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.


The Quintessential Billie Holiday

Photo: Syd Shelton

Photo: Syd Shelton

Professor Carol Tulloch’s talk The Quintessential Billie Holiday explored the different ‘style narratives’ created by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-59) during her career. As defined by Tulloch, a ‘style narrative’ is a form of ‘self-telling’ which uses specific beauty regimes and forms of dress to articulate the self within daily life. Tulloch noted that style choices are significant both when they depart from contemporary fashion, and when they appropriate mainstream elements, a useful concept when studying Billie Holiday.

For Holiday’s style choices were always both hyper feminine and modern. Accessories such as her iconic gardenia corsage were common in 1930s eveningwear. Even more contemporary was the twinset, which Holiday adopted whilst recording Lady in Satin in 1958. Popularized by Hollywood actresses in the 1930s, the two-piece outfit became a staple 1950s dress. Evidently, the singer favored styles which, in Tulloch’s words were ‘completely appropriate to modernity.’ They identified her as a female dandy. Yet contrary to the association of foppishness usually carried by the term ‘dandy,’ Tulloch argued that Holiday used hyper-feminine dress to turn her decorated black body into a site of social contest.

Tulloch’s analysis of Holiday’s style as a site of contest concentrated on Holiday’s performances of Strange Fruit at Café Society in 1939. The song’s lyrics, originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, are a moving protest against lynching:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Holiday’s heartrending performances made the song unforgettable. Her performances can be analyzed though Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘grain of the voice,’ a form of sensual communication which circumvents the limits of the linguistic sphere through the intimate connection of body, music and words. Body, in Holiday’s performances, meant face. At the beginning of Strange Fruit all stage lights were dimmed to a pinhole, concentrating the spectators’ gazes on the singer’s lineaments, hair and gardenia corsage.Image

The legend goes that Holiday first wore the corsage to cover a patch of burnt hair which she had burnt preparing for a show whilst drunk. This story chimes with the popular myth that Holiday could not sing without alcohol or drugs. Arguing against this interpretation, Tulloch presented the corsage as integral to Strange Fruit’s performance. Drawing attention to the singer’s face, the flowers gave visibility to the tears Holiday always shed when performing. Thus, they emphasized the song’s resonance with Billie Holiday’s own life, especially the death of her father. Tulloch further explored the song’s sense of tragedy with reference to Yinka Shonibare’s Addio del Passato film (2012) and Fake Death pictures (2011).

This lecture clearly demonstrated, in line with the overarching theme of the Documenting Modernity lecture series, that non-fiction films (such as music videos) and documentary images can provide new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Yet as the audience’s questions underlined, a wider contextualization of Billie Holiday’s dandyism would have made her conscious style choices easier to register and unpack.

Threads of protest: hand making as world making


Julia Bryan-Wilson

Julia Bryan-Wilson


The ‘Threads of Protest’ lecture provided a summary of Professor Julia Bryan-Wilson’s current book project entitled Craft Crisis: Handmade Art and Activism since 1970. Examining the issues of labour, hand making and process within late twentieth-century craft practices in the Americas and England, the project relates to Professor Bryan-Wilson’s earlier book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, published in 2009. Art Workers discussed the redefinition of artistic labour in minimalism, process, feminist and conceptual art, structured around four case studies including the artistic practice of Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Hans Haacke and Lucy Lippard. The book discussed how these artists constructed their identities as ‘art workers’ through participating in the Art Workers’ Coalition, a short-lived organisation which agitated against the Vietnam War and for artists’ rights, as well as in the New York Art Strike. In Craft Crisis, Professor Bryan-Wilson once again examines the intersections between art and protest through discussing thread and yarn-based works. The talk was structured into two parts: the first mapped the intellectual and conceptual framework for the project, while the second focused on the artistic practice of Chilean born artist Cecilia Vicuña and her relationship to native craft work.

