonte Museum, Naples

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Brueghel with the “h,” Blind Leading the Blind

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Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1606/7; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

This is the sort of thing you will have read years ago. And it was said especially often of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who, in comparison to his brother Jan (whose originality has never really been questioned), has always tended to be thought of as being a totally uninventive, totally servile imitator and pasticheur of his father’s art. But is that really true? Consensus now is that it’s not: Brueghel with the “h” also produced pictures according to his own capacities of invention and artistry. And what he produced, apparently without recourse to an existing prototype by his father, is, in my view, not only good (whatever good means … ) but is also interesting for all sorts of reasons.

But, be that as it may, we can or should object, I think, to the snobbish dismissal of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s activities as a copyist. All the best artists copy and always have done, and might you not say that Brueghel the Younger’s commercial savvy is something to be applauded: clearly he identified a market demand for Bruegel’s and Bruegelian pictures, which he seized and capitalised on, and clearly made a living for himself. If that makes a man feeble … then …? What’s at stake here, I guess, is how you define greatness in an artist anyway. If absolute originality is the key criteria, then we’re always on shaky ground, because what even is artistic originality, exactly? How is originality defined? And how can we ever be sure that something is absolutely original in the strict sense? (Roland Barthes had thoughts on that matter, on the tyranny of the author-genius’s supposed originality; and even Michelangelo’s inventiveness is best understood as a process of assimilative emulation, according to which he took pre-existing artistic and literary ideas and then put them all together in inventive ways — so, is that originality?) Besides, why can’t commercial success be a marker of greatness? (The idea that art historians should only be interested in seeing greatness in masterpieces produced only by artists who take pride of place among the pantheon of artist geniuses died out, rightly, a long time ago … art history students are habitually taught nowadays to “difference the canon”.)

For me, the lives and works of the Brueghels with the “h” are just as interesting as the life and work of the Bruegel without the “h”. They might be interesting for different reasons; but different, surely, isn’t the same as being “less good than”.

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 8 FEBRUARY

‘Seurat’s Public’

Professor Alastair Wright (University of Oxford)

Wednesday 8 February
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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Georges Seurat, Cirque (1890-91)

Abstract:

Taking as its primary focus Seurat’s Cirque (1890-91), my paper examines how the artist’s work imagines the public both as depicted audience and as implied viewer. I assess the claims made by Seurat’s colleagues Paul Signac and Félix Fénéon for a proletarian and politically radical audience before suggesting that the work of another of Seurat’s contemporaries, Stéphane Mallarmé, offers a better model for the painter’s ambivalent invocation of the public. The paper explores aspects of Seurat’s technique and subject-matter and of Mallarmé’s writings on theatre and popular entertainments in relation to the politics of the public sphere under the French Third Republic.

Biographical Information:

Alastair Wright is Associate Professor and Tutorial Fellow in Art History at St John’s College, University of Oxford. His first book, Matisse and the Subject of Modernism, was published by Princeton University Press in 2004. In 2010 he curated an exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s prints at the Princeton University Art Museum. The accompanying catalogue, Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered, examined the role played by reproduction in Gauguin’s understanding of French colonialism in Tahiti. Alastair has published widely on European and non-European modernisms in October, Art History, the Oxford Art Journal, the Art Bulletin, and in various edited volumes and catalogues.

He is currently working on two book projects. The first is a study of the politics of embodied spectatorship in the work of the 19th-century British painter Ford Madox Brown. In the second he is exploring the manifold links between the emergence of modernism in the visual arts and the transformation of the public sphere under the French Third Republic, with a particular emphasis on the work of the Neo-Impressionists.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 25 January

‘Portraiture and the colonised: The problem and a case study’

Dr Simon Dell (University of East Anglia)

Wednesday 25 January
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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King Njoya, ‘King Njoya with one of his wives,’ 1912. Published: Der evangelische Heidenbote, Vol. 86, 1913

Abstract:
A portrait in the European tradition entails the production of a likeness of an individual. Thus the preconditions for a portrait are a category of individuated personhood or subjectivity and agreed procedures for the representation of that personhood. Yet how do these elements converge in the European tradition? And what are the implications of this for the depiction of people from beyond Europe? How, if at all, are the colonised to be represented in this tradition? This paper explores these questions through a case study drawn from the Bamum of the Cameroon Grassfields during the first decades of the twentieth century.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

Spring Term’s Research Seminars

The finalised programme for the Departmental Research Seminars in the Spring semester  has now been made available. Please see below.

spring-term

 

DEPARTMENTAL RESEARCH SEMINAR: 30 NOVEMBER

‘Art, Architecture and Exile; the Empress Eugenie in Farnborough, 1880-1920’

Professor Anthony Geraghty (University of York)

Wednesday 30 November
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

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Abstract:
‘The Empress Eugenie – the widow of Napoleon III – spent the last forty years of her life in Farnborough in Hampshire. This talk will explore the house she lived in, Farnborough Hill, and the remarkable collection of fine and decorative arts she displayed therein.’

