Tag Archives: art history

Mortar boards, pins, heels, wine, prizes and speeches: it’s Graduation 2014!

It’s that time of year again when campus is buzzing with excited (and slightly nervous) students, proud parents, and lecturers dressed as you’ve never seen them before! Graduation is a time to celebrate all our History of Art students have achieved during their time at Birmingham, not just on their degree programme but also as members of our department, the Barber Institute, UoB and the city itself. As a department we are pleased to be able to give out two prizes each year – the Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation, and the Emily Rastall Prize for the best overall contribution to the department. Competition is always stiff and there are more worthy candidates than there are prizes: every year, many of our students give generously of their time and energy in volunteering for various events, helping to run open days, applicant visit days, and workshops, and offering peer support. The department really appreciates this because it helps to make the department what it is – friendly, fun, and a great place to study.

Here we’ve put together a selection of photos from the ceremony on July 11th when Single and some Joint Honours History of Art Students graduated. You can read about about our prize winners and also see David, one of the department’s founding members, being given the by-now traditional ‘lift off’!

Dr Richard Clay with Tayler, Alice and Olivia at our pre-gown reception

Dr Richard Clay with Tayler, Alice and Olivia at our pre-gown reception



Senior lecturer David Hemsoll and Dr Fran Berry at speech time


Students and parents at speech time

Students and parents at speech time


This year, the Emily Rastall prize, awarded in memory of a student who sadly passed away just after her finals in 2012, was shared by French and History of Art student Holly Wain and History of Art student Caroline Hetherington for their overall contribution to the department.

On receiving the prize, Caroline said: ‘Receiving the Emily Rastall prize was a little surprising (and embarrassing!), but I was very pleased to get it. Being recognised for contributing to the department made me think back over the three years of my course and remember the exciting things I was able to accomplish. It definitely reminded me that there was a lot more to my degree than the final mark.’

How did she feel at graduation? ‘Graduation was a lovely opportunity for all of us to be excited and proud after all the nerves of results day, although for me the best part of the day was my parents turning up about two minutes before we went on stage to receive our degrees.’

Is there anything she’ll miss now she’s graduated? ‘I will miss actually studying art history the most, as especially in final year I have loved the amount of research and interesting conversations that have taught me so much more about the subject. Alongside this, writing a dissertation about a previously unstudied sculpture probably gave me the most satisfaction.’ But, Caroline’s not going very far: ‘I am not leaving the University yet – I’m now a graduate trainee in Professional Services, working on different placements over the next year. I don’t know where I’ll go after that, but I’m pretty sure I’m not done studying yet.’



Holly (left) and Caroline standing by the tree planted in Emily’s memory in the Barber grounds


Holly said, ‘I feel very honoured to be receiving the Emily Rastall Prize as it means the department can continue to celebrate the commitment and enthusiasm Emily had for Art History at the Barber. It also gave me the chance to reflect on my past four years in the History of Art department and how much I enjoyed contributing to projects like the Golovine Blog.’

How was graduation for her? ‘My graduation day was fantastic because I could share all the relief and happiness with my family and friends. My favourite moment was walking out of the Great Hall after the ceremony and feeling proud and excited for the future!’

What is her favourite memory of her degree? ‘My best memory of studying art history at the Barber is working with my tutor Liz for my dissertation. I loved researching using primary sources in archives because I felt like I could genuinely contribute something new and different. I enjoyed it so much that I am coming back to the Barber in September to do a research masters in History of Art.’



Cheers! Drs Fran Berry and Camilla Smith on the Barber steps with Caroline, Tayler, olivia, Alice and Nelle



It all happened here! Holly, Hang, Emma and Caroline with Dr Liz L’Estrange on the Barber steps



Relieved that no-one fell up or down the stairs! Claire, Louisa, Connie and Grace after the ceremony



Milling around outside the Barber



Hats off!


And now for the most traditional event of the day…








…wave, David!


And now for something more sensible (well, depends what you make of the lecturers’ outfits):

Outside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Outside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation was this year awarded to Joint Honours History of Art and English student, Sarah Cowie. Here she tells us a bit how she felt receiving the prize about the  dissertation that she wrote.


