Category Archives: University of Birmingham

Life, Art and the Spaces in Between: Reflections on “The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velásquez” by Laura Cumming, “War and Turpentine” by Stefan Hertmans and “The Last Days of New Paris” by China Miéville

BY JON STEVENS, MRES HISTORY OF ART

Last year, prior to my arrival in the Department of Art History, I read three books, which had a lasting impact on me. Reflecting further on these books, I realised that, among other things, they all have something intriguing to say about the relationship between art and life: about the uncertainty and indeterminacy between the real and the invented and the dreamed and the experienced.

In this piece, I have tried to articulate some of my reflections and to explain how these three books, each in their own way, seems to inform and enrich the continual dialectic between art and life. In doing this, my hope is that I might encourage those of you, who haven’t read the books, to seek them out; you will be well rewarded. And for those of you who might have read one or more of them, I hope that you find my take on them of interest.

Vanishing Man

In February last year I took a trip to Madrid and Seville with my wife. Our visit would provide a long-awaited opportunity to see the magnificent collection of Goya’s work in the Prado; not least the assembly of his ‘Black Paintings’. In Foyle’s bookshop, just before we left, Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velásquez caught my eye. I read it on the train, on our flight and finished it in our hotel, so that by the time of our visit to the Prado, I found that Velásquez was competing for my attention with Goya.

Laura Cumming’s book tells two interwoven stories. In the first story she relates her personal encounter with Velásquez, when she spent time in Madrid grieving for the early death of her father, the painter James Cumming. At first, she tells how she couldn’t bring herself to enter the Prado but when she does and – as she is searching for works by El Greco, one of her father’s favourite artists – she comes upon Las Meninas and like many before her she is overwhelmed by the experience.

The second story is about John Snare, a provincial Victorian bookseller from Reading, who dabbled in art dealing. In 1845, in his mid-twenties, he spots a painting up for auction at nearby Radley Hall. It is described as ‘A portrait of Prince Charles, later Charles I’ and in the catalogue it is suggested that it might be by Van Dyck. Snare was an autodictat, who had already acquired enough knowledge to question this attribution. He knew that the young king-to-be had visited the Spanish court in 1623 on a fruitless mission to arrange an advantageous marriage; might it have been possible that he had his portrait done at this time by the court painter Velásquez? Little was known about Velásquez’s works in England in the mid 1800’s. There were a handful of examples in private collections and, of these, several had misleading attributions. However, first-hand accounts of Velásquez’s works on display in the Prado were beginning to circulate and Snare was convinced that this painting was the genuine article.

John Snare spent the rest of his life trying to prove that this painting, which he acquired for the sum of only £8 (less than £1000 in today’s money), was a lost masterpiece by Velásquez. Laura Cumming first came across the story when she found a pamphlet by Snare that he published in 1847, prior to the painting being put on show in London. ‘The History and Pedigree of the Portrait of Prince Charles’ is a testament to Snare’s thorough research – at a time when little had been published on Velásquez and when what was available was often highly misleading – and it shows his tenacity in seeking out sources, when many doors would have been closed to him.

Art as an all-consuming obsession

Laura Cumming’s recounts the many vicissitudes of Snare’s travels with his beloved painting. The painting is a popular success wherever it is shown; many reputable observers are persuaded that it is indeed a Velásquez and Snare uncovers more evidence to support his case; although gaps and contradictions remain. On the way, he has many misfortunes and he makes a number of enemies; the painting is possessed twice and he pays substantial sums to redeem it; his ownership of the painting is contested leading to a tortuous trial in Edinburgh, which he eventually wins; by then, however, he has absconded taking his painting with him to America. Ultimately, the Velásquez is all he has; his business has been bankrupted and his marriage is over. Yet still he feels compelled to press his claims; it is not for money, as he receives several substantial offers for the work, rather, it is to prove his point.

Snare’s fortunes improve in America. His painting is generally lauded but sadly he misses its greatest triumph; he dies before it is shown to general acclaim at the Metropolitan Museum in 1889. After that, the painting returns home to his family. It is shown one more time in his hometown and then it unaccountably vanishes from history. Laura Cumming pursues every conceivable lead and goes down some fascinating paths but, in the end, the object of John Snare’s magnificent obsession remains elusive. Could the painting have been by Velásquez? And might it be hanging somewhere forgotten and unrecognised? Cumming interlaces the many questions about the lost painting with her own reflections on Velásquez’s life and practice.

Going back to Laura Cumming’s midwinter encounter with Las Meninas, last February, I followed in her footsteps. Arriving at the Prado as soon as it opened, I was able to spend 30 minutes almost undisturbed with this celebrated painting. Much has been written about Las Meninas and many artists have marvelled at it. In 1865, Éduard Manet stood entranced before it and later wrote to Charles Baudelaire that Velásquez was “the greatest painter that ever was”. Almost a century later, Picasso obsessively painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in one year and, late in his career, Francis Bacon spent long hours – after the galleries were closed to the public – trying to comprehend this “amazingly mysterious painter”.

Art as a mysterious illusion

Velásquez is a master of illusion. The figures in Las Meninas are life-size and as you approach the painting you are caught by the quizzical gazes of the little princess and her attendant dwarf in the foreground, of the chamberlain in the rear doorway, of the ghostly presences of the king and queen in the mirror (who might be standing beside you) and, above all, of the artist himself poised before his canvas. You find yourself as the latest participant in a drama that has been played out for over 350 years.

Yet as you draw closer, the illusion dissolves before your eyes. The paint surface becomes a pattern of “dots, dashes, flicks and spatters of paint”, which only a moment ago represented the shimmering dress of the princess, the soft fur of her dog, the indistinct image in the mirror and the glint in the artist’s eye. Because Velásquez’s technique is so baffling, there is a danger (as Cumming notes) that we assume “the illusion is all there is”.

Art as a balm for troubled minds

Yet Velásquez’s illusionism is only the means by which he explores both the outward appearance and the inner lives of his subjects; whether they are effete kings, arrogant aristocrats, looked-down-upon servants or ridiculed court entertainers. This was brought home to me most forcefully when I passed into the ‘Dwarves and Buffoons’ room. The name of the room may jar in a modern context but (as Cumming eloquently suggests) Velásquez’s intimate portraits of the two dwarfs, Francisco Lezcano and Sebastián Morra, and the full-length portrait of the court performer, Pablo de Valladolid, are works of compelling empathy and psychological insight. Their images have stayed with me since my visit and I can fully understand how they acted as a kind of balm for Cumming’s pressing grief.

turpentine

Last June, I attended some lectures in Oxford on American art by David Lubin. I had met him earlier in the year, following a research seminar he gave at the Department. Before his final lecture, we had coffee together and, when I told him of my possible research interest in late 19th century Belgian art, he enquired if I had read War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. I had not heard of the book and purchased it on my return. On the back cover, War and Turpentine is described by the New York Times as a “masterly book about memory, art, war and love”; it is a sweeping family history written by the Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans about his grandfather, Urbain, and the tumultuous times he lived through from his birth in 1891 until his death in 1981.

