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.

20150314_144436

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.

20150314_102546

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.