writing art history
Lucy Bradnock (University of Essex)
Legacy studies and the formation of postmodernism
In the Introduction to the 1996 anthology The Duchamp Effect, Benjamin Buchloh raises the question of ‘whether we have finally reached that stage where all attempts at writing art history as a history of authors (and anti-authors, of whom Duchamp is, of course, the exemplar and model) appear utterly futile and methodologically unacceptable from the outset.’ The essays that follow establish the figure of Marcel Duchamp as a framework within which the history of post-war art might be re-written, opening up the possibility for alternative and pluralised narratives in place of the hegemonic and singular history offered by Modernism. In fact, the book is part of a growing body of work that has not only investigated the reception of Duchamp’s work, but has also, following a critical model that had been in play for much longer, constructed a Duchampian legacy. Inevitably the reclamation of a figure previously critically marginalised has resulted in more that the straightforward expansion of the field. It is a strategy that raises questions of the value of marginalisation as a trope for the avant-garde; the potential for jeopardising other critically ignored figures; and the issue of retroactive interpretation. This research project seeks to map the vital function of legacy studies within the theoretical formation of postmodernism and questions the motivations behind the Duchampian legacy model. Developing this project alongside my own thesis on the reception of Antonin Artaud in postwar American art, I will investigate the notion of legacy as a tool for, and more importantly as a function of, writing art history. With its etymological implications of the written contract of law, legacy is founded upon a meaning that is inherently verbal. Is the notion of artistic legacy therefore one that is a product of the act of writing art history as much as of the art and artists concerned?
Writing Art’s Prehistory
My project examines the difficulties involved in describing, interpreting, and researching Palaeolithic and Neolithic art. The artworks I consider were created before the advent of writing (in the narrow sense of the term). There are therefore no written records, no contracts, inventories, or letters, no ancient archived documents, available to assist art historians in their efforts to make sense of them. There are only accounts and interpretations, frequently highly differentiated in outlook, offered much later. The approaches commonly adopted in these explanations, which will be summarised, are also often too focussed on predetermined questions relating to subjects such as representation and style, or are too directed towards expressing purely visual qualities in the works under consideration. They are therefore not capable of providing adequate interpretations of the parietal art of cave complexes such as those at Altamira and Lascaux, for example, or of the stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge. This project will therefore seek to develop a form of art historical writing which is less coloured by present-day values and practices and which can consequently demonstrate greater fidelity towards these artworks. It will strive to elaborate a prose capable of capturing something of the vital materiality of these objects of study. The language which will be used to write towards these ancient artefacts will frequently be one borrowed from other disciplines. The terminology of traditional art historical discourse is simply not up to the task of describing the material qualities of rock art or standing stones. The project will also analyse the importance played by senses such as hearing and touch in the original physical appreciation and experience of these works. The project will conclude by considering why Palaeolithic and Neolithic art is frequently seen as peripheral in art history and will argue that these prehistoric works should be accorded far greater importance in stories of art.
The Artist as Author: Gauguin’s Literary Strategies
Unlike his paintings, Paul Gauguin’s extensive literary output remains neglected, and in part unpublished. Scholars have dismissed his writing as a subsidiary activity, accepting at face value his denials of literary expertise, and arguing that he derived his aesthetic theories from his literary colleagues. Focusing on the relationship between his texts and paintings and his synthesis of artistic and literary sources, my research challenges these assumptions of naivety and shows how his fictional and theoretical writing engaged with and contributed to contemporary aesthetic debates.
Daniel Guérin’s 1974 anthology Oviri: écrits d’un sauvage, remains the standard reference work for studies of Gauguin’s writing, despite its willful reorganisation of his fragmentary narratives. Recuperating the process of fragmentation and reiteration obscured by Guérin, I shall compare Gauguin’s borrowed and invented ‘sources’ with the complete and original versions of his texts. Using Diverses Choses (1896-98) as a case study, I shall argue that his practice of appropriating and repeating fragments of text from a range of sources (usually criticized as plagiarism) parallels the manipulation and synthesis of motifs long recognised in his paintings. Exploring issues of authenticity and originality, I shall show how his appropriation and repetition of fragments purposefully called into question traditional notions of genre and authorship.
