Research Rhythms Archive

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.

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.


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

Visiting Curator Stephan Kemperdick

20150120_181056_AndroidThe Courtauld’s visiting scholars programme this term brought us the current curator of Early Netherlandish and German paintings at the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stephan Kemperdick. His three-day takeover of the Research Forum proved immensely popular, especially the opening lecture in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre: packed-out with people eager to know “What Happened Around 1430?” The answer to this intriguingly question-marked lecture title was quite simple: Jan van Eyck. Stephan showed how van Eyck’s painting of what he saw rather than simply what he knew rippled throughout Europe: albeit less “intellectual” painters who copied his motifs, such as cast shadows, rather than observing Nature for themselves.

Courtauld staff and students between plaster cast replicas of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême (?)

Courtauld staff and students between plaster cast replicas of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême (?)

The following day we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum Cast Courts with Stephan for a look at Early Gothic Sculpture. Essentially, we looked at fold style for about two hours: an indulgently obscure way for a group of art historians spend a morning. The stiff, decorative V-folds of the effigies of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart from Fontevraud Abbey we contrasted with a smaller, unknown queen who is often thought to be of the same series. Usually identified as Isabella, consort of King John, who died in 1246, she posed a problem. The much deeper, naturalistic folds that suggest the body underneath clearly separated her from the late-twelfth-century English kings, but also not advanced enough for the more monumental style of the mid-thirteenth-century. A look at Romanesque sculpture, such as the façade of Santiago de Compostella, revealed supposedly ‘Gothic’ ideas of folds in contrast to the alleged firmly “Gothic” Fontevraud monuments. We also had a good long look at the extraordinary Ecclesia and Synagogue from the south transept of Strasbourg Cathedral: both in their technical skill and their surprising sultriness.

Considering casts of Strasbourg Cathedral's Ecclesia and Synagogue, of the 1230s

Considering casts of Strasbourg Cathedral’s Ecclesia and Synagogue, of the 1230s

For his final talk, Stephan filled the Research Forum room to give an afternoon seminar of the history of the reception of the Ghent Altarpiece after its completion. What emerged from his study of the early accounts of the altarpiece – including Albrecht Dürer’s visit in 1521 – is that all of the viewers saw the altarpiece in its open state. Many of them seem to have visited on weekdays (it’s always special to realise an art-historical event happened on a Tuesday), outside of major feasts, when the altarpiece would be firmly shut. This meant that these viewers were considering the altarpiece entirely from an artistic perspective: never including the outsides of the shutters, which were presumably returned to its normal closed state after the tourists’ departures. However, the copy by Michel Coxcie, made for Phillip II of Spain and now split between Brussels and Berlin, Stephan showed was keen to replicate the work as a liturgical object. Not only were the folding wings included, but the original donors were replaced with the Evangelists: showing that function was valued over the precise subjects. After a good question session, Stephan’s visit concluded – as most things do at the Courtauld – with wine, and reflections on what had been a very stimulating few days.

The Mission of a Contemporary Parsifal?: How Christoph Schlingensief opened up the wounds of a traumatised Germany’


Christoph Schlingensief’s 1982 film Für Elise sets a bleak scene. A lone man stands in the middle of a provincial street on top of a thick blanket of snow. As the man lifts a trumpet to his mouth and begins to play, the camera pans out to reveal the full extent of the scene: where black, skeletal trees line the street on either side; and dark, hunched figures shuffle and trudge through the frozen crust on the pavement. In fits and starts, the man crudely plays Das Deutschlandlied, the longstanding German national anthem composed by Joseph Haydn. But this public display of nationalistic pomp is strangled by its vacuous setting. The warm and wholesome sound of the trumpet is strained in the thin, chilled air. The optimistic tone of the tune is absurd in this god-forsaken winter scene (complete with a hobbling street cleaner). And the implied message of the song – “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles…” – seems totally incomprehensible and misplaced; both in its stunted recital and in relation to its disinterested audience. The man’s playing is simultaneously inept, insignificant, inappropriate and invisible. His feeble ode to Germany fails to strike a chord with the people in the street. The old national identity conjured up by Das Deutschlandlied is dead and gone, and the scene is saturated with an icy air of melancholy.

