The future of studying old art

Sarah McBryde, PhD student in History of Art, discusses a recent workshop considering the value of Art History as a discipline and why the study of ‘old’ art will continue to be important into the future.

‘The Future of Studying Old Art’ workshop, chaired by Dr Dorigen Caldwell (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, Birkbeck) kicked off another day of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the History of Art Department at Birkbeck, by considering the current state of the discipline and the ways in which ideas about old art are taught and communicated to a wider audience via digital media and cultural institutions. The various speakers outlined their own experiences and perspectives, creating a lively debate on the reasons why the study and display of ‘old’ art continues to have relevance today.

Robert Maniura (Reader in History of Art, Birkbeck) asked why we still study historical objects, both artworks and architecture. Why should we care about something which has survived into the modern era, but was created hundreds of years ago in a society with different values and beliefs from our own? He began by posing some key questions for art historians: What is it? Why is it here? Why does it look like that? And importantly, why is it still here when other things have disappeared?  Maniura argued that in answering these questions art historical analysis can reveal the underlying functions of art in society; be that to impress, inspire, persuade, provoke, control or mislead. He challenged the view in the mass media that art history is somehow ephemeral, frequently framed as a ‘leisure activity’ unless vast sums of money are involved, and questioned why man-made objects should be any less deserving of rigorous study than objects from the natural world undergoing scientific investigation. He also addressed the shifting cultural meanings of artworks through history, citing as an example the Medieval Dečani Monastery located in modern day Kosovo. Prior to the 1990s conflict, this Orthodox Christian church was venerated across different local faiths, but now finds itself a symbol of Serbian nationalism in the Kosovo region, surrounded by armed guards and tank traps still under the control of NATO KFOR peacekeepers.

As Chief Curator of the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance collections, Peta Motture discussed how the galleries were redesigned to incorporate new approaches to the display of objects and the views of museum visitors. The stated aims of the project were to ‘inspire, engage, preserve, connect and transform’ by reformatting the way objects were displayed to provide informative contexts for their production and use, while still maintaining a chronological sequence to the rooms, which the public preferred. Defying some criticisms that particular iconic items would lose their status when embedded in a wider context, the redesign has been highly successful since it opened to the public in 2009. Motture noted that art historical research formed a vital part of the project, which along with gallery design, enabled displays to reflect the historical reality of individual objects and bring them to life. For example, cassoni marriage chests are displayed at shoulder height, as they would have been seen carried in Renaissance bridal processions, and costumes are displayed on mannequins without plinths, so the viewer is directly confronted ‘face-to-face’ with a figure from the past.  She also commented on the continuing commitment of the V&A to engage new audiences, finding ways to display contentious objects, such as those with colonial origins, in contexts which reflect our modern and diverse culture and continue to give relevance to old art for future generations.

Peter Maniura (Head of Digital Development, BBC Arts) reflected on visual images as vehicles for storytelling, vital to broadcasters like the BBC. He discussed the recent reboot of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), reformatted as Civilisations (2018) with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. Maniura observed that the new series demonstrated the changing attitudes towards art history. Whereas Clark’s version conformed to rigid parameters of what belonged inside and outside the (western) ‘canon of great art’, the new BBC series brought together the distinct perspectives of three separate academic presenters and encompassed a diverse range of source material previously excluded, to both represent and engage a modern, multicultural audience. He also discussed the associated Civilisations Festival, launched by the BBC in tandem with the series to connect local communities with their museums via 280 free public events. He outlined BBC Digital’s continuing projects to develop technology to bring the arts to a wider audience, such as the release of an augmented reality app through which users can manipulate 3D images of museum objects to access information, and #OperaPassionDay, which made live streamed performances and events from opera houses across the UK available via an interactive website. Maniura made the important point that shaping the future for old art is an urgent task to ensure that in a blizzard of visual information, the next generation will choose to engage with our respected cultural institutions.

This concern was addressed by the final speaker, Rose Aidin, whose project Art History Link-up, provides ample proof of the appetite of young people for Art History. The charitable organisation, set up in 2016/17, offers a fast-track AS Level/ Extended Project Qualification in History of Art to students aged 16-18 from state schools where Art History is not available on the curriculum. This qualification is free and requires the student to attend Saturday courses held in various partner organisations including the Wallace Collection, National Gallery and Courtauld Institute. Advertised via social media, Aidin noted that the uptake has been phenomenal, to the extent that they do not currently have enough places to support all the applicants. This fantastic programme engages a wide range of students who would otherwise have little or no access to art history education, and takes young people into museums and galleries to experience art directly. She commented on the hugely positive feedback she has had from former students about the impact of the course in developing a wide range of skills, from visual analysis to critical thinking, while also providing an accredited qualification towards their future university applications. As well as benefiting the students, Aidin noted that the courses provide valuable teaching experience for art history graduates further down the line. Currently, the project is London-based, but one might hope that our national cultural institutions may support similar regional initiatives in future.

