Architecture and Music in Renaissance Venice (Thursday 21st November)

Howard1They say architecture is “frozen music”, but this week has been a particularly noisy one for this art historian. First there was the Liturgy in History study day at Queen Mary University, where both the seminar room in Whitechapel and then St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield were filled with beautiful singing, including us lay people lending our voices to provide the drone of Perotin’s thirteenth-century Viderunt Omnes. Then at Mellon Centre on Wednesday, the rector of Ranworth provided those gathered with a rendition of the Gloria attached to his church’s medieval lectern in a round table seminar about the great rood screen.

This means that the Art History and Sound series, organised in the Courtauld Research Forum by Ph.D. students Michaela Zöschg and Irene Noy, is in very good company of a consideration of the sonic environment of the visual arts. This Thursday marked the second of three autumn lectures after a successful series of workshops last year.

Deborah Howard, the co-author of Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, came to the Courtauld to demonstrate the methodology behind the book. Did the great architects, Sansovino and Palladio, while designing their temples to Counter-Reformation piety, allow provision for the Gabrielis and Monteverdi to achieve the same with their ground-breakingly sophisticated polyphonies?

Howard3Although audience surveys were used in the project, rather than this subjective evidence, much attention was given to presenting the results of computer modelling simulations to actually show what was happening to the sound in these churches. There was little problem in a shoe-box like the Ospedaletto – the sound quickly reverberated from off the roof to seem like it was raining down to the audience without any dissonance.

The monumental Il Redentore however proved more of a problem. It was fine for the daily offices of the Capuchin friars in the enclosed choir. However, for the great festival day when the choir were stationed under the mighty dome, the simulation showed how it would reverberate the sound waves like “a giant food processor”, throwing down the carefully orchestrated polyphony that had been composed specially for the day as an utter muddle of sonic hummus. But it was shown how on such days, the church would be covered in tapestries, draped in hangings and filled with robed bodies, to give a much more promising situation, and that the composition would not be destroyed by the architectural setting. The same was demonstrated in a festally adorned San Marco, the sound given a clarity and vibrancy when the harmonies would have been all but obscured in an empty church. All well and good for Renaissance polyphony, but was this a happy accident rather than design? Did Palladio really reassure a frustrated Gabrieli at rehearsals it’d be alright on the night?

Howard2Deborah did admit that the results of the project merely reinforced their expectations. But the real achievement of this lecture was to make people aware of the methodology behind it. An architectural historian may wish for a silent, empty church when wielding a tripod, but now a building resonating with “molten architecture” should also prove equally rewarding for interrogation.

For more information and music tracks related to the project, visit

Engulfed and in Motion

Regine Rapp, Art Laboratory Berlin: Some notes on the Phenomenon of Perception in Contemporary Installation art, Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1988 (from the exhibition "Ten Characters" at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York). Photo: D. James Dee // Image Courtesy of Ilya Kabakov: VG Bild Kunst Bonn

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1988 (from the exhibition “Ten Characters” at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York). Photo: D. James Dee // Image Courtesy of Ilya Kabakov: VG Bild Kunst Bonn

In a continuation of this term’s investigations into the relationship between art and perception, this week’s Frank Davis Lecture concerned the spatial aesthetics of installation art. Central to the research of Dr Regine Rapp from the Art Laboratory Berlin is the application of reception theory in assessing the multisensory experience of the viewer when entering the spaces shaped by artists. Combining the physical with the conceptual, this lecture aired new experiments into age-old issues of reactions both to illusion in art and to the authority of exhibition spaces.