Biographical Statement:
Anthony Geraghty is Professor of the History of Art, and Chairman of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. He is an architectural historian, with a specialist interest in the early modern period in England. He joined the University of York in 2002, having previously taught at the Glasgow School of Art in 1998-2002.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter: SET497@student.bham.ac.uk

New Raphael …?

Jamie Edwards

Stephen Hibberts with the painting Noli Me Tangere (credit: Colin Usher, via The Telegraph)

Stephen Hibberts with the painting Noli Me Tangere (credit: Colin Usher, via The Telegraph)

That man up there, the Antiques collector Stephen Hibberts, reckons he has unearthed a lost painting by Raphael. Depicting the moment Christ told the Magdalene not to touch him following His Resurrection — a subject known in art history by the Latin words Christ is said to have uttered, “Noli me tangere” — Hibberts found the painting some years ago at an art fair in Avignon. Back then, it was, or so The Telegraph reported, lying on the ground, a much-maligned, and literally downtrodden picture, purported to be some detritus of some unknown period in art history from the hand of some unknown artist who harboured a penchant for producing pictures that resemble the Old Masters.

Yet despite these inauspicious circumstances, when Hibberts saw it, he liked it; specifically, he liked “its gothic and rustic appearance”. So he bought it, despite it not being “in the best of nick” (the latter, alongside “rustic,” being a poetic way of describing this picture, which, it must be said, is in horrible condition):

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Hibberts’s picture (credit: Colin Usher, via The Telegraph)

“I didn’t think it would be worth much at all. I’m a realistic man,” Hibberts said in a statement last week, reflecting on the acquisition. “I’m aware,” he added, “that it is sometimes tempting to see things that aren’t there, that you see things you want to see.” Quite shrewd.

Unfortunately, however, it does seem that Hibbert has now decided to see things he wants to see, because he has since decided that his painting, the one he found lying on the floor somewhere in Avignon, is not only from the sixteenth century, but is in fact a lost Raphael!

The story goes like this. Hibberts allowed experts at Sotheby’s, The National Gallery and at Oxford and Cambridge to examine his work. They verified his initial inklings: this isn’t anything special. Their expertise yielded the view that this work probably comes from the Victorian period, when it was all the rage for artists to look back to the examples provided by Italian Renaissance art. But Hibberts didn’t give up; clearly, he’d decided that the picture he owned was something else entirely (on what basis he came to this view is for him to disclose). So he sent it to Bradford University, to try and date it. They examined the picture using Raman spectroscopy and microspectroscopy, in order to identify the pigments used in the painting. The findings were published in the Transactions of the Royal Society A.

The science has shown that the pigments used in the paint, and the way that the canvas was prepared and worked on, are thoroughly consistent with what we should expect for a picture produced during the Renaissance, around 1500. Crucially, to quote from the report, “No trace of any synthetic pigment that appeared post-Renaissance” were identified, which, “when taken with the obvious lack of restorative procedures, implies strongly that the painting is correctly placed as an artwork executed in the Renaissance period.” So far so good. It seems permissible — though it’s not necessarily a done deal just on those bases — that Hibbert does now own a sixteenth-century painting.

But the sting in the tail comes from the next objective: “It now remains to try and attribute this painting to a particular artist.”

This question is tackled in the tellingly entitled “Artistic Epilogue”, as if it is the case that when wrestling with matters of attribution works of art only come in with only secondary importance. We’re dealing here, again, with art history that does science first, and art history second. And adopting the Morellian approach to connoisseurship, the study hones in on “perhaps the most significant feature of this painting,” which is “the polydactyly of the Christ figure”. Christ does, it seems, have one toe too many on the right foot.

They say that this is a characteristic motif used in the Renaissance period, particularly by Raphael. They adduce examples to that end (listed in the report). They also add that several variants of the composition represented in their painting exist from the later sixteenth century. These include an engraving by Maarten de Vos (1582), a painting by de Vos, an engraving by Johann Sadeler (which they present as being somehow distinct from the de Vos print, whereas it is actually after de Vos, viz. is based directly on that print, as the inscription “M.de Vos inuentor / Joannes Sadler scalps” announces), as well as a few other later works from the seventeenth century. Below is the de Vos painting (I think … hard to get hold of) and the Sadeler print:

Johannes Sadeler I (Netherlandish, Brussels 1550–1600 Venice (?)) Noli Me Tangere, from The Passion of Christ, 1582–1583 Engraving; Plate: 9 3/8 × 7 7/8 in. (23.8 × 20 cm) Sheet: 10 5/8 × 8 9/16 in. (27 × 21.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Carolyn R. Vietor, 1964 (64.563.46) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/654701