Setting Gauguin’s writings in the context of the broader field of artists’ writings, I am planning an interdisciplinary conference on ‘Artists’ Writings, c.1750-present’ (to be held at the Courtauld Institute, June 2009). Investigating topics including the distinction between public and private writing; questions of genre; the livre d’artiste and works of art involving text, this conference will ask what motivated artists to write (whether memoir, fiction or theory), how they viewed the relation between their visual and textual practice, and how they used writing to manipulate and challenge the public reception and the critical interpretation of their work.
Fans of Feminism: re-writing histories of second-wave feminism in contemporary art
In recent years, there has been a reprisal of interest in activist feminist art, centring on second-wave feminist works from the 1970s. The exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution”, at the LA MOCA and the opening of the first museum-based feminist art centre at the Brooklyn Museum, centred around the installation of Judy Chicago’s influential collaborative artwork The Dinner Party, 1974-79, are two major institutional re-visitings of this period that have both taken place in 2007.
This study examines the ‘re-writing’ of feminist art history that takes place in a number of contemporary artworks that complicate this celebratory re-visiting found in the museum. Examples include Mary Kelly’s recent project Love Songs, 2005, which includes fragments of interviews from women who were involved in feminism in the 1970s, contrasted with a younger generation, and Emma Hedditch’s collaboration with the film theorist Laura Mulvey, in which Mulvey reads from her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, intercut with clips from the films that inspired her text. In both projects, writing is presented as a way of negotiating memories and fantasises of second-wave feminism, as well as foregrounding the particularity of the texts shown. Both projects focus on the distance from the historical moment of the 1970s, and the desire to re-invigorate artwork and activism from this period in a manner that is relevant for the twenty-first century.
The figure of the fan, who mixes desire with aggression for the object of fascination, is one that will be used in this study to explore artworks that re-write, re-imagine and re-activate second-wave feminist art and politics. The focus on the artist as art historian as fan allows for a consideration of the investments and identifications that take place in this re-writing of feminist art history, and the potential that the artist and artwork have for writing new kinds of art histories.
Walter Benjamin’s research on 19th century image culture in the Arcades Project
For his Arcades Project, a study on cultural history of nineteenth-century Paris, Walter Benjamin researched not only French literature but also visual sources, a fact that has hitherto largely escaped scholarly attention. The particular images that Benjamin refers to in his notes range from fine arts to popular imagery. By virtue of the fragmented and unfinished character of Benjamin’s project, and his brief and allusive comments on the referenced images, their original purpose within the larger structure of the work remains unclear and can only be reconstructed following contextual clues. Benjamin’s other theoretical writings on art provide revealing hints, as do the art historical methods with which he was familiar – like those of Alois Riegl, Eduard Fuchs or Aby Warburg – but neither of them can fully explain the specific methodology in the Arcades Project in this area. The work’s innovative interdisciplinary approach manifests itself in its inclusion of images which were neither studied in art history nor in the context of other historical disciplines at the time, and its emphasis on interrelations between text and image. Rooted in close investigation of Benjamin’s particular image material and its historical context, my project in the “Writing Art History” Seminar seeks to analyse the specific approach towards art and visual history in Benjamin’s research, in relation to the larger context of critical cultural studies in the 1930s.
Reading History and Writing Architectural History
My research for this seminar examines the writing of architectural history within the framework of writing art history. Examining material from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, I am investigating the narration of architecture within the arts as a whole. The position of architecture as mistress of the fine arts lost its cultural currency by the nineteenth century. An analysis of the place of architectural history within art historical narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries therefore offers insights into the changing characterisations of the fine and applied arts, and the role that the writing of art and architectural history has played in shaping boundaries between them. The period under study witnessed considerable growth of interest in architectural theory and history. It was also during this period that architecture was transformed from a practice undertaken by a variety of amateur or self-taught individuals into a recognised discipline and profession. This research therefore engages with the birth of architectural history as a discipline in England, as well as with the particular ideas that that history articulated. Questions that my research explores include the relationship of nature and architecture in comparison to that of nature and art, and the relationship of architectural theory and architectural practice within architectural writings. As case studies, part of my research will focus on the pictorial and textual narrations of the origins of architectural form, and on the changing allegorical representations of architecture and the arts.