With multiple visual and audio examples, Dr Rapp’s talk examined how the viewer’s presence in and motion through an installation both completes the work and also induces a sense of being engulfed by an environment.  Depending on the situation, the response can be a kinaesthetic one, brought about by the body’s physical engagement with an environment, and/or a synaesthetic one that mixes sight and sound to disorientate and to distort the expected sensation of space and time. The former effect was exploited by the subversive strategies of Russian artist Ilya Kabokov working around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. His Total Installations worked by constructing an oppressive atmosphere that in one example took the form of a cramped artist’s room in a soviet communal flat, the chaotic pressure below contrasting with the sense of relief where the occupant had catapulted his or herself through the ceiling and into space. Dr Rapp commented on the 3-D trompe l’oeil effect of such works and their references to a controlled state environment, as illustrated for instance by the same artist’s hanging sculpture of flies arranged to form the outline of a Russian orthodox onion dome, itself position in a roped-off space.

frankdavisThere is an interesting element of institutional and consumer critique to the Transformation Installations in which Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl stages the deadening non-site environments of airports and trade fairs. While the audience would no doubt have agreed with the alienating effect of these carefully composed ‘still-lifes’ of the everyday commercial landscape, the productive insights to be gained from the splicing of illusion and disenchantment in cavernous expo halls were less convincing. Perhaps one had to be there …  Where I would like to have been is in the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin for the experience of the Ghost Machine, a guided solo walk behind the scenes and back in time mediated by audiovisual technology. Describing the physiological surround effects achieved by the artist’s recording of a script through a dummy head, Regine Rapp suggested that Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures-Miller’s interactive walks present a new form of art work that might be characterised as a ‘trompe l’oreille’. Certainly, in expanding the embodied aspects of exhibition and performance, this last example illustrated very well the project’s focus on the physiological response at the heart of reception studies. If there was something missing from the equation however, perhaps it was the weight of scientific evidence that, conversely, has been the prime concern of previous lectures. For more on this side, go to the  for information on recent collaborative research into the phenomenon of synaesthesia.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (British Library)

Georgians1Georgians Revealed, currently on at the British Library, marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I in 1714. The king and his successors would lend their name to a period in British history characterised either as vulgar and rowdy or as excessively obsessed with decorum and ideology. The British Library aims to showcase it from a more neutral perspective. Upon entering the first room, where from the ceiling hang garlands of prints displaying different aspects of Georgian life, we read that the Georgian period saw “unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes”.  With this opening statement, the exhibition sets itself an important, but difficult task: to give a general account of “the Georgians” by considering change as the determining characteristic of their times. Unfortunately, because of the isolationist perimeters chosen, the lovely display does not quite manage to do so.

As would be expected from the British Library, the exhibition impresses with an astonishing number of precious books and other printed material, mostly from the Library’s own collections. A section on “Reading for Pleasure” explains that the period saw a rise of relatively new types of books and prints, such as encyclopaedias, newspapers and commercial pamphlets. A fine example is the 1807 botanical encyclopaedia The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton, which is on display. As an institute promoting and facilitating access to the book, however, the British Library could have gone beyond illustration, addressing and questioning more clearly the importance of print culture to the Georgians.

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. 'Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic' Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. ‘Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic’
Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

Although prints and books are the most prominent features throughout the exhibition, several themes are complemented by the inclusion of paintings, costumes, and decorative arts. In a section on the social custom of drinking tea, a display is made up of Joseph van Aken’s 1720 painting An English Family at Tea, a wooden tea table, some porcelain, and two pamphlets on “The Conversations and Reflections at the Tea Table”. In another section, the birth of the fashion industry is brought to life by several costumes. In confronting us with these recognizable facets of modern life, the exhibition comes closest to fulfilling its promise of revealing the making of modern Britain.

But whose Britain is this anyway? The exhibition focuses on the emerging middle class, which grew to constitute one-third of the country’s population, and on London. While choosing to focus on the capital might seem reasonable because of the influence of the Georgian court on the eponymous era, generally speaking the exhibition seems to somewhat limit itself by indulging in the Georgians’ self-referentiality. These were chaotic and uncertain times: change always involves some sort of loss. The middle class appears to have responded to global expansion by establishing a popular culture that faced very much inward, as in the case of the strict rules of etiquette addressed by the exhibition. Although these reactionary dynamics are mentioned, the exhibition insists on presenting the Georgians only as ushering in modernity as progress, thereby allowing them to remain in an historical comfort-zone.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Despite these remarks, however, the stylish display, engaging themes, and beautiful materials presented surely make Georgians Revealed worth visiting. When doing so, do not miss Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk, a complimentary garden installation in the Piazza, which is part of the Cityscapes Garden Festival.

