Photographic Library Digitisation Project Archive

Megan Stevenson: Reflections on ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’

Audio Version

Text Version

 

The photograph of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ is black and white. The artwork consists of 8 small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. The wall surrounding the mirrors is completely blank. We can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There is no reflection of the camera or photographer. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them.

‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, David Ward, Whitechapel Gallery (exhibited), London, England, 1991. Negative number: A92/657. The Courtauld Institute of Art. http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/conway/25ceb873.html

In the Conway library’s photographic collection there is a photograph of an artwork titled ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, taken in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991. The artwork is by David Ward, a contemporary artist (born 1951) whose works include installation, photography, light, and sound pieces.

The piece consists of eight small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. In the black and white photograph we can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them. It must have taken a lot of thought and positioning for the photographer to capture an image of the mirrors without also photographing their own reflection.

The title is unusual: Imagination Dead Imagine. This is also the title of a short prose text by Samuel Beckett published in 1965. In this, Beckett uses imagination to explore imagination itself. He questions what the limits of an artist’s imagination are, and how these limits could be accessed.

By attaching a series of mirrors to a wall, Ward also seems to be questioning the viewer: what are the limits of an artist’s imagination?

In an art gallery it is expected that the viewer will examine pieces that interest them and look closely at work created by artists. Ward subverts this expectation, instead presenting the audience with themselves and their surroundings. They are the art. As the room constantly changes, with people moving in and out, so do the images that the mirrors reveal.

By ensuring the art reflects its surroundings, Ward cannot fully imagine what this artwork will look like before it is in situ. It exists outside of his control.

However, within a photograph the viewer’s experience of the artwork changes dramatically from that experienced in the gallery.

Because of the fixed nature of a photo, we are unable to interact with the piece, to see ourselves jumping from mirror to mirror as we walk across the room, or to see our changing surroundings reflected opposite us. Therefore, we are unable to see the artwork as it would have existed.

For all its attempts to preserve the artwork, the photograph is, in many ways, doomed to fail. As soon as the mirrors become frozen on film, they become unable to fulfil their purpose. They cannot reflect the viewer of the photograph. Through this image, we see the mirrors in a way we were never meant to, we see them without seeing ourselves.

Although our experience of the artwork shifts when it is viewed through a photograph rather than in person, there is some continuity between the formats.

The artwork remains a product of its surroundings, the surroundings just happen to have been selectively chosen by the photographer. The photographer is a collaborator in the creation of the artwork. It is not our own position, perspective and surroundings that create the art we see reflected. Instead, we see through the eyes of a photographer, stood still for a moment in 1991.

To see the artwork without seeing any people reflected defies the nature of the mirrors. This ultimately pushes Imagination Dead Imagine even further in challenging the limits of the artist’s and viewers’ imagination. Although much of the experience of the artwork is lost when photographed, the questioning of imagination’s limits remains.


Megan Stevenson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Although the coronavirus has put our digitisation activities on hold at Somerset House, the pandemic has unlocked an outpouring of creativity amongst our volunteers. By adapting quickly, we have been able to initiate remote activities to advance the cataloguing, interpretation and care of our photographic collections, logging over 1,200 hours of remote volunteering time to date since 18 March.


Background

Since our first open day in January 2017 over 900 volunteers have engaged with the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, donating over 25,000 hours of time. From the outset we have operated an almost constant programme of outreach, recruitment and training, and maintain an active community of around 230 regular volunteers, some of whom have each contributed nearly 700 hours of time. Activities on offer to volunteers include photography, labelling, copyright research, photographer attributions, transcription, and collection care.

Our volunteer community is diverse, exceeding targets set for us by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), and we cherish partnerships with My Action for Kids, Beyond Autism, and the Terrence Higgins Trust. In 2019 alone we supported 31 students on work placements of periods from a week to three months, and ran corporate volunteering sessions with companies including Willis Towers Watson, Mace, Cirium, LexisNexis, Ashurst, Boden, Sidley Austin, Marsh & McLennan, Tideway, Bank of England, AutoTrader and Facebook.

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

One belief remains constant: in order to deliver engaging content, without barriers or preconceptions, to the widest possible audience, we include that audience in its creation as fully as possible. Our volunteers’ efforts run through every part of this project, and it is their confidence, creativity and relentless dedication which we celebrate.

Before Covid-19 we were on target to finish the Conway Library by early 2021 before moving to the largely unpublished photographic archives of Anthony Kersting and Paul Laib. We will return to the studio as soon as guidance and practical considerations allow. In the meantime, this blog post describes a few of the ways in which we moved our activities online and strengthened our connection with the volunteer community which sits at the heart of this radical, transformational project.


Task management during Covid-19

To create and manage programmes of remote working, we record every activity on a master spreadsheet which includes a brief description of the task, links to internal and external documentation, and a priority number to measure how closely it maps onto the project’s core objectives. From this we can identify tasks we want to take forward, whilst refining or shelving those with less relevance or benefit. After an informal discussion, favoured tasks are then documented in detail in a pro forma for internal use which breaks them down under the following headings:

Title of task
On which material / collection is this task focussed?
Description of task,
How many volunteers can participate?
What equipment is needed?
Where will the task take place?
Instructions – how will the task be completed?
Who will supervise, and how?
What skills will participants learn and practice?
How will success be measured and judged?

No matter how detailed or trivial the task might seem, we also ensure that every one is matched against the same questions we answered in the Courtauld’s original application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund:

What difference will this task make for heritage?
What difference will this task make for people?
What difference will this task make for communities?

If a task reaches this stage and we’re still convinced of its value, we create a volunteer-friendly instruction sheet and launch it at one of our regular online meetings. The staff of the Digital Media Department then provide daily support and feedback through a dedicated channel on Slack, our digital hub for collaborations with our volunteers.

Although we continue to use Timecounts as a volunteer management system, managing the remote working activities of our large community within tasks requires a level of scrutiny that exceeds anything we had put in place before: one which enables us to log every activity, name, date and state of progress before checking and sign-off.

The following screenshot shows how we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks:

How we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks

The following screenshot shows how we monitor progress across two specific tasks: the creation of draft Wikipedia pages for each of the photographers whose work appears in the Conway Library, and the production of audio transcripts of our blog posts in order to improve the accessibility of our storytelling and research.

