Curating Feeling: Understanding Sentimentality in Victorian Art

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Curating-FeelingExploring the representation of emotion in nineteenth-century works of art, Curating Feeling, organised as part of a wider conference on the Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, offered fascinating insights into the relationship between human emotion and cultural artefacts of the Victorian era.

Influencing interpretation

Curator Alison Smith of the Tate Gallery was the first to speak and got things started by looking into how the ways that artefacts are displayed in a space can affect the ways they are observed and how they make us feel.

Using images from previous Tate exhibitions, Smith talked us through how the layout and colour of the spaces in which artworks are exhibited, as well as the language that is used to describe their history and meaning, can play a part in influencing how they are perceived and interpreted.

She made the point that, whilst it is no longer the curator’s job to care for cultural artefacts, it is their purpose to create a certain mood and to display items in such a way as to tell a story without or over-influencing the emotional effect that they have on the viewer.

Meaning derived from spectator’s own emotion

Next up was University of Warwick Professor, Michael Hatt, who questioned whether it’s possible to curate feeling, arguing that cultural artefacts do not speak for themselves when it comes to the feelings which they convey. Instead, he suggested, meaning is derived according to the spectator’s own emotions, which are projected onto artworks at the time of observation.

Focusing on sculpture in particular, Hatt concluded by suggesting that Victorian examples may at first seem devoid of sentiment, but that what they are really doing is asking the viewer to explore their own emotions rather than telling them what or how to feel.

Curating traumatic experience

Toward the end we heard from Dr Victoria Mills, who shared some of the challenges that she has faced whilst curating the forthcoming exhibition on fallen women for The Foundling Museum (runs 25 Sept 2015 to 3 Jan 2016).

With non-marital relationships being severely frowned upon in Victorian Britain, many of the women in question petitioned to leave their illegitimate babies in the care of the Foundling Hospital, where they would be looked after until they were old enough to work.

The petitions give intimate details as to how the women became pregnant in the first place, some referring to instances of rape, violence and stalking, which, Mills told us, has made choosing which of them to share and how to share them in a respectful way very difficult.

Understanding through that which is not present

Adding to this was Birkbeck School of ArtsProfessor Lynda Nead, who argued that whilst it’s easy to view the women’s petitions as hard evidence of tragedy and trauma, it could be due to their fear of exclusion from society rather than truth that they were inclined to give details of sexual assault to explain their situation.

In a society which disregarded female sexuality and desire, the women may not have felt comfortable sharing information about adulterous or non-marital relationships with men who they were in fact in love with. Nead finished by stating the importance of considering collective emotions when considering the sentiments attached to artefacts from the era, as it may be those feelings which are not present that enable us to better understand.

Raising important questions about the nature of nineteenth-century sentimentality and the factors which affect our interpretation of emotion in artworks from the era, this conference offered fascinating insights into a subject which is becoming a growing area of interest for scholars, and which I am also now keen to learn more about.

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MA Literature Review Show 2015: Identity

This post was contributed by Megan McGill who is currently undertaking an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck

MA-Modern-LiteratureThe MA Review Show for students of Modern and Contemporary Literature, and Contemporary Literature and Culture, opened up discussion for various pieces of media from recent months, inviting comparison between them in the hopes to spark some interesting ideas.

The items in question were:

These items were presented under with the theme of ‘identity’ and discussions were opened after a short introduction for each. The panel included students Karina Cicero, Francis Gene-Rowe, Jenna Johnston, Polly Kemp, and Megan McGill, and was chaired by Dr Joe Brooker, and Dr Caroline Edwards.

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Polly introduced to the audience the first item, Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, with a 2013 quotation from Frieze Magazine on the idea of frescoes, something that features heavily in the novel, and directly references the artwork from within its pages:

When gods go into exile what do they do? They put on their multi-layered travelling coats and embark on a journey through time. As migrants, they don the costumes of the countries they traverse, until an art work opens up a space in which they can shed their disguise and be free. This is an image Aby Warburg evoked in a lecture he gave in Rome in 1922, to illustrate how key visual motifs pass from one culture to another over the centuries before their dormant potential is awakened by an artist.

The case Warburg makes for Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy (c. 1469). They are part of a cycle depicting the months of the year. Seven of the original works have been recovered, including the three that Del Cossa was commissioned to pain: March, April and May. Their pictorial language is as captivating as it is hermetic. Strange characters abound. Warburg defines them as astrological powers governing the months, allegorically embodied by celestial figures from antiquity.

The discussion moves quickly to the fluidity of identity, potentially the most prominent theme in the novel, comparing the text to Jackie Kay’s Trumpet and the work of Jeanette Winterson.