Sarah Hegenbart’s paper in the Courtauld’s Research Forum explored how Christoph Schlingensief’s early works in film wrestled with Germany’s post-war identity and its burden of collective guilt. Via Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) and Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967), the seminar traced how Schlingensief’s films immersed themselves in this state melancholy in order to enact the ‘necessary’ depression advised in the psychoanalytical literature: facing the past in order to break through it. After observing this melancholy in early works like Für Elise and Menu Total (1986), Sarah’s paper identified this melancholic period’s conclusion as manifest in the compassionate breakthrough in Schlingensief’s later projects, such as his staging of Parsifal in Bayreuth, 2004-2007, and his on-going Opera Village project in Burkina Faso.

The theoretical perspective of the paper generated some fascinating discussion around questions of how psychoanalytical frames can be applied to collective identities and nations. Overall, however, the paper’s sensitive engagement with the moralistic value of Schlingensief’s work and the message of his career was less open to debate: whereby, after his tormented grappling with the dark days of Germany’s Nazi past, his later work amounted to a plea for love, love at all costs.

Magiciens De La Terre


In the second installment of the autumn 2014 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, Professor Sarah Wilson considered Centre Pompidou’s re-staging of its seminal exhibition Magiciens De La Terre on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Wilson began the lecture by proposing that both artworks and exhibitions could change one’s understanding of time. Outside the entrance to the original Magiciens show, Neil Dawson’s steel sculptural installation Globe (1989) depicted an earth with its own pulse and tremendous fragility. It underlined some of the concerns about time and space that energised dialogues between post-structuralist theory and global visual practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Wilson’s lecture situated Magiciens, a show that brazenly sought to challenge Eurocentric values with a survey of contemporary art practice and intercultural exchange on a global scale, within a wider moment that reconceived ideas of virtuality, globalism and memory.

Wilson first placed Magiciens in a series of efforts leading up to 1989 that explored the variety of artistic exchanges in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century, including the Pompidou’s 1981 ‘Paris-Paris’ and Centre de la Vieille Charite’s 1986 exhibition La Planète affolée.  These exhibitions, reflected other efforts to reimagine roles for history and the objects that express it. In this regard, one seminal exhibition was Jean Lyotard’s 1985 Les Immatériaux, a companion to his theoretical articulations of postmodernity that favored interactions between sound and technology, the charged exhibition space and its curatorial documents, rather than experiences of discrete objects.  Wilson reread some of the objects in Magiciens relationally rather than discretely, celebrating lesser known works by artists including Clido Mereles, Huang Yong Ping and Ilya Kabakov. With this remembering in mind she discussed the organization of Jacques Derrida’s lecture ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’ (later renamed Archive Fever) at the Freud Museum in 1994.

Using Derrida’s idea that archives are both violent and tender, Wilson turned to the problems and successes of reconstruction of Archive Fever, Les Immateriaux and Magiciens. While the symposium ’20 Years of Archive Fever’ brought back many original participants with new webs of recollections as well as homages to Derrida and his legacies, the Les Immatériaux reconstruction at Kunstverein Düsseldorf offered clarity at the expense of the original show’s energy. To describe Magicien’s restaging, Wilson used painting metaphors. Towards anamorphosis, the show featured disorientations in scale as well as different emphases and juxtapositions. Towards vanitas, Magiciens offered poignant reminiscences of the art world of 1989 as well as an opportunity to affirm its values to a new set of viewers.

While leaving the lecture, audience members were given a poem by Miklós Erdély called ‘Time Mobius’, that spoke about processes of construction and reconstruction at the heart of learning. The last lines declare, ‘Beware of yourself/ That Readying is Ready Already’. By returning to the original circumstances of these exhibitions, and treating exhibitions and artworks as memory devices that activate multiple histories, Wilson’s lecture showed how these self-critical endeavors have been ‘ready already’ for future generations of viewers and readers.

Reading Race in Some Passing Gestures from the 1960s


A quiz in the April 1952 issue of Ebony Magazine faced its readers with a grid of black and white photographic portraits of sixteen American faces. The title of the page almost excitedly posed the affronting question ‘Which is Negro? Which is White?’, as the editors relished in the problem of reading race into these unnamed people. Through the portraits’ contrasting backgrounds – jumping between light and shadow – the image has echoes of the regimented black/white segmentation of a chessboard, yet the neutral faces of the portrait sitters flatten any such distinct black/white pattern within the grid. The portraits sit as so many grey areas within the whole. In this levelling effect, the image stages the phenomenon of ‘passing’ as it existed in the 1950s; whereby African Americans with paler skin tones sought to ‘pass’ for white, and subsequently ‘pass’ through the checks of a racially prejudiced White American society, and live comfortably like an ordinary (white) American.

