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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Escher and Coxeter: a mathematical conversation

On Monday 5 June 2017, Professor Sarah Hart from Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics gave a prestigious Gresham Lecture at the Museum of London. Andrew Silverman, Learning Development Tutor in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on the lecture.

Gresham College crest in hyperbolic geometry. Credit: Sarah Hart

Gresham College crest in hyperbolic geometry. Credit: Sarah Hart

Gresham College was founded in 1597 and has been providing free lectures within the City of London for over 400 years. Walking down from the dusty roads of the Barbican into the cool and quiet of the Weston Theatre, the audience was transported into a conversation between an artist and a mathematician, Escher and Coxeter. Told with infectious excitement and humour, Professor Hart wove the story of the lives of these two figures and their friendship through the mathematics and the artwork that fed into one another.

Born on 17 June 1898 in Leeuwarden, Holland, the youngest of five brothers and moving with his family to Arnhem when he was five, Maurits Cornelis Escher would eventually go on to study at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. His father was a civil engineer and his brothers all became scientists. Escher himself almost became an architect before switching to graphic arts. He later quipped that it was only by a hair’s breadth that he escaped becoming a useful member of society.

Escher began by producing woodcuts and lithographs featuring mainly landscapes. An example of this was the 1931 lithograph Atranti, Coast of Amalfi. But in 1936 his work went in a new direction, becoming more abstract; according to Escher, he had replaced landscapes with mindscapes. The woodcut Metamorphosis I, produced in 1937, exemplifies this change and is clearly a ‘mindscape’ adapted from the 1931 piece.

What could have triggered this change? In 1922, Escher visited the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain; his second visit was in 1936. The buildings we know today were constructed in the mid-11th century by the Moorish king Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar. One of the key points about Moorish art, and Islamic art more generally, is that it is not permitted to contain images of living things; it is instead rich in symmetry and tessellations of tiles. Escher was able to combine this richness of geometric design with images of ‘living’ things (albeit at times mythical living things), thereby leading to works such as Angel and Devils (1941), produced in ink rather than wood.

Donald Coxeter, or Harold Scott Macdonald Coxeter, was born on 9 February 1907. His name was originally going to be Harold Macdonald Scott Coxeter, until they realised that this would have been HMS Coxeter, more a ship name than a baby name, and so the name was changed. As a schoolboy, Coxeter became so engrossed in geometry, at the expense of other subjects, that one teacher told him he was only allowed to think in four dimensions on Sundays.

In 1936, the year Escher’s art took a new direction, Coxeter took up a post at the University of Toronto. When asked what the point of pure mathematics is, Coxeter responded: “No one asks artists why they do what they do. I’m like any artist; it’s just that the obsession that fills my mind is shapes and patterns.”

In 1954, the International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Amsterdam. To coincide with this, a major exhibition of Escher’s work was held in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It was here that Coxeter and Escher first met, when Coxeter bought a couple of Escher’s prints.

Incidentally, another mathematician who visited the exhibition was Roger Penrose, who was a Reader and then Professor of Applied Mathematics at Birkbeck from 1964 to 1973, and later became Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London. After seeing an impossible staircase in Escher’s Relativity print, he came up with the concept of a ‘Penrose triangle’.

Professor Hart explained the mathematics behind the regular tilings in three geometries: plane (Euclidean), spherical and hyperbolic geometry. She managed to put the concepts across in such a way that even someone with no prior knowledge could walk away with a good basic understanding, and the images presented were an excellent way of getting a more intuitive sense of what was really going on.

Escher learnt a great deal from Coxeter, to the extent that when Escher created a picture based on a new geometrical concept, he would refer to it as ‘Coxetering’. But in turn, Coxeter also learnt from Escher. For example, Escher’s 1959 work, Circle Limit III, led Coxeter to a new understanding of the hyperbolic disc. By looking at the spines of the fish in the image, Coxeter realised that Escher had found equidistant curves and produced them incredibly precisely. In this way their friendship was a true exchange of ideas – a mathematical conversation.

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