MA in the History of Art

Art, Object, Sense: Crossings in Anthropology and Art History - the case of Eighteenth-century France

Study at the Courtauld

Course Description

Anthropology and art history were born as distinct disciplines of knowledge in the eighteenth century. With the discovery of new, ‘primitive’ worlds in the Americas and the Pacific and with the importation into Europe of artefacts from Asia on an unprecedented scale, Western culture developed a consciousness of itself as distinctly civilized. Using the emergent discourse on civilization as its point of departure this MA course aims to develop an interdisciplinary approach to the study of eighteenth-century French art, more specifically to architecture as built, decorated, furnished and inhabited form.

‘Sense’ functions as an organising principle in the course both with reference to the senses engaged directly in the making, interpretation and use of site-specific objects in the built environment and in its wider meanings of a sense of beauty, of colour, of rhythm, and of craft, or of judgement, of honour, of distinction etc, and in the yet broader context of the ability to make sense of, to understand or comprehend. The course questions the prevailing view of the eighteenth century as an Age of Reason and looks to recover a history of the non, or only partially verbalised knowledge it mobilised in making and responding to its material culture. The course asks how can ethnography help in narrating the history of the tacit?

The course is divided in two, corresponding to the two teaching terms. The first will focus on ornament, as a discourse, practice and object of theoretical speculation. Ornament marks a point of intersection between anthropology and art history: in the eighteenth-century, the engraver and theorist Charles-Nicolas Cochin critiqued the excesses of ‘rouge’ in court make-up by analogy to the indigo tattoos of American Indians. In the nineteenth century ornament became a focus of debate about difference and identity in so-called civilized and primitive cultures. Drawing on the writings of art historians Alois Riegl, E.H. Gombrich and on those of anthropologists Lévi-Strauss and Alfred Gell the course will investigate the meanings and functions of ornament in the contexts of ritual, status, taste and the market.

Space is the second problematic addressed by the course. The abbé Laugier discovered the origin of architecture in the ‘primitive hut’, mankind’s first post and lintel dwelling. By prioritizing human need over materials and technology as the determining factor in the origin and history of architecture Laugier may, in some ways, be said to have anticipated the phenomenonlogical position of twentieth-century philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty who argue for the importance of the body and the senses in any account of habitation or dwelling. Building on the foundation provided by Edward Casey’s theorisation of the difference between space and place the course raises questions about the ways in which physical structures served to represent, reproduce and re-invent social structure in the ancien régime. Issues of class, gender and race will be central to this investigation.

By reading arguably one of the most refined moments of European high culture alongside and against examples of art from non-Western communities the course intends to de-naturalise such institutions as the state, the law, the market, the family, the academy, art. It will raise questions about rules not only of art but of the social control of production and in relation to the definition and defence of art in law. It will raise questions about performativity in relation to art practice and with regard to the bureaucracy and marketing that secured it a destination.

In addition to the formally assessed work that all MA students are required to do, those on this MA will have the opportunity to work with the curatorial staff to mount an exhibition of drawings and textiles in our Gallery on a subject or theme arising from the course which will open to the public in April 2016.

Language and other requirements

Standard entry requirements. A good reading knowledge of French is essential.