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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The language of mourning

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

“…Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change,
Into something rich and strange…”

Shelley Memorial, Edward Onslow Ford (installed at University College, Oxford, 1893) (Pic credit

Shelley Memorial, Edward Onslow Ford (installed at University College, Oxford, 1893) (Pic credit

These hauntingly beautiful words, as sung by the ethereal spirit, Ariel, in William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, tell of the passing of a man from life into death. Rather than describing the process as a simple loss of life, here death is a metamorphosis from a literal state into one less defined, yet no less vital.

Shakespeare’s famous words can be found carved into the gravestone of English romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, which lies in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The former husband of Gothic novelist Mary Shelley drowned on July 8, 1822, after his boat was caught in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia.

Shelley’s life and death were consequently memorialised by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, who depicts his body nude and washed up on the shore. While the white marble statue has been housed ever since at University College, Oxford, it has ever been linked in art history to the Italian gravesite; the physical rendering of Shelley’s death merges with the power of Shakespeare’s words.

It is this interplay between word and image which has long fascinated Professor Hilary Fraser, executive dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She recently shared her fascination at the Sally Ledger Memorial lecture (this year a major component of the Arts and Feeling Conference), held at Birkbeck’s Clore lecture theatre which brimmed with colleagues and peers from the arts and academia.

Her lecture, ‘The Language of Mourning in Fin-de-Siècle Sculpture’ explored the aesthetic response to art, and how writers and critics conceptualise the emotional aspects of it. A stimulating, and at times very poignant presentation, it seemed an appropriate topic for exploration, given the fact the biennial lecture marks the loss – and celebrates the life – of Professor Sally Ledger, a leading scholar of 19th century literature at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway who died in 2009.

Bridging the gap between public and private experience

Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889), Auguste Rodin. (Pic credit,

Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889), Auguste Rodin. (Pic credit,

To frame her presentation, Prof Fraser shared her experience of attending the 2006 Royal Academy exhibition of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work. At the time experiencing bereavement in her own life, Prof Fraser had a powerful response to the series of mournful sculptures on display – most notably Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889).

“It was a tremendous exhibition, but I had to walk out,” Prof Fraser explained.

“It made my heart swell too much for me to remain comfortably. Why? Because it spoke to me about my own grief.”

This experience affirmed her research interest in how public monuments can bring forth a private response, and how this sentiment is reflected in critical and poetic responses to sculpture.

During the course of her lecture, Prof Fraser drew on many examples to illustrate this strand of her research, firstly on the writing of Rainer Maria Rilke – once Rodin’s private secretary – who also noted the ability of art to bridge the gap between public and private experience.

Other examples included:

  • Roland Barthes’s thoughts on photography and its link between the “then” and the “now”, much like in sculpture
  • Frank Rinder’s writing on Edward Onslow Ford’s Snowdrift – a sculpture of a dead, or perhaps merely sleeping, female figure which is noted for its haunting realism, serving to strengthen the viewer’s emotional response
  • British aesthete and intellectual Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Paget), who wrote about the ability of art to invoke “the human realities” of what they represent
  • Andrea Carlo Lucchesi’s memorial to Edward Onslow Ford, which stands in London’s Abbey Road; its mournful female figure (a reference to Onslow Ford’s Muse of Poetry) who is seated, not playing her lyre. This direct sculptural reference to Onslow Ford’s comparatively joyful figure in turn evoked within Prof Fraser’s mind such writing as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, and Frederic Leighton’s The Great God Pan

“We respond with our hearts”

In conclusion, Prof Fraser reiterated that, in carrying out her research into The Language of Mourning in Fin-de-Siècle Sculpture, she hopes to affirm the importance of feeling ‘then’ and ‘now’, both in the experience of the arts and in the academic community.

Powerful sculptures like the Shelley Memorial, she said, “break down the distinctions between public and private grief”. And as has been recurrently reflected upon by writers and critics through the centuries, the affective experience of viewing a public piece of work is so often defined by the private experience we bring to it.

“We respond with our bodies, with our hearts and tears perhaps, across space and time,” Prof Fraser concluded.

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Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal

This post was contributed by John Timberlake, the Peltz Gallery’s artist-in-residence – a position which, in its inaugural year, has been carried out in collaboration with Bow Arts.

John and Dr Gabriel Koureas, senior lecturer in the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck, have joined forces to devise an exhibition now on at the Peltz (Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal), which reflects on the use of mangled metal as an exhibitionary strategy by museums of war in representations of Britain’s ‘small wars’ from 1945 to the present day, and the War on Terror.