Philippa Kaina (History of Art, UCL)
Fantasmatic encounters: Edgar Degas' formative drawing practice
My research project develops a set of ideas which have emerged over the course of my current PhD research which takes as its subject the formative career of the artist Edgar Degas. Whilst my thesis discusses how the artist’s early works are seen to negotiate nineteenth century notions of History and Tradition within the historical context of an emerging ‘modern’ self-consciousness, I have gradually become more interested in what’s at stake for Degas’ own artistic identity here – particularly the ways in which it is implicated within the broader historical and artistic transformations taking place at this moment.
Thus, my proposal for the Writing Art History seminar research group aims to foreground Degas’ subjectivity – which I understand as something that is being negotiated in tandem with the terms of his artistic practice. It is Degas’ drawing procedure which seems to me to be the most compelling site for the inscription of this subjectivity. Indeed, rather than dismissing this part of his practice as a mere preliminary stage for painting (as it has previously been read) I argue that this ‘stage of drawing’ can be imagined as a terrain akin to the realm of the fantasmatic. By mapping the unconscious desires, fantasies, fears and anxieties mobilized in the various encounters these works transcribe, I wish to read this space of drawing as a zone in which consciously lived out identities are negotiated and transgressed – and from which the artist’s subjectivity emerges as an unstable and fluctuating identity in a state of perpetual mobility and process.
Charlotte de Mille (Courtauld Institute of Art)
Henri Bergson: Looking at Experimental Writing in the First Two Decades of the Twentieth Century
In his 1901 treatise Laughter, Henri Bergson demands that the artist, critic and writer should follow ‘a special kind of effort... by which the outer crust of carefully stratified judgments and firmly established ideas will be lifted, and we shall behold in the depths of our mind, like a sheet of subterranean water, the flow of an unbroken stream of images.’ Taking this ‘logic of the imagination’ as the foundation of my project, I will explore the value of experimental writing as a valid approach to art criticism. Bergson regarded the activity of perception as an event that traces the changes of states both within the object under consideration, and in the viewer themselves. Any experience of a work of art becomes a temporal activity, and criticism must necessarily reflect this.
Yet such an approach is riddled with problems. How can a personal, psychological, and empathetic response gain the objective validity on which the judgements of society have been based? Can we avoid mediocrity in a method in which all subjective relations to works of art assume equal value? Can such experiences ever be found collectively, or are we to be left with a morass of relativity that can never be ordered hierarchically? Do such judgements made in the present alter the historical past? Can such a creative interpretation of historical objects be regarded as history at all?
Focussing on texts from Britain and France from the first two decades of the Twentieth century, I hope to explore these questions through the work of, amongst others, Roger Fry, John Middleton Murry, Virginia Woolf. The project will trace the emergence, flowering, and critical debate of this intuitive method of thought.
Jeremy Melius (University of California, Berkeley)
Art History and the Invention of Botticelli
That Botticelli was ‘rediscovered’ in the later part of the nineteenth century by John Ruskin, Walter Pater and the Aesthetes has become a notorious episode in the history of taste. Yet why these engagements occurred, what connections they had to wider European interests in the artist, and, most importantly, how they shaped the emergent discipline of art history – these questions remain unanswered. Over the period of the research seminar, I will complete several chapters of my dissertation. It argues that the wildly heterogeneous body of writing and art-making that constituted the figure of ‘Botticelli’ in this period (c.1865-1915) requires us to rethink the structures of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to past art. Rather than an artificial dichotomy between ‘English’ art-writing and German Kunstwissenschaft, we need a more accurate account of the actual tissue of affiliations, influences, and repressions that made up this culture’s understanding of art as an embodiment of the past – an understanding that continues to structure our own. The case of Botticelli presents that tissue in uniquely concentrated form. It not only provides a site from which to trace the repetitions and refusals of the Ruskinian concern with affect and ethics that subtend various genres of art-writing in the period (scientific connoisseurship, literary representation, Warburgian cultural history, and the sheer scholarly collation of documents with paintings, among others). The rediscovery – just because it was taken to be so new – also provided a space of self-reflection in which these various encounters of the verbal with the visual could play out their fears and desires. And all, I show, in relation to a body of work that were no neutral ground, but actively formative of response, and whose own compositional qualities and historical peculiarities – themselves turning both to past and present; themselves so concerned with the pictorial management of desire – continue to structure our writing of art’s history.
