Enough is Enough: Secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection

This article was contributed by Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities

A visit to the Warburg Institute always provides food for thought; indeed its very system of book classification is designed to precipitate serendipitous findings. So, I should not have been surprised when our Arts Week jaunt to uncover the secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection, led by its least secretive of guardians, Dr Paul Taylor, provided me with a way to think about our Arts Week lead of art and politics, but I was.

The Warburg Photographic Collection is a library of images that runs from the early Renaissance to the eighteenth-century. As Dr Taylor explained, it covers that period because what Erwin Panofsky called the pre-iconographic and the iconographic exist in a particular relation during that time. So, if we see an image of a woman beside a pool we might think about it pre-iconographicallly – woman with pool. But if we are to think about it iconographically in the period 1450-1790 we are likely to think about the wither Susanna and the Elders (the Bible) or the classical goddess Diana, bathing with her nymphs because that is what Renaissance and eighteenth-century viewers might have had in mind. To stay with classical imagery, we might similarly understand a woman with a helmet on her head in pre-iconographic terms as – just that. However, considered iconographically she might be, or suggest, Athena, and the woman with snakes in her hair that she is killing shares the complex iconography of Hydra, with all the associations of rebellion and misrule. The collection stops in the eighteenth century because, as Paul reminded us, that was when artists and viewers began to think differently about images and for a time these associations faded. Nowadays, of course, they are a smaller but always available part of the thinking of an artist or a viewer and sometimes they give extra resonance not only to the images of artists as different as Cy Twombly and Cindy Sherman, but to the images we find around us in the our image-drenched everyday.

Thinking about pre-iconographic and iconographic looking is an important part of what   modern readers of the internet practice astutely all the time. Renaissance iconography can help us to see more clearly that thinking about images iconographically can add depth and resonance and make us understand more deeply the messages a particular image is offering or, often, selling us. And it is this, of course, that set me thinking about a specific hairy political problem that I have been struggling with. The problem is hairy in several ways –  it is tangled; there is something at stake, and, above all, it is a problem about political hair. Can Erwin Panofsky’s idea of the iconographic help me to understand the iconography of hair as it is playing out. Let us try the method.

boris_johnson_-opening_bell_at_nasdaq-14sept2009-3c_cropped

Credit: Think London

Hair was brought to the attention of the viewing public when Donald Trump began his political ascent. His hair, like that of Boris Johnson, is unruly and speaks of disruption but also, I think, of the retention of youthful energy into old age. Jeremy Corbyn’s beard, of course, leads us not only to the Bible but to all the images of distinguished masculine age, but the neatness of hair and beard might be a careful distraction. More attention is paid to the appearance of female politicians. It is not that images of men don’t carry meanings but that in many systems of images, not only the Western art that makes up the bulk of the Warburg Photographic Collection, images of women signify instability. Modern politicians know this and part of life for a female politician must be using her image to her advantage – but always with an eye to forestalling problematic associations. Women in the public eye know all too clearly that part of what iconographic thinking does is make visibible some of the living connection between art and politics. Theresa May moves on the stage of world politics beside men whose hair draws comment, and (as Gaby Wood’s fashion-homage to May in Vogue tells us) we know that she is herself interested in fashion. So why has the image projected by her own sleek bob been so little remarked?

margaret_thatcher

Credit: The Margaret Thatcher Foundation

If thinking about May’s hair as a bob is pre-iconographic, it can, nevertheless, take us towards some potentially helpful iconography. Perhaps the most obvious visual antecedent for a female Conservative Prime Minister is Margaret Thatcher and in some ways Theresa May has drawn on that legacy. She does it carefully, though. Just as she has told us ‘Brexit means Brexit’ she has said ‘Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative, I am a conservative’ or on 4 June 2017, apparently marking the latest attack over which she has presided as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, ‘Enough is enough’. These structures of speech are analogous to thinking pre-iconographically in that each rejects an invitation to make an association; they stop short of agreeing to a meaning that comes from outside the control of the speaker. The soundbites strongly associated with Margaret Thatcher such as ‘The lady’s not for turning’ are strong assertions and have over the years been subject to exactly the repurposing and satire that at least the three sentences I have quoted by May resist by refusing image, metaphor, analogy. If May’s speech is distinct from Thatcher’s in attempting insulation and resisting bold, unruly, assertion that might make her vulnerable, I think the same can be said of her relationship to Thatcher’s image. There is little to connect them beyond their use of suits and that is hardly a connection in the wardrobes of political women. May makes little use of Thatcher’s visual image altogether and a comparison on their hair bears out this question. Thatcher’s hair is bold yet fixed in a style now redolent of the aggressive management style of the 1980s when Teresa May was also making her way in politics.

