Central European explorations (and all the best of the season)

It’s been a longish gap since my last blogpost – somehow I always imagine the end of term as a time of graceful winding down and time for review and reflection, and it ends up being a mad dash for the finish line.

Anyway, now term is over I can draw a breath and let you know about various exciting and interesting things.

The destination for our 2020 department study trip has been announced: the glorious and fascinating Central European metropole of Vienna. The trip will take place 30 March to 3 April. More will be sent out to current students at all levels in the new year about how to secure your place on the trip, and about a session being scheduled to meet the trip leaders and ask questions. I can tell you now a bit about the two people leading the trip. Niccola Shearman has just completed a one-year lectureship in the history of art department at University of Manchester, where she led a very successful field trip to Vienna for them. She is an expert in German Expressionist art; after a career as a teacher, she recently completed her PhD at the Courtauld. Miloš Kosec is an architect based in Llubljiana, Slovenia, who recently completed his PhD in contemporary architecture at Birkbeck, and who knows Vienna – both contemporary and historical – well. They’re in the process of devising a really interesting and rich trip. The departmental study trip, which is free for current students, is generously supported by the Murray Bequest, which, in addition to paying the co-leaders, funds bursaries for help those students who need it to defray the travel and accommodation costs. More on that soon! You can read more about the departmental study trip here.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna – one of the world’s best collections of early modern art

And speaking of Central European metropoles, our Certificate programme in History of Art features a brilliant week-long study trip to Budapest, 11-15 May, led by Kasia Murawska-Muthesius. Kasia (ably assisted by Prof Stefan Muthesius) has led numerous excellent and extremely popular field trips to cities all over Europe, but this is the first one to Budapest. There are just a couple of places left. Like all our Certificate modules, the Budapest trip can be enrolled on as a one-off module with no entrance requirements. For more on cost and enrolment see here and download more details here.

A message for MA alumni: The deadline for signing up to take MA options in the Spring term on a non-credit-bearing basis has been extended to 6 January. There is the usual fascinating range of options available. Download further details here.

And for those of you considering applying for a MA, PG Certificate or PG Diploma in the department, there are now two Youtube videos of about 20 minutes each outlining details of the programmes’ structure, special features, student experience and more. You’ll hear Leslie Topp (yours truly) and Sarah Thomas explaining the programmes with slides, and then an online Q&A session with more information. (The beginning of my video has a techno-dystopian vibe as you’ll see, but stick with it and it settles down quite reassuringly.)

Links to the videos:

History of Art, History of Architecture, History of Photograpy programmes (Leslie)

Museum Cultures Programmes (Sarah)

Mara Polgovsky-Ezcurra, Lecturer in Contemporary Art, was in Liverpool last week leading a hands-on workshop at Tate Liverpool engaging with the links between collage and activism. ‘Art and Politics: The Workings of Collage‘ asked: What is the relevance of art to discuss power and its abuses, the relationship between beauty and Empire, the ways the past affects our vision of the present? It addressed these questions through precipitative and creative engagement with the work of Argentine artist and human rights activist Leon Ferrari (1920-2013). Ferrari gained international visibility for his unparalleled capacity to stir up debate and explore ways to make art relevant to society at large. He practiced drawing and sculpture, yet collage became the primary form of expression that he used to approach art and politics. The workshop aimed not just to come to know and understand Ferrari’s art but also to link it to issues of the present. Participants made a collage meant to be not just artistically pleasing but politically significant too.

Postcards featuring the work of Argentine artist Lucila Quieto (b.1977). Photo: Jordana Blejmar

Looking forward to next term, Mara has organised an event with the Centre for Museum Cultures that will be of interest to all with an interest in contemporary and performance art, as well as Museum Cultures and BA History of Art with Curating students. ‘Time-based media in the museum: conserving and activating performance’ brings together the academic and curator Bergit Arends (University of Bristol) with the Conservation Manager for Time Based Media Conservation at Tate, Louise Lawson. They’ll be discussing the challenges and opportunities of archiving, conserving and activating works that exist primarily in time.

Finally, a sneak preview of the Spring and Summer programme of Murray Seminars in Medieval and Renaissance Art. All talks are in Keynes library at 5pm:

27th January: James Hall on Michelangelo and Flemish aesthetics

25th February:  Federico Botano on a 15thC Florentine manuscripts

16th March:  Sarah Ferrari on an Italian Renaissance subject tbc

14th May Lucy Donkin on a medieval subject tbc

10th June   Clare Vernon on a crusader mausoleum

9th July  Gaby Neher on Leonardo da Vinci and cats

Happy Holidays! Back in 2020.


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Faces and enigmas, nuclear landscapes and country houses

What really struck me in putting together the blog this week was how rich and diverse our research culture is – and this richness and diversity is very much on display over the next couple of weeks.

At the next Murray Seminar on Medieval and Renaissance Art, on Weds 4 December at 5pm in the Keynes Library, our own Laura Jacobus will be speaking on ‘Faces and Enigmas: maker-portraits by Giotto and Giovanni Pisano’. During the later middle ages, the questions ‘who makes an art-work?’ and ‘what is a portrait?’ had no simple answers.  The person who commissioned a work of art could be seen as the person responsible for its creation, and the person we call the artist could be regarded as just one of the means employed to make it. The word ‘portrait’ was not in use (at least not in its modern sense), and images of people were not expected to look like anyone recognisable. Giotto and Giovanni Pisano were two of the most famous artists working in Italy in the years around 1300 and they wanted recognition in every sense of the word. But how? Come and find out – all welcome and no need to book.

The Architecture Space and Society Centre has a veritable cluster of events over the rest of the term:

This Thursday 28 November, 6pm, room 106:  Vandana Baweja (University of Florida) is speaking on the German émigré architect and expert on tropical architecture Otto Koenigsberger and what it means to talk about global histories of Modernism.

Friday 6 December, 6pm, room 106: A conversation between artist Susan Schuppli (Goldsmiths, Centre for Research Architecture) and architect David Burns (RCA, School of Architecture) on ‘Apocalyptic Archives: Nuclear Landscapes and Material Histories‘.

