Reviewing The Making of Soundscapes

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

The Sackler Research Forum conversation between Dr Minna Moore Ede, curator of Soundscapes at the National Gallery, and Dr Irene Noy (the Courtauld Institute of Art) was an epilogue to the exhibition shown at the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing between 8 July and 6 September 2015. Comprising of only six paintings from the collection, six sound artists from different musical genres (Chris Watson, Susan Philipsz, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Nico Muhly, Gabriel Yared, Jamie XX) composed their own interpretations of the works. The musical and visual pieces were presented together, each in their own room.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), The National Gallery, London.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), The National Gallery, London.

Having been impressed by the way sounds can enhance visual experiences in the exhibition, it was interesting to see the paintings and ‘their sounds’ in short clips at the talk, accompanied by the noises from the street below. Revisiting the works in this manner underlined just how location-specific Soundscapes was and that, even though we could see the same pieces and hear the same sounds, it was a filtered experience this time. And no wonder: each artist could choose a sound equipment to fit their work best, so that the idea of ‘seeing music’ and ‘hearing painting’ was tailored specifically to how they wanted it to be perceived at the exhibition. For example, Chris Watson, who composed a piece of natural sounds for Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele, insisted that the volume of his piece should not exceed natural sound levels. This meant that visitors had to take some time to adjust hearing the quiet sounds of Watson’s piece after entering the exhibition space. For someone not used to listening actively, Minna Moore Ede admitted, this may have presented a challenge, especially as Watson’s room was the first one in the exhibition.

It was particularly interesting to hear how the artists prepared for the exhibition: Jamie XX, for instance, could only finalise his work at the gallery, an interpretation of Théo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene, shortly before the show opened by working through the night. The curator gave credit to the young popular artist, whose participation could easily be seen as a gimmick to draw in a younger audience: all the artists, including Jamie XX, shared an interest in the connection between visual arts and sound. As perhaps expected, the painting were very carefully chosen by the artists to present us with a variety of compositions that intensely engaged with ‘their aural paintings’.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene (about 1892) The National Gallery, London.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene (about 1892) The National Gallery, London.

As, Minna Moore Ede admitted, Soundscapes had a non-traditional form of curation and was very much an experiment, particularly because it had to fit within the National Gallery’s programme. Considering some responses from the press, the project was not all too well received. However, she noticed a generational divide in the reception: younger viewers, more used to experiencing active combinations of sound and vision, reacted much more positively than an older audience. In relation to this mixed result, the curator also found that the categorization of art (for example into painting, music, and performance) is still something deeply ingrained into the expectations of a British audience. While this may be true, it seemed that much of the scepticism with the ‘mixing of artistic genres’ was based on Soundscapes being a show at the National Gallery. As such, the most difficult challenge of curating the exhibition was its link to the gallery, which, as a national institution, brought with it a very particular set of expectations from an audience used to seeing ‘conventional’ shows with a focus on visual artworks. The changing of this format by removing all but one work in each room and adding a corresponding piece of sound art was thus a new concept. And yet, Minna Moore Ede argued, this emphasis on the non-traditional reanimated the pieces in a ‘non-traditional art historical manner’ – a risk worth taking in the face of all the scepticism it caused: it enabled us to see familiar paintings in a new light, even though their interpretations were not necessarily our own.

The curator of Soundscapes wants the exhibition to travel in the future, and it will be interesting to see whether removing it from the site-specific context of the National Gallery will change the way it is received. The crux of the show was that it was something new, not as an exhibition format, but in the specific context of the National Gallery. Unsurprisingly maybe, this novelty factor also brought home some criticism. Yet, as the conversation with Minna Moore Ede has shown, curators like her connect the gallery’s collection with contemporary culture and a younger audience. As such, Soundscapes, as conceived by its curator, may well start to break down the boundaries between the different categories of art even in an institution like the National Gallery, one exhibition at a time.


By Evelina Kuvykovaite (MA student)

On the 7th of November I attended the ‘The Politics of Craft’ conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which was organised as part of the current exhibition at the V&A titled ‘The Fabric of India’. In this review I will consider talks by Neelam Raina, Amrita Jhaveri, Peter Nagy and Venu Madhav Govindu. Although their expertise differs considerably, they all agree on the importance of textiles to India’s past and present.