Discussions, however, lead further on to whether our identity is defined by the value of what we do and what we make, linking to an extract from the book where George’s mother asks her if she thinks people should be paid more if they think their work is better than those doing the same work.

The identity of Franchesco as the ‘dead narrator’, something seen before in the work of Beckett, was also brought up in regards to whether her section was a true mystical event, or just George’s imagination spurred by her discussion with H on how Italians from the Renaissance would speak.

Christopher Williams, ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ at Whitechapel Gallery

The next item discussed was the Christopher Williams exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery titled ‘The Production Line of Happiness’. A few members of the panel were able to visit the exhibition. The exhibition is described on the gallery’s website as follows:

Williams’ exquisite prints reveal the unexpected beauty and cultural resonance of commercial, industrial and instructional photography. Often working with set designers, models and technicians, Williams’ technically precise pictures recall Cold War era imagery and 1960s advertising, as well as invoking histories of art, photography and cinema.

His photographs are elements at play in a larger system including architecture, exhibition design, books, posters, videos, vitrines and signage that investigates the state sets of the art world and the publicity structures on which they rely. From his renowned 1989 studies of botanical specimens, Angola to Vietnam, to the hyper-real colour saturated studies of kitchenware made in 2014, this first survey of Williams’ work in the UK immerses us in visually enthralling and politically resonant lines of enquiry.

The exhibition looks into the dependence of commercialisation in photography, also playing on the idea of commodity fetishisation. Williams removes all negative context (e.g. slave labour) from his images of domesticity, leaving them shiny and yet discomforting in their perfection, challenging the idea of apolitical photography.

Other discomforts are included in the exhibition to forcibly engage the audience, including a lack of captions and hanging the photos below eye level. His catalogue available in the exhibition provides the audience with the captions the walls lack, adding the context that gives his photographs meaning and reinserting the politics into the material.

Williams’ photos are not entirely his own, as he takes photographs of other photographs and recontextualises them through his amendments and captions. This reinsertion of is a method of revealing/concealing, creating a palimpsest similar to the frescoes featured in Ali Smith’s work and editing their ‘identity’.

Carol Morley’s The Falling

Following on from discussion of the exhibition came a trailer for Carol Morley’s The Falling, telling the story of an outbreak of fainting at an all-girls school in the 1960s. Initial comparisons were drawn with Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, focusing on the topics of schoolgirl madness and intense relationships. Many clichés of the genre and time in which the film was set were then brought to light, as well as the elements of a British Gothic tradition e.g. mystery, mysticism, the countryside, spooky music.

Many watchers found the film incredibly farcical and often amusing at times as a reaction of the girls’ hysteria that, in the end, had no real explanation. But did the film need an explanation to serve its purpose?

The most popular element for the audience was the performance of Maisie Williams, whose character becomes a force of nature as the film progresses in a story of self-discovery versus self-destruction. Other positive comments came from the fact of its female director and her portrayal of sexuality in an arthouse film as non-voyeuristic, humorous, and warm at times. This fluidity of sexuality portrayed in the film links incredibly closely to what can be seen in the Ali Smith text, once again focusing strongly on the idea of identity and at what age we become who we truly are. The girls in the film are attempting to become an autonomous female body that feels, through liberated sexual awakening.

Channel 4’s The Vote

After many positive comments on the items covered so far, discussion moved to the less popular The Vote, a live theatre performance broadcasted on Channel 4 on Election Day. Initial disappointed comments highlighted how it focused mainly on the political process rather than political ideas, positively showing the different political motivations of the diverse electorate.

Someone questioned whether in its lack of substance and focus on process rather than politics it served as a perfect metaphor for the election itself, showing what’s wrong with the current political situation. It was also questioned whether its value was undermined by the actual election result the following morning, with the whole programme setting up for a hung parliament when, in reality, the election wasn’t close at all.

Aaron Diaz’s ‘Dark Science’ arc, Dresden Codak

Finally, the discussion moved on to the ‘Dark Science’ arc of Aaron Diaz’s webcomic Dresden Codak. The world of ‘Dark Science’ is one post-singularity, highly technologized and visually stratified, its underbelly in plain view to the reader, dangling across the panels.

As a visual piece it certainly fits the Samuel Delany quotation that the landscape in a piece can be the primary character. Discussion, from this point, expanded to the cinematic technique of the webcomic and how it flashes between narratives, leaving the reader unsure on what to expect next. The look of the comic also reminded an audience member of contact sheets for films, showing everything that has been shot but still clearly conveying movement in a montage-like fashion.

It was noted from the medium of the webcomic is free from the publication format and can be seen in this example as used as a way to educate an audience on science, rather than satirising the subject. The highly technical language used forces the audience to engage, like with the techniques Christopher Williams used in his exhibition, by seeking understanding in the finer details.