The numbers are stacking up. From 18 March (the day following the suspension of in person volunteering activities and the start of remote working) to 1 June 2020 we have recorded:

1210.30 Volunteer From Home Hours
260 Kersting Mysteries solved
244 Conway Photographer Wikipedia template pages in progress
149 Conway Photographer Wikipedia pages ready for quality checking and publication
55 Layers of London records created
36 Audio Blog recordings in progress, with 13 ready to upload
28 volunteers have completed 752 subjects on Zooniverse.


Volunteering from home: researching the Conway Library photographers

The physical library is arranged by date period, then country, province, city or town. Notable buildings often occupy anything from a single box up to several shelves and, in certain locations, a division between sacred and secular architecture is present. However, for the first time since the library was created, our volunteers are revealing insights into the 400 named photographers whose work forms part of the collection. They inspect each photograph individually, and note down on a spreadsheet whether the name of its creator is present, usually in the form of a handwritten note or stamp.

Up to now all we knew about many of our photographers was their names. We turned the current situation into an opportunity for volunteers to research each photographer at home, with the objective of creating a biographical page for each on Wikipedia. The first step of the process is to assign to each volunteer a photographer’s name at random. Information they discover, such as her or his academic, bibliographic, and biographical details, references and external links is recorded on a pro forma which closely mirrors the Wikipedia page we will create for them. We communicate remotely with our volunteers every step of the way via a dedicated channel on Slack which now has 261 members, 64 of whom are actively writing photographer biographies. 244 biographies have been drafted so far, with 149 more in progress! The screenshot below shows a typical few days of the discussion currently taking place behind the scenes.

Readers might be surprised to know that, before the project created one, not even Anthony Kersting – described widely as the greatest architectural photographer of his generation – had a page on Wikipedia (we hold his collection of negatives and prints, and now expect to begin their digitisation in Summer 2021 ).


Volunteering from home: Kersting Mysteries

Anthony Kersting left his whole collection of negatives and prints to the Courtauld on his death in 2008.

He also left us his ledger books containing locations, descriptions and dates for almost every single photograph. In February our volunteers finished the massive two-year task of transcribing every one the ledgers, however his handwriting is often difficult to read, and many question marks remain.

To answer these, we created another Slack channel to which we upload high-res images of illegible entries, opening them up to the volunteer community to discuss, argue the case for a solution, and seek agreement. This involves a lot of Googling, and since we started we’ve all learned a lot about religious sites in Cairo, or alternative names of Eastern European towns.

 

One of the hardest parts of solving the Kersting mysteries is that he would spell things phonetically, or he might use a local spelling or variant spelling that isn’t used today. Volunteers are busy not only transcribing, but also translating. The product of this research will be the facility to geolocate almost all of his images on the new photographic collections website which this project will create.


Volunteering from home: Conservation

The Conway Library contains several thousand 19th century photographic prints. Many are rare, some are unique, and almost all are extremely susceptible to degradation and decay due to their particular chemical, synthetic and material qualities – the results of individual photographers’ experimentations and craftsmanship. We must understand the vulnerability of these objects to enable us to make the correct decisions and preserve them for the future and, in preparation, commissioned and submitted a Collections Conservation Plan to the NHLF. The period of closure has allowed us to plan and create training resources in the form of videos on handling, cleaning, selecting conservation materials, identifying deterioration, and storage, in anticipation of the digitisation of the Courtauld’s rich 19th century collections commencing soon after our return to the studio.

 

Volunteering from home: broadening access to the collection and teaching digital skills


Layers of London

Layers of London is a huge collaborative effort to map London’s history in a visual and interactive way, developed by the Institute of Historical Research. Anyone can access free historic maps of London and contribute stories and memories to create a social history resource about their local area, or places they have visited or researched.

We held a Layers of London training session attended by 16 volunteers back in February as we wanted to encourage them to use the site in their own time. However since lockdown we have adapted our instructions to provide a refresher for those volunteers we have already introduced to the project, and detailed guidance for newcomers.

By uploading a selection of Courtauld images to Layers of London, we are making the collection more accessible to a wider audience. Photographs that have been uploaded so far may be seen here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446

Our partnership with Layers of London has allowed volunteers to add videos, text, or images from other places around the web, adding a richness to the story behind our photos. In many cases new information is sent back to us which isn’t recorded on the Conway’s photographic mounts.

So far, 22 volunteers are involved in this task. 55 records have been published, with a further 15 being drafted. Everyone who has taken part has learned new digital skills, research skills, made their own personal discoveries about our collections and shared them with a wide public audience who might have never discovered the rich and diverse coverage of the Conway.


Blog audio recording

Our blog has 57 posts (and counting!) on a range of topics linked to the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections. Almost all have been written by volunteers, interns, or students on work placement. We have long had ambitions to make audio versions of the posts to aid accessibility for people with a visual impairment. Since lockdown 13 recordings have been finished, with 36 more in progress. Clips will also be shared on social media and collected together in podcasts.

Volunteers engaged on this task have learnt new skills, from practical sound recording to speaking with confidence, and editing text for clarity. To support this activity we created a guide and made sample recordings (with photographs of the home-made pillow-fort setups to give professional results), and we give feedback on demos with tips and workshops on how to improve the sound if needed.


Art Club

We recognise that creativity and self expression, particularly in a social setting, is an important means of boosting mental health – perhaps now more than ever. Our Art Club brings these very human needs and our collection together.

Once a week a member of the team picks an image from the collection to inspire volunteers (or anyone who comes across our prompts on social media). We always leave the prompts open, so people can respond using any media they have: we’ve received paintings, drawings, photographs, found object sculptures, video, and even flash fiction. The Henry Moore Foundation particularly enjoyed everyone’s imaginative responses to Large Square Form With Cut!

We hold an Art Club video chat each week for people to share their techniques, talk about art, and hear from team members on techniques to try with minimal materials. Our discussions about images from the Ministry of Works Collection depicting the siege of Monte Cassino led to moving reflections on photography, war, and memorialisation.

We’d encourage anyone to get involved in Art Club: check out our Twitter and Instagram channels for the prompts: there’s no time limit on trying out any of them.


Zooniverse

The aims of every photographic and cataloguing activity we undertake are broadly those of raising awareness of the collections and the Courtauld, connecting with new audiences and providing them with content to foster learning and enjoyment at all levels. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when our audiences stop asking why our collections should be relevant to their interests, but start to ask why these images: whether beautiful, puzzling or shocking, are of interest to art historians – the content alone enticing and opening a door into the field of study.