Thursday 12 December, 3-5pm, Keynes Library: A mini-symposium on the English country house from the 18th century to the present, with our own Kate Retford, Abby Van Slyck (Connecticut College) and Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Then on Friday 13 December, 10-5pm in the School of Arts Cinema, there’s a day workshop aimed at post-graduate students, co-hosted by the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, the ASSC and the Birkbeck Institute of Humanities on ‘Photography, Space and Violence‘. It features talks by Birkbeck’s Steve Edwards and Sean Willcock, BIH visting fellow Claire Zimmerman (University of Michigan) and Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths), alongside student presentations.

You’ll remember all those photos of our happy graduates in a recent blog. Well now you can read about two of them in detail, including the fact that they’re married to each other. Check out this post about two of our students on the Birkbeck events blog.

In staff news, Professor Annie Coombes gave a talk last month at the Art Institute of the University of Plymouth as part of their ‘Beyond Contact: Postcolonial Approaches to Art’ Series. In ‘Decolonizing the Monument/Rethinking the Memorial‘, she grappled with crucial and timely issues of colonialism and memory.  As a counterpoint to the rise of the nationalist right (again) in Europe, the United States and elsewhere in the world, there has been an increased demand on many university campuses, for institutions to address colonial amnesia and to actively decolonize the curriculum. Public statues were also key components of this process, particularly the removal of monuments dedicated to the “heroes” of the colonial period. Using examples from Kenya, Spain and South Africa, Prof. Coombes considered the ways how the violent past targeting civilian populations can be remembered today. She also investigated alternative forms of collective memory which enable a shared and more organic engagement with our history. You can read more about her talk here.

Sarah Thomas‘s book Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition (Yale University Press), mentioned in past blogs, was, very excitingly, shortlisted for the Apollo Magazine Book of the Year.

You also might be interested to know that there are academics working in other departments in the School of Arts who are leading art historians, working on areas with strong links to the work in our department. Carmen Fracchia, for instance, is Reader in Hispanic Art History in the Department of Cultures and Languages. Her new book ‘Black But Human’ Slavery and Visual Arts in Habsburg Spain, 1480-1700 has just been published by Oxford University Press.

A reminder to give your feedback to your student reps in time for the staff-student exchange meetings that they’ll be attending next week (Cert HE, BA and Grad Cert on Weds 4th; PG Cert, PG Dip and MA on Thurs 5th). Please see the emails sent out by our admin team (art-history@bbk.ac.uk) with email addresses for your student reps. You can also find their names and emails in the UG and PG student handbooks under ‘The Student Voice’.

We’re offering two really interesting modules, taught by two of our most popular lecturers, starting in January – these are open access Cert HE modules, so anyone can simply enrol. There are still places, but they’re going fast!

Art and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Prasannajit De Silva) – Tuesday evenings 6pm

Central European Modernism: Berlin to Belgrade (Kasia Murawska-Muthesius) – Tuesdays 2pm

Finally, I’ve been alerted to an interesting-sounding talk TOMORROW 27 November at 7pm by the preeminent art historian Griselda Pollock at the Jewish Museum, on the artist Charlotte Solomon, who is the subject of a current exhibition at the museum. There are still tickets available, with concessions for students.

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Spring term MA options: Special post for graduates of our MA/PG Certificate and PG Diploma Programmes

As announced previously in this blog… For the first time in 2019-20, we are opening up places on our MA options to our MA (and Postgraduate Certificate and Postgraduate Diploma) graduates, in response for demand for further personal enrichment and professional development. We are now announcing the Spring 2020 list of options available. If you completed the MA in 2019 but have not graduated yet, you are still eligible. We hope you’ll find the following offer attractive and stimulating, and we would love to have your feedback.

What to expect

  • You will be taking these modules alongside seminar-size groups of current MA students. The overall number will not normally exceed 18. You’ll be given access to all preparatory readings and other resources, and will be part of the seminar along with the rest of the group. As you’ll remember from your own studies, doing the reading in advance is crucial to your own and everyone else’s experience of the seminar, so we ask all participants to commit to coming to class prepared.
  • You will be included on any class visits to sites and collections.
  • You will have access to the Birkbeck library and its online resources, as well as to the module’s Moodle page, for the duration of the module.
  • You will probably be asked to do a non-assessed presentation, but you won’t be asked to do the assessment (final essay) for the module.

How to sign up

  • The list of options available in the Spring term 2020 is available to download at the bottom of this post, with dates and times. You can opt to take one or more than one, as long as the times don’t clash.
  • Places on each module are limited, so please rank your choices in order of preference.
  • Places will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, so send your ranked choices (including an indication of how many you would like to take) to art-history@bbk.ac.uk as soon as possible and no later than 13 December.

Cost: £650 per option module.

MA History of Art and Museums options for MA graduates Spring 2020

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Second blogpost of the day – pleas and opportunities

And now for part 2:

Some pleas first.

If you’re a current student you’ll have been receiving emails asking for volunteers to be student representatives. Huge thanks to all those who’ve come forward. We are still in need of volunteers from our post-graduate programmes in Museum Cultures, History of Art, History of Architecture, and History of Photography. The student rep role is a vital and rewarding one. You are the person who other students go to with feedback on their programmes, which you then bring to two staff-student exchange meetings per year. A staff-student exchange meeting, which is attended by programme directors and administrators and by yours truly as head of department, is a really meaty and useful affair, during which students set the agenda and lots of issues of real relevance to your studies – from assessment and communication to placements and classrooms are discussed. Don’t worry if you’ve never done anything like this before – there’s training and online resources available from the student union. Being a student rep is your opportunity to get to know other students on your courses, and to have an impact on your studies and how they’re run and organised. If you’re interested, please contact our admin team on art-history@bbk.ac.uk.

Another excellent way to get involved and meet other students is by helping out with the department’s student society, the History of Art Society. A small group of students is starting to put together a programme of events for this year – watch this blog for more. But they’d like more people to come forward to be part of the society steering committee. Students on all of our programmes, undergraduate and postgraduate, are welcome. If you’re interested, please contact Tammi on hoasociety@bbk.ac.uk

And now for the opportunities!

