Spotlight on Scholarship

As a D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust scholarship recipient in 2006-7, James Harrison (MA Distinction 2007) completed Professor Christopher Green’s MA course ‘Europe, Nationality and Internationalism: Cultural Identity and European Art, c. 1907-45’. His experience culminated in a provocative thesis, ‘Reading Minotaure: An Active Interpretation of Text and Image in Numbers Five and Seven’, which was named the co-winner of the Courtauld Dissertation Prize 2007. Here James discusses the issues and rewards of writing an MA thesis at The Courtauld.

What in particular draws you to the field of Art History, and especially to your period?
I’ve always been fascinated by the multi-disciplinary nature of Art History and by the fact that a single art work can reveal as much about the social context of its production as a political manifesto or any other historical document. I’m passionate about Surrealism and its spirit of subversion. As I’ve studied the movement first at Cambridge and then at The Courtauld, the challenge of understanding its principles and theory has become all the more intriguing and the answers, evermore elusive.

Can you give a brief synopsis of your thesis, and the issues explored?
In short, my thesis is about the complex relationships between text and image in Minotaure, a French Surrealist journal from the 1930s. I focused equally on both literature and visual art. With its consciously staged visual and thematic juxtapositions, the journal operates just like an art exhibition; its contents are deliberately provocative. I was especially interested in exploring the way in which disparate ideas and discordant individuals came together in the pages of Minotaure.

Do you feel that your work has wider significance outside of your immediate period, or even outside the field of Art History?
My thesis is as much about historiography as it is about an actual object of Art History. I wanted to challenge conventional methods by using a variety of theoretical frameworks and working beyond the constraints of traditional chronology. Minotaure enabled me to demonstrate how ‘Surrealism’, as such, could not be restricted to a particular period, and should in fact be relevant to our understanding of other aspects of the arts. I think that’s what the editors of Minotaure sought to achieve. The journal became a vehicle for my main argument – that Surrealism can never be defined or resolved, and so evades Art History. What is important to me is the way that a movement is written about and how we understand its relationships both within, and without.

Was there anything that you found particularly challenging about this project?
Despite the specialised nature of my thesis, I actually struggled for a long time to finalise my topic. Owing to the huge quantity of material in each of Minotaure’s 13 issues, it was incredibly difficult deciding which articles and images to focus on and how to bring them together. I needed to select enough diverse sources so as to make my argument relevant to a broader sphere. The large proportion of material in French proved a challenge and I was certainly surprised by the resulting thesis. I am never usually clear about my argument until well after I have started writing, leaving a lot down to experimentation.

Were there other aspects of your time at the Courtauld that you particularly appreciated?
I really appreciated the support of the group and of my supervisor, Professor Chris Green. It was so encouraging to learn about everyone else’s areas of specialism as we each had something to offer which could benefit the rest of the group. That definitely contributed to my success. Chris was very helpful when it came to discussing my ideas, as I wasn’t typically decisive! I really enjoyed the group excursion to Paris, which brought our group together, and am grateful to the D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust’s generosity for enabling me to participate in this important trip. If I could do anything differently, I’d spend more time exploring primary research, as I’m usually more interpretative in my approach to Art History. However, the library facilities were particularly beneficial, since I had unrestricted access to original copies of Minotaure, which simply would have been unavailable elsewhere.

For further information
If you are interested in funding research opportunities for other talented students, please contact:
Kate Knight, Head of Individual Giving Programmes
Tel 020 7848 2194
Email kate.knight@courtauld.ac.uk