Two reminders, two events, and Charlotte Ashby’s new book on Modernism in Scandinavia

I hope everyone on our taught programmes is enjoying the relative tranquillity of reading week! A crucial time to take stock – have a break from those dashes from work or home to make it into Birkbeck for 6pm – to catch up on reading and to make headway on essays and dissertations. I also know that for all those with school-age children out there, the fact this is one reading week in the academic year which coincides with the half-term break is decidedly handy!

The two reminders up first. I’m delighted to report that the first of our Careers and Employability masterclasses yesterday evening, led by Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum, was a great success. Gabriel Koureas chaired the session, and dropped me a line afterwards to say that Sonia had provided a fascinating discussion of her experience in both large and small museums, and a host of useful insights into applying for jobs, CVs and interviews. The next in the series is a masterclass led by Alice Payne, who completed the Graduate Certificate in History of Art with us in 2011, followed by the MA History of Art in 2013. Alice has been working at Art UK since 2011, and is now Head of Content. She has project managed the development of the wonderful Art Detective website, and the build and rebrand of the Art UK website. Currently, Alice is project managing an audience broadening initiative. Do reserve a place on Eventbrite to come along on Tuesday 21st February, 4pm-5.30pm (Keynes Library), to hear Alice speak about her career, and to ask her questions about professional opportunities and development in her field. You can also follow Alice on twitter: @Alice_Payne__

The second reminder is to all final year undergraduate students to complete the National Student Survey (NSS)! I am assured by those in the know that it doesn’t take long at all to complete, and it really does matter to us in the department. I know that these kinds of questionnaires can feel like box-ticking exercises, and a chore, but they do matter to us, and we take them very seriously. We have a whole host of mechanisms by which we scrutinise responses to these surveys and reflect on our courses accordingly: we discuss them at committees; we respond to them formally in annual programme monitoring exercises; and we’ll be talking about them more at our upcoming Internal Review. Birkbeck are currently running a “You said, we did…” initiative, to show how the results of student surveys do lead very directly to improvements in our provision. Take a look at the Student Feedback webpage to find out more. The results of the NSS are also published on Unistats, so, in addition, it provides a useful guide to people working out what they want to study, and where.

Onto the two upcoming events that I’m very keen to advertise. On Wednesday next week, 22nd February, Dr. Laura Jacobus will be giving a paper in the Murray research seminar series (5pm, Keynes Library), with the intriguing title: ‘”Mea culpa?” Penitence, Enrico Scrovegni and me’. Until very recently, the Arena Chapel in Padua was thought to be commissioned as an act of restitution for usury, and its frescoes by Giotto as an expression of penitence on the part of the patron Enrico Scrovegni. Laura and colleagues in the field have challenged that view. But, two of her most recent discoveries have the potential to reinforce the established view, and to undermine her own. Laura will be asking: what happens when a researcher uncovers inconvenient truths, and what is to be done? Go along to the Keynes to find out, and to reflect on the matter over refreshments!

Laura has also asked me to publicise an upcoming CHASE workshop on Medieval and Early Modern Spaces and Places, organised by the Open University and the Architecture, Space and Society Centre here at Birkbeck. This is for MPhil/PhD students, and will take place on 24th February. It’s a fascinating programme, and the morning features Laura, along with Dr. Robert Maniura and Dr. Caroline Goodson from the Department of History, Classics and Archaelogy. Interested research students are strongly encouraged to sign up!

medivial placesThere are a number of key research interests in the History of Art department here, and one is the need to move beyond the regular stamping grounds of Art History. This is true in a whole host of ways – but one in particular is in terms of geography. The desire to look at areas of Europe typically neglected by art historians is at the heart of much of Robert Maniura’s recent work, and it is a major concern of Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius. Kasia recently spoke at a symposium in Paris, organised by the Centre Allemand d’Histoire de l’Art, as part of a series of events devoted to the methods of art history in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Kasia’s paper, entitled ‘Welcome to Slaka, post scriptum’, returned to the issue of the applicability of Postcolonial Discourse Analysis to studying art in East Central Europe.

Meanwhile, Dr. Charlotte Ashby’s work revolves around her interest in Nationalism, transnationalism and modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in art, design and architecture, with a particular focus on Scandinavia. And I am delighted to announce that her new book is imminently to be published by Bloomsbury press! Over to Charlotte, to tell you more:

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Charlotte Ashby, on Modernism in Scandinavia: Art, Architecture and Design (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

“In 2011 the department gave me the opportunity to run a Cert HE module on Nordic Art. This module developed from the general overview of Nordic culture that I had gained during my PhD, which focused on Finnish architecture. A course on Finnish architecture alone would have been too niche, but I was excited to be able to share my enthusiasm for the art, architecture and design of the Nordic region with Birkbeck students. From this first class I continued to develop my material up into a level 6 option module that I ran at Birkbeck in 2013-14, and again in 2015-16. I also taught on Scandinavian art and design at Oxford University, and as part of the V&A education programme.