Quiz from Ebony Magazine, April 1952

Quiz from Ebony Magazine, April 1952

Levi Prombaum’s paper fleshed out this scenario of passing through a dramatic narration of scenes from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film, Imitation of Life, which he delivered over several stills to suitably cinematic effect. The film follows the story of Annie Johnson, an African American, and her light-skinned daughter Sarah-Jane. Over the course of the film, Sarah-Jane becomes fixated on the opportunities of social mobility offered in the white middle class world that her and her mother have come into contact with, which eventually leads her to renouncing her black heritage (and yet more tragically, her mother) and adopting all the necessary signifiers of whiteness to ‘pass’ into the society that she craved. At the point at which this kind of ‘passing story’ faded from American popular culture during the 1960s, Levi Prombaum’s research has uncovered a prominent legacy, or scar, of the social phenomenon in the work of certain American artists working at this time.

The main focus of the seminar was the work of Alex Katz, whose brooding self-portrait, Passing, presents a tantalising invitation to consider his investment in the passing narrative. Over a captivating visual sequence, the paper traced how Katz’s grounded, solid profile from his original self-portrait was subtly decentred through its careful replication in different colour ranges and media. The resulting range of slightly varying images was demonstrated to create a kind of field for passing, in which the images fluidly ‘pass’ for one another, for the original, and for Katz himself, whose identity (as the American-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants) ever eludes us behind the different washes of colour (paintwork which is itself symbolically thin and faintly see-through: bursting the bubble of skin-deep social determinism along racial lines). In these compelling terms, Katz’s paintings were considered as meditations upon superficiality and integrity, opacity and transparency: reverberating within the very frame of racial anxiety that dictated the passing narrative.

A conference diptych: Gothic Ivories: Content and Context

The Louvre Descent from the Cross

The Louvre Descent from the Cross in 2013

Part of the Gothic Ivories Project, a free-to-use database that aims to catalogue every surviving European ivory carving of c.1200-1530, is to hold a bi-annual get-together, this year jointly held by the Courtauld and the British Museum. For a conference that swallowed up a medievalist’s weekend right before the annual International Medieval Conference at Leeds, apparently quite a number were made of stronger stuff than mere animal teeth to sit out the series of papers by early career academics and museum curators. The database is a very useful tool for the armchair connoisseur enabling one to compare ivories from all over the world on a laptop screen. But V&A curator Paul Williamson’s keynote on Saturday morning reminded the essential challenge for scholars. To understand these objects, we have retain a keen understanding of the wider historical context and the visual culture of the time, and of course cross-overs into other media by carvers working predominantly in ivory.

So we had an initial session of close-looking. Louvre curators Danielle Gaborit-Chopin and Elisabeth Antonine-Konig and conservator Juliette Levy-Hinstin investigated the object history of works in their collection such as the extraordinary Descent from the Cross and the dispersal of its figures and the separation of their heads in the tumult of the Revolution. From a completely different angle, Christian Nikolaus Opitz and Katherine Eve Baker both gave papers with less pretty pictures and more focus on documents, but vividly illustrating the creation, trade, function and storage of these objects in medieval life.

16th-centy Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson's panel questions

16th-century Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson’s panel questions

Post-lunch we were treated to Jack Hartnell’s object analysis of an ivory surgical knife, a tantalising suggestion of intertwined form and function, and a pair of enticingly macabre memento mori ivories by Stephen Perkinson, with a complex appeal for their original owners of humanistic allegory, anatomical detail and dark humour. The way that the nineteenth century received ivories was considered in the final session of the day, and the presentation of some nineteenth-century sketchbooks in papers by Franz Kirchweger and Benedetta Chiesi excited much of the audience interested in tracing the wanderings of these objects.

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guerin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guérin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

On Sunday the looking beyond ivories continued, with papers by Glyn Davies, Monique Blanc and Michele Tomasi on the Embriachi, a loosely-defined workshop who work primarily in bone rather than ivory, who show how difficult it is to categorise the medieval craftsman. The relationship of ivories to monumental works was looked at throughout the day by scholars working primarily on other material, Emily Guerry on the Saint Chapelle as a source of ivory iconography and Carla Varela Fernandes on the narrative panels on a stone tomb in Alcobaça perhaps looking to ivories.

The Gothic Ivories Project is only one tool in the arsenal of anyone wishing to study this genre. These two days showed the importance of viewing the object in person whenever possible, their documented history from the beginnings as pure ivory right through to the present, and their place in devotional and material culture to truly bring these precious objects to the level of regard held by easel painting and monumental sculpture.

See here for the full programme of these two days and some of the excellent papers there has not been space to mention