Research Rhythms Archive

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’

BY WILL ATKIN

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

BY LEVI PROMBAUM

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

BY WILL ATKIN

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

Exhibitions as Arguments: Thinking through Contemporary Curation

BY CARLOS KONG

It was a pleasure to welcome back David Elliott, an esteemed writer, curator, and alumni of The Courtauld, as the Research Forum Visiting Curator. A specialist in Soviet and Russian avant-garde art and modern and contemporary Asian Art, David Elliott has held numerous distinguished appointments throughout his career, most recently serving as the Artistic Director of the 4th Moscow International Bienniale of Young Artists, the Chairman of Triangle Arts Network/Gasworks in London, the Chairman of MOMENTUM in Berlin, and as a Visiting Professor of Curatorship at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. In his lecture, ‘Exhibitions as Arguments: Frameworks for Thinking through Contemporary Art’,  Elliott expounded on the nature of his curatorial practice throughout four exhibitions between 1998 and the present. Citing Hans Hess’s Pictures as Arguments as an integral framework throughout his ventures of curatorial envisioning, David Elliott suggested that exhibitions themselves subsume a rhetorical function as arguments. Elliott maintained that the notion of the artist as a consciousness-raiser and the multiplying discourses of contemporaneity serve to co-articulate the necessity of reexamining aesthetic standards in contemporary art, which exhibitions visualize in their staging of arguments.

In Exhibitions as Arguments, Elliott led the audience along for an international journey throughout his curatorial projects in Stockholm, Tokyo, Sydney, and Kiev, demonstrating the propositional potential of contemporary exhibitions. Without explicitly positing a singular set of values for aesthetic-ethical curatorship, Elliott’s in-depth descriptions of the curatorial ideas and processes behind his four exhibitions made manifest many fundamental tenets of his aesthetic arguments. I found his reflections on his role as the Artistic Director of the 17th Bienniale of Sydney (2008-2010) to be the most compelling example of curating an exhibition to materialize an argument of contemporary aesthetics. The bienniale, which spanned across seven venues throughout Sydney, thematized the indigenous and colonial histories of Australia to ‘take the present very seriously,’ as David Elliott maintained. Drawing inspiration from the maxim ‘all art is folk art,’ the bienniale’s geographically diverse program included works of contemporary art alongside artworks of folk origin. The seven exhibitions questioned both this long-standing division between ‘contemporary’ and ‘folk,’ as well their moments of exchange, such as in colonialism and artistic primitivism. Alongside striking works of ‘indigenous’ art from Australia and an impressive international repertoire of works by artists such as Paul McCarthy, Cai Guo-Qiang, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rodney Graham, Louise Bourgeois, Steve McQueen, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Isaac Julien, Elliott chose to exhibit Jeremy Bentham’s Design for a Panopticon Prison, 1791. Elliott’s explicit reference to Bentham (and Foucault by extension) thus poignantly calls into question both the colonial and penal histories of Australia, as well as the dynamics of power that foreground the production and hegemonic discursivity of art and its history. By critically elucidating these relations of control, Elliott’s exhibit poetically challenged unconscious and conscious points of difference and otherness in contemporary art, arguing for an opening of aesthetics beyond hierarchies of media and master narratives of Eurocentric geopolitics.

Throughout Elliot’s presentation and our virtual visit to his recent international projects, the notion of the exhibition as a form of argumentation became recapitulated as a legion of exciting discursive and aesthetic possibility. Thematizing the exhibition’s function as a mode of transmission between artistic production and broader reception, David Elliot’s presentation conveyed the necessity of examining both the specific and the global in contemporary curation. By formulating exhibitions to function as aesthetic, sociopolitical, and cultural arguments, David Elliott advocated that critical curation draws upon the rich plurality of art and history to reify the potential of confronting and problematizing hegemonic, teleological narratives of value and culture.

Thank Francis It’s Friarsday: Art, Architecture and the Friars: New Work and Future Prospects (23rd May 2014)

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

This was no Friday, but a Friarsday, when the lecture theatre became like a plenary general chapter meeting of scholars working on mendicant art and architecture, discussing the large amount of scholarship that has recently appeared on the friars in Italy. It was a highly discursive day at which the Courtauld excels, highlighting the new avenues of enquiry medieval art history is taking in pursuit of meaning.