In writing the memoir, Hertmans drew heavily on two notebooks, which his grandfather gave him before he died at the age of 90. In the notebooks, his grandfather recollects his early life in Ghent, his experiences as soldier in the Belgian Army in the Great War and his return home. Hertmans reconstructs his grandfather’s life from a rich amalgam of extracts from the notebooks (skilfully edited), personal memories and his imagining of his grandfather’s inner life.

Art as an article of faith

The book opens with Hertman’s catching a glimpse of his grandfather in old age “silently weeping” over a reproduction of what we later discover is Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus. He goes back in time to describe his grandfather’s impoverished upbringing in Ghent at the turn of the 20th century. Urbain’s father, Franciscus, is a jobbing artist, spending his time restoring murals and paintings for Catholic churches and monasteries around Ghent, working long hours for “starvation wages”. Franciscus is a man of absolute faith; it suffuses his whole being and the life of his family. The young Urbain is fascinated by his father’s calling and spends his spare time acting as his assistant. Then out-of-the-blue, Franciscus is commissioned to create some original murals for a church in Liverpool, this is a great opportunity and he leaves the family for several months. On his return, the family have little time to celebrate his achievement. He is ill and dies from pneumonia.

Hertman’s quotes selectively from his grandfather’s notebooks in his rich account of his upbringing in Ghent and of the hardships he and his family endure, particularly after Franciscus’s early death. Then, in the second section of the book, his grandfather’s experiences in the Great War are related more or less verbatim from his notebooks. Writing thirty years after the event, Urbain gives a visceral and gut-wrenching account of the horrors of the German invasion of neutral Belgium. In the first few months of the war, over 5,000 civilians are executed in reprisal for Belgian resistance to the invasion and the Belgian army, in which he is a corporal, suffers catastrophic losses.

Art as a refuge from unspeakable horror

Miraculously, Urbain survives the first chaotic battle of Schiplaken and he lives to fight through the war on the front at Yser. He suffers serious injuries and on three occasions he is sent to convalesce in England. The first time he ends up in Liverpool and, as he recovers, he remembers the murals created by his father, Franciscus. He scours the city for the church or monastery where they might be found, without luck. Then, one day wandering along the docks, he stumbles into a cloister and there before him is a mural of St.Francis. He recognises his father’s hand immediately. He is enthralled by the experience, all-the-more-so when he notices St Francis’ face. It is a likeness of his dead father and then he looks at one of the shepherds standing by the saint and he sees…his own face, as a child.

This is a revelatory episode and it is not entirely clear whether this is a real experience or an intense dream or both? He searches for the cloister again but he never finds it.

Urbain is much decorated for his heroism but he ends the war a disillusioned man, not only because of the horrors he has witnessed but also because, as a Flemish speaker, he is never promoted above the rank of sergeant-major.

Art as an escape from a humdrum and loveless life

On his return to Ghent, Urbain finds work with the railways and he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter, Maria Elena. The final words in his notebooks attempt to describe his passionate love for her. But tragedy strikes again, his young wife-to-be is struck down by the Spanish flu that sweeps Europe after the war. He is inconsolable but, after a time, he agrees to marry her older sister, Gabrielle, and they settle down to a humdrum and loveless life together. At this time, he turns to painting and “this becomes his only escape”.

He is a relatively talented amateur painter, who has no truck with modernism. He turns out competent still-lives and workmanlike copies of the works of the Dutch painters he loves, including Van Dyck and Rembrandt. When he is 45, the traumas of the past catch up with him and he has the first of several breakdowns. He is pensioned off and spends the rest of his days painting; this is how Stefan remembers him. Then, in his seventies, he decides to tell the story of his life; for thirteen years he labours over this until he reaches his early meetings with Maria Elena and he can’t continue. Five years later, he dies leaving the notebooks to his grandson.

Art as an expression of overwhelming loss

In the final part of the book, Stefan Hartmans tries to untangle his grandfather’s life and the reasons for the sadness that seems to have engulfed him. He recalls that in summer, the family would go on almost weekly pilgrimages to Bruges and, after his grandfather’s death, he finds a well-thumbed copy of Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, the notorious Symbolist novel, which dissects the grief felt by a man who has lost his young wife and the false hope he experiences when he meets a woman who has an uncanny likeness to her. Folded into the pages of the book are some mementoes, a half-finished sketch and a reproduction of the Rokeby Venus. Does this provide some clues to his grandfather’s silent tears?

(The grandfather’s attachment to Bruges-la-Morte was of particular interest to me as this novel triggered off some of my own research interests)

In a second revelatory passage, he finds a collection of old photos of Maria Elena and he goes back to his grandfather’s careful copy of the Rokeby Venus, which had been found in the attic. It provides him with an almost unbearable testament to his grandfather’s love for Maria Elena and the sense of loss he carried with him until his death.

new paris

The Guardian’s review of China Miéville’s genre-bending The Last Days of the New Paris described it as a “dazzling scholarly fantasy”. Being unfamiliar with Miéville’s works – this was enough to attract my interest. The novella opens in Paris in 1950; but it is a Paris still under Nazi occupation in which strange forces battle for control of the city. A young freedom fighter, Thibaut, leads one of the factions, Le Main á Plume or The Feathered Hand, which is based on an historical grouping that sought to keep Surrealism alive in Paris during the occupation and which was linked to the French resistance.

However, this is Paris after the mysterious ‘S-blast’, which shortly after the occupation, unleashed all the powers of Surrealism on the Nazis. Nine years later, Paris, which is isolated from the rest of France, is engulfed in an unending conflict that pits a cast of Surrealist manifestations or ‘manifs’ against unspeakable subterranean devils or monsters conjured up by the Nazis.

Art becomes life, life becomes art: the Surrealists’ invocation

The range and extent of Surrealist and other references in the novella is extensive and it reminded me of the many different artists who were drawn into Surrealism and of the substantial and only recently fully recognised contribution to the movement by women artists. These references are explained in notes that accompany the account and these notes maintain the conceit that The Last Days of New Paris had been related to Miéville by Thibaut in his old age. When I first tried to read the book, I found it difficult to visualise the references, most of which refer to specific artworks. But I was fortunate to come across an online guide, called Graphic Annotations of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris by Nicky Martin, which reproduces nearly all of the artworks that inspired the ‘manifs’. With this in hand, I was able to relish the diversity and richness of Miéville’s sublime metafiction; a work in which art comes to life and in which boundaries of all kinds are constantly crossed and re-crossed.