A cornerstone of this content-centred approach is crowdsourced cataloguing. Whilst we wait for a new collections management and publishing system to be commissioned and built (which will itself have an embedded facility for crowdsourced cataloguing) we created a project called World Architecture Unlocked on Zooniverse, a platform involving hundreds of contributors worldwide, and uploaded the contents of the first 100 boxes from the Conway (over 8000 images), covering architecture from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and the beginning of early British. In each case we’re trying to do something which we always felt lay beyond the pragmatic objectives of this project which were to catalogue down to the box and folder level only: that of cataloguing individual images by transcribing everything written on their mounts.

After undergoing a period of internal testing by volunteers we’re now awaiting the go-ahead from Zoonioverse which will take this part of the project live. In the meantime anyone interested in contributing to the Zooniverse transcription is welcome to access World Architecture Unlocked, now in beta release.


Community!

We have always used Slack as a private social network for volunteers to use. However Slack has really come into its own since lockdown and, as well as run channels to discuss each volunteering task, we also run a fun_and_banter channel in which recommendations for books, podcasts, films, websites, and more are made. While we keep the recommendations mostly within the volunteer community, we often share some on our Twitter and Instagram channels, so make sure you follow us there. We’ve also been enjoying emoji games and sharing many art-related COVID memes. The London Boroughs emoji game had us occupied for a while!

We’ve run two Zoom chats per week since the first full week of closure, with between 23-46 volunteers joining us to catch up. We like to spend a few minutes going over project updates, but we always keep plenty of time just to check in and see how everyone is doing – and share yet more recommendations. Lorraine always has so many recommendations of all kinds from the seriously cultured to seriously silly, while Muny has shared great resources for teaching at home and keeping up with exercise! Another gripping twist of being online is that we are always learning about hidden talents: one week we found that we have bird watching (David), bird-photography (Christopher), and bird sketching (Anne) skills in our talented team! John has shared his hand-drawn print-out-and-colour in sheets, and Bill shared a gorgeous calligraphy front cover for a future book on Anthony Kersting, Sue went from Zoom skeptic to Zoom convert, and Francesca delighted us with her violin. We also welcomed some new volunteers like Gill, and welcomed back some old friends like Max, who volunteered with us back when the project started in 2017, and is now keeping in touch again with the online community.

Lara Drew: Winning and Losing – Photographs of Works of Art

Audio Version

Read by Francesca Nardone

Text Version

The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway libraries hold almost one million mounted photographs and over 60,000 negatives. They act as a comprehensive record of western art and global architecture, including cuttings, reproductions, publications and photographs of works of art and landmarks. One entire room is filled with over 20,000 negatives by a single fine art photographer, Paul Laib, who captured works of art by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their studios. Elsewhere stacks are filled with photographs of sculpture spanning more than two millennia.

Red filing boxes in the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art

Conway Library Shelves

Performing the slightly meta process of taking perfectly lit, high-resolution photographs of photographs of works of art and sculpture as part of the digitisation project gets you thinking about the value of taking photographs of works of art. It is an inescapable fact that as jaw-dropping as the sheer number of stacks, shelves, boxes, folders and individual photographs is in its physical manifestation, it is minuscule compared to the billions of images on the internet (over 95 million are shared on Instagram alone daily).

My iPhone’s algorithm identifies over 650 photos in my camera roll which contain “art”. I have definitely been guilty of marching around museums and art exhibitions “camera-first”, viewing the art mainly through my phone screen and capturing images which disappear into the black hole of my camera roll and are rarely viewed again.

Museums buy into our need to capture visually our experience of art with selfie points and hashtags. However, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made headlines in 2016 when it banned photography, writing “in today’s world of mobile phones and media a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience. Visitors are easily distracted and do not truly experience beauty, magic and wonder”. They encourage the more old-fashioned image-making technique of sketching, arguing that it forces you to look more closely and appreciate a work’s finer details.

As well as having an impact on the museum experience, photography also changes the basic significance of the artwork photographed. John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing “when a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of the image”. The image of an artwork becomes ubiquitous, released from a single location. The significance of the image then lies in it being the original of all its reproductions, rather in what it uniquely represents. The “release”, multiplication, and dissemination of the artwork’s image escape the authority of the museum or location in which it is housed and their curatorial efforts to create meaning through labels and dialogue with the works situated around it.

Even before a photograph makes it online, the photographer decides exactly what to include or exclude from her shot and can crop and edit at will once the image is taken. I was struck by what was lost in the images of Picasso’s sculptures I found in the Conway library: the three-dimensional objects are confined in 6×4 inch, 2D, black and white rectangles. The images of the sculptures give no sense of scale, colour, texture or physical space, and, without being able to walk around them, the viewer can only experience the angles chosen by the photographer. The images below highlight how different a work can appear in different photographs. The translation of an artwork into another art form shifts the meaning between artist, curator, and photographer just like the translation of literature into different languages.

Detail of three items from the Conway library showing Picasso's Head of a Woman sculpture from three different angles.

Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1932, 128 x 81 x 61cm. Details from CON_B07487_F001_003, CON_B07487_F001_004 and CON_B07487_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Although the losses inherent in the photography of works of art are real, the reproducibility and editing power enabled by the process can have real advantages too. John Berger is not all doom and gloom: he writes, immediately after the quotation above, “the painting enters each viewer’s house… it lends its meaning to their meaning. At the same time it enters a million other houses and, in each of them, is seen in a different context”.

An artwork’s meaning is not destroyed when it is photographed, but rather multiplied, and our preference to taking photographs works of art ourselves rather than buying postcards in gift shops suggests we prefer the personal significance. The phenomena of “museum selfies” highlights this: what we see, appear with, and post on social media constructs our identity. Art brings a certain cache that reaches beyond personal Instagram feeds and into culture as we know it, as The Carters’ 2018 music video for APES**T filmed in the Louvre reflects.

A still from the music video of The Carters' Apes**t showing Beyonce and Jay-Z posing in front of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre

Beyonce and Jay-Z in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in their music video, APES**T.

Photographing artworks is an important aspect in the democratisation and accessibility of museums and collections too. The Courtauld Digitisation project’s aim is to make the libraries accessible anywhere to anyone who might have access to the internet. It enables a greater number of people to appreciate works of art globally, especially those who can’t access the original artworks, for geographical, financial or disability reasons. Museums concerned that allowing digital reproduction of their physical objects might decrease their value and make their physical space irrelevant needn’t worry: capitalising upon the photography of artworks provides free advertising and actually encourages people to visit the physical space and experience it for themselves.