All along the way, students would ask me what book they should buy to further their studies – but there was nothing I could really recommend that tried to cover the broad field. There was a fair amount written in English, but it was often out of print, or published by small academic and museum presses in the Nordic countries without international distribution. In addition, all the available books were either about fine art or about architecture and design. No one, it seemed, had considered looking at the relationship between the two, except in the form of national histories of art. Even in these cases, the essays on fine art were written by art historians and those on architecture by architectural historians. My training, practice and teaching as an art historian has always ranged across art, architecture and design as intimately interconnected cultural activities, and this is an approach shared by colleagues at Birkbeck. Especially in the small and interconnected art worlds of the Nordic countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, maintaining divisions between the arts was, in my view, artificial. After three years of teaching on the subject, I decided that the thing to do was to write that book myself.

I wanted the text to capture what I attempted to do in my classes at Birkbeck: to introduce students to the rich visual cultures of the Nordic countries and at the same time consider debates relating to modernity, modernism and national identity. These were among the key factors that had transformed these cultures between the mid nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries. Covering the art, architecture and design of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland was a potentially unmanageable, huge task. I wanted to avoid anything like an exhaustive survey, with an endless series of short entries on unfamiliar figures and places. I could still remember struggling to read such books myself as a student. As a teacher, I find the case study the best teaching tool. New ideas, themes and relationships can be much more graspable when applied to a concrete example. As an undergraduate, I had shifted my degree subject from History to Art History precisely because the social and cultural forces I wanted to examine were so much more legible to me in the subject and handling of a painting or the ornament of a building.

My book, therefore, is arranged as a series of case studies drawn from across the five countries of the Nordic region (sorry Estonia). These case studies were selected to open up the relatively unknown world of Nordic art, architecture and design and allow for both a sense of overview and a window onto the broad array of factors shaping culture in the region. I attempted to strike a balance between a ‘greatest hits’ selection of works of well-established significance and being willfully iconoclastic: no one wants the first book on Scandinavian art they buy to not mention Alvar Aalto or Edvard Munch. I wanted to give a sense of the wider cultural forces shaping the period as well as the developing infrastructure of cultural institutions, the professionalization of art and design practice and the markets within which works were produced. The book is arranged chronologically, but various themes run back and forth allowing for connections to appear between the different countries and across the decades. Some of these key themes are art and the national landscape, the entry of women artists into the profession and the desire to represent national and civic identity in architecture.

The support of the department and of the Birkbeck students I’ve taught, who enthusiastically and intelligently embraced this relatively little known art historical area, lies behind the success of this project and the book that I’m now proud to bring out.”

I shall indulge in some shameless promotion of a colleague’s work, and recommend that everyone reading this goes onto Bloomsbury’s website to pre-order their copy of this fascinating book as soon as they can! 

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Ranging from ‘Quality Assurance Mechanisms’ to Diamonds and Giotto….

I hope everyone’s Spring term is going well so far? It’s been a busy few weeks for the Department. Lots of marking – and we’ve been continuing work on our Careers and Employability programme, putting the finishing touches to our upcoming series of masterclasses with alumni, for example. An email went out to all students a couple of days ago, so I do hope that lots of you have been signing up for these valuable opportunities to hear from, and talk to, people who have developed fascinating careers in the Arts: Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum, in a couple of weeks’ time (Monday 13th February); Alice Payne, Head of Content at Art UK (Tuesday 21st February); and Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant (Tuesday 28th February).

We’ve also been bustling about, preparing and submitting materials for an upcoming Internal Review, due to take place in late March. This is a process which every department in the College goes through every four years – as one of what’s known as our ‘quality assurance mechanisms’. It’s not the most catchy label(!), but these are the vital ways in which we constantly monitor our programmes of study, check that everything is working as well as possible, and think about ways to improve and develop what we do. Quality assurance mechanisms include some things you’ll be familiar with as students here – the module questionnaires we ask you to complete at the end of every course, or the Staff-Student Exchange meetings we hold in the Autumn and Spring terms, for example. They also include some things you might not be as aware of – the role of external examiners in checking our processes and results at every level of study, for example, or the paperwork we need to get approved when we want to develop a new module, or change one we’ve taught before. The Internal Review at the end of this term will begin with the panel – three colleagues from other Schools in the College, and an external specialist in History of Art – meeting with a range of our students, to chat with them about their experiences here. I’ll be emailing some of you over the next week or so, to ask if you would be able to take part in this process – and we’ll all be very grateful indeed to those who agree!

Another of these quality assurance mechanisms that’s very much on our minds at the moment is the National Student Survey – now open for responses from all final year undergraduate students. Birkbeck runs a range of surveys, which are crucial for this process of reflecting on what we should be doing more of, and what we can improve – but the NSS results are also vital for prospective students, considering where they might like to study.

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I have lots of upcoming events to tell you about, but a couple of pieces of news first.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will be familiar with the name of Gary Haines, I’m sure! Gary is one of our research students in the department, working on cultural perceptions of the blinded British soldier in the first world war. He’s written for the blog in the past about Access, Birkbeck and our Disability Office, and also about his valuable work with Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people. I’ve been in touch with Gary this week, and was delighted to hear that he’s recently been appointed as Archivist at the Museum of Childhood – congratulations Gary! Inevitably, I have asked him to write another piece for us about this post – but, in the meantime, he’s tipped me off about a fun event, coming up at the Museum on the evening of Thursday 23rd February: an East London Quiz Night. Book your place if you fancy seeing just how much cockney rhyming slang you really do know!