A few of his imaginings. The first ‘manif’ to appear is of a curious machine smashing though the Nazi barricades; it appears to be a sort of tandem. “Only one woman rode…the other was a torso, jutted from the bicycle itself…” It is Leonora Carrington’s 1941 drawing I am the Amateur of the Velocipede brought to life. The Velo crashes on the “Surrealist side of the street” throwing its human rider onto the ground before careering off again. The woman is dying, she seems to be a foreign agent, she mutters “Fall Rot” or “Code Red” before she dies.

Thibaut senses that the Nazi forces are about to launch some kind of new offensive to break the stalemate, which has kept Paris in a state of limbo. He sets off on a journey across the blighted ruins of the city. On the way, he encounters a succession of ‘manifs’, which although they are ‘on his side’ seem to have a life of their own. And he passes a number of landmarks transformed by ‘irrational embellishments’ (as suggested in a 1933 article by seven Surrealists which proposed modifications to a number of Paris sites). For example, he finds the church of Sacré Coeur is now “a tram depot, painted black” as imagined by André Breton.

En route, he is joined by two companions, Sam, a journalist apparently from the outside world, and by an ‘exquisite corpse’, which is reproduced at the front of the book. It is perhaps the most famous image of its kind and was ‘assembled’ by André Breton (head), Jacqueline Lamba (torso) and Yves Tanguy (legs) in 1938; one of many products of the Surrealist’s version of the parlour game, Consequences.

Fleeing poetry for reality or fleeing reality for poetry?

The novella moves back and forward in time. We learn that when the teenaged Thibaut joined the Main á Plume he recited their mantra “We refuse to flee poetry for reality. But we refuse to flee reality for poetry” as part of his entry test. The action switches to Marseille in 1941, where a group of (real) Surrealists, awaiting safe passage out of France, play invented games. One of these is based on a Surrealist card pack usefully detailed in the notes and illustrated in Martin’s guide. The game is joined by a crazed occult rocket scientist, Jack Parsons; his arrival has very unexpected consequences that lead to the later developments in Paris.

The division between real and invented characters and between fictional and imaginary events becomes increasingly difficult to divine as Miéville’s phantasmagorical imagination runs riot. Amidst all of this strangeness, the novella reaches a climax with further perverse surprises; Thibaut confronts what might be seen as the ultimate Nazi ‘manif’ and he has a final encounter with ‘the banality of evil’. Thibaut survives, he “takes a deep breath and steps across the boundary into New Paris, the old city” and life and art return to normal. Or do they?

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Bold Tendencies: Finalist Camila Poccard finds a summer internship and funding from UoB

Over the course of my second year I became very conscious of the fact that I wanted to gain more experience in the art world and at art institutions. I heard about the Bold Tendencies Art Trainee Internship through the History of Art department around February when I had already done lots of thorough research on the opportunities available to me. So, the first piece of advice I can give is that there is always more out there than what you have already found, so don’t be disheartened if you have yet to find work experience or internships!

Although there were some immediate challenges surrounding the opportunity – namely that it was unpaid and in London – I still put in my application in the hopes that I would be accepted. In the meantime, I began to research the University’s bursaries and funding and work on my application. I found out about the Internship Bursaries that the Careers Network provide, and went to a workshop and presentation about them which I would also really recommend as they give you tips on your application. It was a long process that included an application, a presentation and an interview, but it was absolutely worth it. You can even put in an application before you have a secured place at your internship. There are so many resources in the Careers Network that are of use to students – you just have to go looking for them. Their bursaries for unpaid or low-paid internships are a fantastic opportunity to go and do for experiences you wouldn’t have previously thought you would be able to do.I was able to do this internship because of the help I was given from the University.

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Working on the front desk: Simon Whybray’s installation Hi boo i love you

The organisation I interned at, Bold Tendencies, is based in a multi-storey car park in Peckham in South East London. As a not-for-profit arts organisation they provide many different things for the local community. On the rooftop there are sculptural installations across the two floors. They also have a wide and varied events programme which includes the resident orchestra Multi-Story, and education initiatives working with local schools and families. Every year they commission new artworks for the site, some of which become permanent installations. This year their most popular commission was an installation by a contemporary artist called Simon Whybray: he transformed the entrance foyer and stairwells of the car park by painting them bright pink. There are other installations on site by contemporary artists such as Richard Wentworth and Adel Abdessemed.

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Camila greeting visitors on the day of the BBCs Proms at Bold Tendencies

There is something quite different about volunteering a day a week (or less) to an institution to having the opportunity to work three or more days a week, over an extended period of time with the same team, getting to know everyone at an institution. While I had learned a lot from volunteering at other galleries on an ad-hoc basis, this was an entirely new experience. I got to know everyone far quicker; people remembered who I was (especially when I went the extra mile!), and I got a far better sense of how a gallery is run on a daily basis.

Internships and volunteer work usually entail the work that others don’t have time to do, or perhaps the more menial tasks. But this is what you are there for: to be helpful. In return you may get to help with more complicated ventures or plans but you have to prove yourself first. I had to do a variety of things during my time at Bold Tendencies, some more exciting than others. I worked on the front desk, greeting visitors and talking to them about the artworks and the events programme; I would help set up the site and the installations; I completed administrative tasks like maintaing the mailing list and invoices; I worked on a film set; during events I would be ticketing and on the box office; and throughout the internship I contributed to the Gallery’s blog, Instagram and twitter.

camila-2

Interns on a visit to the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey

One of the best parts of working for five weeks for Bold Tendencies was all the different people I got to meet, and the lectures that they organised for us. I got to meet professionals in different roles in the industry and get a better insight into all the different roles that exist in the industry.  I was given advice and inspiration by all the different people I met and it was definitely one of the highlights because it gives you hope for your own future career goals.

Because I had expressed an interest in education in galleries, I was asked by the director of gallery to stay on a bit longer and help with a project with the Head of Education. The gallery was having an event at the end of the season to announce their new charity status and to present their past education initiatives. These initiatives, the new charity status and their future ambitions, were all published in a ‘Prospectus’ and I was given the role of ‘Prospectus Coordinator’. Through this I got more hands on experience with coordinating a project and learnt a lot. To me this proves that any experience is what you put into it: I worked hard during my time there and ended up being given more responsibilities as a result.

The Bold Tendencies Art Trainee Programme is an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in a contemporary art organisation, network with people in the industry, and learn and experience new things. If this is something you’re highly passionate about, I could not recommend it more. My experience this summer was fantastic and I made life-long friends in the other interns!

Dr Greg Salter joins the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies!

We are delighted to announce that Dr Greg Salter, a specialist in British Art after 1945, will be joining the department on 1 September 2016.

Greg completed his PhD at UEA in 2013, with a thesis entitled ‘Domesticity and Masculinity in 1950s British Painting’. Following this, he was post-doctoral researcher at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in East London where he worked on the Documenting Homes Archive, which is a collection of material on homes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including oral histories, family photographs, diaries, and questionnaires. He ran collecting projects with the local community, designed to expand the collecting methodologies and material in the archive.