The workshop provided a highly positive view of the future for studying old art. It illustrated the continuing importance of Art History, as well as demonstrating the variety of ways in which the discipline is developing to welcome new and diverse audiences to all aspects of visual culture. As all the speakers demonstrated, in these times of fake news and social media manipulation, the role of Arts and Humanities is ever more important as a gateway to understanding the world around us and also to provoke us to think about and question the ‘facts’ we are presented with.

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Exhibition reflects on the history of ‘un-pregnancy’ through art

A collaboration between Birkbeck academic Dr Isabel Davis and artist Anna Burel has produced a series of artworks depicting the history of ‘un-pregnancy’, which are currently exhibited at The Peltz Gallery. 

Dr Davis, from the Department of English and Humanities reflects on the research which led to the collaboration.

Finding out you’re not pregnant can be a very odd experience of nothing happening. While of course, there are plenty of people who feel relieved on discovering they aren’t going to be parents, there are conversely lots who feel disappointed, and often this isn’t the first time they’ve felt this way. So, they are (or their partner is) not pregnant … again. Grieving for something that never was, feels strange.

My Conceiving Histories project explores how this nothing, this thing that never was, a thing which I call ‘un-pregnancy’, appears in the historical archives. I am particularly interested in how people in the past thought about the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility. What do they have to say about trying to conceive, about on-going childlessness (involuntary or otherwise), about the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy, about not knowing whether they were pregnant or not and about early pregnancy loss? What I am finding is that there is a lot of archival material about this apparent nothing. If there are things that can be touched, seen and read in archives about un-pregnancy, then this experience can’t really be a nothing; it must be a something, after all.

To pursue this project, I teamed up with a visual artist Anna Burel who, for a long time, has been working on the female experience of the body, particularly the female body in the gynecological encounter. Like me, she is interested in history and thinking about the points of identification between people today and those in the past. Working together, we have started to look at all sorts of aspects of un-pregnancy; simulated, imagined, misdiagnosed and phantom pregnancies at different points in time, as well as the difficulties of diagnosing pregnancy before home testing. Our exhibition, which presents the work we have done in the first phase of this collaboration, is open at the Peltz Gallery, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and continues until 13 December.

In the exhibition we explore four curious case studies: Queen Mary I’s two false pregnancies (1554-1557); a strange fashion for simulating pregnancy by using a pad (1793); a science-fiction fantasy about discovering how to diagnose early pregnancy and date human gestation (1826); and materials from the Family Planning Association (FPA) archive concerning the international transport of live toads for use in the FPA’s pregnancy diagnostic centre (1949-1964).

To give you a fuller sense of just one of these, let me tell you about the strange fashion in 1793 for wearing what was known as The Pad, which simulated pregnancy. The Morning Herald, a contemporary newspaper tells us: “Pads continue to be worn; and on account of these the dress is still a loose gown of white muslin flounced in front, appearing to be put on with the negligence permitted to the supposed situation of the wearers.”

Contemporaries described it as a fashion which moved around from the back, where it functioned as a bustle, to the front. Most of the evidence for it is satirical. Contemporary cartoonists were savage, presenting The Pad as silly and French. They were particularly delighted, but also perhaps horrified by the idea that it was a social leveler, ironing out differences between rich and poor, large and slim, young and old – making a nonsense of the pregnancy swell as a social sign.

A one-act farce, The Pad by Robert Woodbridge opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden the same year. It presents three interlocking stories of couples disrupted because women have taken to wearing The Pad. The main protagonist, Lovejoke, sets out to teach these women a lesson not to ‘outstep the modesty of Nature’ by wearing one. Two of the stories end happily but the third is more bitter. In this story, Sir Simon Meagre and his wife are childless after years of trying; Lovejoke leads him to believe that they might finally have the child they’ve hoped for, although in truth his wife has just taken to wearing The Pad. When the truth comes out, Lovejoke makes an exception for Lady Meagre – she can continue to wear The Pad as consolation for her childlessness. ‘Poor comfort!’ Sir Simon replies, ‘sad substitute for a Son and Heir! – I thought to have had a little boronet [sic]’. Although it is ostensibly a comedy, the play ends on this dissonantly poignant note, bequeathing us some odd evidence for trying to conceive in history.