The narrative of Craft Crisis begins in the 1970s and once again applies the case study approach in order to systematise the massive subject of hand making practices. The time frame for this project differs therefore from other recent publications on crafts such as Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design (2008), where the highly abbreviated narrative of hand-making processes begins as late as in 1994. This leads to the omitting of many pivotal projects related to the crafts such as Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Environment (1972) created as part of ‘Womanhouse’, a collaborative performance and installation project initiated in 1972 by the founders of the First Feminist Program at the California Institute of Art, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Craft Crisis grows out of the tradition set by Rozsika Parker’s seminal publication entitled The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and The Making of the Feminine (1989) which examined the public and often political connotations of stitchery and fostered the emergence of subsequent craft movements. Framed by this intellectual tradition, Craft Crisis is mainly an archival project which examines moments in history when textiles become pressed into political service.

Exploring the relationships between hand making and world making, the book focuses on case studies such as the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt began in 1987, which forms a highly powerful reminder of the AIDS pandemic. Composed of individual memorial panels, each commemorating a person who died of AIDS, the quilt is the largest community folk art work created to date. Made by both professional artists and amateurs, the quilt epitomises one of the biggest challenges of Professor Bryan-Wilson’s project: to compose a narrative which would look beyond the traditional binary division between the amateur and the professional. Testing this challenge, Professor Bryan-Wilson juxtaposes various artistic and non-artistic practices within each chapter, examining how these can coexist within one narrative.

However, in some cases the binary division is not between the amateur and the professional since much of craft work requires specialised skills, but between the intentionally artistic and the non-artistic. One chapter isCecilia Vicuña - El Quipu Menstrual dedicated to Chilean arpilleras, colourful patchwork representing daily life which, like the AIDS Quilt, relates fibre to collective memory. Not perceived as art works by their makers, the arpilleras played a vital role during the oppressive Pinochet regime as they were produced for foreign export in order to raise awareness of the political situation in Chile. Craft Crisis discusses them in strict dialogue with the artistic practice of Cecilia Vicuña whose banners made in collaboration with American artist John Dugger supported the Rally for Democracy in Chile in 1974 and largely drew on the tradition of the arpilleras. Since the skills applied by Vicuña and Dugger are similar to these of the traditional arpilleras producers, such a juxtaposition requires a clarification of the relationship between the intentionally artistic and objects created outside of the art context.  Cecilia Vicuña - El Quipu Menstrual

Vicuña’s practice also enters in dialogue with the traditional quipu, which were produced from ca 3000 BC across Andean South America. Made of coloured thread from llama or alpaca hair, they assisted in collecting data and keeping records. Further, they served as a representational model to the Incas who perceived the totality of their culture as a structure similar to that of the quipu. In 2006, Vicuña directly referred to the tradition of the quipu through installing twenty-eight streams of blood coloured fleece to the ceiling of the Centro Cultural Palacio de La Moneda in Santiago, Chile. The installation formed a silent protest directed at the Chilean President to preserve the glaciers which form the southern tip of the country. The quipu served here to both draw on ancestral values but also to create a reflection of the current social and economic system which allows for environmental degradation. Criticised by the curators for its large size, Vicuña decided to decrease the installation, displaying what she called a weak version of the work. Through this it referenced the doubling of violence, directed at both nature and art. Furthermore, Vicuña used the remaining red fleece and placed it in the public space in front of the Centro Cultural, rendering the political implications of fibre apparent.

Craft Crisis will examine how identities and political stances are formed through craft work and how these are both constructed within the art context and beyond. Led by a strong collaborative ethos, the materials for this research project include both archival documentation, as well as the testimonies of featured artists and highly skilled craft producers. A highly inclusive approach defines the ethical framework for this project, which even at this early stage provides an inspiring insight and analysis into an alternative mode of world making.