By the time Teresa May caused a stir by putting some spring in her step by wearing a pair of leopard-print kitten heels to the Tory conference in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was long gone. Tony Blair has been elected on a landslide victory. The Tories were nowhere and May was not a particularly important politician. As the eagle-eyed commentator on the politics of fashion, Hadley Freeman, noted in The Guardian there might be some significance in May’s fashion choice. Could May be distancing herself from the difficult Thatcher image by fashioning her own image – in this case by using ‘the old trick of wearing an implausible item in order to create a new image and divert attention from a tiresome past?’ In the end Freeman decided that May liked shoes and liked fun. Yes, but fun and shoes still might have meaning.

princess_dianaFirst coming to politics under Thatcher, May’s formational years were not dominated by the fashions favoured by a woman born in 1925 and whose power hair seemed to grow into a larger and larger helmet as her popularity waned. Much more appealing to a Tory woman born in 1956 might be the fashionable dressing of another, potentially much more sympathetic, political figure – Diana, Princess of Wales. And if we look at the iconography of the People’s Princess in popular memory we can, I think, see much of what May quietly claims from the Thatcher years in her subtle iconography of heel – and hair. Of course, in the 1980s Diana was a troubling and troublesome figure of constrained femininity. However, as time passed, her femininity and fashion sense were remembered. She was beloved, a fashion icon and had the other kind of 1980s hair – various versions of a bob. Any young Tory politician would want to annexe some of Diana’s charisma and good looks. But with May’s subtle appropriation of heel and, especially, hair we might also find something of Diana’s set-apart quality and, of course, it can’t be missed that Diana was political – but she was a princess, not a mucky politician.

Vivienne Westwood by Mattia PasseriDiana was a princess, May was not and was only likely to attain power by a long and careful game. But they both liked fashion, and their tastes were shaped in the eighties. If one Queen of eighties fashion was Diana, the other was of course Vivienne Westwood. Producing madly wearable brilliantly iconoclastic clothes Westwood’s iconography was like Diana’s singular, but much more heavily Elizabethan. She can readily be found as Queen Elizabeth I and II and her Elizabeth gown is at present on display in the Chatsworth chinoiserie. As we now all know, May succeeded in the long game and soon after her accession to rule she made a speech about Brexit – wearing her ‘lucky’ suit. If the trouser part of the suit annexes the panther power of punk, like the leopard she trod in, then its Vivienne aspect fills in the regal dimension from head (hair) to (leopard) toe. If May is a ruler she is a queen – isolate, singular, and deriving her power from a mixture of personality and taste, not from power-dressing, muck-slinging politics.

All this, of course, makes us ask what is the iconography of a female ruler – not helmet haired like Athena or Thatcher, but subtle, powerful, yet without vulnerability? What might Diana and Vivienne do for her?  Well, Vivienne Westwood’s designs draw on the twin iconographies of Britishness (the tartan we find in May’s trouser suit) and the queens Elizabeth. Her designs suggest a rebellion restrained to an iconographic tradition of Britishness that punk both satirised and marketed and that was ultimately absorbed into Cool Britannia and the Olympic iconography of 2012. Westwood’s regal iconography combines deference to royalty and a fantasy of her own regal rule. There is no mistaking that just as her dresses might make a queen, so, too, they mean she is indeed a queen.