Another advantage of photographing art is that it enables us to capture the artwork from a single perspective in a single location at a single moment in time. While an artwork can survive largely unchanged for hundreds of years, photographs can chart its journey through space and time and can serve an important historical purpose. For example, I could visit the work of art that is Rodin’s tomb, in Paris, but I would never see it as it looked on the day of his funeral, dwarfing the thousands of people who flocked around it, emphasising the legendary reputation of the sculptor. The photograph which captures this moment has value separate from the work of art it represents.

Black and white image drom the Conway Library depicting Rodin's funeral.

Rodin’s funeral, 24th November 1917, photograph by Choumoff. CON_B06898_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Photography’s ability to document is invaluable to the preservation of works of art. In the Conway library, I recognised one photograph of the Assyrian Lamassu, or human-headed winged bull, carved in the 7th century BC. It was taken in Iraq in 1950. The same statue can be found on Youtube, in a video in which members of Isis deface it, together with other works of art in Mosul museum. This work of art no longer physically exists, what survives are the photographs taken by hundreds of people, from architectural photographers such as Anthony Kersting, who took this image, to the most casual tourists.

Image of the now lost statue of the winged bull of Niveh.

“Iraq: Winged bulls at Ninveh, outside Mosul”, AF Kersting. KER_PNT_N0026.

An organisation called Rekrei (from the Esperanto for “recreate”) has crowd-sourced images of the works of art destroyed by Isis from which digital models can be produced by a process called “photogrammetry”. The viewer can zoom in and rotate the models to recreate the experience of moving around a sculpture and viewing it from different perspectives. 40,000 people have visited the website and uploaded images since its launch.

Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has gone one step further, creating 3D-printed resin sculptures from the digital models produced using photogrammetry. These replicas cannot replace the originals but act as a stand-in, just as photographs did before them. Allahyari‘s 3D-prints physically represent the lost artwork but also act as time capsules, as they contain flash drives with images and documents relative to the original art object, creating an alternative, democratic way of preserving heritage.

Image of translucent 3D printed sculpture by artist Morehshin Allahyari

Morehshin Allahyari – Material Speculation – Lamassu

In truth, the photography of art will always be a debated issue. As we come to the end of the decade in which Instagram was invented, we acknowledge that the ways in which we experience art and culture have shifted and sped up dramatically and irreversibly. However, after a week with the Courtauld Digitisation Project spent realising the vital importance of preserving images of works now lost or in danger, I conclude that there is a lot more winning than losing in the photography of art.


Lara Drew

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Mary Shelton Hornsby: Anthony Kersting’s Hagia Sophia – Looking Through His Lens

AF Kersting, 20th Century British photographer, traveled to Turkey at least two times, including in 1963 and 1995, and photographed much of the significant sites of Istanbul, also known as Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, the building we see standing today (preceded by two churches and a pagan temple) was rebuilt by the Byzantines under Emperor Justinian in 432 CE. [1]

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered this area of modern-day Turkey and transformed this church into a mosque; besides some smaller renovations, this was accomplished mostly by adding the minarets. As the complex’s official site notes, “In 1934, the founder of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ordered the building to be transformed into a museum,” the condition in which it remains to this day. Ever since 1453, the mosque has been and continues to be an inspiration for the rest of the Turkish Empire mosques.

Black and white image of a few of Kersting’s developed photographs of the Hagia Sophia scattered on a table.

A few of AF Kersting’s developed Hagia Sophia photographs. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Kersting’s View of Istanbul: Historical Preservation as Top Priority

As Kersting wrote, “Anyone visiting Istanbul for the first time might be excused for finding it difficult to realise that this City [sic.] was once the centre of the civilised world, and that under the name of Byzantium it carried on the tradition of Roman culture and learning for close on a thousand years after Rome itself had fallen…” [2] Kersting’s entire entry on this subject (and other parts of Istanbul) remains largely an objective, informative one. The question of what exactly the early 20th Century Englishman thought of Istanbul himself remains unanswered.

However, something can be gleaned from the fact that he titled the article “Changes in Istanbul” and spends roughly 90% of the paper talking about Istanbul (and the Hagia Sophia’s) history and previous state of being. Consciously or subconsciously, Kersting considered Istanbul’s entire value to be derived from its rich history rather than its condition during his own visits. He seems opposed to any modernization or changes he does mention, excepting of course the restoration of older buildings: “New motor roads are being built and in the process [m]any of the old wooden house[s], formerly such a picturesque feature of the old Turkish City [sic.] are being bulldozed away.”

Did Istanbul residents at that time not view these homes as sacred relics as Kersting did? Or did they value them as such, but did they prioritize progress and modernization as the means of restoring Istanbul to its former glory? Whatever the natives’ view may have been, this English sojourner seemed in favor of restoration and consistency (as opposed to modernization) in the city itself, and probably held the same view about the city’s icon.

Kersting’s Journal Entry: Background on the Hagia Sophia

In his entry about Istanbul, he includes snippets on just two of Istanbul’s mosques, including one about the “Hagia” or “Santa” Sophia: “The first object of pilgrimage of every tourist is probably Santa Sophia. Without doubt this is one of the greatest buildings in the world. Built by Justinian as a church in 532 AD, it was converted to a mosque at the Turkish conquest and is now a museum. Although it has suffered many vicissitudes and has undergone many changes, the remarkable [thing] is that the main fabric of the building has remained relatively intact for some 1400 years. The four minarets were added by the Turks on conversion of the building to a Mosque [sic.]. At the moment these are undergoing repair.”

The domed Santa Sophia served as the inspiration for the Mosques [sic.] built by the Turks after their conquest of Byzantium.

Black and white paper photo print showing the exterior of the Hagia Sophia from the east, several of its minarets, an Istanbul city street corner, a bus, and some passersby

An exterior shot of Hagia Sophia from the east. KER_PNT_H14625. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Hagia Sophia As Seen Through Kersting’s Lens

Even with just this little bit of background information, one can analyze Kersting’s photographs with the naked eye and easily notice the deliberate choices he made when photographing this magnificent house of worship.

The developed photos of the Hagia Sophia we have within the Kersting Archive at the Courtauld comprise about twenty-five different photographs, following Kersting’s careful labeling system. There are at least two photographs printed for the vast majority of each of these different shots Kersting took, but even the ones developed from the same negative can vary slightly in lighting and cropping.