Maria Mileeva (Courtauld Institute of Art)
Historiography of Modern Art: Dialogues between East and West
The history of modern art was famously set into motion by Alfred H. Barr with the foundation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929. ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ exhibition, staged at MOMA in 1936, gave birth to the modernist aesthetic that underpins our perception of the evolution of modern art. In my research, I seek to expand the narrow categories of the modernist approach and broaden the changing visions of what constituted ‘revolutionary’ art of the 1920s and 1930s. Barr’s writing of art history constitutes largely an art history of (American) reception. The exchange of ideas between East and West in the formative period of modern art history will form the basis of my contribution to the ‘Writing Art History Seminar Group’.
I will open up debate on the significance of the non-verbal or visual writing of art history. The diagram as a medium to illustrate the development of art history has not been paid necessary scholarly attention. The primacy given to the word in art historical research has led to a negligence of other forms and methods of art historical narratives in the making. The organisation of public and private collections, art institutions, teaching methods, and the art market were all crucial in the process of writing art history of modern Western art of the first half of the twentieth century.
Alfred H. Barr, Soviet Marxist art history and the theoretical diagrams of Kazimir Malevich will act as case studies in my discussion of the establishment of a systematic genealogy of artistic creation in the first half of the twentieth century.
Charles Miller (Courtauld Institute of Art)
The Picasso Myth
This project is concerned with reading and writing Picasso. The Picasso literature articulates a poetics structured by a network of themes. A reading of this poetics opens the Picasso myth to critique and the artist’s production to reinterpretation.
I want to clarify the Romantic and Nietzschean conditions of the rhetoric of genius associated with the artist from Apollinaire onwards. Faust and Prometheus are cynosures in this rhetoric, figures central to Western inscriptions of modernity; the politics of time and capital likewise bear on Picasso’s function in the discourse of modernism.
The contemporaneous reception switched between solar and excremental imagery, idealism and materialism, while the figures of the criminal and the magician overlapped with anxieties of race and nation. Critics coded Picasso as African, Oriental or primitive. Such coding installed contexts for the artist’s agency; yet while certain categories retain some heuristic force (the designation of Picasso’s painting as baroque, for instance), the artworks frequently subvert the ideologies of race or gender active in the literature.
Picasso, with moves by turns avant-garde and conservative, helped determine his own reception through the media of mechanical reproduction and exhibition. We can detect his influence in the reception’s persistent biographism, which rehearses assumptions, both bourgeois and ancient, about the sanctity of the artist’s person. Its ultimate symptom is the appearance of a Christology in the literature. The oeuvre undoes the monotheistic subject this implies, though part of my project is to nuance the critique of biographism by relating Picasso’s interwar work to surrealist autobiography.
Crucially, I want to think through the priority given to Picasso in the avant-garde text, rather than dismiss it, as has often been the case, as so much expedient flattery. My overarching aim is to theorise the function of Picasso’s production in the theory of the avant-garde. The philosophical and psychoanalytic dimensions of the reception form the ground of my intervention.
Broadcasting Art History
‘Perhaps [the French Revolution’s] greatest legacy to prosperity has been its message to the young,’ broadcast Sir Kenneth Clark on BBC Two in May 1969. ‘I can see them still through the window of the University of the Sorbonne, impatient to change the world, vivid in hope, although what precisely they hope for, or believe in, I do not know.’ Aired during the penultimate episode of Civilisation, the statement is one of several pointed references to the student uprising in Paris the previous year.