Esther van der Hoorn is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain is on at the British Library until 11 March 2014.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure (The Courtauld Gallery)

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving her free lecture at a late opening

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving a free lecture at a Dürer late

The Courtauld’s latest exhibition offers a glimpse into the formative years of an irrefutable giant of the German Renaissance. Centring on Dürer’s so-called Wanderjahre, something akin to an extended gap year, it tracks Dürer’s four-yearlong travels in the Upper Rhineland and possibly also to Italy. But this isn’t a one-man show. Instead, through a collection of rarely-exhibited works on paper, the focus is on Dürer as a product of the artistic influences he encountered as a young man.

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478 © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Throughout, works by the young artist hang alongside a range of works by elder masters who Dürer came across on his travels, either in person or through their work. Particular (and well-merited) prominence is given to Martin Schongauer, who Dürer never met but greatly admired. His ten engravings showing Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins are enchanting.

At the crux of the exhibition is the Courtauld’s double-sided drawing A Wise Virgin and Dürer’s left leg from two angles. This work – one side beautifully finished, the other hastily sketched – is presented as a symbol of the two strands of the young Dürer’s artistic practice: a new emotional intensity in figure drawing and the sustained scrutiny of his own body. This lively union of experimentation and expressiveness also appears in a sketch of the Virgin and Child, where the artist’s own hands hover above the figures’ heads. In a self-portrait, Dürer seems to probe the limits of his ability with a daring frontal angle and his cheek resting in his palm, while a swiftly executed image of his young wife inscribed with the words “Mein Agnes” offers a rare and intimate snapshot into his domestic life.

Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92 © Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92
© Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Other drawings, like the Three studies of Dürer’s left hand, are highly finished and elegantly arranged. Such works seem anticipate an audience. This awareness of his viewer, as well as his excellent draughtsmanship, would help Dürer to become the master printmaker for which he achieved lasting fame. The important relationship between drawing and engraving is neatly illustrated by the Prodigal Son print hanging alongside its rare preparatory sketch.

The display in the second room suggests the curators’ conviction that Dürer did cross the Alps into Italy, a matter of on-going debate. Evidence of Dürer using Italian sources appears in an engraving of Philosophy displayed alongside Dürer’s drawn copy. The remarkable Men’s Bath is an example of Dürer’s stunning technical ability in woodcut even at this young age. In comparison, the woodcut from his master’s workshop hanging nearby seems almost course and stiff.

Albrecht Dürer Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94 © Albertina, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer
Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94
© Albertina, Vienna

Though not officially part of the exhibition, a small accompanying display warrants mention. This room recreates a famous lecture delivered by the influential cultural theorist, Aby Warburg, entitled “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” (1905). Tackling the challenge of staging the lecture in exhibition format is commendable, though it has only partial success. Without prior knowledge of the lecture, the cohesion of this room remains somewhat obscure. On display, however, are some of the finest engravings by Italian masters of the early Renaissances alongside some of Dürer’s most exquisite drawings and prints including the Death of Orpheus, Melancholia I and Nemesis. So all scholarly history aside, visually speaking this room is a joy and must not be missed.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure is at the Courtauld Gallery until 12th January 2014

Laura Llewellyn is a PhD student at the Courtauld

Like an Eggshell minus its eggs: Frieze Art Fair 2013

noname3The Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers once pondered about the question of how art contains meaning for its viewers. When looking at his beautifully fragile eggs exhibited at Hauser & Wirth at this year’s Frieze, one might wonder whether such meaningful art might be discovered beyond the spectacle of London’s renowned art fair.

A good starting point in the quest for meaningful art might be the variety of performance-based and participatory practice that one can find at Frieze this year. These art forms invite the viewer to take part in the construction of meaning so that one might suspect that they contain a high degree of meaning for the viewer when doing so. Given that these practices originated in the desire to create un-sellable art outside of any institutional contexts, it is surprising that Frieze incorporates these practices, which manifests somehow a reductio ad absurdum of their origins. Yet, does it work?