On the overarching theme of identity, it was concluded that the main idea of identity in this arc of Dresden Codak was that on ‘when do we stop becoming human?’ in regards to transhumanism and the self-repair using robotics that the protagonist, Kim, undergoes. Is there a particular percentage of body mass that needs to be human flesh, or is there a certain group of criteria you must be able to fulfil? This is the question the audience left with as the review show drew to a close.

Thank you to everybody who came to participate in the MA Review Show, whether in the audience or a panellist, and thank you to both Joe Brooker and Caroline Edwards for chairing such a successful event. The discussions were enlightening and the enthusiasm inspiring.

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Adapting to changing career priorities

This post was contributed by Birkbeck student, Emma Curry, who recently attended a networking event hosted by the Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) team – a research project in Birkbeck’s Department of Management

CareerOn 10 July, the TRIGGER team was delighted to welcome Dr Carol Small (a former senior lecturer at Birkbeck who has worked in a variety of industries) to discuss her experiences of working within computing, and to share some advice on how to adapt to roles within different kinds of organisations. The event also sought to provide a networking opportunity for Birkbeck staff, students and alumni, many of whom were interested in pursuing a career in IT.

In search of career ‘flow’

Dr Small opened proceedings by asking the audience: what are the constituents of a good career? Rather than money, power, or academic prestige, Dr Small suggested one goal that might be worth striving for is that which psychologists define as ‘flow’. A position of ‘flow’ in your career is one in which a high level of skill meets a high level of challenge, meaning that you are constantly excited by your work and do not notice the time passing.

Dr Small then took us through the various roles she had worked in over the course of her career, and the challenges and opportunities that each role afforded. Her career began as a commodity broker (a job in which she was the computer) before moving on to becoming a programmer in the civil service. She then moved into academia, completing an MSc and PhD at Birkbeck and taking on a lecturing role.

Career steps: Academic and banking

In an academic job the role is split into three components: teaching, research, and administration, which, as Small highlighted, can be challenging if your interest lies in only one of these aspects. A lengthy academic career can also be a problem for moving back into industry, unless you have a specialism that is particularly sought after. However, as Small emphasised, such a move is possible, provided you plan ahead, and move in incremental steps, perhaps by moving into an interim role in order to gain some experience.

Following a move away from academia, Dr Small worked on encryption for a small software company before moving on to become a freelance programmer at Deutsche Bank.

Dr Small emphasised that the banking industry has incredibly high IT demands, so this can be an excellent route in to industry, but she warned that it is important to tailor your CV to the company you’re applying for, by making sure you ‘tick the boxes’ in terms of programming languages etc.

Often large companies are looking for a background of jobs in industry, so it is important to emphasise where your strengths lie if you have had a more varied career path. A freelancing role can be incredibly rewarding, as it forces you to do your best work for your customer, but it can also be stressful in terms of job security.

Career progression

ComputingDr Small also suggested that networking was a very important skill to develop in building your career. She advised that it is very important to overcome shyness and make as many connections as you can across the course of your career, as often companies will invite candidates they are already aware of to apply for roles. Being vocal was also an important way of rising within the ranks once you have entered a company: as Small suggested, being active and asking about promotional opportunities was a very valuable way of receiving feedback on your work.

Dr Small also emphasised the difficulties of remaining a computer programmer throughout your life: in such an incredibly fast-moving industry, it can be difficult to keep up to date with constantly-changing programming languages, and she suggested that it is often necessary to plan a move from a technical role to a managerial one relatively quickly. Managerial roles can be tricky, as they involve delegating and being less involved in the ‘nuts and bolts’ work, but also incredibly rewarding in terms of influence and variety.


The discussion then turned to issues of gender. Dr Small emphasised that often large companies such as Deutsche Bank have specific policies related to discriminatory issues, and are very interested in hiring and promoting people in protected groups. However, often these policies are not always enacted.

Small suggested remaining observant and proactive, and thinking about how you can effect change within an organisation. She also emphasised the importance of having the right sort of mentoring, from people who know the organisation well and can provide you with a checklist of ways to progress, and of finding someone equally ambitious that you can team up with.

During the Q&A portion of the event, there was also some discussion about the relationship between family and career, especially for women. In such a fast-moving industry it can be very easy during times of leave to fall behind with the latest developments. However, the importance of finding a way of keeping in touch with your organisation was stressed, even by working just a few hours a week.

In response to the final question of the event, of how you achieve ‘flow’ in a managerial role, Dr Small suggested that one of the most rewarding elements was having the power to make a difference within an organisation. With gender issues becoming ever more part of the conversation in both industry and academia, this power to bring about institutional change will be a very valuable one in the future.