The other piece of good news I wanted to share is a new publication from one of our new Professors: Steve Edwards. This is an edited volume, containing some 32 articles and essays by Adrian Rifkin, about art, urbanism, music and popular life in France and Britain over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As well as being editor, Steve has provided an extended introduction for Communards and Other Cultural Histories, in which he considers the key theories and disciplinary formations which underpin Rifkin’s essays.

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Onto events, and there are a couple of important ones coming up later this week. This Thursday, 2nd February (6-7.30pm, room B04), we will be welcoming Professor Marcia Pointon, giving a lecture entitled Robert Harris’s Photography at De Beer’s Kimberley Diamond Mine 1875-1890. This is co-hosted by the Departmental postgraduate seminar series and the History and Theory of Photography Centre. Professor Pointon’s name will be familiar to many of you, and we have been lucky enough to welcome her as a speaker at Birkbeck before – she came to give the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture some years ago. As someone who specialises in portraiture, I have many of her books on my shelves: a very well thumbed copy of Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England, for example, and her Portrayal and the Search for Identity, published by Reaktion in 2013. One of Professor Pointon’s many other interests is in gems and jewellery – the subject of her Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery (2009), and a theme which will be developed in her new book, soon to be published: Rocks, Ice and Dirty Stones: Diamond Histories. Thursday’s lecture is a key opportunity for our postgraduates to hear Professor Pointon’s very latest work in progress.

healing-spaces

Then, this Friday, 3rd February (2-5pm, Keynes Library), the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre, together with the Centre for Medical Humanities, will be hosting the next in their ‘New Books’ series. This event will mark the recent publication of a collected volume entitled Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture and the Body (Routledge, 2016). The book explores the various ways in which architects, urban planners, medical practitioners, and others have applied modern ideas about health and the body to the spaces in which they live, work, and heal. The coeditors – Dr Sarah Schrank (Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach) and Dr Didem Ekici (Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Nottingham) – will be joined by Caitjan Gainty from Kings College London as respondent. The event is free, but you do need to book your place.

The final event I want to bring to your attention isn’t until Thursday 2nd March, but I’m sure it will soon get booked out – so reserve your place now! Birkbeck is currently extremely fortunate to have T.J. Clark as a Visiting Professor, with the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities. Professor Clark will be asking ‘What can Art History Say about Giotto’? – get onto Eventbrite now to make sure you find out!

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Happy new year!

A very happy new year to all of you! I hope everyone had a good break, and a chance both to rest and make merry over the festive season? Quite a lot of coursework deadlines were set for this first week of term, so I know that many students will also have been beavering away on essays, in between the mince pies and mulled wine.

There’s been a lot of bustling around the School of Arts this week, with staff and students picking up the reins again, and diaries are already full with upcoming events. I told you all in my last blog that we’ve now finalised the next stage of our History of Art Careers and Employability programme: a series of three masterclasses with alumni. An email went out to all students just after that, with links to eventbrite pages for these sessions – but I wanted to take this opportunity to remind you to sign up at the earliest opportunity! The masterclasses are all free, and organised at a range of times of the day in the hope that there’s something to suit everyone – so do come along to hear stellar alumni talk about their fascinating jobs, and how their studies in the History of Art have helped them to advance their careers…

  • Monday 13th February, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum.
  • Tuesday 21st February, 4-5.30pm, Keynes Library: a chance to hear from Alice Payne, Head of Content at the Public Catalogue Foundation (Art UK).
  • Tuesday 28th February, 7.30-9pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant to the likes of Mike Leigh.

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As ever, I have the pick of a host of events and activities taking place around the School, and the College as whole, to tell you about. On Monday, 16th January (6pm, The Bevan Suite, BMA House, Tavistock Square ), we’ll be welcoming back an ex-colleague, who will have taught many of you reading this blog – perhaps on the level 5 ‘Art and Society in the Nineteenth Century’ module, or on his level 6 ‘Gothic Revivals’ option: Dominic Janes. We were sad to say goodbye to Dominic a couple of years ago, but also very pleased for him as he left us to take up a new, prestigious post as Professor of Modern History at the University of Keele. Dominic will be back in Bloomsbury to give a lecture hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for Gender and Sexuality, in collaboration with The Raphael Samuel History Centre: British Caricature and Queer Fashioning 1750-1900In his talk, Dominic will be asking: what are the links between the histories of fashion and of sexuality? Did Oscar Wilde invent the image of the camp and dandified homosexual? Or did he simply become its most celebrated exemplar through the sensational media coverage of his trials in 1895? I know Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will be going along with those BA and Graduate Certificate students on her ‘Satire, Caricature, Cartoon’ option module – and I hope others of you will be able to join them. The lecture is free, but do book your place here on eventbrite.