Greg has taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Queen Mary (London), and on study abroad programmes for US students at Birkbeck and CAPA. His most recent publication is an essay entitled ‘Memories of Kinship in Keith Vaughan’s Post-War Paintings’ which came out in Art History, 38 (2015). He also has an essay, ‘Francis Bacon and Queer Intimacy in Post-War London’ in a forthcoming special issue of Visual Culture In Britain (ed. Reina Lewis and Andrew Stephenson) which will coincide with the opening of the Tate’s Queer British Art show in April next year.

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Greg is also completing a book project entitled Reconstructing Home: Painting and Male Identity in Post-War Britain, which examines representations of home in the post-war period of reconstruction. In addition, he has two new projects on the go: one on migration and exhibitions in Britain after 1945, and another on global encounters in queer art and visual culture in Britain after 1945.

As Lecturer in History of Art, Greg will be contributing to a number of modules across the art history curriculum, including those based on his own particular interests and specialisms. His appointment strengthens our existing teaching provision from the middle ages to the modern period, and complements staff research and teaching interests in British Art, feminism and gender studies, the interwar period, and art and domesticity.

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Review of The Journal of Art Historiography: Issue 13, December 2015

Faith Trend

The Journal of Art Historiography is a unique journal dedicated specifically to the specialised field of art historiography. It has been successfully edited since its conception by the University of Birmingham’s own Richard Woodfield and was the basis for the university’s recent summer symposium series. Each issue is packed full of articles, translations, reviews and reports of the highest academic standard and this abundant yet critically weighty output is what has made the journal an authority in the area of historiography. Indeed, the Dictionary of Art Historians calls it ‘the major research organ of the field’.

For those who attended the Birmingham art historiography symposium back in 2013 you will be delighted to see two articles by familiar faces in the most recent issue of the Journal: the University of Birmingham’s Daniel Reynolds and collaborator Rebecca Darley reflecting on their role as curators of the recent coin exhibition Faith and Fortune, and Australian academic Catherine De Lorenzo’s article on ‘The hang and art history’.

Darley and Reynolds curated the successful and long running coin exhibition, Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage at the Barber between November 2013 and January 2015. Their article focuses on how the duo and their team decided to shake up the traditional method of numismatic exhibition display and instead present the coins in a revolutionary manner with the aim of engaging and educating a wider and more diverse audience. As Darley and Reynolds explain, the field of numismatics has long been seen as a rather esoteric and dry area, with exhibitions doing very little to sway audiences from these preconceptions. Exhibitions of numismatics have also, on the whole, focused on the visual and aesthetic qualities of the coins, and have been limited by the typical presentation method of the coins – placed in rows on pH-neutral cloth covered board, separated from their accompanying labels. With the Faith and Fortune exhibition, Darley and Reynolds chose to mount the coins on a large Foamex board integrated around the text which focused largely on the coins economic qualities.

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One of the cabinets showing how printed boards were used to mount the coins to encourage visitor engagement with the objects and their interpretation.

The team’s decision to focus on representing the coins as economic artefacts marked another break in tradition and reminds the viewer that coins were not typically meant to be perceived as art. Their aim, as the article states was to ‘reflect upon the multiple ways in which seeing and interacting with coins gave the objects value in the late antique world and how the coins in turn generated networks of shared expectation, rhetoric and material exchange which defined people’s lives.’ Darley and Reynolds then go on to weigh up the limitations and opportunities that the space at the Barber provided them with, other factors that had to be considered in the lead up to the exhibition, as well as general reflections on the successes and failures of the exhibition as a whole. In particular they highlight the research that has been stimulated by the exhibition, achieving a key aim of theirs to make the exhibition a ‘a forum for research rather than purely dissemination.’ The account provides a fascinating background to the exhibition and those of our readers who managed to see the exhibition will be able to judge for yourselves how successful you believe Darley and Reynolds to be in achieving their goals.

Catherine De Lorenzo’s article ‘The hang and art history’ is, as mentioned earlier, another one which may be familiar with our readers who attended the 2014 conference. De Lorenzo’s paper is one strand of a wider research project analysing exhibitions of Australian art over the last 50 years and focuses in particular on the subject of Aboriginal art, the increase in its recognition and acknowledgement as ‘quintessentially Australian’, and the implications this has on art history. Tony Tuckson’s Australian Aboriginal Art (1960-61) is the key example that De Lorenzo works with and she gives a fascinating and in-depth analysis of the ‘cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional’ curatorial strategies that directed the exhibition. While De Lorenzo touches on the curatorial and art historiographical legacies of Tuckson’s exhibition it would be interesting if she had looked at other exhibitions in the same level of detail, however I suspect that will be forthcoming as part of the goals of the wider research project that she is a part of. De Lorenzo’s article ultimately demonstrates how much the museum sector has changed over the past 50 years in its handling and understanding of Aboriginal art and how it can be further shaped in the future to continue to educate both scholars and the public on Aboriginal art and its essential place within the canon of Australian art history.

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The book that followed Tuckson’s exhibition

Further Birmingham art historians Matthew Rampley and Nóra Veszprémi are to be found in the reviews section. Rampley considers Vlad Toca’s Art Historical Discourse in Romania, 1919-1947 and suggests that the work does not constitute a particularly deep critical analysis but praises it for providing ‘a useful start to the discussion of an understudied subject.’ While Veszprémi provides a response to Rebecca Houze’s Textiles, Fashion and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress, which is incredibly detailed and thorough, giving real insight into the many highlights of Houze’s text.

Another article which may hold particular interest for our readers is Claire Farago’s review of The Lives of Leonardo, a subject of great discussion among the writers and readers of our blog. Farago looks in depth at Thomas Frangenberg and Rodney Palmer’s collection of articles taken from a symposium in 2006 on the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography. Farago highlights the central theme of the book as considering the legacy of Vasari’s Lives and her fascinating review of the book makes it one to perhaps recommend to our undergraduates in the future as they tackle Vasari in their first year. While generally praising of the book on the whole, Farago is withering in her disdain of the lack of female contributors to the volume, a reminder to us all that there is still a great deal of work to be done in balancing out the field. Indeed our first years have recently been tackling the problems that arise when men are solely responsible for our understanding of artists biographies.

I have barely touched the surface of the multitude of articles contained in December’s issue of the Journal of Art Historiography, so richly packed as it is with such an abundant range of pieces. However, I hope I have done enough to whet the appetite and encourage our readers to take a closer look at further articles in the journal. Anyone who would like to review one or two in greater detail is encouraged to get in touch.

 

To read the December issue and the 12 past issues the website is:

https://arthistoriography.wordpress.com/

A new term, a new name, new students & some fresh advice for our new students from 2nd year student Rebecca Savage!

Ambrosius Holbein, Signboard for a Schoolmaster, 1516, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Ambrosius Holbein,
Signboard for a Schoolmaster, 1516, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

With the new academic year now in full swing, and having welcomed all our new Undergraduates and Postgraduates to the Department, The Golovine is also springing back to life!