The reception of Civilisation shows a clear division between popular rapture and left-wing intellectual disdain; between Clark’s importance as a ‘populariser’ and his role as an art historian. Civilisation is located at the intersection of two understudied aspects of ‘writing’ art history: popularisation and methodological dead-ends. As the first Chairman of the Independent Television Authority from 1954, Clark was well-placed to exploit this popular medium and its importance to television history has been duly noted. Simultaneously, because of its very popularity, art history has failed to analyse the ideological importance of the broadcasts. The young scholars of the next generation would reject Clark’s art history, but Civilisation remains an important document of the reception of May ’68 by the British establishment.
Broadcasting Art History will explore how Clark’s art-historical broadcasts can be sited within both the historiography of art history and the reception of television. It will ask two crucial questions: first, what was the role of the public intellectual and broadcaster in Britain in the late 1960s and, second, what was the cultural perception of television during the same period. The study will situate the series in relation to other relevant transmissions: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the 1971 TV Interruptions by video artist David Hall and Monty Python’s Boxing Tonight of 1972. This broad, unanalysed, cultural context shaped the social history of art and, as such, merits investigation.
Metafictional Historiography of Art
The Metafictional Historiography of Art argues that the humanist adherence to artistic intention and truth that have characterised art history’s methods since Vasari’s writing, that were extended in the Enlightenment by Kantian aesthetics and Hegel’s history and philosophy of art, and into the modern period in the writings of Clement Greenberg, have been sustained in the writings of contemporary art theory claiming post-humanist, postmodernist or poststructuralist credentials. This legacy confirms and naturalises contemporary art history’s claims to ‘objective truth’ and its attachment to determinism, demanding it make sense of art seeking to elude such reduction (particularly that of the second half of the twentieth century). Indeed, one of the ironies of art and its interpretation in our time is that the adaptation of anti-Hegelian philosophical models to artistic practice is nullified in that art’s reception; that is to say that contemporary art inspired by the counter-Enlightenment theory of those who have challenged Hegel’s philosophical legacy – the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, particularly – was stifled by supposedly postmodernist art historians in the 1980s and 1990s who turned these writings to deterministic ends, grounding bothersome art in the very origin, presence, fullness of meaning, and truth that it meant to repudiate.
However, the Metafictional Historiography of Art is not anti-theoretical; it believes, rather, that the ‘post-metaphysical’ writings of authors such as Nietzsche have been misused. Such performative theory allows a reflection of (not dissection or description of) much of today’s art’s ambivalence. In addition, the modern historiography pioneered by F.R. Ankersmit, Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Keith Jenkins, and Hayden White has demonstrated that in examining its own conditions of possibility, the similarly reflexive metafiction of John Barth, Italo Calvino, Julio Cortázar, Georges Perec, and Marc Saporta can exemplify the means by which the traditional structure of historical narrative, still rigidly adhered to by art historians, can be challenged. Finally, historiographical fiction (for instance, Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar and more recently Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties) is of use because it has shown that avowedly subjective, fictional accounts of historical figures and events can carry at least as much weight as conventional historical narratives.
The Metafictional Historiography of Art suggests, then, that drawing on these reflexive strategies might challenge deductive art history’s increasingly prevalent formula of theory = meaning = truth, allowing the discipline to renounce historicist and ‘sciencist’ empiricism for the poetry, fiction, and parody of play. In place of interpreting, describing, representing, circumscribing, immobilising, or making art mean, it writes through, mirrors, echoes, and rebounds off art. It aims not to inquire into what art means but to discuss how it creates meaning and to show what it can do. It wants to position art history closer to art than to history.
Barbara Penner (Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL)
Writing Anonymous Architectural History
Poststructuralist inquiries and methods, having been embraced at one level of architectural writing (in works classified as “theory”), still sit uneasily within the traditional modes of architectural history and its preferred publications: the survey or the monograph. The architect, along with a collection of key buildings, remains alive and well within architecture and its scholarship. How can we explain the continued centrality of the figure of the (generally male) architect and the canon in architectural history? As part of the “Writing Art History” Project, two specific yet related lines of enquiry will be developed.