dominics-lectureThere are so many other events I could tell you about – or remind you about, such as our own Dr. Sarah Thomas’s lunchtime talk at the National Gallery on 30th January, being given in conjunction with the Australian Impressionists exhibition, included in my last blog. It’s always well worth keeping an eye on the websites of Research Centres and Institutes of interest around Birkbeck. The Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, for example, has just announced its programme for this term. BIMI’s events take place in the Birkbeck Cinema, and most are free. Meanwhile, the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is soon to host its first event of term: Professor Margaret Iversen from the University of Essex will be coming to give a paper entitled Profane Illuminations on Thursday 19th  January (6-7:30pm, Room 120 Gordon Square). Walter Benjamin credited the Surrealist movement with ‘a true, creative overcoming of religious illumination’ by replacing it with a kind of ‘profane illumination’. Professor Iversen’s talk will attend to two key moments in the art of producing technically mediated, profane illuminations: the innovations of the Surrealist movement itself; and Leo Steinberg’s ‘Other Criteria’, with its conception of the picture plane as a receptive surface or, as he put it, ‘a consciousness immersed in the brain of the city’. A great opportunity to hear from a great art historian of truly international repute.

Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus, 1955

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For the final part of this blog, I’m going to hand you over to Dr Laura Jacobus, my colleague who specialises in early Italian art. I mentioned the hugely successful Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality conference which she organised in late November in a previous posting. Laura kindly promised me a piece for the blog a while ago, and has just sent me this account of her research and teaching last term, and how the two fed into one another…

Laura Jacobus on research, and research-led teaching

“Last term was a busy one for me – so busy that I’ve only just got round to contributing to the blog. There were quite a few new lectures to prepare for remodelled undergraduate modules, plus a number of my own research projects to work on – and that got me thinking about what ‘research-led teaching’ means in my practice. Research-led teaching is what distinguishes university-level study in the UK, and our commitment to it is behind the fact that staff often seem to be on leave. In fact, Birkbeck allows each of us to take one term in nine as research leave, and one reason I was so busy last term is that some of the research I did on my last period of leave has started to come to fruition. There were several  elements of research that kept me occupied, and each of these fed into my teaching in one way or another. The question I’ve been asking is: how exactly did that happen?

A major element of last term’s research concerned medieval portraiture. I was working on the proofs of an article on questions of likeness in portraiture (it will be published in June 2017 in The Art Bulletin) and at the same time I was delivering a partially-remodelled series of lectures for the second-year BA course ‘Art and Architecture in Europe, 1250-1400’. This course has been running for a number of years, and, while I’ve always slipped material on portraiture into my lectures, I’d never devoted a whole class to the topic. That’s now changed, and I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the new lecture on Portraiture that resulted.

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In reading week, I didn’t get much reading done! Instead, I went to a conference in New Orleans to deliver a paper on a related element of my research (also on portraiture, but using different case-studies to raise a different set of issues). This is the only conference in the world that deals exclusively with my area of expertise – fourteenth-century Italian art – and was a not-to-be-missed occasion, as it only takes place every few years. It was great to experience total immersion in research so related to my own (24 papers in over two days), and to get feedback on my research from those most in the know. Thankfully, it was both favourable and useful feedback, and I also heard a huge amount of really interesting research in my field. Some of this fed back into my teaching – pretty much immediately after touch-down in London, when I was able to share with my MA class some of the things I’d heard, and to give them a sense of what seems to be most  at the cutting-edge of research in this area (Materiality is going up. Gender is going down….).

A separate aspect of my research – perhaps not surprisingly given the trends I observed at the New Orleans conference – is that my work on women and art in fourteenth-century Italy has led me by a roundabout route to become interested in textiles. The coincidence of there being a major exhibition of English medieval embroidery at the V&A (Opus Anglicanum – a fabulous exhibition which ends 5 February – don’t miss it!) led me to organise a one-day conference at Birkbeck on Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality. It was great to see a number of past and present students there, and it proved to be a sell-out. I hope to get recordings of the papers on Panopto soon so that all Birkbeck students can hear them if they’re interested. Once again, I was prompted to try to integrate this research into teaching, and so our new level 4 ‘Material and Process in Art’ module, for BA and Certificate students, included a lecture from me on Textiles.

These are some of the obvious manifestations of what research-led teaching means in practice: students can get to hear what’s new in the discipline of Art History, before it’s even been published, while knowledge is actively being made. Students can also (I hope) benefit from being taught by people whose enthusiasm for their subject is constantly being refreshed at source by the chance to do research. And last, but very far from least, staff can benefit from the experience of communicating their ideas to students and having those ideas tested by the enquiring minds of the next generation of scholars.”

I entirely echo all those sentiments – thank you Laura!

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Wishing you all a very happy Christmas break!

Two days until the end of term – ten days until Christmas day – and I imagine everyone reading this feels well and truly ready for the upcoming break! Final classes are being attended, and essays are being uploaded at regular intervals onto Turnitin. However, I would thoroughly recommend taking ten minutes out, as soon as you’re able, to watch the new film about the Open House London weekend which has just been uploaded to our website. Back in mid October, I wrote about the third opening up of the School of Arts building for Open House London, and Michael Clegg, who has just finished his MA with us, and who acted as a student volunteer during the event, contributed a lovely piece to tell us all about it. I mentioned at the time that the Derek Jarman Lab – based in the School of Arts – were working on a film, about the building and the tours that weekend. I got to watch it for the first time the other week, and it’s truly wonderful. You can listen to Leslie Topp, Patrizia Di Bello, and Victoria McNeile (who did her PhD in the English and Humanities department here) talking about the Bloomsbury area – the townhouses we work and study in – their most famous inhabitants, the Stephens siblings – the paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – and the life and work of Virginia Woolf. Their discussion ranges across architecture, space, social status and gender. There’s also a fascinating interview with Andy MacFee, the lead architect on the Cinema, describing how that multi-coloured, geometric part of our building was inspired by Virgina Woolf’s famous ‘stream of consciousness’. And the Derek Jarman Lab has contributed some lovely pieces of film, not to mention some nifty graphics, so that it’s impossible not to be reminded how lucky we are to be based here. I’ve been at Birkbeck for more than ten years now, and thought I knew a lot about 39-47 Gordon Square – but there was so much in the film that was new to me. Truly not to be missed!