Conservation practice as a field of ethical, material and historical investigation

buildingConservation practice has long been kept away from the eyes of the public with museums seeking to draw attention to the aesthetic qualities of objects, which are often presented as seemingly untouched by time. The debate ‘How are Conservation Decisions Reached? The Dialogue between Curator and Conservator’ organised by students of the MA Programme Curating the Art Museum at The Courtauld in collaboration with the Research Forum, formed an attempt to scrutinise the interdisciplinary nature of conservation practices, as well as the collaboration between curator and conservator within an institutional setting. The discussion featured Dean Sully, lecturer in conservation at UCL, Rica Jones, former conservator in Tate’s Conservation Department, and Titika Malkogeorgou, an Associate a thet UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage & Material Studies, who has also been a Visiting Researcher at the V&A. All the speakers attempted to chart the intersections between curatorial and conservation practices, as well as discuss the modes of involving the public in conservation processes.

The event began with each speaker presenting their background and experience within conservation, and was followed by a discussion, first amongst the speakers and then the audience. Dean Sully mapped the traditional assumptions of conservation practice, based on the belief in preserving the physical object’s integrity through scientific enquiry. He also drew attention to the shift that has occurred in conservation practices over the past decade, which positioned the discipline between material and heritage studies. Conservation became therefore divorced from pure material inquiry and its potential to influence collective memory, as well as its ethical charges, have been increasingly scrutinised. This poses a number of challenges to the discipline has to encompass scientific analysis, art history and cultural studies.

While Sully focused on the importance of reaching out towards communities during conservation processes, Rica Jones discussed the relationship between curator and conservator. Speaking from her experience within the conservation department at Tate Britain, Jones noted the shift which occurred in that instituion’s approach towards conservation. While once loans and new acquisitions were given priority or the existing collection, now a more balanced system has been introduced. This system largely relies on the TMS database which lists all works within the museum collection together with a date for the conservation of individual works. This allows curators to plan forthcoming exhibitions and displays more efficiently, while conservators have sufficient time to examine and restore objects. With the rotation of displays every six months, works can be regularly examined. Jones noted that although such innovations as the TMS database have enhanced relationships between curators and conservators, it nevertheless remains essential conservators to inform the curators about changes that have occurred during the conservation process; conversely, it is the responsibility of curators to provide art historical information of importance to the conservation process.

However, it is also important to keep in mind future conservators. Titika Malkogeorgou noted that often conservators working within the same department at a later date will reach different decisions about how to restore objects. Choosing as a case study an eighteenth-century dress which has been in the V&A collections since the 1960s, Malkogeorgou noted that the object has been restored a number of times and each time a different conservation approach was proposed.

In the discussion which followed, the main difference of opinions were in relation to the role of the public in making conservation decisions. While Dean Sully argued for the inclusion of the public in conservation practices so that communities could develop relationships with cultural artefacts, Rica Jones noted that conservation forms a highly specialised field and while the public should be informed about ongoing decisions, transmitting all the specialist information remains difficult. However, the recent display of Joshua Reynolds’s painting The Age of Innocence at the Tate Britain, which was restored by Jones, presented the object alongside a detailed documentation of the conservation processes. The painting, inaccessible to the public for the past decades due to its poor condition, was therefore presented as both an aesthetic and historical object, marking a significant shift in display practices.

The debate focused on a number of issues related to conservation practices which had previously been discussed in public. Without doubt, the event would have benefited from the inclusion of a curator amongst the speakers in order to make the discussion about the relationship between curator and conservator more balanced. However, through bringing together curating students and professional conservators, the debate marked a significant step in the collaboration of both groups within the The Courtauld Institute. A model for such collaboration was the 2010 exhibition Cézanne’s Card Players at The Courtauld Gallery. The catalogue included an essay by conservators from the Courtauld Conservation Department, amply demonstrating how conservation is essential for art historical research and writing and also curatorial practices.