If one has a look at the re-staging of James Lee Byars’ performance ‘Four in a dress’ (a group of four performers is united through the same piece of cloth that connects all of them with each other) at Michael Werner, one quickly realises that it does not. Whilst Byars originally invited the audience to participate in the performance, a pedestal now separates the performers from their audience. The pedestal almost functions like an artificial value enhancer: the performance is declared to be an artwork of high value through the pedestal it is put on. This ignores the fact that the meaning of this piece might only be realised through the interaction with the audience. The irony is that the pedestal that was employed to emphasise the meaning of this artwork at the same time destroys it by drawing a gap between the artwork and its viewers.

Another piece that promises meaningfulness is Pilvi Takala’s ‘The Committee’, the recipient of the Emdash prize. The artist delegated her authorship to a committee of children from Bow who could decide what to do with her prize money. The committee concluded: “We want to build a five star bouncy castle” ( Takala’s work is certainly a nice and politically correct attempt to democratise discourse structures, but somehow the ‘Bouncy Castle’ evokes allusions to Angelo Plessas’ ‘Temple of Play’- a spectacular-sized word for ‘playground’ commissioned for the kids of those who can afford the exorbitant entry prices to Frieze (so probably not the children of Bow). Both promise easy entertainment and distraction. Is this why Plato was so worried about the shallowness of this kind of art that prevents us from understanding a significant meaning beyond mere appearances?

Frieze Art fairThe work that best captures the spirit of Frieze is Dan Graham’s ‘Groovy Spiral’ at Lisson: spectacular and expensive. It directly captivates and engages the viewer and fulfills the promise of being entertaining. Probably exactly these pieces that prompt brief excitement work best within a context in which the spectacle rather than meaning counts.

Maybe, Broodthaers was right to wonder: Has art been drained of meaning, like an eggshell minus its egg?

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld

The annual Frieze London exhibition was in Regent’s Park from the 17-20 October 2013.



The Beholder’s Gaze: What do our eyes see when we look at pictures? (5th November 2013)


Does pictorial composition lead the beholder’s gaze when looking at pictures? Is abstract art a universal language? Is artistic perception culturally-based? Issues of art reception are central to the research of Professor Raphael Rosenberg, invited to speak at the third Frank Davis lecture on Art and Vision. Within the Institut für Kunstgeschichte of the University of Vienna, Professor Rosenberg leads the Laboratory for Cognitive Research in Art History, where quantitative methods are applied to the study of ‘the beholding of aesthetic objects.’

By employing eye-tracker instruments, Professor Rosenberg conducts cognitive surveys on the way in which eye pupils move on paintings’ surface. Thus, the main object of his research is composition, or the reception of the arrangement and organization of the pictorial surface, which had also been the subject of the first lecture in the Frank Davis series in October. Works in progress at the Laboratory include “The cultural eye”, a paper comparing how Japanese and Austrian individuals look at paintings (the former focus on nudes, the latter on landscape!) and “Is abstract art a universal language?”, an article tracing the difference in the way experts and non-experts look at abstract paintings, namely Karl Otto Götz’s Bild vom 5.2.1953.

In his presentation Professor Rosenberg claimed that the results of such experiments could support art historians by adding scientific elements to the troubled history of art criticism, concerned with the account of the beholder’s gaze in the exercise of ekphrasis and in the account of aesthetic experiences (from Procopius of Caesarea to Diderot). Although the eye-tracking system will soon be used on museum visitors, at the moment paintings are shown on the computer screen, altering greatly the results of the paintings’ appreciation. In the case of abstract painting or architecture for instance, the “materiality” of the work is a most prominent feature of the aesthetic experience.