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Modelling the blush

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London

Modelling-the-blushWhy do we blush and what does blushing signify? Is blushing simply an automatic, physiological response with roots in our animal nature and evolutionary development, or can we interpret blushes to gain an insight into what is happening below the surface in a person’s mind? And which emotions does a blush betray – shame, modesty, anger, desire?

These were the key questions explored by Dr Paul White of the University of Cambridge in his fascinating paper ‘Modelling the Blush’ at the ‘Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture’ conference held at Birkbeck from 16–18th July 2015.

The conference brought together over one hundred scholars to consider how feeling was stimulated, modified and expressed via art and literature in the nineteenth century and how the Victorians themselves understand their feelings. Dr White is a leading figure in digital humanities and the history of emotion and is Editor and Research Associate on the Darwin Correspondence Project, which has made over 7,500 of Darwin’s letters freely available online.

Bell and Darwin: A physiological view of the blush

White began by sketching how emotion became an object of study in the nineteenth century, particularly within the burgeoning field of physio-psychology, the forerunner of many modern scientific disciplines such as neuropsychology.

In the nineteenth century, the new experimental physiology of scientists such as Charles Bell sought to understand the blush in terms of the central nervous system and the dilation of blood vessels. In his Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806), Bell observes that the face contains ‘a peculiar provision of nerves, which are entwined around the vessels, and give them a susceptibility corresponding with the passions of the mind […]. Hence the sudden blush, and rapid change of colour upon slight emotions.’

Expression of the Emotions Figure 21Charles Darwin was similarly fascinated by human emotions, particularly their evolutionary and adaptive functions, and in 1872 he published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, which is lesser known than his more famous works but equally engaged with the descent of humans from animals.

Darwin observed and noted the physiological expression of emotions in his own children and began collecting and commissioning pictures and photographs of infants, children, animals and people interred in asylums in an attempt to analyse the universal facial expressions and bodily gestures of particular emotions.

For Darwin, the blush is the ‘purest’ physiological response, an involuntary, reflex action of the nervous and circulatory systems whereby increased blood flow brings a red tinge to the cheek and elsewhere. Darwin was interested in the animal origins of facial gestures and he describes blushing as a uniquely human, but relatively late evolutionary development, firmly aligned with sexual desire and sexual selection – hence its prevalence in the (amorous) young.

The blush as a vehicle of narrative

Conversely, though, the blush has a narratological function and it operates as a literary device and as a vehicle of narrative, which raises it above a purely physiological understanding.

For centuries, the blush has been understood as an authentic external expression or register of inner feeling, including innocence and purity of heart. For all this, it remains ambiguous. Throughout the eighteenth century, it was the novel that provided the main vehicle for exploring the blush’s multiple meanings. White focused on a fascinating moment in chapter 15 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) when Elizabeth Bennet observes an unexpected meeting between Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy:

Elizabeth, happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour; one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat – a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? – It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.

Here in miniature, then, is the mystery of the blush and the ways in which it spurs us to narratological analysis and speculation. For Austen, the blush is a mark of sensibility, of finer feeling and the ability to respond sympathetically to complex emotional and aesthetics influences, and reading it accurately enables and registers an empathetic identification that is key to social intercourse and human bonds.

Sensibility was a hugely influential idea in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and White went on to consider how skin is a register of sensibility in portraiture of the time.

Narration vs physiology

The Victorian novelist George Eliot was immersed in the latest scientific research of her day, including the evolutionary theories of Darwin, but in her lesser-known historical novel Romola (1862–63) she explores the blush in narratological terms. Set in Renaissance Florence, the novel follows the titular hero as she navigates the intellectual, cultural, religious and political tumults of fifteenth-century Italy.

Eliot focuses on the unhappy marriage between Romola and Tito, a duplicitous, bigamous political manoeuver who betrays Romola’s godfather to his death and fathers two children with a secret wife. In chapter nine, Tito discovers that his adoptive father has been enslaved, but, after comparing his filial duties to his youthful ambitions, he decides against a rescue attempt. However, as he tries to inwardly assert ‘that his father was dead, or that at least search was hopeless’, Tito is unable to repress his ‘inward shame’, which shows in ‘blushes’.

Eliot thus converts the instinctive blush mechanism into narrative; although Tito is unobserved by any character in the novel, the narrator and the reader ‘see’ his moral failings betrayed by his physiological response. For Darwin, though, whatever feelings or narratological meanings are attached to the blush by humans are immaterial and he prioritises the physiological response.

Dr White finished with the fascinating observation that, although the mechanisms of the blush are understood by contemporary scientists, there is still debate on the question of why we blush: you can Google ‘Why do we blush?’ to get a taste of the lively discussions that are still ongoing.

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