Anna’s work on this bizarre fashion object explores its tragicomic potential. Her series of photographs show women wearing The Pad, sometimes with fools’ caps. Using the typography of Woodbridge’s play to mark up Pads with dates and slogans, Anna’s photographs explore the emotions around the absence of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is very privatising and not being able to become pregnant can feel humiliating, as if one can’t get into an exclusive private club, or as if the world is laughing. Women and men have long learned to resort to silence about their struggles to become parents for fear of exposing themselves as in some way inadequate. Maternity clothes today emphasise pregnancy as a special category. The current Western aesthetic in maternity wear stresses the neatness of the pregnancy bump, isolating it and giving it clear definition in relation to the female body. For those looking on from the outside, this kind of definition – both to the contours of the pregnant body and to the community of those who can get pregnant – is sharply distinct from the ambiguities of a life lived in uncertainty about the future, the body, pregnancy and parenthood.

The eighteenth-century Pad offers an odd sort of reflection on these complex emotions and there isn’t the sort of evidence that one would really like; what women thought and felt about wearing it, what their motivations were and so on. The imaginative world that it suggests, however, is one in which women can somehow side-step their own longing and the socially isolating experience of un-pregnancy and temporarily enjoy looking pregnant. What if we could collapse the hard boundaries that we set up today, so firmly reinforced by the fashion industry and other institutions, between those who can fall pregnant and those who can’t? Such things are taboo for us: celebrities who fake pregnancies are vilified as if they’ve violated some sacred estate, anyone else is deemed mad.

Yet history and art offer a temporary and neutral space, in which we might think about ourselves and ask questions like: ‘what if …?’

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Peter Murray Memorial Lecture: ‘How to form a national collection’

Francesca Castelli, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses the recent Peter Murray Memorial Lecture, delivered by Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi. The lecture is named in honour of Peter Murray, who founded Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art in 1967 and is part of Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck, a series of events celebrating the Department’s 50th anniversary.

A full house with a captivated audience joined Birkbeck’s Clore Lecture Theatre on 30 November to listen to Dr Gabriele Finaldi as he took us through the events surrounding the foundation and the development of the collections of two museums: Madrid’s Prado and London’s National Gallery.

These two museums differ dramatically in their genesis. While the Madrid museum was very much conceived as ‘an act of royal generosity to the nation’, the London institution was born through the will of the British Parliament.

Opened in 1819 by Ferdinand VII as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, the Prado was to all intents and purposes a public showcase of the king’s personal collection. Indeed, all of the 311 pictures came from the Royal Residences in and around Madrid and were the works of Spanish artists. It was not until the nationalisation of Church property in 1868 and the incorporation of the holdings of the National Museum of Painting in 1872 that the distinctly local character of the collection started to move towards a more international dimension, with the introduction of works by Flemish and Italian masters like Rubens and Titian.

The National Gallery, on the other hand, was not born through the nationalisation of a royal art collection. It was instead established when Parliament offered a £60,000 grant for the purchase and display of 38 paintings from the estate of banker John Julius Angerstein, including Sebastiano Del Piombo’s s majestic Raising of Lazarus. The National Gallery opened its doors to the public on 10 May 1824 in Angerstein’s former residence at 100 Pall Mall, a building far too small and modest to accommodate a growing museum whose democratic ambition was to be ‘a gallery for all’. The collection was moved to its current location on Trafalgar Square in 1838 and was enriched with important Italian Renaissance works from the likes of Raphael and Correggio, as well as French paintings from the eighteenth century by Poussin and Claude through generous bequests. But it was van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, acquired in 1842, that seemed to pique the interest of Victorian crowds with its richness of detail and elegant symbolism.

The account offered by Dr Finaldi of the strength of the relationship between the National Gallery and its audience that became apparent during World War II was particularly poignant.  At a time when the museum was officially closed and the collection evacuated, former director Kenneth Clark began to organise daily piano concerts that were open to everyone. Myra Hess and other musicians played over 1,600 lunchtime concerts from late 1939 until the end of the war.  And in 1942, spurred by a letter written by a member of the public to The Times, Clark was persuaded to take one painting at a time out of storage and put it on display so that Londoners would have something to admire. This event marked the start of the tradition of the Picture of the Month that still exists today, and allowed the museum’s mission to offer the ‘enjoyment of beauty’ to be restored when it was needed the most.

Museums are thus places that bring people together and in more recent years both the National Gallery and the Prado have undergone extensive expansion projects aiming to provide a better environment for their visitors, as well as a modern space for their growing collection, temporary exhibitions and conservation facilities.

