Category Archives: University of Birmingham

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.

 

Dates for your diaries.

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

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

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

All welcome!

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

Pam Cox (4th Feb.)

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

Faith Trend (18th Feb.)

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

Jamie Edwards (4th March)

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

All welcome!

The return of the Institute's Jan de Beer

The return of the Institute’s Jan de Beer

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

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

All welcome!

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

Brueghel the Younger, Peasants binding faggots, Barber Institute

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

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

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

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

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

The Barber Association

The Barber Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 29 January

Rosalie van Gulick (University of Utrecht; Barber Institute)

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

Thursday 5 February


Richard Taws (University College London)

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

Thursday 26 February

Imogen Wiltshire (University of Birmingham)

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

Thursday 5 March TBC


Sophie Bostock (Qatar Museums)

Thursday 12 March

Gaby Neher (University of Nottingham)

Title TBC 

Thursday 19 March


Jamie Edwards (University of Birmingham)

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

Thursday 26 March


Abigail Harrison Moore (University of Leeds)

Palpitatingly Modern Luxury: Electrifying the Country House

 

 

 

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

CALL FOR PAPERS

Conference, Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham, UK: Friday 3 July – Saturday 4 July 2015.

Keynote speakers: Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Julia Bryan-Wilson (University of California, Berkeley)

Laurie Simmons, Blonde/ Red Dress/ Kitchen, 1978

Laurie Simmons, Blonde/ Red Dress/ Kitchen, 1978

This conference is motivated by the premise that it is appropriate for feminist art history to re-visit and newly configure theoretical, methodological and political debate around modernist, postmodernist and contemporary artistic practice in relation to the domestic. Having been a significant focus of 1980s feminist art-historical scholarship, domesticity has since been eclipsed in feminist analysis by focus on corporeality, subjectivity and globalisation, amongst other significant concepts. This conference seeks to evaluate the intellectual and political gains, and potentially losses, to be made from investing once again in existing feminist theoretical frameworks, including the materialist, the psychoanalytical and the postcolonial. It also invites contributions framed by alternative or more recent modes of feminist enquiry, including those constituted through the framework of artistic practice itself. The sexual politics of domestic, artistic, and scholarly labour, productive agency, and the obedient or disobedient domestic imaginary might constitute one focus. However, these are by no means the only or defining parameters of this conference’s aim to engage with a feminist politics and practice of home making and unmaking since the late nineteenth century.

This conference is particularly timely in the light of art and art history’s ‘new’ domesticities. These include queer art history’s turn towards the domestic as a site for imagining, making and inhabiting space within or without the hetero-normative, and recent art-historical and curatorial projects focusing on modern and contemporary art practice and the home, but in which the question of feminism is downplayed in favour of more generalised concepts of subversion, labour and belonging. More broadly, the rise of the ‘new domesticity’ within popular culture continues to proliferate, such as the cult of the cupcake, knitting groups, home-baking television programmes and, more generally, 1950s ‘housewife’ design aesthetics. Contrast, for example, the discursive de-politicisation of today’s home-making in art and mass culture with the actively feminist domestic ambivalence of 1970s artistic practice, exemplified by Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and Laurie Simmons’ Early Color Interiors (1978). Finally, we might remember that these new domesticities and today’s artistic and art-historical practices take place in spite of, and as a product of, ongoing global, domestic, social and economic inequalities, violence, and oppression, even in the so-called ‘post-feminist’ West.

This two-day conference invites proposals from art historians of up to 500 words for papers of 30 minutes. Proposals should be sent to Dr Francesca Berry (Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham) at f.berry@bham.ac.uk and Dr Jo Applin (Department of History of Art, University of York) at jo.applin@york.ac.uk by Sunday 15th February 2015. Please also attach a brief biographical note and institutional affiliation.

The conference is supported by the University of Birmingham, the University of York, and Oxford Art Journal.

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