If we move up to the hair, then the bob is one of the most common and versatile styles for women’s hair. It can look natural, and that is the way Teresa May wears it (pre-iconographic again) yet it is often saturated with cultural meanings and knowledge. If we look back to the 1980s to think about bobs other than Diana’s, perhaps Debby Harry of the band Blondie offers an example of the bob. Like May, Debby Harry wanted to annexe values to her brand, but none of them were natural; her bob calls up Marilyn Monroe’s. Yet, where Monroe was wrecked by fame, by the time we were all looking at Debby Harry’s bob she had already survived heroin addiction: she was older than most punks; she was a woman and the band, brand and hair were hers – and her hair said it all as the name of that band: Blondie. So if Harry claimed and reworked classic feminine icons of modernity to offer a knowing bid for a modern kind of freedom in which the ‘natural’ was long past, May’s use of the blow dried natural look speaks of a return to nature but also, once again, an avoidance of the iconographic: no helmet for her rather subtle styling, subtle colour and age-appropriacy. Yet for all that May’s hair says to us ‘hair means hair’, the gently groomed and subtly coloured ‘natural’ bob is claiming the power of a quiet femininity that is mixed with brand princess.

Of course, I began by saying that men have an easier time in terms of meaning. Many are allowed to stay in the pre-iconographic. So as I am writing just before an election why can’t I offer some balance by considering Corbyn’s hair? That would be a different topic. Just for the present, though, perhaps we can visualise his head with hair and beard outlining a pineata. As it is repeated and violently struck, sweets and trophies fly through the air at some velocity. It is time to return to the Warburg Picture Collection to ask Dr Paul Taylor for help on the iconography of Corbyn as a pineata …

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Arts Week 2017: Landscape and Power

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Those of us who signed up to the Landscape and Power lecture during Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 would have seen an arresting image posted on the event flyer. In the talk in Room BO3 of 43 Gordon Square we learn that this image is computer generated. It is of a proposed memorial, entitled ‘Memory Wound’, to the victims of the mass murder by Anders Breivik on the island of Utoya, Norway which formed part of a discussion by Joel McKim (Birbeck) on memorials and landscape. Swati Chattopadhyay (University of California Santa Barbara) also spoke on the cultural landscape of British Colonialism in Bengal, India. David Haney (University of Kent) discussed architecture and German landscape history.

We see how humans have shaped their cultural and political identity by way of landscape in a journey that  took us around the globe and through time. Chattopadhyay’s presentation focused on architecture in Lucknow in the 1850s, in particular Dilkusha Palace. Dilkusha was built in the 1800s as a hunting lodge in an English Baroque style. In 1857 it was the scene of an Indian uprising against the British, a battle which is now considered a precursor in the campaign for Indian independence. The building was damaged in the siege and later abandoned by the British and left to decay. Later on though, the gardens were replanted and nurtured, and visited by British residents and tourists. Lucknow is known as the city of gardens. It’s well documented by Victorian novelist Edith Cuthell in her book ‘My garden in the City of Gardens’.

David Haney’s presentation looked at the Nazi cultural landscape, strengthening territory through earth–rooted monuments. Haney discussed Hitler’s decentralization of Nazi power away from Nuremberg by building Order Castles, such as Ordensburg Vogelsang built in 1936 in Eifel (North Rhine-Westphalia). Ordensburg Vogelsang was primarily a training ground for Hitler youth but was also visited by working people at the weekend for moral edification. This masculine composition, based on a medieval fortress, appeared to meld into the landscape, as if it was hewn from a rock face, emerging from the soil. In truth, a great deal of state of the art Nazi technology was used during its construction. The building has since been erased and is referred to as a Third Reich ruin.

Birbeck’s Joel McKim observed that, overall, contemporary memorial design has shifted from objects to memory spaces in the landscape. This shift has come with a secularisation of memorials, away from monuments stretching towards the heavens with celestial themes. He cited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, designed by architect Maya Lin which has an edge to the earth, an open side.

Fresh Kills (kills is the Dutch word for stream) on Staten Island, formerly a landfill site visible from outerspace, is being restored as a public park in memory of 9/11.  The attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 represented a direct attack on home soil, a violation of the national body. In this case this memorial must have a direct relationship to the landscape. The memorial at Fresh Kills is underway, but it’s expected to take at least 30 years before completion. Matters have been further complicated because Fresh Kills is where forensic teams are sorting through remains, including human debris, from 9/11.