Cognitive studies have been interested in art theory for some time now, as the Courtauld’s Frank Davis series demonstrates in gathering several scholars from different areas. Germany and the United States have founded (and funded) a good number of similar projects, stemming out of the possibilities first envisaged by Semir Zeki and John Onians. In 1994, the latter was the editor of a series of essays offered to E. H. Gombrich for his 85th birthday and dealing precisely with the problem of reception in a wide range of contexts. Included in the volume, an essay by Michael Baxandall was mentioned by Professor Rosenberg as a pioneering application of some studies in cognitive psychology and vision carried out since the 1970s.

But in that essay, Michael Baxandall had revealed his scepticism for such methodologies: “Records of scanpaths [what is now called eye-tracking] can often seem disappointingly uninformative. Features fixated are mainly those one might expect” (p. 409). Baxandall also distinguished between levels of analysis, and wrote that cognitive science deals with low level of the visual process, that is, the first phases of observation: “Higher levels of the attentive visual process introduce different kinds of problems, particularly when the attention is to complex paintings, and for various reasons I do not feel the cognitive sciences invoked here offer art criticism as much broadening suggestion for dealing with those higher levels: for that one must go elsewhere” (p. 413).

Similarly, my main concern regards the focus on physiological rather than cultural aspects of reception. In fact, art has methodologies that are proper to its historiography, and deals with complexity. Conversely, by isolating the issue of the eye movement on a flat (virtual) surface, and focusing on one element in artistic reception, this type of research (as yet) cannot seem to take into account the complexity of artworks and the cultural discourse surrounding their ideation, creation, and display.

Daumier: Visions of Paris (Royal Academy of Arts)

DaumierposterSince its founding in 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts intended to create a venue to promote the exhibition and education of visual art. The Academy continues to teach the public with their new exhibition, Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris.

Honoré Daumier is displayed as a documenter of everyday life in nineteenth century Paris. He observed the people on the streets and the changing reception of art around him. Amidst the political and social climate, Daumier picked up his pen and created comical caricatures of the bourgeoisie for newspapers. Censorship was particularly adamant at this point, and while his images were continually published, it was not without consequence. His depiction of King Louis Philippe as Gargantua (1831) placed him in jail for six months. This dedication to art, despite public or authoritative opinion reflects Daumier’s pursuit for artistic expression. Visions of Paris enables the viewer to explore Daumier’s Paris in various media.

Man on a Rope, c. 1858 Oil on canvas Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Man on a Rope, c. 1858
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Even though Daumier didn’t create pictures from direct observation, his keen attention to human expression and behavior is readily apparent in his oeuvre. Each line, whether painted or etched is filled with such emotion that it begs the viewer for a second glance. At close range, the lithographs’ lines overlap and crisscross to create realistic, but also expressive, subjects. The technique used to shade every dip and curve transform a subject into an expressive gesture, like a string of letters that are linked to create a descriptive word. Each mark has its purpose, and even in his paintings, Daumier’s attention to line is clear.

In The Miller, His Son and the Ass (1849), Daumier’s brush strokes are deliberate.  The use of pigments starts to parallel the cross-hatching of lines in Daumier’s lithographs. This is especially seen in figures’ flesh, which creates a landscape of shapes on the forearms. The flesh of the laborers begins to shimmer and become more than just a record of everyday life. As the exhibition notes in its pamphlets, Daumier makes memorable pictures of ordinary moments.

Salon de 1857, Triste Contenance de la Sculpture Lithograph, second state, album impression, hand-coloured Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Salon of 1857, Sad expression of sculpture
Lithograph, second state, album impression, hand-coloured
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The lithographs are show-stoppers in the gallery despite the fact that they might be the reason why Daumier wasn’t considered a fine artist during his life time. A particular lithograph, Salon of 1857…Sad Expression, printed in Le Charivari, 1857, can serve as a metaphor for Daumier’s place among his contemporaries. In the image, the crowds at the Paris Salon are so overwhelmed with the paintings on display that they ignore the sculpture even though that it is coming to life. Sculpture, was placed lower on art’s totem pole, like Daumier’s caricatures. At last, Daumier receives the attention his caricatures in the Royal Academy.