First thing: a bit of news! The more observant reader might already have noticed that with the new academic year comes a new name for the Department, which is now called the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies. The name change has come in the light of new additions to the Department’s academic staff, which has enabled the institution of, among other things, an exciting new postgraduate pathway in Art History and Curating.

And in order to kick things off on The Golovine, Rebecca Savage (2nd year student) volunteered to write a post for us about what she learned as a 1st year student in the Department and offer some experienced advice to our new students. So here’s Rebecca’s thoughts on what she learned during her first year as a student of Art History at the University of Birmingham:

R Savage

CLICHÉD though it may sound, the first year of university really does fly by. The whole thing–from your first meeting with your flatmates, which is followed swiftly by numerous meetings with your course mates and the staff in your department, and going right through to the exams at the end of the year–really does, somehow, seem to whizz by in just 5 minutes. Most of your time will be spent finding your feet (and loosing them again on nights out), all the while trying to get your head around what it really means to study Art History–or any subject for that matter–at Uni. The first year is certainly a steep learning curve for many, so here’s a couple of things that my first year as an Art History undergraduate taught me…

ONE   There will be a lot of reading. A lot. The reading lists I took away from my first few lectures and seminars certainly quashed the (misguided) view of (some of) my flatmates who believed that I’d just enrolled on a “looking-at-paintings-every-once-in-a-while sort of degree”. From translations of 16th-century Italian texts to modern critical or theoretical analyses of artists, works and exhibitions, most seminars will come accompanied with at least one piece of reading for you to work your way through in preparation. Forget about it to your peril; not unlike most other humanities degrees, reading has a direct correlation with marks and the more you read the better you will do. This is because if you do the core reading in preparation for each seminar and lecture, you’ll not only be equipped to participate in discussion but will have already done the legwork when it comes to researching your essays and preparing your revision!

TWO   There’s lots of reading and some of it you’ll just “get”, which is great. Some of it, though, you’re bound not to understand and, you know what, that’s OK too! It’s not necessary–or expected–that you will understand absolutely everything you read the first time you look at it. Academic texts are often complicated, sometimes dense and regularly lengthy, and inevitably it will sometimes feel as though you are walking through thick fog with no idea of your where you’ll end-up. But what’s key is: don’t panic. Take a break, get a cup of tea and then try again, making a note of not just the things you do understand but also the things you don’t (even if that’s the whole text), and take it with you to the seminar. Chances are everyone else is in the same boat and the seminars are the perfect place to iron out any confusion under the guidance of the seminar tutor. So make the most of it!

Following on from this…

THREE   You will not understand every topic you study and this is also OK. History of Art degrees cover a huge range of ideas, from religious views in Europe in the 14th century through to psychoanalytic theories of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is impossible to understand everything, and you’ll find yourself more interested in ABC topics compared to XYZ. Even Ph.D teaching assistants and our lecturers have areas they are not so confident on or, indeed, especially interested in (I’ve checked). So if, after hours of study, you still don’t understand how Micheal Craig Martin’s Oak Tree is anything more than a glass of water, then discuss it with your mates, think about it a bit more and if you still don’t get it, then fine, move on: you’re not gonna fail the whole year! Focus most of your efforts instead, especially when it comes to writing essays and revising, on the topics you do understand or are most interested in, and strive to learn even more about them.

Craig-Martin's err... Oak Tree?!

Craig-Martin’s err… Oak Tree?!

FOUR   Getting to know your course mates early on is very important. The first few weeks of freshers can be overwhelming when it comes to meeting new people but make an effort to talk to the people you are studying alongside. Group work is much easier when you all get on and a meet up when you don’t understand something (see above) is invaluable. study sessions outside of lectures are also helpful for highlighting gaps in your knowledge and proving just how much you do know.

FIVE   Don’t forget a spare pen. Rudimentary but the pen giving up on you half way through that seminar on Semiotics is nightmare stuff… Oh, and, something to write on.

SIX   Do not underestimate the power of good grammar and referencing. A well written essay is the only way to reach a 2:1 and above! Markers do not appreciate silly, which is to say avoidable, mistakes, so go back and check your work before handing it in. And then check it again just to be sure! And maybe check again. And if you’re not sure, make sure that you go to the Academic Writing sessions run by Ph.D teaching assistants in the Department (details will be made available soon!).

SEVEN   The more you contribute to seminars the better they are. Yes, it’s daunting at first but a room full of silence is no use to anyone. In fact it’s downright awkward, not just for us but for the seminar leader as well. The more people contribute to a discussion the better that discussion is, and the more ideas you leave with at the end of the day. No one wants to end a seminar feeling it was a waste of time, so do the reading and come along with something to contribute, whether that be a list of points that you found most interesting or the stuff that you just did not understand.

EIGHT   Get involved wherever and whenever you can. There is a reason everyone keeps telling you this! It is so, so, so important to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. Not only will getting stuck in enrich your CV but it will teach you things a degree doesn’t teach. You will also get to know lots more people this way which, given what I said in number 4, is no bad thing.

NINE   Birmingham gets cold. Wrap up warm. Then go to the Christmas Market.

TEN   Lecturers, tutors, markers etc. want you to pass. More than that, they want you to thrive and do really well. Contrary to popular opinion, academics and your markers are not looking for a way to catch you out or reveal how little you actually understand. So make sure to visit your lecturers, seminar tutors, academic writing advisor or whoever during their office hours, or else arrange meetings with them, so that you can discuss any essay anxieties that you may have and ask them the questions that you really want the answers to! The support of your lecturers is invaluable when it comes to passing your degree, so make the most of what they have to offer and in return do the work they set you on time.

Finally: good luck, and have FUN!

History of Art students have been filming ‘Projecting Culture’! Emily Robins tells us all about it ahead of next week’s screening…

‘Projecting culture’ forms the name and basis of an exciting student-led project, which has been made possible thanks to the university’s generous Education Enhancement Fund. The funding scheme is designed to provide students with up to £1,000 to realise a project which engages directly with, and contributes to, ‘the enhancement of students’ educational experience at the University’.

projecting culture logo

Back in summer 2014, History of Art students Hannah Welfare and Sarah Theobald crafted an intricate proposal which aimed to expand UoB students’ cultural engagement. The aim was to highlight events and venues not only right under their noses on campus, but across the whole of Birmingham. From the offset it was decided that, in order to showcase the wealth of places on offer we would create two short films – one focusing on campus-based attractions and the other on places further afield in the city. With helpful support from the Centre of Learning and Academic Development, ‘Projecting Culture’ was born.

As a History of Art student I was aware of the many galleries and activities open to students across the local area – Digbeth Dining Club and First Friday, Eastside Projects and Grand Union, just to name a few. However, I also understood how my experience fed naturally into my degree and that it would be fantastic to raise the profile of these great, interesting and, most importantly, cultural places to all students, not just those studying Arts-based subjects. ‘Projecting Culture’ also showcases to prospective students what is on offer beyond the university, demonstrating why Birmingham is a wonderful place to study.