In 2014, Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s artwork ‘Memory Wound’ was selected as the  memorial to the Utoya massacre, whereby a 3.5 metre slit is cleaved into the Sørbråten Peninsula, pointing towards Utoya . Memory Wound signifies a wound in the landscape, within nature itself in memory of the 77 people that were killed.  The memorial is sanctioned by the Norwegian government but has given rise to serious objections from the local artistic community and residents of Utoya because of its extreme nature. Survivors of the massacre and family members have mixed views towards the memorial.

The panel members were questioned about the growth of ‘trauma tourism’ and the ethics behind it during the Q and A that followed. They agreed these memorials should invoke a sense of respect for the deceased and for their suffering. At the end of this informative discussion it was highlighted that taking selfies around these memorials is entirely inappropriate.

Sonali Jayetileke is an alumna of Birkbeck’s Certificate of  Journalism, 2012 (www.fifthplinthwriters.co.uk)

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Arts Week 2017: ‘He Doesn’t Talk Politics Anymore’: The Role of Politics in Contemporary US Fiction

This review was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker, Department of English and Humanities

white-houseOn Thursday 18 May I introduced an event about the politics of US fiction since the 1960s. This was part of Arts Week 2017, and a contribution to the theme of art and politics which was one element of this year’s series of events. Though I had been involved in organizing the event, its substance was provided by two speakers, Professor Martin Eve and Dr Catherine Flay, which leaves me in a position to reflect and report on it.

Eve’s title came from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), where it refers to a character in the Second World War who comes under suspicion because of his reluctance to discuss politics. Had the same happened, Eve asked, to US fiction in recent times? To answer this question he problematized a number of the terms involved. What, for one thing, was now the meaning and scope of ‘American literature’: could it even, he provocatively asked, include writing from Iraq and Afghanistan under US occupation? What is the best meaning of ‘politics’ itself, and how should we consider politics’ translation into literary work: should this be measured in a utilitarian fashion by the work’s effects, in the form of action taken by readers influenced by fiction? A further issue is the limits of the corpus that we study: the canon of contemporary US fiction, Eve argued, is very narrow compared to the real range of what is published in the US, and does not necessarily correspond to what most people are reading – insofar as they are reading at all, as a recent statistic recorded that 25% of people did not read any novel in a year.

Eve also took note of the recent turn against ‘critique’ in literary and social studies. Scholars like Rita Felski have argued that ideology critique and the performance of symptomatic readings of literary narratives have become formulaic, and requested new models of critical reading. At the same time Bruno Latour in the social sciences has suggested withdrawal from the ideological critique of science as the revelation that science is ‘socially constructed’ can give excessive succour to authoritarian politicians who cast doubt on the evidence of climate change. Eve noted that these two critiques of critique in fact move in somewhat different directions and need to be viewed as distinct.

Eve noted that African-American writers might make a significant contribution to a discussion of the politics of fiction, but also that they had often seemed marginal next to a certain group of white writers such as Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. Eve pointed out that black writers are often viewed primarily as black writers rather than as undertaking aesthetic experiments without special relation to their ethnicity – as Wallace, for instance, is often seen to do. The remarkable and prolific novelist Percival Everett has wickedly satirized and problematized these questions of racial identity and critical framing in his own highly self-conscious fiction.

Eve cast doubt on whether the metafiction of Pynchon, DeLillo or John Barth should be considered politically effective in any direct way, despite its political content. He noted that the cultural status of the novel was not what it had been, and observed that former President George W. Bush was not known to read fiction, save perhaps the government dossiers he had commissioned. (An audience member stated that Bush in 2006 had in fact taken Albert Camus’s The Stranger on holiday: beach reading indeed.) But Eve sought to move the argument on to what kinds of politics fiction might be involved in. In the 1960s, Eve noted, literature had been involved in the expansion of free speech, as legal trials against prohibited publications had foundered. Now, he stated, a different kind of politics was in play around the labour of writing, the remuneration involved, and the threat to bookselling posed by Amazon. The landscape sketched here was bleak, but Eve did not disclose how writers were using their literary labour as a form of activism against these new material conditions.