Installation by Cathy Wilkes, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019

The School of Arts is delighted to announce an exciting opportunity to all current students – this year’s round of applications for two Steward-Research Fellowships at the Venice Biennale 2020, running between 18 May and 29 November 2020. The Biennale alternates between an art and architecture focus; in 2020 it’s architecture’s turn. The successful candidates will be responsible for making their own travel and accommodation arrangements, but will be given a travel grant of £1600 for a period of one month towards these and other expenses. The successful candidates will work four days per week over a one-month period as an invigilator in the British Pavilion, and on the remaining three days they will focus on their own research project. The British Pavilion will be presenting The Garden of Privatised Delights – the exhibition will engage in the current debate around ownership and access to what we perceive as public space. The curators will transform the British Pavilion into a series of immersive spaces, offering a fantastic opportunity for students, researchers and early stage career artists to engage in the process. Students from all programmes across the School of Arts are encouraged to apply. There is a briefing session about the Fellowships led by Laura Broderick and Ros Fraser, the Fellowship’s Programme Managers from the British Council, on Thursday 21 November at 6pm-7.30pm in CLO B01 [Clore Management Centre, Torrington Square, Bloomsbury, London, WC1E 7JL]. We shall also be joined by one of last year’s Fellows. Our guests will be available to answer any questions you might have about the Fellowships. Applications are due by 2pm on Friday 29 November. Please, send them to BBKatVeniceArtBiennale@gmail.com For any queries please contact Dorota Ostrowska at d.ostrowska@bbk.ac.uk The Info Pack is also available on this link.

For the past three years we’ve been sending students to Venice on these fellowships. You can read great blog posts by the two 2018 fellows, Uli Gamper and Danilo Reis.

My brilliant and innovative colleague in the School of Arts, Mari-Paz Balibrea, organises the Arts Employability Programme. You are warmly invited to come along if you want to explore your options for employment after you have completed your degree and are wondering what kind of work you can do with a degree in Arts. I’m hoping some of you were able to go along to the Careers workshop and the Industry and Alumni Panel last week. Upcoming events include: Going Global Workshop, 15 January (very topical – working abroad, working in Europe after/despite/around Brexit, changes to regs around working in the UK for international students); Industry and Alumni panel, 18 February; and Global Talent panel, 20 February. See the posters around the School of Arts building for more. Booking links will be available closer to the date.

You may not know that Birkbeck has a partnership with the renowned Institute of Contemporary Arts. The ICA offers a limited number of Blue Memberships to Birkbeck students. Perks of this membership include free entry to their important programme of exhibitions of contemporary art, discounted tickets to films, talks, concerts and performances, with no booking fees; free monthly Members’ film screenings in their beautiful cinemas; and a 10% discount at the Bookstore and Rochelle Canteen (very yummy). Please sign up here.  More information on the ICA Blue Membership and the list of member benefits can be found here.

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Happy graduates and events, events, events

Last week I got to do one of my favourite things, which was to go to graduation. For the head of department and other (un)lucky academics it does mean dressing up in extremely warm academic gowns and silly hats and sitting still for 90 minutes on the stage clapping a lot and worrying about whether you turned your mobile off. But seeing our students walk across the stage looking extremely pleased and very justifiably proud makes it worth it, and the best bit is the milling around in the reception afterwards talking to students and their families and friends. The November graduation is mostly BAs and Graduate Certificates (MAs get their chance in April), and at each one there are always also PhDs, which are really very special. Nothing like the look of relief and happiness on the face of a graduating PhD student!

Some photos of the happy graduates in question:

Reading week is now well behind us and we’re back with a vengeance. Events and opportunities galore (plus a couple of pleas). In fact… there is so much to tell you about that I’ve decided to do a two parter. Events and some news below, followed by opportunities (and pleas) in a separate post.

This evening at 6pm in Keynes Library, the Centre for Museum Cultures hosts our own Dr Kasia Murawska-Muthesius. She’ll be speaking on a topic of great art historical, museological, and political relevance as well as significant personal resonance for her in a paper entitled ‘The Critical Museum Debate Continues‘. The project of the Critical Museum – the art institution which uses its own resources, including its collection, its range of activities and its “auratic” space, for encouraging and hosting the debates on the issues that are crucial for contemporary societies  –  was one of the boldest and socially most significant battles undertaken by Piotr Piotrowski, when invited to run the National Museum in Warsaw in 2009 (with Kasia herself at his side as deputy director).  The Critical Museum project, formed part and parcel of Piotrowski’s long-standing campaign against the prevalent discourses of contemporary art history and, in particular, against the hierarchical artistic geography, eulogising masterpieces, and marginalising the arts of East Central Europe. However, it was not just the art historical canon which was the target. Piotrowski’s museum was devised, first and foremost, as a forum, as an active agent in the public sphere, the venue for exhibiting art and discussing society, deliberately contributing to the process of defending democracy and its values, digging up difficult memories, juxtaposing conflicting narratives, empowering the disempowered, with a special attention given to the rights of minorities. The paper will discuss the origins and the premises, as well as the aftermath of the Critical Museum project. More information and booking link here (or if you don’t have time to book, just go along.)

While we’re on the topic of Museums, on Monday 18 November Sarah Thomas, lecturer in the department and director of the Centre for Museum Cultures, will be giving a lunchtime talk in the Sainsbury Wing Theatre of the National Gallery on ‘The legacies of slave ownership on art museums in Britain’. All welcome – further information and booking here.  This talk follows on from a recent workshop that Sarah co-convened in September with Dr Lucy Peltz from the National Portrait Gallery (and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck). It brought together thirty museum professionals and scholars to discuss current research on the cultural legacies of slave-ownership. This was an opportunity for curators, educators and researchers from art museums across the UK to consider strategies and practical methodologies to deal with the legacies of slavery and slave-ownership, and to discuss what it might mean to ‘decolonise’ the art museum. It’s been an eventful time for Sarah, whose bookWitnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition has also recently been published by the Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press.