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I know most of us are struggling to think beyond Christmas, but I do have some important dates for your diaries….

First of all, I am delighted to announce that we have finished organising the next stage of our Careers and Employability programme for History of Art students in 2016-17. This, as I mentioned in a previous blog, will consist of a number of masterclasses with alumni, who have kindly agreed to come back and chat about their career trajectories: what they do, and how they got there. We will be circulating Eventbrite links in the near future, but do please make a note of these sessions: –

  • Monday 13th February 2017, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Sonia Solicari, currently Head of the Guildhall Art Gallery, following curatorial positions at the V&A. However, in the new year, Sonia will be taking up the prestigious post of Director of the Geffrye Museum, on the retirement of David Dewing.
  • Tuesday 21st February 2017, 4-5.30pm, Keynes Library: a chance to hear from Alice Payne, Head of Content at the Public Catalogue Foundation (Art UK). Alice has project managed the development of the Art Detective website, the build and rebrand of the Art UK website, and is currently project managing an audience broadening initiative.
  • Tuesday 28th February 2017, 7.30-9pm, Keynes Library – come and meet Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant. Jackie has recently published a book about the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and, having worked on Mike Leigh’s award-winning Mr Turner film, is now advising on his upcoming film, Peterloo.

These events will all be free. And you’ll notice that, in recognition of the fact that there is no ideal timing for ‘extra’s at Birkbeck, we’ve gone for a range of options: one session in reading week; one session before teaching starts at 6pm; one session after most classes end at 7.30pm. Hopefully at least one of these will work for you! We’re very grateful indeed that Sonia, Alice and Jackie have agreed to take time out of their busy schedules to come and speak to us about their fascinating jobs, and how their studies in the History of Art have helped them to advance their careers -so please do make the most of this opportunity. And don’t forget about the ongoing Careers and Employability workshops: next up is ‘The Value of Internships’, on 8th February 2017.

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The other date I’d recommend getting in your diary is a lunchtime talk by our own Sarah Thomas at the National Gallery: 1pm, on Monday 30th January. Sarah’s lecture will be on the subject of ‘Australian Impressionism: National Art in a Global Context’, given to coincide with the Gallery current exhibition, Australia’s Impressionists. Before joining us at Birkbeck, Sarah worked as a curator in Australian art museums for many years, and so is very well placed to speak on this subject! The exhibition is definitely at the top of my ‘to do’ list for the Christmas break. I got to visit Melbourne and Sydney for the first time in September, and was fascinated by the work of the late nineteenth-century/ early twentieth-century artists Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, which I hadn’t encountered before. These painters sought out subject matter that was considered uniquely ‘Australian’ – in particular, the pastoral and bush landscapes of New South Wales and Victoria, and the resilient and hard-working pioneer settlers who inhabited them. They played a key role in constructing a national identity in the years leading up to Australian Federation in 1901. But Impressionism was a global movement, and the work of these artists was deeply beholden to European modernism. Sarah’s lecture will examine the tensions between this emergent nationalism and a broader global consciousness. It is free, and all are welcome!

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Finally, before I sign off, I am delighted to be able to fulfil a promise made in my last blog: to tell you more about Isobel Elstob’s recent trip to Montpelier, to speak at a conference on Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World. I hope many of you have got to meet Isobel since she joined us in October, covering for Suzannah Biernoff who is currently on research leave.

Isobel Elstob, Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World

“Last week I attended the interdisciplinary conference Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World at Montpellier University. A wonderful city, woven through medieval cobbled passageways and neat nineteenth-century boulevards, Montpellier offered an ideal setting for our discussions on the situation of the past in the present.  Scholars from France, Gabon, the United States, Haiti and Britain, working across literature, history, the visual arts, anthropology, ethnography and linguistics, asked the question of how we go about the task of memorialising events as traumatic as the Atlantic Slave Trade and, indeed, what might the effects of such memorialisation be? My own paper examined well-known visual artworks by contemporary artists Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson that represent (or re-present) slavery histories ‒ and enslaved people themselves ‒ through the application of an African American linguistic model, known as signifyin’. Across the course of my research into these works what has become most apparent is how these artists construct a visual encounter between the past and the present ‒ forcing the viewer to confront the relevancies of history to our own, contemporary, attitudes towards ‘race’. And this ‘inter-temporality’ also emerged as the most crucial common theme across many of the conference presentations. In the end, then, the question being asked was not so much about how we memorialise an extinguished historical past in the present but, as the conference title so aptly describes, how do we acknowledge the traces of historical events that continue to reverberate through the cultures and experiences of people across the world today.”