 Here, John outlines the genesis of the exhibition.

Artist's Impression: Mangled Metal (cardboard,glue and acrylic paint, 30 x 2.5 x 2.7 cm.)

Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal (cardboard,glue and acrylic paint, 30 x 2.5 x 2.7 cm.)

‘Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal’ takes its title from respective concerns of both Gabriel Koureas’ academic research on the representation of the ‘terrorist’ in museological debates (see Gabriel’s essay ‘Competing Masculinities in the Museum Space: Terrorists, Machines and Mangled Metal’) and my own long standing interest in ‘artist’s impressions’, collages, fabrication, and the representation of history in art.

At the time we started our conversation in April of this year, the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings was not something Gabriel or I had particularly thought of. However, our thoughts had been concerned with thinking about visual representation of the traces of violent conflict in museum contexts, and we were interested in having a conversation about that. Since 1945, Britain has been involved in a series of so-called ‘small wars’ that have at times seemed invisible.

In particular, the project reflects interests Gabriel and I realized we shared – around uses and readings of the photographic archive and mediation of trauma and cultural memory, in terms of both the efficacies and inadequacies of such mediations.

Fabricator of devotional ‘relics’

AI MM fragment (cardboard,glue and paint, 45 x 47 x 23 cm)

AI MM fragment (cardboard,glue and paint, 45 x 47 x 23 cm)

We set about looking at the evidential documentation in the photographic archives in the Imperial War Museum, and I started making approximations of what I saw. In this context, my role as artist carries echoes of a fabricator of devotional ‘relics’ – perhaps analogous to that of the maker of religious icons or devotional objects, who constructs fake relics in order to help others believe.

Terrorism, like all militarisms, ultimately seems to believe in the possibility of violent gesture as historical tool agency or motive force. However, terrorism seems to particularly relish its role in the staging of horror, and might be thought of as the point at which (para)military violence most closely approaches the point of a sort of obscene theatre.

There is a strange convergence to be made here – perhaps distasteful, perhaps a category error, but perhaps also necessary, as ‘war art’ itself might be: ‘Theatricality’ was held by Modernists to be the point at which art became less than it could be a point of degeneration – hence the criticisms of emergent Minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s by the defenders and supporters of Clement Greenberg, then and since. For that reason if no other, an installation which referenced the Minimalist scatter piece, in which no single element dominated, and no particular resolved form of craft or artistic judgment was elevated above others, seemed to me an appropriate form of installation as the work developed.

Paul Nash,The Battle of Germany

Bomb fragment drawing

Bomb fragment drawing

Beyond the role of fabricator I have described above, my role as an artist in a project like this might also be seen as that of an interpreter of dubious reliability: making three dimensional objects from photographs which show them only from one angle inevitably leads to misjudgments about scale, size, and perspective – all of which are ripe in their potential as metaphors for reading history generally.

This work represents an engagement with sculpture of course, but like my We Are History installation at Beaconsfield in Vauxhall last year, it is also a work of painting – a ‘landscape’ of ‘abstracted forms’ which carries with it echoes of particular pre-occupations of English Modernism. So in that sense, I also found other preoccupations re-surfacing in the work as I made it. Prior to beginning the conversations with Gabriel I had been thinking a lot about Paul Nash’s great painting The Battle of Germany (1944) which is currently hanging adjacent to my own large landscape, Another Country XV in the Imperial War Museum in Kennington in the exhibition Visions of War From Above and Below.

When it first emerged, Nash’s painting reportedly left patrons and supporters bewildered. Looking at the painting now with the hindsight of seventy-one years, it proves the doubters wrong and seems absolutely right for its time – overdeterminedly so, in fact, so that it remains an uneasy painting. I always feel that having experienced war first hand a generation earlier, Nash must have been aware that working from photographs for this later work placed him in a position of ‘flying blind’.

artists-impression-mangled-metal-2Seemingly teetering on the brink of post war Pax Americana abstraction, the canvas presents the final stages of the Allied bombing onslaught on Germany as only half discernable in conventional landscape terms, as an airborne vista. Nash’s work creates a momentary strained cohesion of figurative elements, brushwork motifs, elisions and shifts that seem to emerge and retreat amongst abstract gesture: for example, there is a distant moon-lit horizon of the kind one might imagine seeing from an aircraft at altititude, extending midway from the left edge of the picture, but by the middle of the canvas its authority as a point of register for the viewer is supplanted by other horizontals, suggesting different planes of focus, or perhaps the pitching diving and banking of attacking and defending aircraft in a dogfight over a target zone, but also reflecting personal painterly pre-occupations of the artist evidenced in earlier, pre-war work.