Then tomorrow (Tuesday 12 November, 5-6pm in Keynes Library) you can hear the latest research on another kind of institutional identity crisis, this one from the middle ages. For the next Murray Seminar we welcome Michael Carter, Senior Historian at English Heritage, speaking on ‘Relics and monastic identity in late medieval England’. The speaker analyses the importance of relics in the construction of monastic identities in late medieval England. He will focus on two Benedictine (Battle and Whitby) and two Cistercian (Hailes and Rievaulx) abbeys. He will demonstrate that these monasteries used relics to promote and sustain their wider religious role until the time of the Suppression, and that relics were also used to affirm relations between religious houses. Relics and the development of local liturgical observance will also be discussed. Calling upon relic lists, chronicles, heraldry, wills and extant material remains, Michael will also give an idea of the broad range of sources available for the study of the cult of relics at English monasteries, and show that significant material remains unexplored or capable of reinterpretation. The talk is a work in progress, and presents preliminary findings from a projected large-scale study into relics and monasteries in the two centuries before the Suppression. Booking link here, or just go along.

And as previously noted in this blog two more of our research centres have rich programmes of events scheduled across the rest of the term. The History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is hosting several scholars from across the pond this term, including Andrés Mario Zervigón (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey) giving the paper ‘Fully Visible and Transparent: Zeiss Anastigmat’ on Wednesday, 20 November 2019, 6-7:30pm in Gordon Sq room 106. Then on Monday 9 December 2019, 6-7:30pm, also in room 106, Charlene Heath (Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada) will be giving a paper of equal interest to photography and museums people, ‘To Circulate and Disperse: Jo Spence, Terry Dennett and a Still Moving Archive’.

The History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is also involved in hosting the launch of a special issue of the journal Memory Studies devoted to Ottoman Transcultural Memories, co-edited by a team including our own Gabriel Koureas and Colette Wilson. The launch will be on Monday 25 November, 2-4pm in Keynes Library, and will include a short presentation on the special issue and a Q&A, and very excitingly, a musical performance by Suna Alan, one of the contributors. More information and a booking link below.

Ottoman Transcultural Memories Launch Flyer

There are also all the Architecture Space and Society Centre events coming up (Otto Koenigsberger and Global Histories of Modernism on 28 November; Apocalyptic Archives on 6 December and the English Country House on the afternoon of 12 December) – more details here and in future blogs.

Opportunities and pleas to come, as promised.

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Enrol! Book! demands, demands…

Now that all the inductions, orientations and introductory lectures are well behind us, I hope you’re enjoying getting your teeth into the substance of your studies. If by any chance you haven’t yet enrolled, you’ll know from the multiple reminders I’m sure you’ve received that there’s a deadline to enrol of 31 October (why does that date sound familiar?) The sooner the better for enrolment, in order to make sure you don’t lose access to moodle and other essential resources. If you’re having any problems enrolling, and/or would like to talk to someone about payment of fees and financial issues, the best place to turn is the Student Advice Service.

I had a quick visit to Manchester University last week to give a talk on ‘Modern Architecture and Antisemitism in Vienna’, in which I discussed two key buildings by the architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, and how they were shaped by the particular political and economic forms of antisemitic agitation in the banking and clothing industries of the early 20th century. The talk was based on some research I’ve done recently for a contribution to the book Design Dialogue: Jews, Culture and Viennese Modernism. While there, I made a pilgrimage to the Manchester Art Gallery to see Ford Madox Brown’s amazing Work. There’s nothing like standing in front of an artwork that you have seen so many times in reproduction…

Speaking of being in front to paintings, one of our PhD students, Melissa Buron, has curated a major exhibition on the French (and a bit English) painter James Tissot: ‘Tissot: Fashion and Faith’. It opened at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco earlier this month and moves on to Musée d’Orsay in Paris in March 2020. Melissa was also an MA History of Art student at Birkbeck and is completing her PhD on Tissot and the Visual Language of Spiritualism, supervised by Prof Lynda Nead.

The exhibition is a major reassessment of the artist’s work and will demonstrate that even in his most glamorous and fashionable society paintings there is a rich and complex commentary on topics such as nineteenth-century culture, religion, and politics. Throughout his life Tissot experimented with major trends in contemporary art, but his work resists classification and traditional labels. We congratulate Melissa on this major achievement and are booking our Eurostar tickets now!

The History and Theory of Photography Research Centre has announced its Autumn programme of talks, which are free and open to all.

The first is on 20 November, 6-7:30pm in Gordon Square room 106.  Andrés Mario Zervigón (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey) will be giving a talk entitled ‘Fully Visible and Transparent: Zeiss Anastigmat’. In 1890, the famous Jena Glass Works of Carl Zeiss released the Anastigmat photographic lens. The innovative device advanced a chapter in optical technology; thenew lens offered a consistent field of focus across the photographic plate. But why exactly had Zeiss developed its expensive mechanism and what drove photographers to buy it? This paper suggests that the consistent focus and varied depth of field that the Anastigmat provided were not in and of themselves the desired goals of the improvements, but that they were instead visible signals of a pictorial model that makers and consumers had been seeking since the public introduction of photography in 1839. The goal was a transparent realism that remained stubbornly external to the medium, an illusionistic standard that had largely been mediated by painting since the renaissance and was now apparently possible in photography as well.

Justine Varga, Overlay, 2016-18.

Later in the term, on 9 December,  we can look forward to Charlene Heath (Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada) on To Circulate and Disperse: Jo Spence, Terry Dennett and a Still Moving Archive.

Later this week , on 25-26 October there’s a conference on issues in contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute which may be of interest.


And don’t forget to BOOK YOUR PLACES for the Murray Lecture next Friday 1 November, 6pm: T.J. Clark on ‘What Cezanne Saw in Pissarro’, followed by a drinks reception, which is always a fun event. There are still seats (free of course), but they’re going fast. Book here.

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The Murray Lecture, T.J.Clark, and more

Welcome to the new academic year! Brilliant to see all the new faces at the inductions, and familiar faces as well in the classroom this week.