The Projecting Culture team filming at the Barber Institute on campus

The Projecting Culture team filming at the Barber Institute

Since September 2014, the team has seen the project really start to heat up, with liaisons across the board between staff, gallery professionals and enthusiastic volunteers. For everyone taking part this project has certainly allowed for the development of new skills and experiences outside the practical and academic structure of degree studies. Fellow Art History students Jess Stallwood and Oliver Stevenson have been working behind the camera to jointly direct and edit the production. With the large body of filming primarily under our belts, we are currently in the editing phase of the project, polishing up the footage of some great local ‘gems’- including the Ikon Gallery, the Digital Humanities Hub and Winterbourne House and Gardens. Each new location, whether on campus or in the city, brings with it new and exciting challenges. Despite the majority of students involved in this project being from the Art History department, our tastes are quite diverse, which allowed us to explore and select a real variety of locations, as well as choosing the ones which really showed Birmingham as the thriving city we all know and love!

Filming at the new Library of Birmingham

Filming at the new Library of Birmingham

When ‘Projecting Culture’ was getting off its feet back in the first term I never could have imagined the broad range of skills I would develop as part of this team. All in all, I have continued to step outside my comfort zone to engage with the local cultural offer and appreciate a novel way of expanding fellow students’ cultural horizons. Also, it has been refreshing to examine these places from a more practical perspective, assessing whether they were suitable for filming as well as selecting which elements we should emphasise in order to appeal to a broad range of students’ interests.

The grand screening for the ‘Projecting Culture’ films is being held on Wednesday 3rd of June at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, commencing at 5.45pm with free popcorn and wine all round. All are welcome, so if you are interested in attending, don’t hesitate to email Jess Stallwood (contact JMS367@student.bham.ac.uk), or see our facebook page for more information. For a taste of what to expect, check out the trailer here!
Applications for this year’s Education Enhancement fund are now open, so if you have an idea on how you could spend that £1000, I would thoroughly recommend giving it a shot!

Emily Robins

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

Yayoi Kusama, I'm Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, But Nothing, 2000/2001.

Registration is now open for the conference House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticitieswhich will take place on 3 and 4 July 2015 at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. The conference has been co-organised by our very own Fran Berry and Jo Applin (University of York).

The keynote speakers are Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Julia Bryan-Wilson (University of California, Berkeley).

Other speakers include: Sarah Blaylock (UC Santa Cruz), Amy Charlesworth (Open University), Agata Jakubowska (Adam Mickiewicz University), Teresa Kittler (UCL), Alexandra Kokoli (Middlesex University), Megan Luke (University of Southern California), Barbara Mahlknecht (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna), Alyce Mahon (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Robles (University of Bristol), Harriet Riches (Kingston University), Giulia Smith (UCL), Catherine Spencer (University of St. Andrews), Amy Tobin (University of York).

For further details and to register (tickets £10), please visit the conference website.

House, Work, Artwork: Feminism and Art History’s New Domesticities is co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham, University of York, and the Oxford Art Journal.

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Remembering Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Esther Newman, student of English Literature and Classical Civilisation and a volunteer at the University’s Research and Cultural Collections tells us about the artist behind one of the Barber’s most iconic images…

Today, Thursday, 16th April, marks the birth, 260 years ago, of Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755 – 1842), a pioneer in women’s art and the artist behind the portrait of Countess Golovine who gave her name to this blog. Through her work, Vigée-Lebrun radically changed the perception and respectability awarded to female artists. She is recognised today as the most prominent female painter of the eighteenth century; during her impressive career, she was one of the first women accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783 and was granted the patronage of Marie Antoinette for six years.

Her style, while generally considered Rococo, also shows an interest in Neoclassicism. In reflecting the Age of Enlightenment, late eighteenth century art rejected the excesses of Rococo in favour of the style and spirit of classical antiquity. While Vigée-Lebrun’s work echoes these transitions, her work, and especially her portraits of Marie Antoinette, are now considered exemplary of Rococo.

Vigée-Lebrun was born in Paris on April 16th 1755 to a hairdresser mother and artist father. Her father, Louis Vigée, a noted portraitist, was her first teacher. By the time she was in her early teens she was painting portraits professionally of various members of aristocracy and her works were exhibited at the Académie de Saint Luc. In 1779 her big break came when she was summoned to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette. Having previously disregarded other portraits of herself, the queen was impressed by Vigée-Lebrun’s style; Vigée-Lebrun continued to paint the queen for six years, resulting in over thirty portraits.

Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, 1783 (Versailles)

Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, 1783 (Versailles)

 

Given that this was a pre-photographic society, portraiture was incredibly important in the presentation of public figures. In 1785, Vigée-Lebrun was commissioned to paint the queen and her children. In response to ever-growing hostility, Vigée-Lebrun’s Marie-Antoinette and her Children (1787), which depicts the queen as a devout motherly figure, was instrumental in improving public opinion and in making her more relatable to the French people. Even today, Vigée-Lebrun continues to shape how we see Marie Antoinette.

Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette and her Children, 1787 (Versailles)

Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette and her Children, 1787 (Versailles)

 

Due to her connection with the queen, in 1783 Vigée-Lebrun was begrudgingly accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture alongside three other women.

With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Vigée-Lebrun, a strong Royalist with close connections to the royal family, left France. For 12 years she lived and travelled abroad, visiting Rome, Naples, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow and London, and painting portraits of aristocrats and prominent social figures.

During her time in Moscow, Vigée-Lebrun met and befriended Countess Varvara Nikolaevna Golovine (1766 – 1821). Her portrait, which is housed in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, depicts the Countess almost entirely enveloped in a red cloak. What leaps out of the portrait is her gaze; her eyes fix upon the viewer unwaveringly, and with unnerving candour. A ray of light falls into the portrait at an angle, cutting the background diagonally into a dark side and a light, with which the artist heightens the dramatic nature of the pose. There is an aspect of spontaneity and informality about the Countess’ pose which, along with her fixed stare, draws in the viewer.

Vigée-Lebrun, Countess Golovine, 1797/1800 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts)

Vigée-Lebrun, Countess Golovine, 1797/1800 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts)

While travelling, Vigée-Lebrun maintained a place in high society and, as such, gained respect and influence. In 1810, she returned to Paris to live, remaining here and continuing her work, until her death on the 30th March 1842.

In her memoirs, Souvenirs de ma vie (1835 – 1837), Vigée-Lebrun accounts that, during her career, she painted 900 pictures, including some 600 portraits and 200 landscapes. Her depiction of the French aristocracy before its downfall sees a world of decadence and luxury; her work, which pays great detail to the fashion and clothing of her subjects, documents a time in history that we will never see again. Her legacy is of a woman who, despite contemporary attitudes to female artists, proved herself one of the most technically skilled portraitists of the age, and perceptively aware of what her art could achieve socially.