The first deliberate choice one can note is that the majority of the photographs Kersting took were of the interior of the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. The majority of his photographs contain either no people at all (over one third of the total shots) or very blurred, obstructed, tiny, or barely visible people (about half of the total shots).

This decision to prioritize the architecture over the people could mean several things: a. He photographed the museum at hours or during a season that was not the peak time or season for tourists to visit. b. Kersting requested, and somehow had the leverage with the museum authorities, to clear the museum (at least mostly) of people. c. The shots in which the people are blurred indicate that Kersting purposefully left the camera shutter open for longer, theoretically for the dual purpose of having the camera focus on the Hagia Sophia building itself (rather than any moving entities) and probably to allow as much light into the camera as possible and capture the interior detail of this rather dark building.

Black and white paper photo print showing the Hagia Sophia exterior and lightly-populated, luscious green gardens on a sunny day

Hagia Sophia, exterior and gardens. KER_PNT_H17063. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Another common feature one might note is that Kersting typically selects landscape format for his exterior photographs. He does this, most likely, because he chooses to take most of his exterior shots from a distance adequate for capturing the entire rambling width of the mosque complex. We only have one developed shot where he uses portrait mode for the exterior (Fig. 2.). In it, Kersting emphasizes the verticality of the building by shooting from a shorter distance and placing one of the minarets as the focal point (in the middle ground 1/3 from the right). The only other technically exterior shot that is in portrait format is from under a covered colonnade, which actually could be considered as more of a transitional space than an exterior space.

Similarly, Kersting is more likely to place his focal point in the middle of the frame should the shot be of the exterior elevation. Except for the minaret photo mentioned earlier (Fig. 2), all of his exterior shots again showcase the mosque complex, always placed in the background, with the mosque gardens in the foreground and middle ground. Comparing these shots is especially interesting for viewing the architectural alterations made over time.

For his photos of the interior, Kersting mostly – and ingeniously – chooses one of the chandeliers for his focal points. This focal point doubles as a window of sorts, drawing the viewer initially to itself (the chandelier) and then to the background behind it which, in the case of Fig. 4., is the beautiful Arabic lettering and repurposed Greek Orthodox architecture. Because of this method, the viewer is more likely to notice the entire scene, not merely its focal point. Kersting knew that, had he chosen to focus on a singular solid object, the average viewer would walk away having disregarded the whole scene except for the one focal point.

Black and white paper photo print showing the Hagia Sophia interior, looking into the space below the largest dome, between two columns with a chandelier as focal point

Hagia Sophia, interior, chandelier as the focal point. KER_PNT_G03051. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

For his interior photos, Kersting also often uses doorways or columns to frame his scene, again a brilliant technique to provide boundaries for the photo and draw in the eye to the photograph’s central portion. Kersting uses the setting’s ready-made frames to catch the eye immediately from afar, especially if the frame provides a naturally strong contrast between light or dark areas (i.e. the brightly lit west wing popping through the dark frame of two columns and foreground in Fig. 4).

Kersting is creating chiaroscuro: using the extreme contrast of light and darkness to his advantage for the sake of creating depth and dimension. (As he was working in black-and-white, these contrasts were essential in making his photographs readable and interesting.) His framing devices also make this giant museum that is open to the public (and therefore people of all faiths and backgrounds) feel more personal and intimate. In other words, the frames make his photography of this iconic site feel less like the average tourist’s postcard and more like a special access invitation to an exclusive space.

Black and white paper photo print displaying Kersting’s use of the Hagia Sophia’s interior columns as a frame

Hagia Sophia, interior. Kersting’s use of columns as a frame. KER_PNT_H14617 and KER_PNT_H14621. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

A final observation is that, several times, Kersting chooses to capture the scaffolding and the repairs occurring at the complex, which he also is sure to mention in his journal entry. Why does Kersting choose to photograph and mention elements that others might consider an eyesore? Does he want to emphasize the events occurring contemporaneously to himself – to capture his unique personal experience (as opposed to that of the millions of other visitors who had and would come over the 1400+ years the building had existed and would continue to exist)? Or did he want to document this as history, for the sake of posterity’s knowledge? Or to commend the natives’ or government’s interest in preserving part of their heritage? Regardless, the photographer did intentionally capture this historical preservation of Istanbul’s most treasured site and did not try to crop out or curate his shots to cover up the ongoing preservation, whereas other artists may have considered this element unsightly and distracting.

Black and white paper photo print displaying the Hagia Sophia interior with scaffolding

Hagia Sophia, interior with scaffolding. KER_NEG_G29535. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Despite any of these or other unresolved speculations, we can make one claim with confidence: it was hundreds of deliberate choices like these that characterize Kersting’s architectural photography as superior to that of other photographers, choices that naturally attract the human eye and engage the human mind.

 

References

1. “Hagia Sophia Mosque,” Hagia Sophia, accessed November 23, 2019, https://www.hagiasophia.com/hagia-sophia-mosque/.

2. Kersting, Anthony, “Changes in Istanbul,” The Courtauld Libraries, Kersting Archives.


Mary Shelton Hornsby

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Placement

Tallulah Griffith: The Steiner Guide to Steiner – A Mini Waldorf Textbook for the Courtauld

Audio Version

Read by Gill Stoker

Text Version

 

Instructions for use:

If you are accessing this guide online, please note that it is intended to be printed, as Steiner education encourages first-hand engagement. Users of the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art can also find the printed guide in box CON_B04414; the corners have been rounded, in line with Steiner school practice, so that the student can approach from any angle.

THE GUIDE

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian architect, clairvoyant, esotericist and social reformer. Among his projects, he set up the first Waldorf school in 1919, to teach his principles of anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded on the belief in an observable spiritual realm which interpenetrates the material world. Waldorf schools use a kinaesthetic, action-loaded approach to intellectual subjects, focusing on art, music, and rhythm. No textbooks are used in Steiner’s philosophy; instead, students make their own educational materials, as I have endeavoured to do here.

Extrapolating from Steiner’s elementary school reforms, anthroposophy, and the initiatives of London’s Rudolf Steiner House, I have created a guide for studying the Steiner archive using his own pedagogy. The library box, ref: CON_B04414_F005 & F006, holds early photographs of both Goetheanum buildings, which cannot be understood without Steiner’s spiritual science.