We’re delighted to welcome Dr Clare Vernon as Lecturer in History of Art before 1700, replacing Zoe Opacic, who is on leave this year. Clare is an expert on the medieval art and architecture of Southern Italy, and she will be teaching on both the BA and MA programmes. In addition to Zoe, three other colleagues are on research leave during the academic year 2019-20: Suzannah Biernoff, Annie Coombes and Lynda Nead.

A crucial date for your diary: Friday 1 November 6pm.  That evening we welcome a renowned art historian whose books many of you will have had the pleasure of reading.  T.J.Clark will be giving the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture on the topic of ‘What Cezanne Saw in Pissarro’. Professor Clark, an enormously engaging speaker, will be asking new questions about these familiar artists. Here’s the blurb: ‘After four or five years of aggressive and original achievement as a painter, Cezanne apprenticed himself to Pissarro in the 1870s, working side by side with the master.  Why?  What did he see in Pissarro that he thought essential to understand?  What couldn’t he emulate?  In what ways does the difference between the two artists matter to the art we call ‘modern’?’ The Murray Lecture is held every other year in memory of Peter Murray, the founder of Birkbeck’s History of Art Department, and is generously supported by the Murray Bequest. We’ll be in the Clore Lecture Theatre and there’ll be a wine reception following the lecture. Please join us, and remember to book your tickets here. The Murray lecture often sells out, so don’t forget to book.

Here’s a photo of Cezanne and Pissarro meeting – I think they’re the ones holding their hats.

As usual the term features a rich panoply of events to attend:

The Centre for Museum Cultures has three talks scheduled this term. Thomas Ardill, Curator of Paintings, Prints and Drawings at the Museum of London will unpack the process of curating the Secret Rivers exhibition there, 21 October 6pm in Keynes Library. Our own Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will speak on 11 November 6pm in Keynes about a project she has both written about and been personally engaged in, the Critical Museum initiative, led by the late Piotr Piotrowski, which shook up the museum world in Warsaw and beyond by imagining a museum that would use its own resources, including its collection, its range of activities and its “auratic” space, for encouraging and hosting the debates on the issues – including many controversial ones – crucial for contemporary societies. Their last event of the term, on 13 December, 5pm, takes place in the V&A – Jacques Schuhmacher, the V&A’s Provenance Curator, will provide a behind-the-scenes tour of the exhibition ‘Concealed Histories, Uncovering the Story of Nazi Looting’ (places for this are very limited, and booking will open closer to the time.) Booking links for the other two events are here.

The Murray Seminars have been announced and the first one is coming up on 16 October, with Petr Uličný on The Origins of Renaissance Architecture in Bohemia. Seminars take place at 5pm in the Keynes Library (Room 114), unless stated otherwise.  Talks finish by 5.50pm to allow those with other commitments to leave, and are then followed by discussion and refreshments.  These talks are, like the Murray Lecture, supported by the Murray Bequest in memory of the Department’s founder Peter Murray, and are open to all. No booking required. More on the upcoming programme here.

The Architecture Space and Society Centre has two symposia coming up that on the face of it present a stark contrast, but in fact share the goal of taking a building type as the starting point for a wider cultural, artistic and architectural analysis. Factory World: Architecture and Industrialization over Time and Space, on 31 October, explores new research on factory architecture and images of factories between the Industrial Revolution and the present day, and across several different countries. And on 12 December, we’ll have three speakers from the UK and US addressing the complexities and afterlives of The English Country House, in an event co-organised with the Birkbeck Eighteenth-Century Research Group.

The ASSC is also hosting not one but two visiting scholars this year, both from outside of the UK. Anne-Françoise Morel joins us from KU Leuven in Belgium, taking up the Belgian Chair at the University of London. Claire Zimmerman comes from the University of Michigan as a Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities visiting scholar. You can find out more about them and their planned activities here.

We had a very successful weekend opening the School of Arts Building on Gordon Square for Open House London on 21-22 September, with 371 visitors being guided through the building by a brilliant (and often hilarious) group of History of Art students, current and past. The result was many enlightened and delighted visitors. Some comments: ‘Brilliant! I had no idea there was that much history and that many stories behind these doors!’; ‘The tour really knitted together the history of the building, the lives of those who lived here and the modern development and use of the building. It was awesome to tread in the spaces which Keynes trod.’ ‘So many different stories! Film Studies to Bloomsbury ballerina!’; ‘A wonderful tour – I never knew how many different things were hiding inside this building! Thanks to the guide for bringing everything to life.’ And for readers of French: ‘Magnifique batiment, rempli d’histoire et de fantomes inspirants.’ Finally, a word from one of our tour guides, Lisa Thefaut (MA History of Art): ‘it was brilliant to get such a positive response from the visitors on the tours. Everyone seemed to love time travelling to moments in the history of Gordon Square and finding out about the cultural significance of this diverse space from the 19th century to the present day.’

On the topic of the School of Arts building… you’ll have noticed it’s looking a bit rough around the edges. From around April 2020, it’ll be undergoing a major renovation, though we’ll carry on using it during that time, with a third of the building being closed for use at a time and those of us with offices in those parts of the building moving in to share with colleagues during the construction. More communications on the elements of this that might affect students as we get closer to April.


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Special post for graduates of our MAs: you can now sign up to do further options

Over the years, many alumni of our MA programmes have kept in touch and let us know that they wished they could study with us again.They wish they could take options that they missed out on during their MAs or they’re interested in options that have been introduced to our offerings since they graduated. Some want to keep their academic tools sharp while they think about a PhD. Others would find particular options useful for professional development.

So we’ve decided to introduce a new scheme in which MA graduates can enrol in our MA options, beginning immediately! We’ve announced the Autumn term options with places available, and we’ll release the information about our Spring 2020 options soon. Note that library and e-library access is included!

We hope you’ll find the scheme attractive, and are very keen to have your feedback (send it straight to me on l.topp@bbk.ac.uk).