Muslin border embroidered with beetle wings, probably Hyderabad, 19th century, V&A

Muslin border embroidered with beetle wings, probably Hyderabad, 19th century, V&A

After the talk by Raina I could not stop thinking about the role of women in textile production in India, in particular in post-conflict Kashmir. Raina spoke about the craft industry in Kashmir as male dominated where women occupied the position of buyers. However, in a war-torn, predominantly Muslim, Kashmir the lives of women are changing. They now assume new roles of income generators as they wait for their husbands to return from war either alive, or dead so they can bury their bodies – a necessary ritual in Islam in order to remarry. Crafts, and in particular textile production, offer a way for these women to support their households while working from home or part-time. Here, they are also able to utilise their skills, which they previously developed as buyers. These activities enable them to overcome grief and poverty and ascertain their own identities as equal members of society. Therefore, women’s involvement in the textile industry redefines the traditional family and societal structures among Muslim communities in Kashmir.

Govindu spoke about khadi, a traditional hand-woven cloth primarily made out of cotton, as a political economy. The khadi movement of 1920s led by Mahatma Gandhi aimed at boycotting foreign goods, in particular high priced clothes, manufactured from Indian cotton and woven industrially in Britain. Instead it promoted locally produced goods, thereby improving India’s economy. Gandhi believed that through the production of khadi local communities would be able to sustain themselves and this would eventually lead to social transformation and economic authority. The khadi movement was one of many steps leading towards India’s independence. It once again demonstrates how tightly the textile production in India is linked with its struggle for freedom.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Yogini, 1986

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Yogini, 1986

The talk by Jhaveri and Nagy considered the career of a recently deceased Indian contemporary artist, Mrinalini Mukherjee. By creating monumental fibre sculptures she challenged the ingrained notions of ‘high’ art. Mukherjee was often marginalised for working in textile medium. Her art was identified as mere crafts by her peers and the general public and, in turn, rejected. Despite of this, Mukherjee was able to attain recognition on an international scale and in 2015 the Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi held the first retrospective of her work. Mukherjee’s career illustrates how the notions of ‘high’ art can be challenged through the use of textiles.

One observation made by Raina, which during the conference seemed fascinating, but in the context of the politics of craft rather insignificant, was about the older generation of men in Kashmir. When weaving the fabric those men performed traditional songs. In fact, it is this observation that best illustrates the importance of textile production in India. Weaving for these men was not just a way to earn their living, but it was a ritual passed through generations. And the cloth as the result of this ritual assumed sacred value, which helped India to overcome its struggles – social, economic, political, and personal.

What do Art Historians Produce?

By Dr Irene Noy

Alternative dissemination methods within art history have fascinated me for quite some time, so I was delighted to find out about a talk dedicated to The Future of the Art History Book given by Dr Charlotte Frost from the University of Hong Kong. The event was organised by Dr Alixe Bovey (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and linked to The Academic Book of the Future project funded by the AHRC in collaboration with the British Library. Both responded to pressing concerns relating to how scholarly work in the Arts and Humanities is produced, read and preserved.

Frost addressed these points when she listed numerous examples of platforms that seek to develop new systems for aggregation, annotation, collaborative writing, data visualisation, open access and peer review. For example, CommentPress Core (founded in 2006) proposes to turn ‘a document into a conversation’ and Open Humanities Press (2008) is an open access resource for ‘leading works of contemporary critical thought’. Book Sprints (2005) is a collaborative process where a book is produced from the ground up in just five days. Here, like in most of these initiatives, there is an emphasis on how technology can be used in order to congregate subject-matter experts ‘in a manner that would be nearly impossible using traditional methods’.


All these examples highlight the close link between how art historians create research and what it is that we produce. Frost focused on the fact that art history is behind in developing robust publishing models, but I would argue that this should be viewed within a greater context of what art history is expected to create and how it is disseminated. We are all too familiar with what is expected of art historians: learn how to look (better if you know how to listen too), read a lot, write papers, give talks at conferences, be active participants in various networks, teach and mentor students, make research accessible to non-academic audiences, curate exhibitions, when possible and so on. The ideas we exchange with each other verbally ultimately feed into publications – which are only one aspect of research’s dissemination – but it is the one which is valued most. This is probably the core issue. Art historians have to create text, preferably a lot of it (and then bind it into books) and preferably publish it with the most prestigious publishing houses.