This textbook is intended for students of the Institute, those involved in Courtauld outreach and public engagement programmes, and any prospective students of Steiner.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 001.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 002.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 003.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 004.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 005.


Tallulah Griffith
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Keelin Willis: The Creative City

Audio Version

Read by David Brown

 

Text Version

 

    “The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre.”
    (Mumford, 1937: 185)

 

Devoid of the familiar bright bursts of graffiti and reliable clunks of skateboards hitting the floor, the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall pictured in the 1960s is almost unrecognisable. Standing on the site of a shot tower built as part of a lead works in 1826, this brutalist piece of architecture was retained for the Festival of Britain and was worked on by architects such as Bennett, Whittle, West and Horsefall before being opened by the Queen in 1967. As with other brutalist works of the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth Hall reflects the efforts of young designers looking for new ways to express their belief in the future. For example, this is demonstrated in their use of concrete, a traditional material, in original and experimental ways. Love it or hate it, the creativity enmeshed in the brutalist genre is incontrovertible.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In light of this, a building as expressive as Queen Elizabeth Hall should surely stand as the pinnacle of creativity and innovation in the city. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. In the midst of exchanges between large organisations, authoritative bodies, renowned architects and other key public and private players, the individual city dweller can become disconnected from the city that rises around them. Rather, the dictation of how the city is structured from above works to pacify citizens. In this way, people are shaped by the city, or more accurately, the power relations that shape the city in the first place. While Mumford’s (1937) metaphorical description of the city as “theatre” suggests its inhabitants are granted endless freedom in their performance, in reality, this performance must comply with a particular set of restrictions imposed from above. Perhaps the city as “container”, or even “prison”, would be more appropriate.

However, the skate park found in the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall today suggests otherwise. Despite being intended as a pedestrian walk-way, the Undercroft’s interesting features drew skaters to adopt it as an undesignated skate park – “Southbank” – in 1973. In appropriating public space for their own use, Southbank’s skaters are performers in their own theatre, regardless of restrictions imposed from above. They are active agents shaping the city, just as the city shapes them. In a broader sense, subversive actions, such as skateboarding in undesignated areas or making graffiti art, speaks to the re-politicisation of public space through the agency of the everyday citizen. As contended by Hall (1998: 7), the city is “a unique crucible of creativity” and this creativity hands every person the potential to destabilise the supposed natural order orchestrated by those above.

That said, the potential for small-scale subversive activities to make a profound difference in the contemporary urban landscape may seem limited. Indeed, a skateboarder with a can of spray-paint in hand seems unlikely to win a hypothetical battle against the Greater London Council. Collectively, however, the power of communities must not be underestimated. In 2004, the Southbank Centre temporarily closed large sections of the Undercroft for exhibitions, but closures continued until plans for a commercial redevelopment of the Undercroft as a “Festival Wing” were uncovered in 2013. In response, the Long Live Southbank campaign was set up by the Undercroft Community to resist the proposal. Following an incredibly successful campaign which saw immense public support for the Undercroft community, Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre signed an agreement guaranteeing the long-term future of the skate spot. Moreover, the Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre have been in a partnership and joint project team to restore and renovate the Undercroft as a skate area since 2016. As demonstrated by the Long Live Southbank campaign, the collective action of everyday citizens has the potential to make huge institutional changes at all levels of authority and power.

To reflect the changes made to the Undercroft by the skate community, I have graphically imposed a representation of their graffiti artwork and skateboarding onto one of the photographs taken in the 1960s. Indeed, the very action of creating artwork on top of an original photograph seemed subversive in itself. Just as artists spray-paint city walls, I felt as though I was altering property that was not mine to alter. Surely photographs stored in archives were for “proper” research with books and essays to show for it? Yet these are exactly the kind of unspoken expectations creative art forms can challenge. In using the archive in such a manner, I was performing in a theatre of endless possibility myself.

This is a derivative work by the blog's author, Keelin Willis, superimposing a colour image of the skatepark on the original southbank structure.

An adaptation of CON_B04286_F001_006 – the skate park (that can be found today) has been graphically imposed onto the original photograph of the Undercroft using GIMP. Image by Keelin Willis.


Keelin Willis
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References:

  • Hall P (1998) Cities in civilization: culture, innovation and the urban order. Weidenfield and Nicholson: London.
  • Mumford L (1937)What is a City? Architectural Record, LXXXII.

Corrina Summers: Contested Spaces – Capturing Modernist Architecture in Postcolonial India

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

A sense of “doubleness” pervades the photographs contained within the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute, the bulk of the collection comprising of photographs of other works of art. While the majority of its million photographs feature architecture as their central focus, some of the most striking images in the collection feature human subjects, thrusting ideas about the relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and its social function into the foreground. This hybridity is especially evident in the photographs of Chandigarh in northern India, taken by both members of the architectural design team and professional photographers in its construction and early existence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Black and white photo of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_010

With construction beginning in 1952, Chandigarh is a city born out of independence and partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ordered the creation of the city as a new capital for the new Haryana and East Punjab states of India that had been formed in the aftermath of independence; the former capital of the old state of Punjab, Lahore, had been lost to the new nation of Pakistan after partition. On a visit to the site of the new city in 1952, Nehru proclaimed “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. [1] Early postcolonial India also faced the issue of finding housing for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing the newly formed state of Pakistan; 80% of the original Chandigarh housing was considered “low-cost”. Thus, aesthetics and social issues in Chandigarh were inextricably linked from its inception.

Colour images of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_019

Colour image of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_014

Interestingly, the architect enlisted appointed to construct Nehru’s architectural symbol of an independent India was a westerner; prolific French modernist, Le Corbusier. With his own plan to reconstruct the central business district of Paris as a landscape of cruciform towers, octagonal street grids, and green spaces having been rejected in the 1920s, he saw the Chandigarh project as a means through which to realise his vision of the modern city. Prior to his death, Le Corbusier was the principal city planner and the architect behind the three main government buildings that occupied the city centre; the Palace of the National Assembly, the High Court of Justice, and the Palace of the Secretariat of Ministers. Indeed, these structures host many of the features outlined in his 1927 publication, Les cinq points de l’archictecture. These include the idea of the “pilotis”, the reinforced concrete pylons that act as the main components of the government buildings and are beautifully captured in Lennart Olson, Pierre Joly and Vera Cardot’s photographs, taken just after their completion.