- Writing Anonymous Architectural History – Contexts
Anonymous architectural history has actually had several distinguished champions: Heinrich Wölfflin, Siegfried Giedion and Reyner Banham. This first stage of research traces a lineage of anonymous architectural history writing through an analysis of these three historians’ motives, historiographical methods, and objects of study. How were their anonymous works received? What do they tell us about the possibilities and challenges of writing anonymous history?
- Writing Anonymous Architectural History – Methods
Giedion and Banham were working within an art/architectural historical tradition but were violating a fundamental, but implicit, rule: that we write about buildings by named architects. Not to do so threatens not only the status of architect but also the specificity of architectural history as a discipline. Can architectural historians produce histories of anonymous buildings without them becoming something else - design history, material culture, vernacular studies, cultural studies, or even sociology? I will argue that scholars need to explicitly assess the disciplinary impact of their writings and will operate within a more self-reflexive mode, drawing on feminist cultural critic Janet Wolff’s observations about autobiographical interruption’s ability to displace entrenched cultural representations and power relations. Through such methods, can we unsettle the architect’s privileged position at last?
Writing Bruegel: at the intersection of Ethnography and Art History
My interest in the history of writing about Pieter Bruegel the Elder springs from my dissertation research on Bruegel’s peasant pictures. I have often been struck by the twists and turns of Bruegel scholarship – only a few years after the artist’s death in 1569, the great geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote that Bruegel was “the most perfect painter of his age.” Yet a short hundred years later, Breugel had completely fallen out of the art historical canon. This is in part due to Karel van Mander’s seventeenth-century biography of the artist, which had falsely identified Bruegel with his peasant subjects. The myth of the ‘Peasant Bruegel’ had taken hold and it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that this view of the artist was overturned.
In 1890, Bruegel was ‘re-discovered’ by the Belgian scholar Henri Hymans. Hymans pictured Bruegel as a great Flemish painter, a kind of sixteenth-century Courbet, who represented peasant life as a nationalist statement against the ruling Spanish Hapsburgs. Bruegel was also included in the hugely successful 1902 Bruges exhibition of Netherlandish art, which showcased the work of the so-called ‘Flemish Primitives.’ This strange term highlighted the supposed stylistic naivité of artists like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, who were seen as working outside of the classical tradition espoused by Italian Renaissance artists. Bruegel’s paintings were hung in the final rooms of the exhibition, as the climax to this particularly Northern painting tradition.
The use of the term ‘primitive’ to describe early Netherlandish art, reflects the broader anthropological turn in cultural studies at the beginning of the twentieth century when folklore, peasant customs and traditions became popular subjects for scholarly interest. Perhaps then it is no surprise that at this moment Bruegel, the great Renaissance painter of peasants, would attract critical attention, not only from the art historian, but from the ethnographer, the costume historian and the historian of folk custom. However, the confluence of anthropological and art historical writing on Bruegel was not confined to this unique historical moment.
Writing on Bruegel has persistently intersected with the ethnographic. From Van Mander’s early stories about Bruegel dressing as a peasant and observing peasant customs, to Svetlana Alper’s 1972 article on peasant festivity, Bruegel has been figured as an ethnographer. Charles de Tolnay, one of the first art historians to argue for an appreciation of Bruegel’s humanist credentials, wrote that he aimed to ‘strip away Bruegel’s masks.’1 The metaphor of the mask reoccurs in the work of ethnographers and anthropologists like Branislav Malinowski and Claude Levi Strauss, who were fascinated by the mask as representative of cultural difference. Hans Sedlmayr’s 1934 essay “Bruegel’s macchia,” also utilises the metaphor of the mask to describe Bruegel’s art. Sedlmayr’s essay is at once a profound meditation on estrangement in Bruegel’s work and an at times disturbing display of fascism’s utilisation of anthropology. (Sedlmayr was a member of the Nazi party.)