 

If you would like to write for The Golovine on art-related subjects in Birmingham and beyond, send us an email to thegolovine@gmail.com

Research Seminar Thursday 26th February: Imogen Wiltshire, ‘Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of Actor-Network Theory’

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

Occupational Therapy Courses at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (1942-1945) in Light of
Actor-Network Theory
Imogen Wiltshire
(University of Birmingham) 

Thursday 26 February, 5.15 pm
Barber Institute Photograph Room

 

‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,  published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

‘Blind men testing tactile charts and hand sculptures at the New Bauhaus’,
published in The Technology Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. XLVI No.1, November 1943

This paper examines the Occupational Therapy courses that László Moholy-Nagy developed at the New Bauhaus in Chicago during the Second World War through the lens of Actor-Network Theory. As is widely known, Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus, which later became the Institute of Design, in Chicago in 1937 after his emigration from Nazi Germany via London to the US. Less well known, however, and forming the focus of this paper is that in Chicago in 1942 he applied Bauhaus educational techniques, based on investigating materials and gaining tactile experience, for therapeutic purposes, especially for injured war veterans. The New Bauhaus’ Occupational Therapy training courses proposed, significantly, a new function for art within modernism and constitute important historical intersections between art practice and rehabilitation.
Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a methodology developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon, amongst others, which so far has had little attention in the Humanities. By challenging the notion of a fixed ‘social’ and the concept of ‘context’ (such as a preconceived social context) into which subjects of enquiry are located, this theory is arguably pertinent to art history, particularly in view of Latour’s suggested solution of instead tracing associations between human and non-human actors in a network. Accordingly, while this paper analyses the dissemination of Bauhaus pedagogic approaches for rehabilitative training in the 1940s, it also offers less concrete, more exploratory methodological suggestions about the possible relevance and uses of Actor-Network Theory.

All welcome!

Whodunit? Jamie Edwards talks to David Hemsoll about the Fitzwilliam’s “new Michelangelos”.

JAMIE EDWARDS

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Collection)

Maybe Michelangelo, Panther riders, 16th century, bronze, private collection (on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Last week, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge revealed to the world that they have “discovered” not one but two statues that they believe can be attributed, fairly confidently, to Michelangelo (1475 – 1564). Each of the sculptures, which are made of bronze and are roughly a meter tall, shows a naked, muscular man riding triumphantly on the back of a ferocious-looking panther. And, if the Fitzwilliam’s findings are correct, it makes the Panther Riders the only works in bronze by Michelangelo to have survived; a medium in which he is known to have worked—or intended to work—on at least three separate occasions.

Rider, detail

The Riders have, to be sure, been associated with Michelangelo before. In the 19th century, when the Riders were in the collection of Adolphe de Rothschild (from where they get their alternative name “The Rothschild Bronzes”) they were considered authentic Michelangelos (on what basis, I wonder?). However, when Rotschild’s bronzes were exhibited in Paris in 1878, several connoisseurs voiced their doubts about the attribution, and over the course of the subsequent 130-or-so years the association of the bronzes to Michelangelo has been pretty well put to bed. Since then the bronzes have been given to a whole bunch of other artists, including Willem Danielsz Van Tetrode (1505 – 87), and, according to Sotheby’s in 2002, the circle of Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporary Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 71).

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus (c.1508), unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti. Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Now experts brought together by the Fitzwilliam reckon they have gathered ‘compelling evidence’ in favour of attributing the Panther Riders firmly to Michelangelo once and for all, thus resolving an artistic whodunit that has limped on for over a century. The tide began to turn in favour of Michelangelo’s authorship in 2002, when Prof. Paul Joannides, who has played an instrumental role in the latest re-attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo, got the chance to study the Riders for the first time at Sotheby’s. Exactly what Joannides made of them in 2002 is hard to say, but, perhaps tellingly, the statues were labeled as “circle of Michelangelo” when they were shown in the Royal Academy’s bronze exhibition in 2012. What is clear is that the bronzes grabbed Joannides’s attention, and last autumn he made a discovery that galvanised serious interest in the status of the bronze Riders. In Montpellier’s Musée Fabre there is a sheet of studies, the largest of which is a Virgin embracing the Christ Child, which is thought to be a copy of drawings made by Michelangelo done by one of his pupils at some point in the first decade of the 1500s, more precisely, at about 1508. And the Montpellier sheet of studies is important because there is, in the lower right corner, a study for a nude riding on the back of a panther, which is to say, precisely the same subject that we encounter in the Rothschild bronzes.

Michelangelo fabre drawing Panther

If the Montpellier sheet of studies really does preserve now-lost designs by Michelangelo then we can say, on the basis of this evidence, that the subject matter, at least, of the bronze Panther Riders can be traced back to Michelangelo. The Fitzwilliam have done exactly this, with Victoria Avery going one step further, declaring in a video for the BBC (below) that the Montpellier drawing shows the composition of the Rotschild bronzes ‘precisely’. And taking this as their point of departure, the Fitzwilliam has subsequently gathered a range of experts—from Joannides to Prof. Peter Abrahams, a clinical anatomist—, who have compiled a dossier of evidence to show that the Panther Riders really are the only surviving bronzes by Michelangelo.

With this in mind, I met with my supervisor David Hemsoll, whose interests lie in 15th– and 16th-century Italian art and architecture and who has published on Michelangelo, to get his thoughts on the Fitzwilliam’s findings, and to consider their evidence. Here’s our conversation:

 

First question, had you ever come across these statues before?

No [laughs].

I ask because this isn’t, or so I read, the first time that the Panther Riders have been associated with Michelangelo. Apparently they were thought to be by Michelangelo in the 19th century, but were then removed from his oeuvre in the 20th, and they’ve since been attributed to a number of other sculptors, including Cellini. So you’ve never encountered them?

No . . . Well, there are a lot of things that are associated with Michelangelo. That’s the trouble. I haven’t come across these in the sense that I felt I should be paying them much attention . . . So, [laughing] I guess, I don’t know if I’ve come across them.

No well I think that most people had shelved them. But the first bit of new evidence there is and that has led to the latest re-attribution to Michelangelo is this drawing in Montpellier, which, they say, is a faithful copy of lost Michelangelo drawings done by a student of his. And one of them shows a nude riding a panther. By drawing a comparison between the sculptures and the drawing on that sheet in Montpellier, they say there’s conclusive evidence to establish a link between the bronzes and Michelangelo. What do you make of that comparison? Because Avery says they’re exactly the same but they’re not, are they?