Here are the details:

For the first time in 2019-20, we are opening up places on our MA options to our MA graduates (from History of Art, History of Art with Photography and Museum Cultures), in response for demand for further personal enrichment and professional development. Please note that if you have submitted your final dissertation you are eligible to take part (even if you have not yet officially graduated.) This scheme is also available to those who have completed the PG Certificate or the PG Diploma.

What to expect

  • You will be taking these modules alongside seminar-size groups of current MA students. The overall number will not normally exceed 18. You’ll be given access to all preparatory readings and other resources, and will be part of the seminar along with the rest of the group. As you’ll remember from your own studies, doing the reading in advance is crucial to your own and everyone else’s experience of the seminar, so we ask all participants to commit to coming to class prepared.
  • You will be included on any class visits to sites and collections.
  • You will have full access to the Birkbeck library and its online resources, as well as to the module’s Moodle page, for the duration of the module.
  • You won’t be asked to do the assessment (final essay) for the module.

How to sign up

  • The list of options available in the Autumn term 2019 is available in the attached document, with dates and times. You can opt to take one or more, as long as the times don’t clash.
  • Places on each module are limited, so please rank your choices in order of preference.
  • Places will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, so send your ranked choices (including an indication of how many you would like to take) to art-history@bbk.ac.uk as soon as possible and no later than 25 September.

Cost: £650 per option module.








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Open Evening, Factory World and Imagined Cosmopolis

I had a very enjoyable time speaking to a wonderful range of people at our open evening last night, all of whom were in the process of putting in (or seriously considering putting in) applications for BA, Grad Cert and MA programmes in the department, to start in a couple of weeks time. There is still time, so if you’re reading this and considering joining us, or re-joining us, don’t hesitate to put in an application, and to contact me (l.topp@bbk.ac.uk) or our admissions tutor Dorigen Caldwell (d.caldwell@bbk.ac.uk).

Some dates to keep in mind for incoming students – induction evenings are coming up as follows:

Weds 25 September, 6-9pm for BA History of Art, BA History of Art with Curating, BA History of Art with Film and BA History of Art and History

Thurs 26 September, 6-9pm for MA/PG Certificate/PG Diploma in History of Art, History of Photography, History of Architecture and Museum Cultures

Saturday 28 September, 10am-1pm for Graduate Certificate in History of Art and Architecture

Two posts ago I included a special bit for all our EU students, and had a nice message back from Lara, who’s joining us on the MA History of Photography: ‘As an EU citizen working in London and now studying I feel very supported and welcomed. Thank you.’ David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, recently wrote to all staff acknowledging that we’re all rattled by the national crisis and including this statement I wanted to share with you: ‘Birkbeck is proud of its inclusive and international outlook.  Whatever course the UK ultimately takes in relation to Brexit we are committed to welcoming and supporting staff and students from the European Union and across the globe. We are committed to the breadth and scope of our international academic collaborations.’

The brilliant charity Art Fund has announced its 2019 Student Art Pass offer, which is a good one, especially if you’re eager to get to some of the great exhibitions coming up this season but are looking to defray the sometimes breathtaking cost of entry. Here’s the info, and note the December deadline.

Student Art Pass – a year of art and opportunities for a fiver

A Student Art Pass lets you dive into culture on a budget with free entry to hundreds of museums and galleries across the UK, and 50% off major exhibitions.

Plus, you’ll gain access to paid arts opportunities and grow your network by joining the #WeAreArtful #StudentArtPass community. All for just £5 a year.

Available for a limited time (deadline 15 December). Get your £5 pass today: 


I can give one more sneak preview of a special event coming up this term, organised by our Architecture Space and Society Centre, which is a very active hub for research events related to architectural history from medieval to contemporary. They’ve collaborated here with the Birkbeck Institute of Humanities. (Note the date: it might be good to have an absorbing distraction…)

Factory World: Architecture and Industrialization over Time and Space

11.00-6.00, October 31, 2019, Keynes Library, Organized by Mark Crinson (History of Art, Birkbeck) and Claire Zimmerman (visiting scholar from University of Michigan), and featuring speakers from Technical University Berlin, and universities of Newcastle, Brighton and Rochester (NY). This one-day symposium explores new research on factory architecture and images of factories between the Industrial Revolution and the present day, and across several different countries. Factories offer distinctive ways to understand architecture as a globally interconnected phenomenon, intimately tied to urban change, visions of modernity and technological utopia. The event will offer speakers and audiences the opportunity to share ideas around questions of political economy in architecture.

Finally, another announcement of an exciting new book out from one of our academics. Dr Charlotte Ashby has co-edited Imagined Cosmopolis: Internationalism and Cultural Exchange, 1870s-1920s, published by Peter Lang. The book explores ways in which the arts operated internationally between 1870-1920s against a tide of rising nationalism. And how they helped to challenge national and nationalistic conceptions of citizenship, society, homeland and native tongue. Why does that sound familiar…

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Impressions of Venice, and a book launch with a difference

Hello again –

I wanted to share this wonderful collaborative blogpost with you. It’s an account by three of our students of their impressions of Venice and Padua on the annual department study trip earlier this year. It includes both art and food, and a plug for our annual trips generally. The trips are a highlight of many students’ experience of studying with us. You can learn more about our trips and read about past trips here. Thank you to Angela (MA Museum Cultures), Sue (MA History of Art) and Steve (BA History of Art) for responding so generously and eloquently to my arm-twisting at the end of term party… The destination for the 2020 study trip will be announced soon!

Also sending an invitation to the launch of the exciting new book by Dr Mara Polgovsky-Ezcurra, our Lecturer in Contemporary Art. It’s called Touched Bodies: The Performative Turn in Latin American Art and is published by the prestigious US publisher Rutgers University Press. The launch is on October 1st, 19.00-21.00 at the Live Art Development Agency in East London – more info and a booking link here. The launch won’t just be the usual prosecco and canapes affair, but will include a performance by the dancer and artist Margarita Zafrilla in collaboration with Mara herself, who is also a dancer. All welcome – it’s free of charge, but make sure to book.






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Sneak preview

This is a special, out of term, blog post, to give you a sneak preview of what’s ahead, this month and this coming term. I also want to welcome all our new students joining us on all our programmes this Autumn – we’re very much looking forward to meeting you at the inductions in the last week of September, and then in class the week after that.