The effect is one of a field of elements in flux. Hito Steyerl has written of how the blurred tilting horizons reflections and displacements of J.M.W.Turner’s Slave Ship Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840) reflect the moment when the very idea of a ‘calculable and predictable future shows a murderous side through an insurance that prevents economic loss by inspiring cold blooded murder’.

At this point, Steyerl writes, ‘Space dissolves into mayhem on the unstable and treacherous surface of an unpredictable sea.’ (The Wretched of the Screen, pp21-22) Something similar might be ascribed to The Battle of Germany, painted at that point where the intensity and immensity of total war piles statistics upon ever more statistics, and extant terms of reference in terms of both moral choices are challenged or overthrown.

Nash’s collaging of different painterly passages, figures and abstractions seems to tentatively suggest uneasy equivalences, of which he himself does not seem to be sure: a rising cloud of unearthly spheres (a figure found in works of the interwar years such as Voyages of the Moon, 1934-37).

An ‘artist’s impression’

AIMM-installationIn some way or other, then, all these concerns found their way into the piece now on display in the Peltz Gallery: one might be tempted to be deliberately obtuse and claim it to be exactly that ‘landscape of abstracted forms’ that has been the pre-occupation of a certain kind of Home Counties English Modernism for the past century.

But I also hope that, given its subject matter, lowly materiality (it is just cardboard, paint and glue after all) it evidences an inversion of that, and embraces a more tentative and less self confidently resolved mode of making art, one attuned to flux and provisionality: an ‘artist’s impression’ that admits its fallibilities and misreadings.

Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal, runs at the Peltz Gallery, 43 Gordon Square, from Saturday, July 4 to Friday, August 14. Opening times are Mondays to Fridays, 10am-8pm, and Saturdays, 10am-5pm

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On Going On: Sustaining Life in Theatre

This post was contributed by Maria Patsou, PhD student, Birkbeck Department of English and Humanities who attended the One-day symposium, Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, 5 June 2015

Rosemary Lee discusses the intersections of work and life in her dance practice

Rosemary Lee discusses the intersections of work and life in her dance practice

This one-day symposium came at the end of a year’s exploration of desire in theatre at the Birkbeck Centre of Contemporary Performance. The intention of the symposium was to extend desire to ideas of support, wellbeing, welfare and overall sustainability of self and others from multiple angles.

The day was devised in the following sections:

It concluded with a Key Note Dialogue between Professor Alan Read and David Slater, on their community theatre work during the 80s at Rotherhithe.

Representing minority voices

Lobel’s and O’Brien’s autobiographical practice on physical illness highlighted the artist’s survival through presenting difficult material, utilising the audience’s negative and positive responses and voicing the unspoken.

D’Souza covered questions of empowerment and disempowerment, by narrating his relationship with theatre from an early age and focused on his experience of enabling others as a member of the RADA audition panel. In a similar autobiographical manner, Beau’s talk focused on the importance of performance for his survival, his relationship to enabling others, and the value of narrative in representing minority voices, a recurring theme of the day.

Questions arose on the separation between artist and human, performer and audience, and the ways we connect to each other. The value of obstacles and doing work in the community were the focal point of Lee’s and Shah’s presentation.

Lee discussed being sustained from the knowledge of creating something valuable for the society, and Shah explored thriving through disappointment, and utilising negative feelings on improving and going on.

Theatre in the community

During the second part of the day, Green examined the role of the producer in the theatre and the intricacies of surviving and controlling oneself. Wookey presented her work as an artist and entrepreneur and discussed finding strength to go on from within community, which was a common theme in Paul’s presentation as well, while Fleming presented the union’s efforts in giving people a voice and thus sustaining artists.

David Slater (left) and Alan Read (right) discuss their work in Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop

David Slater (left) and Alan Read (right) discuss their work in Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop

The Key Note Dialogue delivered by Alan Read and David Slater, complemented recurring themes about the place of theatre in the community and the importance of the community’s critique and concentrated on theatre as a mirror of societal change.

Perseverance and willingness to share were some of the day’s conclusions, as well as perceiving artist and human as one, and recognising performance as inextricably linked to its surroundings, in a community where each individual plays an instrumental part on sustaining and enabling themselves and others.

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