Johannes Sadeler I (Netherlandish, Brussels 1550–1600 Venice (?))
Noli Me Tangere, from The Passion of Christ, 1582–1583
Engraving; Plate: 9 3/8 × 7 7/8 in. (23.8 × 20 cm) Sheet: 10 5/8 × 8 9/16 in. (27 × 21.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Maarten de Vos, Noli me tangere, 1580s, Pinacoteca Stuard Officio, Parma. (I think ... )

Maarten de Vos, Noli me tangere, 1580s, Pinacoteca Stuard Officio, Parma. (I think … )

What seems fairly clear is that all of these compositions do somehow relate. There are significant differences between each of them, but, in general terms, the compositions match up. So what does tell us?

Strictly speaking, what it tells us is that in around 1582, a composition was (re)produced as a painting and an engraving by de Vos and Sadeler. What is doesn’t tell us is that Hibberts’s picture is the prototype on which de Vos and in turn Sadeler based their own works; that is a leap too far on the basis of the evidence currently available. And certainly it does not tell us that Hibberts’s picture is not only the prototype, but is in fact the prototype produced by none other than Raphael. Indeed, if one of, if not the, most important elements in the painting here in question is the extra toe, then that importance was apparently lost on de Vos and Sadeler, who omitted this apparently essential, and essentially Raphaelesque, element. Why can’t it be that the painting is after de Vos’s print, just as Sadeler’s is? After all, all the comparable works adduced in the study date from 1582 and after, which suggests that the prototype originated at around that date. Why can’t it have been de Vos’s 1582 print? De Vos being, at this point, very much alive and kicking, whereas Raphael had been dead for sixty-two years.

A possibility, of course, is that the supposed Raphael turned up at about this time (1582) and was the catalyst for all this, but that’s something that needs to be researched and explained. But even this, if it can be proven — and it is probably an unanswerable question — raises another troublesome question: if a Raphael painting had shown up in, let’s say, 1580, then why isn’t de Vos’s print signed “Raphael inuentor”? As Sadeler’s engraving makes clear, it is de Vos who invented the composition. It simply can’t be the case that de Vos and Sadeler would’ve missed out on the lustre that Raphael’s name adds to a print if they really were based on a painting believed to have something to do with Raphael.

And more to the point, can anyone actually plausibly say that the painting looks like a work by Raphael? This business about Christ’s polydactyly is hardly compelling in and of itself. Do the figures, for instance, actually look like figures designed by Raphael? Isn’t it problematic that de Vos’s figures look more Raphael-like than do the figures in the painting that we’re supposed to believe is by Raphael? Let’s remember that Hibberts acquired it — despite it being such an unremarkable work — because he liked its elegant “gothic” character; it almost goes without saying that Gothic isn’t a term usually invoked to characterise a picture by Raphael! (Heinrich Wölfflin would’ve bridled at the thought!)

To that end, the study’s claim that the painting, and the composition more generally speaking, has a Florentine origin is baffling to me. The evidence, they say, or so it seems, is that the view of “Jerusalem” in the background is actually Florence: a topographically accurate view of Florence as it appeared in the sixteenth century from the hill outside the city on which San Miniato al Monte stands, in fact. This is what that view looks like, from slightly lower down the hill, at Piazzale Michelangelo:

firenze

The painting, it’s true, has suffered extensive losses in the background, in the crucial places, and the reproductions available aren’t clear, but it is hard to see that the background really does include a topographically accurate view of Florence. This is clearer from the engravings, supposedly made after the painting in question. The backgrounds here simply do not look like Florence: the Synagogues in both may resemble the profile of the Duomo in general terms, but not precisely; and the Synagogue as it is glimpsed there is really of a rather generic type, familiar from many a picture. And based on what we can make out in the reproductions available to us, the painting likewise features only a Duomo-esque building, but other, key distinguishable buildings — absolutely central to identifying a townscape as Florence — appear to be missing: Palazzo della Signoria? and, orientation depending, Santa Croce? And at any rate, it’s not as if there’s a special or peculiar link between Florence and Raphael: he being a peripatetic artist who nevertheless lived in Rome from 1508.

All told, the idea that a new Raphael picture has been discovered has, as always, been reported with extraordinary gusto and enthusiasm. But the excitement, and blind optimism this generates, has tended to mean that the glaring problems have been downplayed if not overlooked entirely. So what do we know? We know that Hibberts has inadvertently acquired a sixteenth-century painting, the composition of which is known from other works including prints. But that’s not quite the same thing as discovering a Raphael ….

 

 

 

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