Another prime example of how our discipline, the history of art, can provide a way into some of the most pressing issues of our times – and how visual culture is a key medium for unpicking those complex, all-important interrelationships between the present and the past.

It just remains for me to wish you all a wonderful festive season, and a very happy new year – see you all in January!Image result for christmas

 

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A roll call of success!

The Autumn term is nearly at an end, and I know many of you are working hard on coursework to be submitted next Friday. In fact, term will be coming to a more dramatic end than usual, as the School of Arts building will be completely closed from Saturday 17th December until after Christmas, when the College as a whole re-opens. This is because a major film company will be using our premises as a film set! It’s all most exciting. I have been sworn to secrecy on further details, much as I am itching to pass them on – but I can’t resist sneaking in that, during the course of said filming, an actor will be dramatically thrown out of Gabriel Koureas’s window! (Gabriel’s room will definitely have to feature in the next Open House London weekend, on the back of this).

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On a prosaic note, though, this does raise certain practical issues for us all, as not even post will be able to enter the building, let alone staff and students. My administrative colleagues will be in touch next week with further details – particularly about how to submit any required hard copies of coursework.

An important feature of the second half of the Autumn term every year is the MA exam boards, which meet in late November. Colleagues from across the department, and external examiners from other universities, meet to discuss our Masters students’ work, our programmes and processes, and to ratify marks. We were delighted to be looking at the grades of a particularly strong cohort of finalists this time round, and some stellar dissertation results. In fact, one of the dissertation prizes we were able to offer – the London Art History Society prize for the best MA dissertation on a modern topic – had to be split between two students, who scored equally highly in this final piece of work on the programme. We divided the award between Anna Jamieson, for her dissertation on ‘Dark Tourists at Bedlam: Madness and Spectacle in Eighteenth-Century London’, and Wil Roberts, for ‘“Life Itself”: Victoria and Albert as Living Statues’. Another new prize available for the first time this year was the Murray prize for the best dissertation on an early period topic, and this was given to Sarah McBryde for her dissertation entitled ‘More than meets the eye?: Reassessing the Representation of Dwarfs in Renaissance Italy’. We’re very grateful indeed to both the London Art History Society and the Murray Bequest for funding these new awards. And many congratulations indeed to Anna, Wil, Sarah – and to all our MA finalists!

In fact, this blog posting is a roll call of achievement. In other news this week, Melissa Buron, one of our postgraduate research students, working on James Tissot’s spiritualist and biblical images, and an assistant curator at the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, has received not just one, but two awards. Having secured a Research Support Grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, she was then awarded the 2017 Amy P. Goldman Fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite Studies from the Delaware Art Museum/University of Delaware. Congratulations Melissa!

[Image: Tissot, The Mediumistic Apparition]

I’ve also been in touch recently with Vicky Hau, who finished our BA History of Art in 2012, and is currently studying on our MA Museum Cultures programme. Vicky has been very busy organising a symposium, connected to an exhibition she’s working on: Silk Roots: Travels in Chinese & Arabic Calligraphy. This will be at the P21 Gallery, a few blocks away from Birkbeck, on Chalton Street, from 18th May to 1st July next year. The exhibition will explore the interaction between China and the Middle East through the fascinating medium of calligraphy; a highly revered art form for both these cultures. One part of the exhibition will look at the historical context, particularly of the Silk Road itself, and how calligraphy has traditionally been represented along its route. The other will look at contemporary interaction between Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, exemplified by the works of Haji Noor Deen. At the end of the exhibition, there will be an opportunity for visitors to practice their own calligraphy, encouraged to write/draw the symbols for “Peace” in both Chinese and Arabic! More details anon. The one-day symposium is scheduled for 25th May 2017, and is being organised in association with the London Confucius Institute at SOAS University of London, and supported by the department here at Birkbeck, and the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts. Vicky has just put out a call for papers for this event, which – like the exhibition – will explore how the Silk Road was not only a trade route for goods such as silk, herbs and paper, but also the major route by which concepts and culture travelled both westwards and eastwards, and think about the role played by calligraphy in that cultural exchange. The deadline for the call for papers is 15th January, so if anyone reading this would like to present at this event, then please email Vicky at vcwhau@gmail.com for further details.

History of Art staff have also been very busy! Laura Jacobus’s conference on ‘Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality’, which took place the other week, was – I have on excellent authority – a triumph. I had a particularly nice email from our colleague, Zoe Opacic, telling me how much she had enjoyed this exciting, high-profile – and exceptionally well-attended – event (standing room only)! Meanwhile, Isobel Elstob, who we’re currently lucky to have with us whilst Suzannah Biernoff is on leave, was off to Montpellier for a few days, to speak at a conference dealing with ‘Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World’. I have been promised more details anon, so keep reading this blog… Meanwhile, it was announced this week that Lynda Nead has just been made a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a wonderful, highly prestigious appointment, and one of many testaments to Lynn’s standing as an internationally renown scholar. We’re also very pleased in the department that it will strengthen further the already good relationship that we have with the V&A: from Tag Gronberg’s work as part of the curatorial team on the exhibition Modernism: Designing a New World in 2006, through to Carlo Rizzo’s current work as a V&A/Birkbeck collaborative doctoral student, working on ‘Collecting and displaying contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Design at the V&A: a comparative analysis of museum practices’.