Daumier’s wide-ranging talent is recognized in the display of 130 works. Two hundred years later, Daumier’s caricatures still seem relevant to contemporary viewers (I continually found myself silencing a few chuckles throughout the exhibition). The opportunity to see this didactic survey that emphasizes the artist Daumier as a painter, draughtsman and caricaturist for the first time in more than fifty years is not to be delayed.


Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Daumier: Visions of Paris is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 26th January 2014.

Every picture tells a story

The Newsreel, the Daredevil and the Cameraman: character and play in the interwar newsreel, by Dr Sara Beth Levavy. Modern and Contemporary Seminar, Monday 4 November.

With a focus on the pivotal role of the cameraman in the newsreel films of the interwar years, the new Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellow introduced Monday’s seminar participants to her on-going research project and subject of a PhD from Stanford University. Drawing from a wealth of observations on the function of newsreel as a representation of contemporary vision and experience, Dr Levavy’s paper provided plenty of evidence for the existence of a specific genre that belongs as much to the story of Hollywood as it does to the history of journalism. Clips of engineering triumphs and death-defying antics helped to relay the visual excitement of the extraordinary in the everyday as framed for an American public of the 1920s and 30s: footage which, once circulated in often purpose-built movie houses, would frequently be recycled into feature films by the big corporations.

Pathé News Synopsis Sheet, no. 69, 1928 (Library of Congress, Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division)

Pathé News Synopsis Sheet, no. 69, 1928 (Library of Congress, Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division)

Reflecting on a production policy of thrills, spills and modernity in motion, Dr Levavy explained how the industry specialised in the rapid repackaging of ‘news’ to offer what she describes as ‘a meditation on the new’. A key figure in the important illusion of real-time experience was that of the cameraman, who with a fluid position both inside and outside the frame could embody the roles of character and operator, thereby functioning as the human intermediary between audience and screen.  And it really did come as news to much of the  contemporary audience just how closely these crafted characters can be identified with the standard super-hero as personified by crusading journalist Clark Kent, aka Superman. Not only was this trope – combining an incorruptible search for truth with lightening speed and the all-important aerial view – consciously immortalised on celluloid in Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), but there are acres of film depicting cameramen risking life and limb to bring the latest real-life spectacle to a news-hungry public.

For those of us with a passing familiarity with British or European newsreel, there was perhaps an expectation of a certain perspective on some of the grittier reality of this era, if not actual images of war, or indeed propaganda. Responding thoughtfully to such issues, Dr Levavy was careful to point out the deliberate suspension of ideological critique from her study. Partly this is due to a tacit acknowledgement of its established presence in the wider discourse. Chiefly, however, it is because she takes her methodological lead from a body of material constructed precisely to exclude such perspectives; a fact underlined succinctly by her consideration of an alternative title to her PhD, ‘There was always a monkey’. Instead, there are other questions to be asked of a genre that sits between entertainment and reportage. Concerning the standardised exhibition structures, these include the intriguing figure of the cameraman at the heart of a construction that is seen to represent a particular world – but one that only exists within the cinema.

Fifth Early Modern Symposium: Bringing Art into Being in the Early Modern Period (27th October 2013)

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros - Between Heuresis and Mimesis - Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators of the Creative Process

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros – Between Heuresis and Mimesis – Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators
of the Creative Process

Convened annually by two PhD students from the Courtauld, the Early Modern Symposium is an opportunity for scholars of all levels to give papers covering a period of almost three centuries, from around 1550 to 1800, and to discuss theoretical and methodological questions relevant to current research in the field. Anya Matthews and Giulia Martina Weston, who jointly organised this year’s event, proposed to explore the vast array of processes that make possible both the conception and birth of the work of art. Such a proposal was a perfect complement to last year’s theme, “Art and its Afterlives.”