If you’re getting this, and you’re thinking you’d like to be one of those incoming students, or you know someone who’s considering it, there is still time to apply, right up to mid-October. We have a wider than ever range of programmes this year, from introductory Certificates, BA History of Art with Foundation Year, and/or with pathways in Curating, Film, History and (new in 2019) Languages, Graduate Certificate (for those with first degrees outside of art/art history), MA Museum Cultures, MA History of Art, and, also new in 2019, MA History of Architecture and MA History of Photography. Just google ‘Birkbeck’ and the name of the programme and you’ll get to the relevant webpage with info and application links.

The best way of finding out more is to drop into the Open Evening for late applicants on 12 September, 4.30-7 –  History of Art staff will be there giving advice and guidance.

Seems a good moment to emphasise how EU-friendly Birkbeck is, and how much we value the very high proportion of EU students who study with us – you enrich our academic culture immensely, and we look forward to that continuing, Brexit or no Brexit, deal or no deal. Birkbeck has committed to charging the same home fees it’s always charged to EU students for those starting with us in 2019 – and you’ll pay home fees for the entirety of your programme. Student loans are also available as before. A helpful statement from Birkbeck is here. Another thing to keep in mind if you’re an EU student (or a home student with another first language) is that we don’t demand the IELTS English qualification – we’re happy to assess your English skills very individually and very efficiently, so don’t let that get in the way of applying.

So, what’s coming up:

The deadline for RFSA bursaries for Certificate and BA students is on Friday 13 September 2019.  RFSA stands for Royal Female School of Art, which was an early art school for women, and now exists as a trust supporting access for all students, no matter what gender, to visual arts education. Our department is delighted to be the recipient of a generous grant which allows us to support Cert HE and BA students experiencing financial hardship through bursaries. You can find more details and the application form here.

Open House London on the weekend of 21-22 September. This is a great event, in which we show off our historically and culturally significant School of Arts building to the public. You are all very welcome, either to come along on a tour to learn about the building’s background as early Victorian terraced houses, and its close connection with the radical Bloomsbury Group (and to check out some Bloomsbury paintings…). You should also think about volunteering, welcoming visitors, giving tours and/or acting as a steward. It’s a fantastic experience, and there’s training providing. You just need to be available on 16 September 6pm for the training, and then for a shift on either the morning or afternoon of 21 or 22 September. Email me (Leslie) on l.topp@bbk.ac.uk and wonderful volunteer coordinator Eva Hoog if you’re interested in hearing more or signing up: eva.hoog@btconnect.com. Or just come along between 10 and 4 on 21 Sept for a tour! More here. And you can watch a film about the building (featuring some History of Art lecturers) here.

And the promised sneak preview: as usual, Autumn term brings an exceptionally rich programme of talks, tours, and events free for you to join alongside your studies. Here’s just a taste (you heard it first here!) – more to come in future blogs and on the relevant websites.

The Centre for Museum Cultures, a hub for intellectual exchange and debate relating to all aspects of museology, curation and heritage, has two upcoming events:

Thomas Ardill, Curator at the Museum of London, will be giving a talk on the development of the exhibition ‘London’s Secret Rivers’ on Monday 21 October 6pm in Keynes Library. Thomas will explain the Museum of London’s exhibition-making process from programming to design and installation, and reflect on the experience of co-curating with an archaeological curator including the collaborative process, the challenges of putting on a multimedia display and what he has learned by curating an art collection in a social history museum.

In December (date and time TBC), there will be a special gallery tour at the V&A by Provenance and Spoliation Curator Jacques Schuhmacher. He will give a behind-the-scenes tour of the special display ‘Troubling Objects: Uncovering the Story of Nazi looting’, which uncovers the history behind several fascinating objects of incredible craftsmanship that take us to the heart of the Nazis’ looting of art across Europe.

Murray Seminars on Medieval and Renaissance Art: These seminars are open to all, and attract interested members of the public, staff and students from other London colleges and beyond.  They are an opportunity to hear and contribute to cutting-edge research, often at the very early stages of work in progress. This term’s seminars are:

Petr Ulicny, 16th October, 5pm, Keynes Library: The Origins of Renaissance Architecture in Bohemia

Michael Carter, 12th November, 5pm, Keynes Library: Relics in late-medieval England: some monastic evidence

Laura Jacobus, 4th December, 5pm, Keynes Library: Faces and Enigmas: maker-portraits in the work of Giotto and Giovanni Pisano

More posts and more sneak previews to come on this blog in the course of September, so if you haven’t yet subscribed to receive new posts in your inbox, now’s the time!



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End of term and some goodbyes

The humidity is rising, school sports days and concerts every night it seems – it *must* be the end of term, surely?

Hope you have firmly in your diary the department end of term party, this Friday 12 July 6pm in Gordon Sq room G01 (NOTE ROOM – I GOT IT WRONG IN MY LAST POST).  And please bring something to share (liquid or solid) if you can. We usually go on until about 8. It’d be lovely to see you there!

I’ll be making an announcement at the party asking for volunteers for our annual opening of the School of Arts building for Open House London on the weekend of 21-22 September. This is a great event, in which we show off our historically and culturally significant building to the public. The event really relies on student volunteers, who welcome visitors, give tours and/or act as stewards. It’s a fantastic experience, and there’s training providing. You just need to be available on 16 September 6pm for the training, and then for a shift on either the morning or afternoon of 21 or 22 September. Come along to the party on Friday to hear more about it, or email our wonderful volunteer coordinator Eva Hoog if you’re interested in hearing more or signing up: eva.hoog@btconnect.com

Also an important notice for our Certificate in HE and BA students (including any incoming students): the latest round of RFSA bursaries has been announced. RFSA stands for Royal Female School of Art, which was an early art school for women, and now exists as a trust supporting access for all students, no matter what gender, to visual arts education. Our department is delighted to be the recipient of a generous grant which allows us to support Cert HE and BA students experiencing financial hardship through generous bursaries. The deadline for applications is Friday 13 September 2019 and you can find more details and the application form here.