Well, no. The drawing isn’t exactly the same as the sculptures. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

The thing is the usual way people have made clamorous attributions in the past—and those include the Crucifixion in Sta. Spirito, Florence, the two panel paintings [the Entombment and the “Manchester Madonna“] in the National Gallery, the Cupid in New York, as well as the recently-acquired Torment of St. Anthony by the Kimbell Museum in Texas—well, the usual way of determining an attribution, is that you see something in the primary sources, the biographies of Vasari and Condivi, and you produce something which seems to match them, and then you build your case on the basis of that. Some people will then either agree or they’ll disagree about the similarities. Now, so what you’re doing here is that you are immediately highlighting the first problem with all this, and that is that these works [the Panther Riders] are not mentioned in any primary source. And this is quite surprising, given their size, their quality of execution, and their striking and unusual subject matter. So the problem is that you would have expected works like this produced by Michelangelo to have been recorded or mentioned, however inaccurately, in the literature. So that, that’s the problem. So you’re right that the drawing produced provides some basis for a proposed attribution . . . Are you going to ask me about the other factors . . . ?

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Michelangelo, Torment of St Anthony, c.1487, tempera and oil on panel, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas

Yes, I’m going to ask you about the other evidence.

Well perhaps we want to treat them all together. There is a drawing. And that could be said to support this attribution.

Well, on the basis of that, because it’s the drawing that got them going with this, the Fitzwilliam wheeled in a clinical anatomist, who said, and this is a quote apparently, that the anatomy is “textbook Michelangelo” so, you know, the abdomens and the bellybuttons and all the rest of it. The anatomist concluded that the artist responsible for these sculptures obviously had a command of human anatomy–he even found a tendon in the arch of a foot. So this is grist to their mill, that an anatomist is impressed with the bodies of the panther riders, since everybody knows that Michelangelo was all about human anatomy, and that he dissected cadavers etc. And then there’s the other bit of evidence. They’ve done some science and x-rayed the statues and found that the cast is thick and heavy, which is a telltale sign, they say, of 15th– or 16th-century manufacture.

Yes, well, that’s their evidence. And, as evidence, it looks, well I wouldn’t quite say convincing . . . but it’s quite powerful.

Yes, they obviously think so. Those are their three bits of evidence.

Yes, that’s it. Those are the three bits of evidence. And taken together it’s quite a powerful case although you could point to slight problems with all those pieces of evidence. As far as the drawing’s concerned, it’s by a follower of Michelangelo and not by Michelangelo, and it doesn’t show the same composition as the bronzes, insofar as the nude figure on the back of the panther is much smaller in the drawing than it is in the sculptures. Then the business about the anatomy, well that does seem to suggest that the sculptures have got something to do with Michelangelo. The other way to think about this is to compare the sculptures to other known works by Michelangelo from this period, especially the David and especially the Dying Slave, in the Louvre, and there are some apparent similarities which are quite great. Then the question about the bronze casting, well that’s very interesting and the Fitzwilliam have got great expertise on this, so their conclusions that the bronze casting, and the thickness of the bronze, point to a date of around the early 1500s, is, again, powerful evidence. So I agree that the case is, in some respects, powerful . . .

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

Michelangelo, Dying slave, c.1513, marble, Louvre, Paris

So they’ve made a fair case.

Yes, well, it’s quite powerful in some respects, and less powerful in others.

Such as?

Well some people could have said, and maybe they have but I haven’t noticed, that the subject matter is comparable to sculptural ideas from the late 15th century and into the 16th, in particular the idea of the suggestive naked body of a man. That’s an idea that was almost an obsession of Michelangelo’s tutor, his de facto tutor in sculptor, Bertoldo di Giovanni, who produced all sorts of sculptures of this kind. And one particular point of similarity is that the possible Michelangelos show one figure who is clean-shaven, and one who is bearded, and there’s a pair of sculptures by Bertoldo, which make up a kind of pair, which have again one figure that is clean-shaven and one figure that wears a beard. All this could be put into an argument that would link the bronzes to Michelangelo.

The problem, the main problem, as I see it, is the fact that they’re made of bronze and they’re very big. The difficulty is that it might be conceivable that Michelangelo could, almost secretly or in an unnoticed way, make a pair of sculptures out of bronze by doing it in his back garden or kitchen, with nobody else noticing that it was going on, and then perhaps giving it away to someone, but the trouble is that works made out of bronze imply a collaboration with somebody. And once that idea is brought out into the open, the nature of the collaboration needs to be qualified and Michelangelo’s role in it would then have to be established. What we might be saying is that Michelangelo did some studies for a sculpture that was then made in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo produced full-scale models, which were then cast in bronze by somebody else. Or Michelangelo just told a few people that you could make sculptures in such a way, and gave them some pointers, and they were duly cast in bronze by another person. What’s absolutely impossible is that Michelangelo would have, as it were, gone away by himself and made these large bronze sculptures, all by himself, without any assistance—that’s just not possible. So if we are going to believe that they’re by Michelangelo then we have to understand better the circumstances of their making, and we need to have a better understanding of a possible context for the making of bronze figures of such scale, because they are a meter tall in height, in order to really substantiate the kind of claim that is being made, which has to have been in the form of some sort of collaboration. So that’s the difficulty I have.

So it’s impossible? To suppose that Michelangelo just knocked them up, by himself, in his kitchen or wherever? Is that just not how it was done?

No. You need a workshop of people to make these things. And they’re very difficult to produce alone.

Is that what will have happened with, say, the over life-size Julius II sculpture, which, as Vasari and Condivi say, was made in bronze by Michelangelo and put up in Bologna in 1506?

Yeah. The Julius sculpture presumably was made by people who were good at casting in bronze, and they worked in collaboration with Michelangelo who helped them produce a sculpture, or model, which then could have been cast in bronze. I mean he could have done a lot of work on it but what he didn’t do was create the molds and everything, and pour the molten bronze into the molds, and then take the bronze out of the molds and then do all the immensely laborious finishing off on the sculpture. So that has to have been a collaboration. And other, early works, done in bronze by Michelangelo—there’s a documented bronze David, again described by Vasari—must likewise have involved some sort of collaboration. So if we were able to understand better how these collaborations came about then we would be in a better position to understand possible circumstances that would support the attribution of the Panther Riders to Michelangelo. So that’s the problem I have . . .

Well, that seems to be a reasonable concern.

What is clear is that it’s untrue to say that Michelangelo was entirely restricted to sculpting in marble because there are quite a lot of things, or references in the early sources, to Michelangelo’s involvement in the design, or the making of, sculptures in bronze. The statue of Julius II, for the city of Bologna, is a conspicuous example because it must have been very big, but he did also intend, for example, to make bronze reliefs for the Julius tomb. And he wouldn’t have been making all those things by himself.

In short then, at this stage the attribution seems plausible but there are unanswered questions. Perhaps answers to those questions will be forthcoming when the Fitzwilliam hosts its international conference on Monday 6 July 2015, when they will present the full findings. In the meantime, the Panther Riders, which are privately owned, are on public display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 9 August 2015.

 

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