Giotto’s Circle and Medieval Work in Progress: ‘Illuminated Manuscripts: Art and Science’

The new research presented by Dr Stella Panayotova (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) at the Research Forum on 24 April 2013 is a perfect summation of the huge advances being made in the field of manuscript studies thanks to exponentially rapid developments in science and technology. Already relatively well-known works of medieval art were shown in a new light, as Dr Panayotova explained how the use of digital reconstruction can debunk certain myths surrounding medieval manuscript production that have been readily spread through literature. Such myths were based on the conclusions of a small selection of academics in an age before such impressive technologies were readily available and have been accepted largely without question by a majority of medievalists. However, the work of Dr Panayotova and the MINIARE project (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) highlights just how much more research there is to be done in the area.

In collaboration with the Getty, several manuscripts were subject to a variety of intense analytical processes in order to map out more accurately than ever the exact make-up of the manuscripts’ pigmentation. Here, the focus was on the work of Pacino di Bonaguida, a fourteenth century Italian artist whose oeuvre included not only illuminated manuscripts, but also altarpieces. The work for which he is perhaps most well-known, the Chiarito Tabernacle, also went under the microscope.

One of the most useful ways to use this new technology is to distinguish between different artistic hands, not just in manuscripts but in other art objects also. Indeed, it was amazing to see how delicate and subtle some of the stylistic differences between hands were – brushstrokes, for example, can vary greatly in a way that would have otherwise been imperceptible to the naked eye, such as the use of linear, parallel strokes as opposed to cross hatching. It also highlights similarities in the treatment of shadows – particularly noticeable in paintings of flesh and skin – thereby allowing us to draw links that would have perhaps been too anachronistic before. Viewing the manuscripts under UV lights allows for an analysis of the organic make-up of the pigments, what materials have been used and, therefore, which paints were likely to have been mixed in the same workshop or by the same artist and which were done separately. This may initially seem highly technical, but what Dr Panatoyova has shown is that using science in this way can allow us to give a lot more weight to arguments around the provenance of medieval artworks.

It was especially fascinating to hear Dr Panatoyova’s theories on the knowledge and use of colour optic theories in the medieval period, and how our ability to see the subtle techniques utilised by artists gives us much greater insight into how they were thinking about shadow and light. But this is only the beginning – the most exciting thing is speculating on how exactly these technologies might advance our research in the future.

Utopia III: Contemporary Russian Art and the Ruins of Utopia

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, 1968-88

In February, I attended the Utopia III conference held through the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre. The conference was the third in a series addressing the theme of ‘utopia’ within Russian art, with each focusing on a different time period; Utopia III focused on contemporary art. This was the first of the conference series I was able to attend, and it left me regretting that I had missed the previous two.

Days later, I still found myself thinking about the idea of utopia, both as it concerned Soviet art and as it connected to other realms of my academic and non-academic interests— particularly, my penchant for reading dystopian novels, which normally constitutes a wholly non-academic escape. I found the keynote speaker, Mikhail Epstein, particularly intriguing in this respect. His topic, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Russian Conceptualism’, drew parallels for me between the concept of the utopian he described, which he argued was grounded in philosophical ideas predating Soviet ideology, and the philosophical exercise that seems to be at the heart of many dystopian novels. Central to the genre, of course, is the desire to posit the ramifications of Soviet-era politics and totalitarian moments of 20th century history, but also often motifs drawn from classical-era philosophies of government.

Though by a strict definition, ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ are opposing ideas, they exist in tension, with the second reliant upon the first to exist. Both are united in a joint exercise in constructing an alternate version of reality: one optimistically plausible, the other existing in order to identify the fundamental flaws in the former. Though the term ‘dystopia’ was not investigated at this conference, I often detected the blurry line between the two. One example, used by multiple speakers, was Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment.” This installation artwork depicts the aftermath of the apartment belonging to the eponymous man in space. His cramped living quarters, wallpapered with Soviet propaganda, are now furnished by the aftermath of his successful space mission. Through the work’s highly narrative composition, the viewer is able to infer the action that preceded the current tableau, while simultaneously detecting the cracks in a supposedly utopian Soviet society: the propaganda feels suffocating, and must be escaped.

Epstein proposed that conceptual art is the visual counterpart to philosophy, and has been understood this way by some of the artists themselves. This proved somewhat controversial in the Q&A portion following his talk, although I found his argument fairly convincing. In my understanding of dystopian literature the connection seems apt: conceptual art, like literature, becomes a method of exploring abstract ideas in a concrete sense, as if running a simulation to prove exactly where grand theories, in our imperfect reality, will fall short.

Irene Noy, ‘Why Only Look? Aural and Visual Representation of Female Identity in West Germany’

Mary Bauermeister, In Memory Of Your Feelings, or Homage à Jasper Johns, 1964-65, mixed media, 24 x 30 x 7 in.

Of the many Research Forum talks I attended Spring semester, I found Irene Noy’s ‘Why Only Look? Aural and Visual Representation of Female Identity in West Germany’ to be one of the most engaging and eye opening. As the title suggests, Noy encouraged those of us in the audience to not only look but also listen—that is, to audio work that seamlessly accompanied her visual presentation, as well as to the words of her talk.

I came to Noy’s talk with a fairly thorough knowledge of the geographical region and time period, as well as an interest in gender studies, yet Noy’s topic was still completely unfamiliar to me. It was a welcome reminder of just how vast and complex the discipline of art history is. While I found her talk compelling on an intellectual level, it also made me realize, on a more personal level, where I had become complacent with my own knowledge, and reminded me that there are further artists, perspectives, and even media to discover.

Noy’s talk concerned female artists creating artwork at the crossroads of aural and visual art in West Germany, working at the time of the rise of second wave feminism. Particularly intriguing to me was Noy’s presentation of sound art in relation to visual art: the possibility of shared compositional processes, as well as their differently gendered aspects—for example, the electronic implements used in recording and playing sound as being aggressively masculine. I had never before considered the possible dichotomy between aural and visual art (with one occupying space and one occupying time), though Noy presents this dichotomy as false.

I am grateful to Noy for introducing me to the work of Mary Bauermeister, which I found incredibly compelling and promptly investigated further after the talk. Bauermeister, an artist connected with Fluxus, is best known for her ‘lens boxes’ of layered glass that magnify and distort the textured surface below. They simultaneously seem delicate and dangerous, and draw the viewer’s attention to the optical devices improving and modifying our perception of the visual, perhaps parallel to the electrical devices used to create and record sound. Noy emphasized the connection between Bauermeister’s visual compositions and her understanding of musical composition; an important example being her joint show with Karlheinz Stockhausen, in which her visual works were paired with his sound compositions, allowing for a dialogue between the two.