Look out for one last blog of the term next week, to wish you all a very merry Christmas before we make way for the film crews…!

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Inspiring news today about the new Birkbeck ‘Bridges to Study’ programme

I heard earlier that the first of the workshops in our new Careers and Employability programme, designed especially for students in the History of Art department, went very well yesterday afternoon. Alex Jones led a session on ‘Careers in Arts’, and dropped me a line to say that attendance was very good, and that he’d enjoyed meeting our engaged and lively students! If you haven’t signed up for these workshops as yet, then do take another look at the full details here – and register for your free places at  forthcoming sessions on Eventbrite. This programme is open to all our students in the department, so whether you’re on the Cert HE or Graduate Certificate, a BA or MA programme, or are currently an MPhil/PhD student, if you’re thinking about developing your Career in the Arts, then do make the most of this great opportunity. The next workshop will be ‘Articulate your Story’, on 30th November (4-5pm, Keynes Library)…

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I also want to use this posting to remind all our MA and MPhil/PhD students in History of Art about the London Art History Society Research Fund for 2016-17. We gave out details about this at the induction evenings and via email – but do keep this fund in mind. It’s available to help support our postgraduate students in undertaking research towards their dissertations. Students from any of our Masters programmes are able to apply for up to £150, and MPhil/PhD students for up to £300 – we allocate the money on a first come first served basis, so do apply before it runs out! If you need financial support to undertake a trip to an archive, or a collection, or if you could do with help with costs such as photographing works of art which you’re currently researching, then do put in an application. Full details are available here. We’re very grateful indeed to the London Art History Society for generously providing these funds to help our postgraduate students – and don’t forget that they organise a rich programme of events, which I highly recommend you keep an eye on! This coming Saturday (26th November), for example, Dr. Glyn Davies, curator of late medieval sculpture at the V&A and co-organiser of the museum’s current Opus Anglicanum exhibition, will be giving a lecture following the Society’s AGM: ‘The Power of Pygmalion: Secular Stories on Medieval Caskets of Ivory and Bone’.

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 cinephilia

I hope everyone has had a chance to drop in and see the latest exhibition in the Peltz Gallery, as they’ve been coming in and out of the building over the last few weeks? A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting has been on since 7th October – but, if you haven’t yet had a chance to look around, it will be there until 27th January 2017. The display consists of a varied array of intriguing objects from the collections of the Cinema Museum – a museum of cinematic ephemera in Kennington, South London, which has to be visited by appointment. These are the relics of dedicated film enthusiasts – their personal archives and records – their indexes and scrapbooks. Graham Head, an amateur projectionist in the 1940s and 50s, with a cinema in his back garden in Hove, Brighton, for example, would clip squares of celluloid from every film he showed. These are collected in little brown envelopes. Vic Kinson, meanwhile, built up a collection of around 36,000 index cards, recording details of film stars: their careers, and their personal lives. You can read more about the exhibition here, in Sight & Sound. Fascinating – and not to be missed!

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I want to end this blog by drawing everyone’s attention to a wonderful development that was publicly announced today. Our own Leslie Topp, together with a number of other colleagues from across Birkbeck, has been working hard for a long time to get something called the ‘Bridges to Study’ programme off the ground. This is a package of support for asylum seekers and refugees living in London. Birkbeck will be offering funded places on undergraduate and postgraduate certificate courses across the College to 20 asylum seekers per year. This provides a vital opportunity to study for a group who have serious problems accessing educational opportunities in this country. Rebecca Murray, from the charity Article 26, explains some of the key difficulties in the news story which went live today:

“Their immigration status means asylum seekers are treated as international students, so they have to pay tuition fees at an international rate. Secondly, asylum seekers aren’t eligible for student loan support from the Student Loans Company, meaning no financial backing to pay their tuition fees or maintenance. They also have to navigate what can seem a bewilderingly complex academic system and culture.”

Not only will Birkbeck be providing funding for places on these courses of study, but the College will also be offering a programme of additional support alongside, to help the students settle into life at Birkbeck, and the UK educational system more broadly. The Master of Birkbeck, Professor David Latchman, has declared this to be a “fitting continuation” of the mission established by our founder, George Birkbeck, nearly 200 years ago: “to bring education to every Londoner who wants to better themselves, regardless of means or background.” You’ll have seen George Birkbeck’s face around the main Malet Street building, as well as his famous declaration (well, famous to us in the College, anyway!): “Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge.” Mr. Birkbeck would be proud – and we are very proud indeed of the commitment and hard work of Leslie and her colleagues, which has helped to make a truly inspiring idea a reality.

after Unknown artist, stipple engraving, 1824 or after

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Congratulations to our graduates!

Many congratulations to those students who graduated on Wednesday this week! It was great to be sitting on the platform at this graduation ceremony, and to see familiar faces from our Cert HE, Graduate Certificate and BA programmes line up, have their names read out by the Executive Dean, Prof. Hilary Fraser, and go on to shake hands with the Master of Birkbeck, Prof. David Latchman, the President, Joan Bakewell, and to receive their degrees. We also saw three History of Art students walk up to get their doctorates: Dr. Frank Ferrie, Dr. Kirstie Imber and Dr. Michael Davies. (How nice to be able to give them their titles!). Here are some snaps I took on my phone at the reception afterwards:

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Dr. Frank with his supervisor, Dr. Robert Maniura, both looking rightly proud

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Ioanna Makri and Clara Neta, celebrating their BA Hons degrees

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– and David Daly (BA Hons History of Art) managing to keep hold of both a glass of wine and an art history book! So impressed to see a student still at the books, even on graduation day..

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At the start of the week, I was delighted to be able to send around more information about our Careers and Employability programme, being run for History of Art students in 2016-17. Thanks to a generous award from the Birkbeck Alumni fund, and the hard work of Mosh Aboobaker and his colleagues in the Careers and Employability team, we have been able to lay on this special programme for students in the department, designed to help with career options, skills, and connections with key institutions and industries.

We’re now encouraging students to sign up for the first part of the programme: a series of six workshops, running from later this month through to late May 2017, covering a variety of important topics – from career possibilities in the Arts, through use of social media and internships, to CVs and interview techniques. You can find full details on this flyer. Do go to the eventbrite page, and sign up for as many of these free, hour-long events as you can. You’ll see we’ve arranged these as one hour sessions from 4-5pm, in the hope that people will be able to fit them in before classes.

It’s a great opportunity, to take advantage of specialist advice, particularly tailored to History of Art students. It’s also important to the department that these go well, and have good attendance, as we can then make a case to run this programme again in the future! The programme is primarily designed for BA and Graduate Certificate, and MA students in the History of Art department – but we’re also making the sessions available to any Cert HE or MPhil/PhD students who may find them relevant. We’re also currently working on developing a series of ‘masterclasses’ with alumni who have used their Birkbeck degrees to good effect – and are developing a workshadowing programme, with a view to giving  students the opportunity to spend time with alumni at their current places of work, to learn more about various careers in the Arts at first hand. Watch this space!

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Some dates for your diaries…

*             The next event in the calendar of the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is next Wednesday, 16th November – Dr. Samuel Bibby, from the Association of Art Historians, will be speaking about ‘”New! Art… Plus Added Social Purpose”: BLOCK and the Periodical Landscape of 1970s British Art History(6:00-7:30pm, Room 106, School of Arts)

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*             Then, the following week, early period colleagues will be running not one, but two events! The next Murray research seminar is coming up on Thursday 24th November at 5pm (Room 106, School of Arts): Dr. Pippa Salonius will be speaking on the topic of ‘Authority, Nature and the Image’ in medieval art and culture. Then, the following day, Friday 25th November, there will be a one-day interdisciplinary conference on Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality, also supported by the Murray Bequest. Prompted by the V&A Museum’s current exhibition of medieval embroidery, Opus Anglicanum, this event will be bringing together leading and emerging scholars working on questions of meaning and materiality in medieval textiles – both real and imaginary.

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I was delighted to be sent the piece in the Guardian today, written by an alumna of our MA History of Art programme – Inga Fraser. Do have a look at her story, about how her Masters degree helped her to develop her career. But I’m now going to hand over the final part of this blog to one of our current MA students, Sunil Shah. As well as working towards his Masters in History of Art, Sunil also works as an artist, and a curator….

Sunil Shah, Research and art practice in ‘a rebel scene’

“As an independent curator, artist and a student on the History of Art MA programme at Birkbeck, it is always useful when you can draw your academic research into the real-world scenarios you face as a practitioner. Earlier this year I was co-commissioned by the New Art Exchange in Nottingham for a social engagement project that supplemented a thematic exhibition about street art, protest and activism in Egypt and Iran. The gallery wanted to engage Nottingham’s activists and protest groups to provide a local context for the show. Alongside Kajal Nisha Patel, a Leicester-based artist, we had a brief to explore Nottingham’s rich history of political activism and connect that to the contemporary state of things.

Such a commission was a minefield of potential representational issues. Problematic areas we found in social practice and participatory art ranged from addressing structures and hierarchies within art’s institutional apparatus, the authorship and political positioning of the artist and authentic representation of political and social struggle. We needed a critical approach to this commission and so I decided to base my MA Research Project on this very subject. Through the research, we broadly addressed the history of art and politics from Dada up to the present as a way of revealing how artists, activists, theorists and institutions have typically tackled some of the complex questions that arise from this form of political agency.

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The research helped in defining a methodological approach to the commission – how we worked with the participating groups and how we decided to present the results of the collaboration. We ended up with an approach that aimed to level art and institutional hierarchies, renounce authorship and maintain the creative expression of those involved. We found the research to be a critical and essential part of the commission, without which its meaning and relevance might have been reduced. We worked with four local groups: Nottingham Womens Centre; the Sparrows Nest Anarchist Library and Archive; rebel women; and Reel Equality. The exhibition is titled ‘a rebel scene’ and consists of a poster paste-up wall, participant photo-collages and a political slogan text installation. It is on now at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham and continues until 18th December 2016.”

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Do visit the display if you have the opportunity! Thanks Sunil.

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