The first papers were given by Caroline Bruzelius and Erik Gustafson, focusing on the architecture of the mendicants. They investigated the social context of the friars’ vast hall-like churches, generally held as being tremendously influential on urban late Gothic architecture, a tall order for men who asserted monastic poverty. The architecture certainly suited the uncertain nature of their income from lay bequests: built piecemeal, but of high impact in terms of sheer scale. The twelfth-century reformed Vallumbrosan and Camaldolese monks were also shown as important precedents for both their rule and architecture, a revelation to many.

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

In the next session imagery took the fore, something the Franciscans are commonly credited in having an enormous influence in, trailblazing a new naturalism looking forward to the Renaissance. Janet Robson demonstrated through the fresco cycle at Assisi how we should not treat images as encoded texts, but instead as lived intellectual experience tied up in artistic representation. This was also how John Renner engaged with the statue of St. Francis in Siena, performing a sculptural exegesis on its form to interrogate it as an object of Franciscan belief and self-identity.

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

Donal Cooper and Claudia Bolgia returned to buildings to look at them as  as venues for art and ritual. What was revealed here was that narrow genres are unhelpful. Objects and spaces are not limited to one purpose nor does form prove function, the church had many spaces common to both layman and friar. Then the final pairing continued to investigate these concepts with more specific approaches. Amy Neff showed how prayer books could carry specifically Franciscan strategies of ascent through prayer outside the convent, influencing the wider world. Finally Michaela Zöschg took us beyond the visual into the world of sound: and how the female convent allowed not just avenues for seeing, but also for hearing, and how the acousmatic could even more so demolish ideas of segregated space and experience.

This was a conference not just of relevance to those who work on the religious orders, but also medieval art generally, and it showed how art history needs to branch out into many disciplines, methods and sources if it is to uncover the situation of the making of the work of art. One figure who cropped up in the discussions was T. S. Eliot, appropriately for modern medievalists, a trailblazing Modernist with great esteem for the past and tradition. “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice”, he writes towards the end of The Four Quartets. It seems however, with the variety of approaches embodied in every paper, next year’s art historians will need to speak in  tongues to really comprehend the intellectual and material context of mendicant art.

Curating the Immaterial: Histories, Theories and Practices of Sound Art

 

By Carlos Kong

Sound Art Curating Conferece

Sound Art Curating Conference

“Sound Art Curating Conference: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Sound Art” (15-16 May) brought together an interdisciplinary community of curators, artists, and academics to discuss the philosophical, aesthetic, and practical challenges of curating sound art. The conference, held across three days at Goldsmiths, University of London, and The Courtauld Institute of Art and co-chaired by Lanfranco Aceti (Sabanci University), Janis Jefferies (Goldsmiths), Martin Sørengaard (Aalborg University of Copenhagen), and Julian Stallabrass (The Courtauld), fostered interdisciplinary conversations that explored sound art at its curatorial, theoretical, and sociopolitical intersections. Sound art has recently emerged in circuits of public space and art institutions, evident in exhibitions such as Revolutions Per Minute: Sound Art China (Shanghai, 2013), The Heard and the Unheard (Taiwanese Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale), and Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic (Tate Modern, London, 2012), and Soundings: A Contemporary Score (MoMA, New York, 2013). Despite its ontological absence, sound is accruing a significant presence at the forefront of contemporary art and media culture. Its elusive materiality, unstable objecthood, and relational aesthetics are expanding both the parameters of art historical discourses and the social engagements of curatorial practices, which the conference participants discussed and debated throughout a lively weekend of sonic musings.