Black and white interior shot of the Chandigarh's Royal Assembly, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04392_F002_021

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_010

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_005

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_004

Another Corbusierian motif that forms a central feature of Chandigarh is La Main Ouverte, “the open hand“, which Corbusier considered a symbol of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”. [2] The sculpture in Chandigarh is one of many built by Corbusier, and arguably encompasses the unification of socio-political ideals with architecture, symbolising an India open to new opportunities. In terms of this adoption of a relatively revolutionary style of architecture and urban planning, the construction of Chandigarh can certainly be seen as a symbol of a dehistoricised, decontextualized space through which society could be transformed.

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building and Open Hand monument, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_015


Corrina Summers
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References

  1. Malhotra, A., Chandigarh Exhibited in New York (2013) <https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/08/17/chandigarh-exhibited-in-new-york/> [accessed 11 December 2019].
  2. Shipman, Gertrude (5 October 2014). Ultimate Handbook Guide to Chandigarh : (India) Travel Guide. MicJames. pp. 7–. GGKEY:32JTRTZ290J.

Mia Gainsford: Utopia or Incubator? Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation as Photographed by Lucien Hervé

Audio Version

Read by Francesca Humi

Text Version

La maison du fada, or rather “the madman’s house”, is the colloquial name given to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles. The name arouses intrigue and renders the project a diversion. It has a childish appeal, like the building itself, which jumps out of its surroundings and sings colour from its windows.

Image in colour of housing project

CON_B04326_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

L’Unité d’Habitation was Le Corbusier’s attempt at a utopia. Completed in 1952, it was an architectural project which sought to heal the wounds of post-war Marseilles and incubate the next generation. In photographing Le Corbusier’s housing project, Lucien Hervé made children his focus. However, it is important to stress just how rare human subjects are, of any age, in architectural photography; if people are photographed, they are photographed with a purpose. Thus, in Hervé’s photography it is important to ask whether the focus of children intends to enhance the optimism of Le Corbusier’s architectural utopia, employing them as a symbol of hope, or if instead, they are chosen as subjects susceptible to the “madman’s” diverting.

Young girl pushing on the door

CON_B04326_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In discovering Hervé’s photographs amongst the Courtauld’s Conway archive and participating in the broader volunteering scheme, I could not help but reflect upon the act of labelling and giving something a name. Each image has its own code which refers to its box, folder and then place in a sequence. This act of labelling creates its own narrative; the code tells the wider story of the Courtauld’s efforts to organise and digitise the Conway photographs with the help of hundreds of volunteers, and in this, humanise the archive too.

Although this narrative is of a second order to the narrative of the photographs themselves, the Courtauld’s emphasis on retaining the physicality of the photographs, from the fibre of the brown paper they are mounted upon to the spidery annotations around an image, means that no narrative is prioritised over another. The Courtauld is striving to aggrandise the photograph’s status as object, rather than objectifying an image completely on the institute’s own terms and erasing its history. The Conway digitisation project honours how an image has been objectified in the past, and with this, creates a layering of meaning and proffers a plethora of stories which frustrates the idea that labelling is an industrial process and therefore a reductive or homogenising way to treat the photos.

In the Marseillaises’s nicknaming of Le Corbusier’s work “the madman’s house”, we see a similar supplementing and creation of narrative to that of the Courtauld. However, here the name personifies the housing project, rather than objectifying it by commenting on its physical form, like its other name “the Radiant City” does. This character of the “madman” disrupts Le Corbusier’s naïve, attempted narrative of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia. The invocation of madness becomes confusingly human. We can imagine this mythologised figure in the same vein as Carroll’s Mad Hatter, dancing with joy and performing his hospitality, but if “madman” is to be taken more literally, he becomes a victim of the trauma of war too, a man haunted by the contemporaneous austerity, as well as the past, and still suffering below his colourful pretence. Le Corbusier saw L’Unité d’Habitation as a remedy to «les maladies de villes» but for the Marseillaises, the project, as a person, was still ill.

Black and white image mounted on card of the building's profile.

CON_B04326_F001_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The two narratives of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia, as well as a place of great instability and pretence, are in opposition. The full extent of the connotations which derive from naming a housing development “the madman’s house” unsettles Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision. The colloquial label is more understanding of the history before L’Unité d’Habitation; it is an interaction with the past, which acknowledges the preceding trauma rather than reacting to it like Le Corbusier’s project does. It is this idea of interacting over reacting, and subsequently overwriting a narrative, which founds the Courtauld’s sensitive approach to handling the Conway archive too.

Old Man staring out of window

CON_B04326_F001_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Moreover, as subjects in Hervé’s photography, the children probe at the dual nature of L’Unité d’Habitation. The child’s indiscriminate and unassuming qualities mean that their interactions with the housing project are not marred by history like the adult’s. In Hervé’s work, adults are clearly preoccupied, turning away from the camera and staring listlessly at that which lies outside of the development. However, the children do not remember that which Le Corbusier is trying to forget with L’Unité d’Habitation. By consequence, they simultaneously complement the utopian idea of starting again, but also offer a vulnerability to the photographs, akin to believing that this so-called “unity of living” is the norm.

Children playing in light

CON_B04326_F001_026. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Hervé’s photographs which comprise children chasing each other between shafts of light and shadow come to represent the housing project’s competing aspects of the hopeful and the haunted. To the children, contradiction becomes a game, the light and shade facilitate play, they are suspended in L’Unité d’Habitation’s utopian narrative, creating imagined stories of their own, only related to Le Corbusier’s project through location. Through play, the radiance of the housing project with its floor to ceiling windows is equated to shadows created by the sun overhead. Here, the implications of the two names are not in opposition for the children; the children’s presence in the photographs becomes rehabilitative of competition and divisions in all their forms and thus inform the most pertinent of all the post-war reflections to come from the housing project, that unity can be found anywhere.

In July 2016, Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation project in Marseilles and its other iterations in major cities such as Berlin and Nantes were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. This accolade adds yet another label to Le Corbusier’s work and develops the narrative further. It is Le Corbusier’s utopia which meets the criterion of “providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century”, rather than the public’s “madman”. However, again, through Hervé’s photography of children and L’Unité d’Habitation, we see a visual recalibration and simplification of this criterion, as for a child, the project has succeeded if it makes him or her feel safe and content.