Prize-winner Sarah on graduation day


How did she feel getting the prize? ‘I am very pleased to have been awarded the Sam Beighton Prize this year, as I know there was much competition! It is a nice recognition of my efforts with the dissertation, and I am extremely grateful to my supervisor for guiding me in the right direction.’

How was graduation? ‘My graduation day was lovely, although as a Joint Honours student I graduated on a different day to some of my  History of Art peers, but Josh and I did still manage to have a photo shoot in front of the Barber though!’

What was her best memory of studying at Birmingham? ‘Aside from the second-year study trip to Rome, I think my best memories are of the Barber. It is such an inspiring environment, with amazing research materials in the library and galleries, and always a great venue for lunch with concert music playing in the background!’

Any plans for the future? ‘My plans for the future are yet to be made – I wasn’t very good at thinking ahead in final year! At the moment I’m considering doing a law conversion in Bristol, after travelling this year.’


Sarah with fellow JH History of Art and English student Josh


What was it like researching and writing a dissertation? ‘In the same way as with any research, my dissertation topic adapted, evolved (and unfortunately considering the word count, expanded!) the more I read around the field of study. What began as an interest in Kurt Schwitters’ association with the German Dadaists gradually became a study of exile and anti-nationalism during the Nazi regime; a subject area that complimented my final year special subject, German Modernisms of the Body.

The dissertation explores national identity and the concept of Heimat in Kurt Schwitters’ (1887-1948) assemblage, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, which was produced in Hanover in 1920 and then reworked by the exiled artist nineteen years later in Oslo. The dramatically different cultural climates of these two completion dates – which bridge together post-World War One Germany and pre-World War Two Europe – have invited interpretations of the work that place special emphasis on Schwitters’ increasingly diminished sense of German national identity under the Nazi Regime. However, considering the irreparable damage left following Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the anti-nationalist sentiments outlined in the artist’s essay ‘Nationalitätsgefühl’ (National Sentiment) from 1924, the current study questions the extent to which Schwitters had a fixed sense of national identity, or any kind of investment in the Volksgemeinschaft even during these earlier years.


Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920/1939. Oil, paper, cardboard, wood, fabric, and ceramic on board (97 x 69 x 11 cm) London, Tate Collection.

Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920/1939. Oil, paper, cardboard, wood, fabric, and ceramic on board (97 x 69 x 11 cm) London, Tate Collection.


In challenging the reading of Spatial Growths as evidence of German or Norwegian national identity, the central tenet of the dissertation explores how Schwitters’ sustained use of found materials (themselves fragments of a disordered reality) is symbolic of a wider process of ordering exile. Indeed, the concept of Merz – a label which encompasses Schwitters’ innovative creative practices and a name which he adopted for himself in the 1920s – sheds light on the artist’s understanding of a transnational Heimat; signalling Schwitters’ desire for a more flexible identity in the midst of political discourses on national purity. Approached thus, the fusion of two nationalities in Spatial Growths cannot be considered a visual enactment of the artist’s loss of German national identity. Rather, through its palimpsest qualities and the incorporation of domestic materials, it alludes to Schwitters’ prolonged search for a stable Heimat in an unstable existence; contributing to a narrative of homelessness that defined the life of this artist.  

Detail of Schwitters' Spatial Growth

Detail of Schwitters’ Spatial Growth


Despite moments of panic when I thought I might not be able to actually view the work (it was touring Germany for much of the year), writing the dissertation came to be as rewarding as it was challenging. The opportunity to study one work of art in such depth, whilst drawing on the expertise of my supervisor, Dr Camilla Smith, enabled me to form a research topic that interested me greatly, and that I felt had not been fully explored before.’


Well done again to all our graduates this year – you have done us proud! You can see interviews with some of our students on graduation day here.


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Thoughts from Vienna….


Bruegel Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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

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

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

Bruegel, Peasant Feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruegel, Nester

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

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

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

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

Akademie der bildenden künste, Vienna

Bosch, Last Judgment

Afterwards I popped to the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden künste, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Kunsthistoriches. It’s basically the same set-up as the Barber (that is, it’s a picture gallery that’s part of an educational establishment, this time the fine art academy) and I went there to see Bosch’s Last Judgment, which he did probably at some time around 1500. A great thing that provoked a great many questions …!


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