The conference featured a variety of compelling sessions and panel discussions, examining diverse audiovisual interstices that ranged from sound art and globalized politics, the spatial considerations of curating sound, writing about sound art, the philosophy of listening and audibility, sound art and issues of conservation and copyright, sound art and the mediatization of the artist, and the relation of sound art to other forms of visual, performance, and digital art. One r session that I found particularly fascinating was “Event Making and Identity Politics Beyond the Dirty A-Word of Authenticity: The Case of ‘Sound Art’ in China”. The speakers, professors and curators from China and Taiwan, problematized the politics of curating nonwestern sound art. Their papers challenged the western, orientalized formation of a distinctly “Asian” soundscape and questioned the possibility of authenticity in the transnational politics of Asian art. Through analyzing various case studies of recent sound art exhibitions, “noise” festivals, and multimedia installations throughout China and Taiwan, the panel participants (one of whom included Dajuin Yao, curator of Revolutions Per Minute: Sound Art China) concluded that curators of nonwestern sound art must maintain a sensitivity to the geographical and material conditions of the work of sound to prevent the spectacularization of nonwestern culture that pervades globalized networks of artistic exchange. The speakers advocated that the relational intervention and social praxis of curating sound art could potentiate a reversal of the “ethnographic ear” of sonic orientalism- an idea that I found particularly compelling, as sound so potently bears the politics of nationality and identity despite its lack of a representational referent.

Another highlight was a keynote address by Atau Tanaka, Professor of Media Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. As a practicing electroacoustic musician and multimedia artist, a curator of sound and media art, and a scholar of media studies, Tanaka discussed the curatorial instability of sound in his talk, “Curating and Exhibiting Performative Systems”. Tanaka drew on specific examples from his prolific career in electronic audiovisual art to thematize both the risks and richness of sonic performances across networks and spaces, utilizing interactive systems as musical instruments. His anecdotes and artworks emphasized hybridity, complicating the distinctions of physical, virtual, immaterial, and embodied, while collapsing the epistemological divides of data, sound, and image. Tanaka’s virtuoso installations and curatorial projects posit interactivity across geographical cities and continents, and formulate temporal simultaneities of the art event, at once live, re-performed, online, aired on the radio, and networked across galleries and time zones. By expanding and experimenting with the responsiveness of the “embodied audiovisual interaction” of sound with other forms of digital and performative media, the artistic and curatorial practices that Atau Tanaka presented captivatingly gestured towards the redefinition of contemporary aesthetic experience as we know it.

The interdisciplinary conversations at this year’s “Sound Art Curating Conference: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Sound Art” reflect the exciting, albeit challenging developments of incorporating sound art into curatorial programs and academic institutions. Sound- its elusiveness, intangibility, and ephemerality- is emerging to the globalized forefront of contemporary art, exposing the productive, transmedial spaces for curating and scholarship. The conference’s discussions signified a stimulating start to the examination and curation of sound art towards its affective, sociopolitical potential.

Converging on the Object: The Courtauld Metal Bag

By Clara Chivers

The Converging on the Object symposium took place just before closing of The Courtauld Gallery exhibition Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq. ‘The Courtauld Bag’, a piece of Islamic metal work dated c.1300, is the focus of this exhibition, which argues that the object is of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty. Court and Craft, alongside this symposium, marks a significant moment in the history of The Courtauld, which is consciously widening the scope of their scholarship into non-western art. The bag is intriguing; there are questions about its provenance, date and purpose. The coordinator of the symposium Dr Sussan Babaie aptly descried the event as ‘a response to the challenges posed by the silence of the object.’ Converging on the Object was a hugely rewarding day. By approaching the ‘Courtauld Bag’ through their various specialities, the speakers brought it to life and this interdisciplinary approach opened up the transcultural possibilities for its interpretation.

Curator at The Courtauld Gallery, Alexandra Gerstein, revealed how the gallery came to acquire the bag. Considering the collecting practices in 19th-century England, Alexandra discussed the object within the context of the collecting of Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88), whose collection is now at The Courtauld. Judith Pfeiffer from the University of Oxford dated the bag in the Ilkhanid period of Mongol rule (1255-1353 CE). She explored the richness of the visual and literary changes which reveal the complex and ongoing cultural exchange during this time.  Pfeiffer focused the historian and statesman Rashid al-Din, who developed a new vision of the human past and present. As the Mongols adopted Islam, Islam itself changed, which had significant ramifications for its material culture.

Ruba Kana’an from the Aga Khan Museum analysed the bag into the marketplace and the context of Mongol traders and craftsmen. This paper explores the rich material culture of Mosul and by focusing on legal texts it reveals how metalworks were commissioned. Many of the objects in the exhibition describe Mongol ritual feasting and so a timely (post lunch) speaker, Paul D. Buell of the Max Plank Institute, Berlin shed analysed Mongol food and drink.