Creativity is certainly encouraged within art history and, as Frost reminded us, we should be inspired by artistic practices. Though aren’t we already? As a PhD student, I was involved in a number of rewarding cross-period and cross-discipline collaborations which resulted in experimental presentations (we even called them performances) such as ‘Stepping Out and Into Rhythms: Moving Corporeal Inquiries from Music, Art History and Cultural Studies’ (Edinburgh, 2011) and ‘Listening art historians: a cross-period collage of seeing and hearing’ (Aberystwyth, 2013). These performances challenged the traditional formats of academic papers and conferences and we received encouraging feedback from our colleagues. These were incredibly nourishing projects but disproportionately time-consuming when compared to ‘value’ of the outcome. Only one of them resulted in a ‘formal’ publication. The most valued practice is still the production of text.


Text is our most trusted source of recording and archiving. We perceive it to be less ephemeral to recordings of, say a text read aloud, or a video of a conference (so we publish conference proceedings). It is also about how we can ‘work’ and engage with a text, as it is something ‘solid’ that we can annotate and comment (although there are an increasing number of students who prefer to read from screens). At the same time we spend an increasing amount of time with mediated images and sounds. Of course, alternative mediums such as podcasts and videos present other challenges. Whether we want it or not, they have become an integral part of our research. If we want to tighten the gap between the content and the medium of our research, and not for the sake of experimentation with new gadgets and apps, but in order to integrate what we research about and what we ultimately create, we have to allow all of these forms to become part of what is valued within the evaluation structures that eventually determine what art history is.

No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990

By Hannah Gormley (BA3 student)

Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990, an art and archive exhibition at The Guildhall Art Gallery comes across, at first, as a total enigma. If you are lucky enough to know of the Guildhall Gallery, one of the more esoteric gems of The City, it is also likely you missed the brazen red banners downstairs, proclaiming the shows existence. In all fairness, one wouldn’t expect a show commemorating two of London’s most valuable creative activists, concerned with celebrating and exploring the Black British experience of the seventies and eighties, to take place in a gallery that is a branch of the City of London corporation. Nor would you particularly expect a show containing Eddie Chambers ‘How Much Longer You Bastards’ (1983), a brutal challenge to Barclay’s involvement in South Africa at the time of the Apartheid, to be nestled within the financial centre of the country.

‘Recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop owned by Bogle L’Ouverture Publishing at No Colour Bar’

‘Recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop owned by Bogle L’Ouverture Publishing at No Colour Bar’

No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 is an amalgamation of art and archival material related to the African and Caribbean diaspora and those interested in the ‘black’ British experience – though their use of the term ‘Black’ denotes a political and cultural struggle rather than a specific skin colour. Part of the exhibition is dedicated to the efforts of Jessica and Eric Huntley, Guyanese born migrants who settled in London in the 1960s and founded Bogle L’Ouverture Publications in 1969. This bookshop is recreated and becomes the centre of the exhibition, attempting to evoke the ‘cultural hub’ where artists, writers and activists met and shared their work. The Huntley’s notably published Dr Walter Rodney’s ‘Groundings with my Brothers’ and ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ which were seminal to reframing black experience and analysing the systematic profiteering from oppression across the world.

Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On’ (1986)

Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On’ (1986)

This archival material is then set against art from the BLK art group of the 1980s and the Caribbean Artist Movement, or artists with similar concerns. This is where it is possible to get lost – as the link between the Huntley’s activism and artists is subtle. It is also too easy to presume that these artists like Sonia Boyce, Denzil Forrister, Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers were solely political or ‘black’ artists – when really their artworks were personal expressions that in certain works, incidentally, explored the societal tension of the time. Sonia Boyce’s rich She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (1986) pastel drawing is deeply personal and recreates the psyche of a young girl formative years, contending with her identity as both Black and British – at a time when such things could be considered incongruous. Even the shows title ‘No Colour Bar’ references the formal and unofficial racial segregation in the UK and across the world. And this is where, as a show championing the Black British experience and struggle, often under tradition and the establishment, the potency of the exhibitions message is revealed – in a grand government run gallery. Hopefully this show not only allows people to reconsider their assumptions of Black British art but of the Guildhall Gallery too.