Dr Catherine Flay gave a full response to Professor Eve’s rich and diverse lecture. She proposed that in offering a space of play beyond market imperatives, fiction might offer models of ethics not typical of the contemporary world of work. She noted that fiction, and indeed literature more broadly, had shifted in significant ways since the 1960s, making a carefully particularized history necessary. The poet Allen Ginsberg among others, Flay reminded us, once sought to contribute as political activist. Where Eve had cited George W. Bush’s lack of interest in fiction, Flay cited the current President Donald J. Trump who in an interview had been asked what he read, and had responded by pointing vaguely to shelves of books. One thinks of The Great Gatsby whose titular figure has assembled an impressive library of books: they may be unread by Gatsby, a character remarks, but at least they’re real. I thought it striking that neither of our speakers, in considering such reading habits, had mentioned President Barack Obama, who late in his period of office spoke at length to novelist Marilynne Robinson about the importance of fiction in fostering empathy and imagination. Perhaps Obama, temporarily, had already entered the notorious obscurity of ‘the day before yesterday’.

In a short period for questions, lively responses came from the audience. One audience member noted that the term ‘populism’ had also been absent, defining it briskly as ‘politics for people who don’t like politics’, and suggesting that complex postmodern fiction was rather antithetical to the political populism of the present. Another asked about distinctions between ethics and politics, and another suggested that if fiction lacked political ambition this reflected what feels like a lack of individual agency to effect change. I wondered whether a comparison of genres would reveal some differences here: whether fantasy, for instance, allows for individual agency in a way that the contemporary realist novel might not, or how the entrapping social webs of crime fiction would compare.

Professor Eve had concluded that his reflections on the politics of fiction needed to be cautious, as these issues were ‘shifting below our feet, part of a matrix of culture and politics that we cannot accurately measure because there are too many interrelated factors’. The contributors to tonight’s event pointed us to some of these diverse factors that we ought to keep in mind if we ask whether fiction ‘doesn’t talk politics anymore’.

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The EU Referendum: Will It Be In Or Out?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally posted on the 10 Gower Street blog on 9 June 2016.

drapeaux européens

On 8th June Birkbeck Politics staff discussed the UK’s EU referendum, looking at what has happened so far and what may yet take place on the 23rd June.

The panel began by looking into why the UK was having a referendum, discussing the many hidden and not to hidden factors behind it. These stretched from Cameron’s gamble, that a referendum would cure the short term threat of UKIP and unhappiness in the Conservative party, to the long term distrust towards the European Union project in the UK, harking all the way back to Britain’s campaign of attempted sabotage of the project in the 1950s and reluctant joining in the 1970s.

Reflecting on the campaign so far, the panel spoke of how referenda are, by their nature, proxies for all sorts of other subjects. The EU referendum is actually about immigration, democracy and sovereignty. Despite their popular appeal, they can also be anti-democratic in focusing so narrowly on a single decision, and pursuing a seemingly simple answer to what are complicated issues.

There was also concern at the low level of debate and failure, on both sides, to engage with facts or global realities, from international trade to the modern mass movement of people (see the Treasury Committee report here that similarly complained of the ‘inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’ made by both sides).

The panel also reflected on how different views of the EU split different parts of England and the United Kingdom-creating what has been called a Disunited Kingdom of intentions and support. What would happen if Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain but England and Wales wished to leave? It could all get complicated and this paper speaks of some of the profound constitutional consequences. But do referenda’s ever solve an issue (think Scotland in 2014)? The panel thought it is unlikely to be the last EU referendum the UK has.

In terms of the voting itself, the polls so far show a knife edge result, resting on the margin of error. To find out what our panel think will happen on the 23rd June (and why José Mourinho’s views could prove decisive) listen to the podcast below.

Find Out More

  • For polling data and analyses see John Curtice’s What UK Thinks website and Matt Singh’s Number Cruncher Politics
  • The betting odds are here  (it looks roughly 77% remain vs. 25-28% Leave)
  • The House of Commons Library impartial background research on the referendum, Brexit and issues it raises here
  • On the panel were: Rosie Campbell‎; Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos‎; Dermot Hodson‎; Deborah Mabbett‎; Jason Edwards
  • Courses in the Department of Politics
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