Children playing on roof terrace

CON_B04326_F001_050. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I was very moved by the happiness captured in this photograph by Hervé. The mother, who stares directly at the camera playing with her child, bypasses the adults’ preoccupation seen elsewhere in Hervé’s work; she is present in the moment, laughing and diverting the children herself. The skyline in the background creates a heavenly quality to the scene, the community of mothers and children are propelled above their surroundings, no longer contained by their apartments. Whilst the climbing frames themselves, with their abstract shapes and sloping angles, suggest another world entirely. The euphoria of this image becomes unearthly. The children and mothers are in a place together which supersedes the tangibility of Le Corbusier’s utopia and the “madman’s house”. They are genuinely happy and bolstered by a new-found sense of safety and longevity in this contentment. In this image, Hervé recognises that happiness alone is unchartered territory in the wake of the war, before we begin to consider the new spatial sensation of housing projects like Le Corbusier’s.

Ultimately then, Hervé’s work is no more about the children propagating an ideology of hope as it is about them being distracted from the outside world by an eccentric figure who himself, is somewhat afraid of the outside. Rather, I want to say that the photographs centre on a notion of individual transportation, a building of a habitat within above slotting oneself into a pre-packaged utopia. Whilst Le Corbusier’s architecture is certainly instrumental, and credited so in Hervé’s photography, to facilitating the contentment of the children, it only does so on a superficial basis. The children care for the light and shadows created by the huge windows and the paddling pool on the roof terrace, they do not care for, nor have need for the ideology behind their way of life. Children can make themselves happy through the living out of their own narratives, in both times of adversity and security. Furthermore, as with the Conway archive, narratives surpass labels in their power to evoke real emotion, and it is Hervé’s subversion of his own label, “architectural photographer”, which gave way to such touching and thought-provoking responses to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation.

Black and white image of children heading to the roof swimming pool.

CON_B04326_F001_042. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Mia Gainsford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: The Oxen of Laon Cathedral

Audio Version

Text Version

Laon, a town in North-East France, has an immense and beautiful cathedral on top of a 200-metre hill, the location of the medieval walled town. It is one of the most important examples of early Gothic architecture.

Sixteen life-size statues of oxen look down from the top of the two western towers. As far as I can ascertain, such a number and size of sculpture is unique.

An image of the front facade of the Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral taken in July 2009 on a sunny day. The Cathedral is a pale yellow stone colour on a bright sky blue background.

Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral in July 2009. Image by Martoss8 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons.

Medieval scholars mention them as an afterthought in their analysis of the cathedral’s architecture and history of development. Laon tourist web sites start with them, as if to say, hey, come to Laon and see the cows in the sky!

There is no documentation to explain the oxen’s presence. Local custom explains that they recognise the importance of oxen in the building of the cathedral, given it’s on top of a high steep hill. Leading on from this, folklore tells of an ox dying of exhaustion as it climbed the hill. The carter, desperate to get his load to the building site, was amazed when another ox appeared from nowhere, helped pull the load to the top, then disappeared before the carter could decide what to do with it. Another variation believes that the cart contained holy relics, and the appearance of the ox an act of God. The statues, therefore, record the miracle of oxen appearing out of thin air.

Putting aside the miracle option, the basic folklore is not immediately convincing:

  • People used oxen throughout the medieval world as their standard beast of burden, and continued to rely on them until the advent of 19th-century industrialisation, yet they appear only rarely in medieval sculpture.
  • As Laon’s location is high up on a steep hill, teams of oxen must have been a continuous daily feature as they must have been used to deliver supplies. However, many other towns and cities were located strategically on hilltops, but there is no evidence that inhabitants felt the need to record their reliance on the ox.
  • The oxen did not need to transport stone, as this came from the limestone covering the plateau of the hilltop.
  • If, however, the scale of the Laon climb was unusually severe, it does not explain why it was necessary to have as many as sixteen sculptures.
A second image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_027. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

As there is no firm evidence for their placement, medieval scholars simply acknowledge their existence, record the folklore and may make brief reference to the miracle story. My understanding is that it is not considered proper scholarship to speculate on secular sculpture and carving. This is understandable, so I have attempted to consider what circumstantial evidence may be available to indicate why the oxen are there:

  • They may be the medieval equivalent of a vanity project. Cathedral construction was funded only in part by the church and the crown. Most funding was raised from the local townspeople, creating tensions with the clergy, and delays in building when funds were exhausted. Laon was built in 5 protracted phases, completing in 1230. Laon is surrounded by a huge flat plain, which in the Middle Ages was given to arable farming and vineyards. The farms would have used oxen extensively for ploughing and haulage. There may have been such a deep affection for the animal, that a wealthy landowner decided to provide funding to immortalise them in stone.
  • Certainly, paintings of livestock became popular in subsequent centuries. It is known that the 17th-century Dutch painter, Aelbert Cuyp, was successful in selling his paintings of cows to a European market and to British landowners in particular.
  • Medieval Laon was a major regional centre and popular with the French monarchy. The Carolingian and Capetian kings used it as their base in North East France. They may have also provided funding for the cathedral, although this is unlikely. Nevertheless, I wondered if oxen or bulls (the terms were interchangeable in the Middle Ages) were symbols in their heraldry, but can find nothing.
  • The numbers of animals may be significant, in that medieval ox teams consisted of multiples of two up to a maximum of eight. So, each tower could represent one full team, potentially the size required to make the climb to Laon.
  • One commentary suggests that they are not all oxen, but a mix of animals real and imagined. The photographs show they all seem to be wearing a harness, and although many have lost their horns and ears, they all look broadly the same.

All of the above is, of course, more speculation than circumstantial evidence, so I am not going to make it as a medievalist with this essay. I have considered the influences of the local economy, the town’s geography, the cathedral’s funding, the presence of the monarchy, and would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on other angles to consider, or if they are aware of similar sculpture elsewhere.

Perhaps the final word should come from WW Clark, author of Laon Cathedral Architecture (1983), who argued that the use of sculpture reached an unprecedented richness in Laon:

Their precise meaning remains elusive… they can be understood compositionally as the final accents in a design that integrates sculpture, both formally and iconographically, as inseparable constituent elements, beginning with the detail of the three portals.

Meanwhile, I may well feel the need to go and see them for myself.

Image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

 

References:

  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 1 by WW Clark and R King
  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 2: The aesthetics of Space, Plan and Structure
    by WW Clark
  • The Ox in the Middle Ages by John H Moore Article in Agricultural History journal No 35 1961

Muny Morgan: Photographic Memories of Ravello, Italy

Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.

I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!

This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F006_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_023. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer