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:

ashby-modernism

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!