Chasing America: Workshopping American Art History in the CHASE consortium

By Theo Gordon (PhD student)

On Saturday 24 October, scholars and students of American art history and visual culture from across the CHASE consortium gathered together in the Sackler Research Forum to discuss their research topics, exchange ideas, and ponder the age-old existential problem of the Americanist in Europe: why study the culture of countries half-way around the world, and what are the methodological problems we all encounter in this curious scenario?

Inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, New York, United States (1886)

Inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, New York, United States (1886)

The event was organised by David Peters Corbett (UEA) and Alixe Bovey (Courtauld), alongside SAVAnT (Scholars of American Visual Art and Text), with the aim to assess the breadth and depth of research into art and culture in the Americas, taken to include Canada, Central America and Mexico, as well as the United States and South America. Around fifteen research students and post-docs from across the consortium presented their work across the day. The range and quality of the work was extraordinary – we heard of the afterlives of American Civil War photography, the representations of female sex workers in turn of the century New Orleans, rereadings of materialism in depictions of the American home, theories of the graphic novel, and the mystery of David Wojnarowicz’s series showing Arthur Rimbaud riding the New York Subway, amongst many other fascinating topics.

As the day unfolded, we gradually realised the proposition that within CHASE there exists one of the most dynamic network of researchers working on the Americas in the United Kingdom. The event was exciting for a number of reasons. First, the consistent originality of the work and the way that everyone sophisticatedly questioned established narratives of art and culture of the Americas. Second, the opportunity presented to reach outside of one’s own institution and connect with others working on similar problems. Third, the prospect of establishing a formal network for the study of the Americas within CHASE, to enable these links and friendships to flourish in the future.


Finally, it was nice to know there are other people facing similar issues in the study of a geographically and culturally distant place. It can be difficult when the archives and objects of investigation are so far away. I took away the importance of sharing and discussing one’s method with the group. If we are all chasing America, we can turn these issues from being the problem into being the solution.


A Mockery of Contemporary Art Taste or a Triumph of Medium over Message?

A symposium and an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

By Wiktor Komorowski (PhD student)

Softer Targets is a solo exhibition by Jenny Holzer at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, featuring both new work and a selection of significant pieces drawn from over three decades of the artist’s career. The exhibition was accompanied by a symposium under the McLuhanian title ‘The Message and the Medium’. The main aim of this one day meeting was to explore the use of language and technology in art.

Softer Targets, exhibition view

Softer Targets, exhibition view

The undisputable highlight of the symposium were talks given by Dave Beech and Pavel Büchler. Dave Beech is an artist in the collective Freee, as well as a writer and curator. He is also Professor of Art at Valand Academy, Gothenburg, Sweden. His work focuses on slogans, billboards and publications that challenge the commercial and bureaucratic colonisation of the public sphere of opinion formation. Pavel Büchler is an artist, teacher and occasional writer who describes his practice as ‘making nothing happen’. Büchler teaches on MA Fine Art at Manchester School of Art.

The presence of two conceptual artists among the panellists contributed to a more interactive discussion by providing a testimony of the first-hand experience of artistic practice and through brining ample examples drawn from the portfolio of both speakers. Beech’s talk concerned the foundations and the almost 50-year long tradition of text art. His presentation emphasised the artistic potential of language that provides almost limitless opportunities to unfold different contexts. Language, as a highly culturally-related medium, became a foundation of all conceptual creation as it facilitates artists to introduce additional levels of meaning. His presentation was followed by Büchler’s talk on the discrepancy between the limitless potential of language and technological limitations of working with letters and words. Pavel Büchler focused on the gap between ideology that supports the conceptual practice and the frequent practical difficulty of bringing these ideological assumption to life.

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

The presentations given by Beech and Büchler fully engaged the audience, but, surprisingly, did not build on the links between the tradition of text art and the work of Jenny Holzer. The lack of a more structured commentary from Beech and Büchler left an impression that the tragedy Holzer talks about in her art becomes marginalised and serves merely as a platform for a discussion over aesthetic form and different modes of reception.

The absence of further considerations of the message Holzer is trying to convey, pauperises her work to a purposefully hyperaesthetic commodity. Her practice seen in such a light does not provide the silent victims an opportunity to speak but rather questions the moral condition of the contemporary audience, in particular, its ability to spot the message under a thick layer of conceptual aestheticisms. Holzer’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, similarly to the recent exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works at the Royal Academy, raises the question how far has the politically inspired conceptual art turned into a mockery of contemporary art taste?


 ‘The Message and the Medium: a Symposium’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

By Professor Sarah Wilson and Dr Irene Noy

On October 19th 2015 three Courtauld pilgrims made their way by tube, train and taxi to a much welcoming Hauser & Wirth Somerset (near Stourhead). Formerly the medieval manor of Bruton, its Farmhouse, Stables, Cowsheds, Piggery & Threshing Barn were repurposed as the country playground of the international art set – attached to the blue chip gallery which has branches in London, Zurich and New York. Set in Piet Oudolf’s wild landscaped gardens – far from the aesthetic of the farm itself or from a Capability Brown (despite a nod to the Oriental) the farm buildings have had new wings for art added to the original plan. Precursors might include the Insel Hombroich, Neuss (near Düsseldorf) with its ancillary pavilions. In Somerset, Smiljan Radić’s Serpentine Pavilion (2014) was marooned in the park like a biomorphic spacecraft in autumnal landscape. Inside, playful and seemingly messy junk décor decorates The Roth Bar & Grill.

Smiljan Radić, Serpentine Pavilion (2014)

Smiljan Radić, Serpentine Pavilion (2014)

The impressive Jenny Holzer installation which for the first time filled all the display spaces, functioned as a backdrop to the event entitled ‘The Message and the Medium’. The short abstract indicated that the symposium would deal with the issues raised by Marshall McLuhan in regard to language and innovations in technology and their usage by artists. In addition, it proposed to address issues concerning those who make, who view and who consume art (the self-selected audiences, predominantly local,  paid high fees for their participation and lunch). Instead Jon Bird, Professor of Art and Critical Theory at Middlesex University, focussed upon the shared preoccupations and generational transition between Nancy Spero, Leon Golub and Holzer, with whom she was friends. Holzer’s archive of redacted documents from American military archives underline her recent series Dust Paintings. Her turn to paintings references suprematist precursors and the fetish of Greenbergian flatness. Ruth Blacksell, Lecturer in Typography and Graphic Communication, focused on Art & Language and the ‘story of conceptual art’. The art polemicist, Dave Beech, gave examples from his contemporary performative practices and insisted on manifestos as a voiced performance, relating to the actions by his group Freee, which transforms read text into a democratic process of interpretation and voicing. Lastly, the experienced conceptual artist Pavel Büchler presented his Honest Work and his subversive play with the meaning as well as the materiality of actual letters.

Jenny Holzer, Floor (2015)

Jenny Holzer, Floor (2015)

Discussion generated by an ‘is it art?’ question evoked by Holzer’s work led to an amusing internal polemic around Duchamp’s urinal versus his eponymous Fountain. Yet the display of neatly cleaned and arranged human bones on charmingly rustic gate-legged tables in the barn ­­—  the Lustmord tables of 1994, which ‘materialised’ debates on rape and murder during the Balkan war — provoked no comment during the whole conference. Holzer’s recent ‘painting’, which appeared to be conceptual as Büchler pointed out, looks like it is entirely the work of anonymous assistants. A disturbing play of aesthetics, pathos and indeed bathos, nonetheless related to extreme instances of abuse and torture ­ — the redacted documents from American military archives, which become increasingly invisible as suprematist/Greenbergian references take over. Not only does Holzer ‘make the inhuman visible’ as Bird argued: the signatures of perpetrators as well as victims added a dialectical comment on the state of the human race at war.

‘Pastoral conceptualism’?  the Hauser & Worth Somerset framing demonstrates the art world ‘red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson): uncannily echoed by the displays of carcasses and dead fowl in the designer kitchen.

Salt Room at The Roth Bar & Grill

Salt Room at The Roth Bar & Grill

Interestingly, Holzer’s exhibition was accompanied by an education guide (which was included in the symposium pack) and included some of the following questions for discussion:

1.      Do you think that Jenny Holzer’s work is Feminist? Discuss reasons for your answer.

2.      How does art make you politically aware? Think of some examples.

3.      What emotions do the texts in Lustmord evoke in you?

4.      How do Holzer’s Truisms work in promoting social change?

5.      How does protest become art?

6.      Do you consider what Holzer does as art?

7.      Do you think it can still be considered Jenny Holzer’s artwork even if the text comes from a different author?

It would have been beneficial to refer to at least some of them and perhaps voice the contemporary connections between those who make, who view and who consume art – issues that were perceptible and visible within the Hauser & Wirth Somerset setting but went unspoken.

Drawing Intuitions in Paris: Salon du Dessin 2015


Salon Du Dessin 2015 at Palais Brongniart, Place de la Bourse in Paris

If dreams are the road to the unconscious, as Sigmund Freud famously proclaimed, drawing may be a way to reconnect to the dream content. Dreams – blurry reminiscences, which often seem meaningless and tend to fade away shortly after awakening – might be brought back through the drawing process. A manifestation of such resurfacing unconscious is Meret Oppenheim’s Taureau transportant une stèle (1933), a beautifully-executed aquarelle of a bull carrying a green stele with a golden finish, obviously alluding to a phallus. This is just one among manifold examples at Thessa Herold’s surrealist display for this year’s Salon Du Dessin. Can any other artistic medium compete with the spontaneous and intuitive way in which a drawing captures the resurfacing unconscious?

The Salon Du Dessin, which annually takes place in the Parisian spring season since 1991, offers diverse opportunities for getting to know artists on a much more intimate level, which may be concealed in their other works. A heavily laboured and re-worked painting certainly does not allow for the intuitiveness of drawing.

 Mary Cassatt 'Mère et enfant' (1898/99) at Damien Boquet Art

Mary Cassatt ‘Mère et enfant’ (1898/99) at Damien Boquet Art

An especially intimate example is Mary Cassatt’s Mère et enfant (1898/99), a pastel and chalk drawing capturing the loving union between a mother and her child, in which the nutured infant seems to glow and blossom in colour. The way in which Cassatt renders the mother merely in chalk lines intimates how mothers would often give away everything they possess for the benefit of their children.



Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun Study for the Head of Madonna and Child renders the saint as an approachable earthly woman, who gazes down on us with tired eyelids. Her slightly undone hair that falls on her shoulder evokes parallels to Le Brun’s self-portrait at London’s National Gallery. In her self-portrait, the artist’s hair appears similarly tousled under her straw hat than Mary’s escaping strands of hair.

Tomma Abts - one of the three shortlisted artists for The Daniel & Florence Guerlain Foundation Prize for Contemporary Drawing

Tomma Abts – one of the three shortlisted artists for The Daniel & Florence Guerlain Foundation Prize for Contemporary Drawing

Whilst most contemporary drawings are to be found at Drawing Now, the sister fair of the Salon Du Dessin which takes place at the Carreau Du Temple in the Marais, a tiny section of the Salon is dedicated to contemporary drawing, where the three shortlisted artists for ‘The Daniel & Florence Guerlain Foundation Prize for Contemporary Drawing’ exhibit. One of them is the London-based Tomma Abts who emphasised the force of the spontaneity of drawing in a recent interview: ‘I like this spontaneity and when I do happen to begin works with a more precise idea in mind, this proves to be less interesting because what matters to me is the moment when the movement appears in the work.’

This year’s Salon Du Dessin certainly offered plenty of these moments of drawing intuitions.

Clausura Explains it All?: Review of Sister Act, Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550

Jennifer Atwood, Giuseppe Capriotti and  Daniela Rywiková take questions

Jennifer Atwood, Giuseppe Capriotti and Daniela Rywiková take questions

After last year’s Friarsday, there could only be a sequel in the form of a Nunday. Organised by Michaela Zöschg and Laura Llewellyn, two research students at the Courtauld working on art associated with female convents, this conference set out to ask important questions about art historical enquiry within their field. The problem of agency behind the appearance of a work of art is common to all medieval art history, but is a particular problem for female monasticism, as the clausura of the community would seem to displace nuns further away from the act of making than was typical for other groups, such as monks, priests or laypeople. Furthermore, if the art associated with a particular social group shows as much diversity as it does homogeneity, how credible is it to interrogate it from their perspective? The strength of this conference is that it was exceptionally well-curated to explore these problems, and was clearly shared by many, judging by the healthy turn-out.

Joanne Anderson shows faith in the Real Presence of Professor Kline

Joanne Anderson shows faith in the Real Presence of Professor Kline when asking a question

It is now widely accepted in art history that reception of art can be just as interesting as its creation. The opening session on Friday afternoon explored books and furniture from female convents via the perspective of their cloistered audiences: Jennifer Atwood on a book from Littlemore Priory in Oxfordshire; Giuseppe Capriotti on the choir stalls of the Camerino Clarisse in the Marches; and Daniela Rywiková on a variety of Bohemian manuscripts. All made reference to internal factors rather than simple stereotypes: something that would become important throughout the conference. Gendered space is a more controversial topic: the sort of term you can drop into a research application (a bit like ‘liminal’) because no one is precisely sure what it means. Professor Jonathan Kline’s paper (pre-recorded, and successfully given in-absentia), on the detached frescoes from the upper chamber of Santa Maria Inter Angelos near Spoleto, was well-received for that way it explored the issue. Nuns are intensely holy people, but their connection with the Eucharistic liturgy is severely limited, so these frescoes now largely preserved in American museums asserted the Real Presence of the Host outside of a liturgical context. Susan Sharp’s and Eva Sandgren’s papers took similar approaches to possible female audiences, respectively to the paintings of the hitherto named ‘Chaplain’s Room’ at Lacock Abbey and the fittings of the highly unusual choir at the Birgittine Monastery of Vadstena.

Carola Jäggi’s keynote at  the close of the first day compared the well-documented St Katharinental in Switzerland, a limited network of artists and internal patronage, to the much more trans-regional connections of the convent of Konigsfelden. Christian Nikolaus Opitz took a remarkably similar approach for his comparison of winged altarpieces in Clarissan convents in Nuremberg and Bamberg in his paper which opened the second day. He concluded that the former attracted potential donors, the latter potential nuns. This idea that that two similar convents’ artistic solutions could be so markedly different, surfacing as it did at the mid-point of the conference, was well-timed to stimulate much discussion.


James D’Emilio, Stefanie Seeberg and Diana Lucía Gómez Chacón under the unusual double-image of Beatrice of Portugal in the Dominican habit

The following session on nuns as artists, explored some problems again related to the problem of clausura. Fausta Navarro showed how the Dominican nun Suor Plautilla Nelli’s art was restricted by her conservative use of models derived from Fra Bartolomeo from the same order. Similarly, Ingela Wahlberg looked at the embroidery of female convents, showing how it was wayward and eccentric in its technique compared to ‘professional’ workshops in the external medieval art market. Three papers then looked at female monasteries and royal patrons: James D’Emilio on Cistercians around León; Stefanie Seeberg on the convent of Altenberg under Gertrud of Thüringen; and Diana Lucía Gómez Chacón on the extraordinary tomb monument of Beatrice of Portugal. All approached their topics with the agenda of discovering the agency of the female communities, but all found some grey areas in which their influence was more difficult to attribute amid the stylistic choices by the artists themselves. Angelica Federici showed at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura that an inscription tells of the nuns’ (specifically the sacristan’s) agency; while Veronique Bücken used the images on the remarkable chariot for the shrine of Nivelles’ collegiate church as demonstrating the canonesses affirming their predominancy over the male canons. The closing paper of the day by Saundra Weddle was a fitting finale in that it achieved an interesting synthesis of this problem. It showed how Venetian convent architecture was integral with the city fabric, but modified the local vernacular – obviously unique to Venice – for the demands of clausura and self-identity, such as canal-side doors solely for waste disposal and iron window-grates with wooden shutters.


Alexandra Gajewski and the Graefenthal crucifixion with its army of nuns

Alexandra Gajewski’s excellent paper on the striking Graefenthal crucifixion came with a magisterially concise overview of the historiography central to this conference. Replacing Georges Duby’s view of medieval women as passive objects, feminism introduced the concept of gender as a societal concept that could be undermined, and eventually moved toward reception theory, that maintains the agency of a passive, enclosed community. Yet her paper and many other showed that there is no such thing as a normal nun, and that analysing the community for its own peculiarities is essential in ‘nun studies’. Without contraries is no progression, but in setting up such binaries as male and female; external patronage and internal agency; liturgical and devotional, enquiry will find that invariably, the most accurate picture will lie somewhere in between these extremes. If ‘nun studies’ conform to the assumption of a single character type, then it risks being no more accurate to real medieval holy women than Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 musical comedy (which Carola’s keynote reassuringly referenced) was to the modern religious female community.

Sister Act: Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550 was held at the Courtauld Institute on 13 and 14 March 2015

An exercise in connoisseurship at the Dulwich: would you know cultural hegemony if you saw one?

Dulwich 1 Made in China, the conceptual exhibition currently on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery, invites viewers to spot, among the gallery’s collection of Old Master paintings, the one Chinese replica the curator has substituted for an original. The exhibition description attempts, disingenuously, to situate this game of ‘spotting the fake’ within the well-worn paradigm of institutional critique, and purports to challenge conservative notions of authenticity. But as the description itself notes, Dulwich is already filled with non-originals: copies of Old Masters by disciples and copyists, works with forged signatures or no signature at all. It would seem that traditional notions of authenticity are already challenged with the inclusion of these works. What then, is the significance of the Chinese replica?

Dulwich 2.1What in fact lies at the heart of Made in China are not hackneyed issues of institutional perception but rather issues of East and West, of what it means to be Chinese and European. While Constable copied Ruisdael’s Windmills in order to improve his own craft, it is safe to say that the unnamed Chinese copyist was driven by a different set of motivations. Nor is it conceivable that the Chinese replica will ever be seen to have artistic value in its own right, in the same way that Constable’s ‘copy’ is now attributed and displayed alongside Ruisdael’s original in the Dulwich. There is thus an implicit distinction here between the copy and the Chinese copy. The copy, insofar as it emerges out of Western art historical tradition, can still count as authentic culture, while the Chinese copy, produced outside of Western tradition by those wholly unconnected to the lineage of the Old Masters, can only be the ‘fake’ to be ‘spotted.’ What is new here then, is not the copy, but that the copy is Chinese. The title, which refers to China’s role in global capitalism as ‘the world’s factory,’ makes this implication clear: just as it manufactures knock-off goods, so China also manufactures knock-off culture.

Above: Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682), Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem, oil on panel, c1650-52. Below: John Constable (1776-1937), Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem, after Jacob van Ruisdael, oil on panel, 1830.

Above: Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682), Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem, oil on panel, c1650-52.
Below: John Constable (1776-1937), Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem, after Jacob van Ruisdael, oil on panel, 1830.

In insidiously advancing a dichotomy between the European original and the Chinese fake, Made in China reinforces the orientalist framework which understands Europe as authentic culture itself, and the East, as always only an inferior copy. Are we honestly to believe though, that the Chinese artist who mechanically replicates European paintings all day does so freely, because imitation of the West is quintessentially Chinese? Or is she rather not forced to participate in an extreme division of labor whereby the brain and the hand, creative and physical labor, are separated utterly—not only by geography and class, but also history, language and culture? Made in China perpetuates the voicelessness of the Chinese artist. China here exists only as an ersatz ‘Europe,’ and we are invited to locate it—that dark, silent, foreign specter which has infiltrated the ‘original’ Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian imagery that line Dulwich’s walls. Indeed, it is impossible not to shudder at that seemingly innocuous question: ‘have you found the replica?’ in an exhibition entitled Made in China.

Xueli Wang is an MA student a the Courtauld.

Made in China is on at Dulwich Picture gallery until 26 April, and the fake will be reveal 28 April 2015.