My aim in this project is to investigate how art historical writing about Bruegel plays off both the perceived ethnographic impulse of the artist and the art historian’s own manipulation of the ethnographic gaze. Beyond merely reviewing the art historical literature on Bruegel, I want to engage with how simultaneous developments in anthropological and ethnographic writing, from the seventeenth-century on, have influenced the art historical representation of Bruegel. I will argue that art historians working on Bruegel have been profoundly influenced by anthropological writing, from authors as diverse as Mikhail Bakhtin, George Boas, Norbert Elias, Georges Bataille and Michael Taussig.
- Charles de Tolnay, Pierre Bruegel l’ancien. Brussels, 1935. 2 vols.
Elisabeth Reissner (Courtauld Institute of Art)
A critical look at the relevance of the physical object to art historical writing, with a focus on writings concerning Cézanne’s materials and methods
This research will critically examine the idea that scrutiny of the physical object is essential to the writing of art history. The conditions of looking and the means or ways of looking from a more technical perspective will be clarified, as will what it is that we are actually looking at. Central to the study will be an overview of the relatively newly named activity ‘technical art history’. Its status as an empirical, inductive and essentially a-theoretical practice, with a particular claim to truth will be questioned. Technical art history’s capacity for offering a means of critically interrogating secondary accounts or the artist’s own verbal or written accounts of methods and potential meanings will also be outlined, with particular reference to Cézanne. A model of technical art history will be explored that is not only a form of connoisseurship but is inclusive of the philosophical, social or political underpinnings of a work of art and is critical of claims that close looking offers a direct link, through following the artist’s hand, between the viewer and the artist’s mind and intentions.
Creative Writing in Art Criticism
This project is based on my current MPhil research on the imagery of nineteenth-century French art criticism in response to Delacroix’s treatment of colour.
The tide of criticism that was produced in the mid-nineteenth century significantly supplemented the experience of viewing Salon painting. It was authoritative and influential writing, in which not only aesthetic, but also political, social and wider philosophical concerns were expressed in rich, vivid, and frequently poetical language. Responses to Delacroix and Ingres at the Universal Exposition of 1855, where France was showcasing its art, science and industry under one roof, show critics of differing philosophical and political persuasions using scientific (and quasi-scientific) ideas to validate their opinions on colour and line. Salon rhetoric on this perceived opposition in painting had been embodied in the two painters since the 1840s. Integral to the debate was concern with the notion of truth in painting, which was expressed figuratively through terms that are ubiquitous in nineteenth-century French art criticism, such as ideal, beauty, poetry and genius.
My study will explore in detail some of this highly creative writing on art. It will look at the imaginative deployment of metaphor, and other linguistic strategies, to validate opinion in a literary genre that was bound to evaluate works in terms of their ‘truth-value’. Specifically, it will consider the invoking of natural law – understood as inherently moral – to define truth in the “antithetical” painting of Delacroix and Ingres, and will examine this creative appeal to a “higher” authority in relation to la science du beau, which was a conventional metaphor for the tenets of academic theory. More broadly, my project proposes that analogy and metaphor are especially conducive to the polemical and inherently subjective (not always necessarily judgmental) character of art criticism, and asks whether innovative art tends to invite new metaphors, which might be more topical tropes than those by which well-established art is described.
Per Rumberg (Courtauld Institute of Art)
‘Menschenrechte des Auges’: Aby Warburg and his Picture Atlas Mnemosyne
Art historical writing always involves an act of translation that can only appropriate the visual experience. As the extremely dense writing style of Aby Warburg suggests – he himself once jokingly referred to it as his ‘Aalsuppenstil’ (eel-soup style) – he seems to have been particularly sensitive to this problem. Warburg’s 1892 dissertation on Sandro Botticelli (comprising not even fifty pages, including the critical apparatus), remains the longest text he has ever published. It may thus come as no surprise that Warburg’s magnum opus, the picture atlas Mnemosyne, depends little if at all on the written word.
Warburg developed the concept for his ‘Bilderatlas’ upon his return from Kreuzlingen. Fritz Saxl had presented him with the idea of using large screens for the arrangement of photographs, a method that clearly suited Warburg’s associative approach and provided enough latitude for what he called ‘Menschenrechte des Auges’ (human rights of the eye). On 19 January 1929, Warburg presented the screens in a lecture at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome. The twenty-five-year-old Kenneth Clark, who followed the lecture with great interest, would later call it an experience that changed his life.
Due to Warburg’s sudden death on 26 October 1929, the project unfortunately remained unfinished. The original screens do not survive but are documented in sixty-three black-and-white photographs, now in the archive of the Warburg Institute in London. Although some extraordinarily fine scholarship has been dedicated to the picture atlas, I think the subject is far from exhausted. Within the context of the Writing Art History Seminar, I would thus like to conduct further archival research (both at the Warburg Institute as well as the Bibliotheca Hertziana) in order to establish a better understanding of Warburg’s enigmatic final project.
A Photographic History of Art: the Archives of the Art History Seminar of the University of Marburg
In 1913 Richard Hamann, professor of art history at the University of Marburg, Germany, founded a photographic archive of reproductions of works of art. My project investigates how this archive influenced the methodological approach of Hamann and his art history seminar. By 1924 the archive consisted of 16,000 negatives of art and architecture. Consisting of over 1.7 million images, the archive is now one of the biggest online image databases. The development and endurance of this archive testify to the importance of photographic material to art history, yet the influence of photographic conventions and archival practices on art historical methodologies is rarely studied. I explore how archival photographs, often presumed to be neutral “documents,” developed a particular style that shaped how works of art were perceived and interpreted at the University of Marburg.
Hamann and his art history seminar were devoted to establishing a history of artistic styles, and the photographic archive was meant to provide the raw material of such a history. Hamann promoted photography as a valuable tool for revealing details of works of art that had previously gone unnoticed and for bringing works of art separated by space and time into close proximity for comparison. Through the photographic archives of the University of Marburg, Hamann aimed to allow works of art “to speak with few words, through the selection and sequencing of images.” Photographic books and collections of images published by the Marburg seminar suggest a non-verbal art history, in which interpretations of works of art are constructed through the arrangement of photographs. The Marburg seminar’s photographic approach to art history merits comparison to Aby Warburg’s more familiar Mnemosyne Atlas, which attempted to establish a history of gesture and human expression in art through the spatial arrangement of photographic reproductions.
Francesco Ventrella (University of Leeds)
Writing Art History as Maintenance of the Archives
The aim of my research is to produce a critique of the writing of art history as a forensic process, mainly dealing with clues that are inextricably linked to mourning and loss – as if Modern art history in the aftermath of Winckelmann’s murder in Trieste (1768) had inherited a trauma, thus turning any archive into a closet. Stemming from a consideration of the limits of the bi-dimensionality in the word/image opposition, as the hermeneutical locus in which only a jurisprudential conception of the visual evidence can be produced, I will work on a thickening of the ‘telling a picture’ by taking into consideration the archive as a place where the words of the art historian function together with images in a tri-dimensional space, that produces desire and the emergence of a peculiar art historical discourse on the body.
In the last two centuries art history made things and artworks with its words, while it has also contributed to the sclerotization of modes of visuality, which became the rules of its archive. It objectified the contiguity between look and object defined by looking as a real act, for the represented voyeur looking at the nude body of a woman will always stand as a real figure. How can the writing of art history contribute to the cracking of these crystallized modes and remake the archives to work differently?
Mieke Bal positions the body between the space of the image and the space of the word. Therefore, drawing on her semiotic analysis, it is also the body which shapes the archive, for it conveys that the reading of a visual sign cannot be performed outside archival terms.
Writing art history as a maintenance of the archive is thus a project focused on the switching the indexicality of art writing itself, by producing an ‘interpretant space’, which may constantly challenge the naturalized couplings of either signified/signifier, or word/image and the related symbolic forms. Thus, we can imagine a dimension of writing similar to a daydream: an elaboration of the Bildung, functioning as both image and self-fashioning at the same time, by engaging with a language which has never been hidden or closeted, but that has nevertheless not yet been spoken.