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

The programme of the day dealt with the problems related to the study of workshops, of failures and successes of the creation process, and of the question of material specificity. It also suggested that we reconsider the role of the artist-creator in the wake of twentieth-century art historical analysis. This was why it was important to have several contributions focusing on the Renaissance, for it was then that the ideas of the artist as heroic creator and their artwork as a unique creation gained prominence. In her paper on Raphael’s workshop, Anne Bloemacher returned on the gap between the conception of the artistic idea and the delegation of execution. Sefy Hendler, by revising the issue of the paragone in fifteenth-century art theory, showed how a studio drawing by Parmigianino attempted to bridge the arts and offered a variety of vedute on one sheet.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

Interior decoration was considered by Claire Gapper’s investigation of the development of English plasterwork as a necessary interaction of a multiplicity of figures – architects, draughtsmen, decorators and their patrons, some of varying degrees of competence (see image). Other interventions extended across periods. The rather intensely theoretical approach of Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros dealt with the history of the dichotomy heuresis/mimesis and proposed to integrate praxis into this paradigm, through the mediating use of iconopoiesis. Working on cultural and geographical distances, Carrie Anderson presented the case of  tapestries with rather unlikely Brazilian fauna such as zebras and rhinoceroses donated by the governor-general of Dutch Brazil to Louis XIV as showing the exciting possibility of a transglobal exchange of ideas at an early period.

This is just a small selection from what was a long day, yet one which managed to retain its audience’s interest throughout with a wide variety of approaches and themes. The current interest in art-making processes is spurred by an increasing union of the old divisions of the historical field, encouraged by the universal assimilation of the issues raised by Aby Warburg and post-structuralist traditions. In recent scholarship, investigations across disciplines, bridging works and practices of different kinds and including material from science, popular culture and across time, are more the rule than the exception. However, if this conference was to be taken as a statement on the willingness of academia to deal with the question of process in art making, it would be inevitable to admit that, while the interest is there, it is too early to say which methodologies and themes will prevail in future scholarship.

Artist’s Talk: Shirin Neshat

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Artists’ talks provide both the chance to observe an artist’s public self-fashioning, and to venture behind the scenes of art production. Shirin Neshat’s profuse account of her professional trajectory insists on the collaborative origin of her work. Her narration is marked by two moments of rupture: the first when she decided to quit her art education, which she deemed too conventional and too focused on the discovery of talent; the second when she decided to give up photography and take up video instead, creating double-channel projections that could circulate outside of the elitist world of contemporary art. In her words, she is “addicted to new beginnings,” such dramatic changes having ultimately increased her will to collaborate with other artists, actors, curators, or directors. (In fact, this very event was conceived as collaboration between the newly appointed member of the Courtauld faculty, Sussan Babaie, the director of the London Film School, Ben Gibson, and the independent curator, producer and writer, Vali Mahlouji).

The talk started off with the projection of a video entitled Passage (2001) conceived and realized with American musician and composer Philip Glass. Amidst a stark yellow desert, a traditional Islamic funeral ceremony is being prepared: the camera intercuts between the procession of men, carrying the body enshrouded in white cloth and the circle of women digging the grave with their hands. Nearby, a young girl plays with small stones. The procession reaches the burial site as the soundtrack climaxes and the overall tone becomes highly dramatic; a fire ignites behind the girl and encircles the gathered group.


This short film integrates all distinctive features of Neshat’s work: the portrayal of the two separate worlds of men and women, the reassessment of traditional rituals, the choice of contemporary political debates that are of interest both for Islamic and Western audiences (after all, the artist moved to New York as a young adult, in 1978, bridging both cultures in her biography). After being attacked by activists, artists and critics for her work, she has resolved to make highly stylised films and photographic installations, in the attempt not to take any political position. Even when asked about her personal religious belief, she is evasive: Neshat is careful to keep any matter of possible political conflict aside.

What emerged out of this talk, then, was the existential difficulty of being a successful artist directly confronting such politically charged issues: as a consequence of her success, Neshat is constantly pushed by galleries to make recognisable (and sellable) work all the while being criticised by members of the same artistic milieu. Confronted with a young audience such as the Courtauld’s, Shirin Neshat felt compelled to offer this advice: fight to make any creative work available to wider audiences, consider making tangents, and most importantly, collaborate.