Ladan Akbarnia from the British Museum presented an interesting comparative piece: a coffer at the the Brooklyn Museum. Comparing this to the Courtauld Bag was an opportunity to discuss the fluidity of cultural identity, East-West cultural connections and Chinese synthesis in the post-Mongol period. Independent Conservator Diana Heath offered us a wealth of information from her close technical examination, showing some fascinating images from before and after the conservation work occurred.

In a thought-provoking finale, the contemporary Iraqi-born artist, Jananne Al-Ani, discussed her recent series of film and photographic works. It became clear how her artistic practice impacts the way she understands the surface of the bag. For Jananne the intricate patterns on the surface of the object naturally translate into the abstract forms of desert landscapes from her aerial photographs.

 

The Courtauld Metal Bag

The Courtauld Metal Bag

In her conclusion, Sussan remarked that the bag remains ‘alive.’ Indeed, the symposium considered only a handful of ways this piece could be interpreted and showed that there were many other avenues of research. In the final discussion Professor Deborah Swallow commented that the notion of the limitless ways in which we can see objects is an inspiring metaphor for what our discipline of art history is about.

Seventeenth-Century Oil Paintings on Canvas from Safavid Iran: People from ‘Parts Unknown’

As part of the pioneering Persian and Islamic arts lecture series at the Courtauld, eminent Persianist scholar Dr Eleanor Sims examined the case of ‘people from parts unknown’. The works in question were two suites of almost life-size oil paintings from the second half of the seventeenth century, which, being unsigned and un-dated, have both ambiguous origin and purpose. Their style is eclectic, and the subject hybrid, fusing the technique and pictorial conventions of contemporary European ‘prospect portraits’ with anonymous subjects dressed in luxurious Persian, Georgian and Armenian fashions. The suites are further paired off into couples of men and women who turn to each other from the left and the right.

The works are the subject of Sims’s current research, but both scholar and subject have been well acquainted throughout her career. Having originally catalogued the paintings for an exhibition in London in 1975, Sims’s talk presented new ways to think about the emergence this material, which has often been a subject of scholarly disagreement. Questions of who painted these figures is an issue which is perhaps no longer as relevant now as it may have been in the more connoisseurial atmosphere when the images surfaced in the 1970’s. Instead, Sims focuses on the possible intention of the paintings though an expert analysis of the costume of the figures, the curious nature of the objects that adorn the interior settings, any stylistic similarities to European equivalents and the cultural context in which they were produced.

Isfahan, Persia’s seventeenth century capital, was an international showplace populated by a cosmopolitan community including farangi envoys and missionaries from Europe as well as a prominent Armenian community established in the New Julfa quarter of the city. Sims’s analysis of these works interprets them as having been made in Persia, possibly by a European artist working there or within a dedicated atelier producing this type of image. They function then as the grandest of postcards representing the diverse ethnic groups that one would encounter in early modern Isfahan: a souvenir for the European traveller to take home from his Eastern grand tour. Similar large scale figural paintings were not unusual at this time, but could be found around the city in niches of buildings (such as Armenian houses or on the exterior walls of the Chehel Sotun Palace, which also turned a hand to the depiction of the exotic foreigner but from a Persian point of view). The intention of a European clientele is derived from the rectangular shape of the canvas, which hints at an element of portability. These suites lack the architectural jigsawing of their Persian equivalents that have intentionally arched tops in order to fit snugly to a façade.

The parallels drawn with Mannerist inspired image series including those by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán (Jacob and His Twelve Sons, c.1640-44) placed the Isfahani oils in a context of contemporary practice. Sims’s identification of quotations from European sources, including those from portraits of Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria that were owned by Shah Safi (r. 1629 – 1642) amongst others, further demystified stylistic elements within the Safavid canvases and made direct connections with their possible sources. The two suites of ‘people from parts unknown’ still pose more puzzles for the viewer, particularly the enigmatic blonde male which remains without a matching female equivalent but who possesses a strikingly individualized face. Their abusiveness is however an enduring factor in their fascination, and some of the pairs recently provided the grand finale to the exhibition Sehnsucht Persien in Zurich earlier this year. They have too evidently provided a fertile riddle for Sims to decipher, but one that she eloquently unravels to great effect.