Finally, I wanted to let you all know that we’re saying goodbye to a number of colleagues in the next couple of months.

Laura Jacobus is taking early retirement at the end of this academic year after teaching and researching medieval art (with an emphasis on Giotto and late medieval Italian art) for thirty years in the department. She has been Head of Teaching Committee, the department’s rep on several School of Arts and College committees (lucky her), course director of many different team-taught modules, and organiser of the Murray Seminar in Medieval and Renaissance Art (which she’s generously agreed to continue organising). A special message from her to all her current and former students: she will be at the end of year party on Friday and would love to see you there!

Gabriel Koureas is making a change of career and also leaving at the end of this academic year. Gabriel has also been at Birkbeck for many years, teaching modern and contemporary art and museum studies; his research ranges from studies of masculinity and the memorialisation of the First World War, images of terrorism in transcultural context, cosmopolitanism in the Ottoman Empire, and contemporary cultures of display. He has been MA admissions tutor, co-designer and programme director of the MA Museum Cultures, and co-founder of the Centre for Museum Cultures, among many other roles.

Liz Drew is leaving in September to focus on other commitments. Liz has most recenty directed and taught the Doing Art History module to first year BA students in the department, as well as designing and running the Step Up and Step In pre-sessional programmes in the School of Arts. But her involvement in History of Art at Birkbeck goes back many years, during which she’s had close involvement with the Vasari Research Centre among many other innovative initiatives often involving art and technology. She is also a PhD student in the department.

Nick Lambrianou is is also leaving to focus on other commitments. As long-standing Associate Lecturer, he has taught modern and contemporary art and exhibition cultures on the Certificate, BA, and the Graduate Certificate. And he’s managed to pursue both an active teaching portfolio and a fruitful research career alongside a successful career in public policy.

We will miss all four of these valued colleagues very much! We’re extremely grateful to them for everything they’ve done for the department, and very much look forward to keeping in touch with them in future.

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Solitude and a Party

The academic year may be coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot going on…

Crucial & fun date for your diary: Friday 12 July 6pm, room G01 in Gordon Square, for the annual department end of term party to which all our students are warmly invited. Please bring something to share! And do come along – it’s always a fun time.

On Monday 24 June at 6.30pm (note odd time) in Keynes Library you can come and listen in on three academics having a chit-chat about their mutual preoccupation with being alone and the spaces architects provide for solitude and isolation. ‘Solitude and its Spaces Across History, Philosophy and Architecture‘ is organised by the Architecture, Space and Society Centre and will be a fairly free-flowing conversation between Lisa Guenther (Queen’s University, Ontario), Barbara Taylor (Queen Mary, University of London) and Leslie Topp (aka your author, Birkbeck). We’re each from different disciplines and different universities, and two of us live in the UK, but, completely coincidentally, we’re all Canadian – make of that what you will. Please join us for an informal conversation between three scholars whose work deals with solitude, isolation, confinement and the rooms, cells and other spaces within which these states are experienced and enforced. Ranging across history, philosophy and architecture, from the eighteenth century to the present, the discussion will address questions such as: What distinguishes solitude from isolation, a room of one’s own from a cell? Why study the history of these concepts and spaces? What is the relationship between body, mind and space in the confines of the single room? Can spaces of solitude be seen as a connecting thread between areas as diverse as psychiatry, criminal justice, monasticism, academia and the intellectual life? More details and a booking link here.

Prisoner in cell at Sing Sing Prison, New York State

Our own Dorigen Caldwell, Senior Lecturer in the department, will be giving the final paper in the Murray Seminar in Medieval and Renaissance Art on Wednesday 3 July 5pm in Keynes Library. She’ll be speaking on Prayers, Purgatory and Politics in Post-Tridentine Rome’. The Madruzzo Chapel in the Roman church of Sant’Onofrio was decorated between 1600 and 1605. Boasting sumptuous coloured marble tombs, a sophisticated fresco cycle and an altarpiece designed by Annibale Carracci, the chapel houses the remains of three Madruzzo cardinals. Hailing from the Northern Italian city of Trent, home to the eponymous Council, all three men were also Prince-Bishops of their native territory. As such, they had experienced  the frontline fight against Protestant heresy in German-speaking lands, while also enjoying positions of power at the heart of Papal Rome. This seminar will examine the imagery employed in the chapel as an expression not only of the fashionable artistic tastes of early modern Rome, but also of the particular preoccupations of these ‘cardinali tedeschi’.

Do be sure to catch the exhibition currently on in the Peltz Gallery, ‘Refugees, Newcomers, Citizens’, featured in my previous post – you may have noticed the striking window stickers facing onto the front of the building announcing ‘Picture Post’.

Did you know Birkbeck hosted a leading online academic journal on the ‘long nineteenth century’? The latest issue of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth-Century is now available, and it’s a special issue on an art historical topic, edited by Maria Alambritis, PhD student in the department, and Susanna Avery-Quash, (National Gallery curator who will be joining us as Honorary Research Fellow in 2019-20) along with Prof. Hilary Fraser from English and Humanities. This issue uncovers the major and enduring impact of Victorian women’s scholarship on the Old Masters that shapes their reputation today. It charts the range and breadth of women’s contributions to the developing discipline of art history in Britain through the long nineteenth century. Bringing together scholars from across the literary, art historical and museological fields, this richly interdisciplinary issue showcases the work of well-established writers such as Anna Jameson and Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, alongside newly emerging figures like Lucy Olcott. The fifteen articles of this issue explore the diverse ways in which these women influenced knowledge and research on the art of the Old Masters, demonstrating their impact on taste, display and collecting and tracing the ongoing resonance of their work in art history and museum practice today.

Finally, many congratulations to Honorary Research Fellow Juliana Barone, who has not one but two books out as part of the many events she’s been involved in marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death. Below is the cover of the catalogue of the exhibition she has curated, currently on at the British Library. And here you can see the gorgeous cover of Leonardo in Britain, the volume of essays she’s co-edited with Susanna Avery-Quash.

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