Dr Finaldi’s final point was about the opportunities offered by new technologies and social platforms and how these are instrumental in reaching out to new and larger audiences. Museums are called to have their own digital strategy in order to maximise the potential harnessed by the digitalisation of culture and to help people to experience art in different ways. Earlier this year, in a ground-breaking and unprecedented event, the five museums where the existing van Gogh Sunflowers are located, came together in a sort of virtual exhibition thanks to a live Facebook broadcast and gave life to a fully immersive digital experience supported by VR technology and Computer-generated Imagery.  An audience of some 6 million people connected to enjoy an interactive tour of the virtual gallery while van Gogh’s great-grandson shared his personal memories of the iconic pictures.

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Mr A moves in mysterious ways

L0075005 The Foetus / Rebirth. RIC23, Adamson Coll

Helen Grieg, The Foetus / Rebirth. Credit: Adamson Collection/Wellcome

Dr Fiona Johnstone, Associate Research Fellow in Art History writes on the new exhibition, which will showcase early art therapy from psychiatric patients. The exhibition will be shown from 15 May – 25 July 2017, at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts. 

This summer the Peltz Gallery will host a historically significant exhibition of works from the remarkable Adamson Collection, one of the world’s largest collections of artworks made by psychiatric patients. Titled Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, this exhibition will be the first time that the Collection has been displayed since its recent acquisition by the Wellcome Trust.

For almost three decades, Edward Adamson was engaged as ‘art master’ at the long-stay British mental hospital Netherne, in Surrey. His initial role was to facilitate patient involvement in a scientific study investigating the relationship between mental illness and creativity, published by Netherne’s Medical Superintendent Eric Cunningham Dax as Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art in 1953. When research ended, Adamson chose to remain at the hospital, establishing an open studio where residents could come and paint freely. A pioneer of British art therapy, Adamson was deeply committed to the healing possibilities of creativity, and often remarked that simply making the short journey from the ward to the studio could have a beneficial effect on patients.

Over the years Adamson amassed a vast collection of patient artworks, including drawings, paintings and sculptures. After he retired in 1981, some 6,000 objects were relocated to a temporary exhibition space on the Rothschild family’s estate at Ashton Wold, and then moved to storage in Lambeth Hospital following Adamson’s death in 1986. Most of the Collection was physically transferred to the Wellcome Library in 2013, and formal custodianship agreed in 2016.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways has developed out of a series of events hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities: two reading group sessions, which included a meeting led by David O’Flynn, chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, and a discussion of Framing Marginalized Art (Karen Jones, Eugen Koh, Nurin Veis and Anthony White, 2010), a text which explores the ethical and curatorial complexities of exhibiting art therapeutic materials; and a screening of the award-winning essay film Abandoned Goods (dirs. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, Fly Film, 2015) which traces the evolution of the Adamson Collection from clinical materials to revered art objects.

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

My co-curator, Dr Heather Tilley and I were fascinated by the potential challenges involved in exhibiting these works: should they be ‘framed’ as art works, historical documents, clinical artefacts, or all three simultaneously? We were also intrigued as to how we might settle on a unifying theme. The Adamson Collection interweaves a number of narratives, including the history of the post-war mental institution, the development of psychiatric practice in the UK, and the origins of art therapy as a profession. It also tells a range of individual stories, including that of Adamson himself, and of the people who produced work under his guidance. How would we be able to do justice to all these perspectives, especially within the relatively small space of the Peltz Gallery?

Ultimately we decided to ‘frame’ the Collection by focusing on the work of eight selected individuals, chosen for their distinctive visual styles and particular histories. By presenting these makers as artists, rather than as un-named and undifferentiated psychiatric patients, and framing their objects as artworks, we have aimed to highlight the aesthetic, personal and historical dimensions of the collection, whilst remaining sensitive to its medical and therapeutic contexts.

We hope that this exhibition will be the beginning of a continuing conversation about the ethical and legal complexities of exhibiting the Adamson Collection (and indeed art therapeutic materials more generally). This summer the Wellcome Trust will host a series of public workshops examining these very issues, focusing on topics such as the naming of patient-artists, accessibility, and the efficacy of the label ‘Outsider Art.’ (N.B. at time of writing dates and details of these workshops are still to be confirmed – keep an eye on our exhibition website for further information).

The exhibition will be also accompanied by an exciting programme of contextual events at Birkbeck, including:

  • A launch event and private view will be held on Thursday 18th May as part of Birkbeck Arts Week.
  • Curator’s tours will as part of London Creativity and Wellbeing Week.
  • A legacy event titled ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’ will be held at Birkbeck in the summer of 2018.

For more information about the exhibition, please visit the Peltz Gallery website.

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