Exhibit ‘A.’ Russian Art: Collections, Exhibitions and Archives, 21-22 March 20


Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Organised by the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre (CCRAC) in collaboration with the Moscow Lomonosov State University, the two-day conference Exhibit ‘A’. Russian Art: Collection, Exhibitions and Archives was remarkable for its inclusiveness. Papers ranged in scope from the very first collections of icons in the sixteenth century to contemporary exhibitions like Lissitzky-Kabakov: Utopia and Reality, on view at Kunsthaus Gratz until mid-May.  Such historical variety was matched by geographical comprehensiveness, as papers focused on art collections from the Central Asian Republics and the ‘Soviet East,’ as well as on artistic centres such as Moscow and St Petersburg. Among the speakers were academics, curators and art collectors, each contributing a different professional viewpoint.

Reflecting this inclusiveness, the conference was organised around themes rather than historical periods. Thus, the first session opened with Dr. Engelina S. Smirnova’s paper on the sixteenth-century displacement of sacred icons from regional centres to Moscow, and finished with Dr. Valery S. Turchin’s analysis of avant-garde artists’ fascination with folk prints, or lubki. Given in Russian, this paper was accompanied by a very clear English translation and by fascinating images, including a photograph of Kandinsky’s Munich apartment with framed lubki on the walls. All the papers in the first session questioned patrons’ motivations in creating a collection. For example, Dr. Alexandr S. Preobrazhenskii analysed how nineteenth-century members of the ‘Old Believers’ religious group used painted marks of ownership to express both their piety and their connoisseurship of valuable icons.

Similar questions informed the second session’s first paper, dedicated to eighteenth-century collections of Russian portrait engravings. Zalina V. Tetermarzova explained that such collections were created to illustrate the country’s history through the personality of its key historical players. One such player was Count Kirill Razumovsky, famously portrayed by Pompeo Batoni in a painting of striking grandeur. A recently rediscovered inventory enabled Vera S. Naumova to reconstruct his extensive art collection. The session was concluded by Dr. Rosalind P. Blakesley’s paper ‘Exhibiting Russian Success?,’ which used the methodology of performance studies to reveal tensions between nationalism and patriotism at the 1770 exhibition of St Petersburg Academy.

The conference’s second day opened with ‘East-west in dialogue in Imperial Russia.’ This session was very heterogeneous, encompassing topics as diverse as Alexandr Ivanov’s painting The Appearance of Christ before the People (1837-1857), the interior decoration of Moscow Museum of Fine Arts, and the legacy of Natalia Goncharova. Most interesting was Louise Hardiman’s discussion of the fascination for Russian decorative arts in late nineteenth-century London. As noted in the paper, this interest was greatly stimulated by the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Russian decorative arts were first displayed in England. Although foreign collectors prized Russian art for its alleged ‘national character,’ the exhibition began a period of real communication and exchange between the South Kensington Museum and the Stroganov School of Technical Drawing in Moscow.

The following section, ‘New State, New Art,’ discussed the importance of artistic tradition in the first decade after the revolution. Dr. Natalia Murray described the reorganisation of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace into both a ‘Palace of Arts’ open to all and a ‘Palace of the Poor’ for orphans. Chronicling the post-revolutionary exhibitions of  ‘Silver Age’ groups such as Knave of Diamonds and Fire-Colour, Dr. Alexandra P. Salienko revealed the rich diversity of the 1920s art world, by no means limited to the Constructivist avant-garde.

The next session ‘Centre and Periphery: representing the Soviet nationalities in Moscow’ explored the reception and display of artworks from the USSR’s many cultures during the 1920s and 1930s. Galina E. Abbasova described the popular festivals ‘Decades of National Art,’ which showcased art and theatre from the central Asian republics. Similar in scope was the Museum of Oriental Cultures, whose history was reconstructed by Jenn Brewin. Founded as ‘Art Asiatica’ in 1918, the museum only found lasting state support in 1926, when it became an instrument of Stalinist russification. Concentrating on the Agricultural and Domestic Crafts Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923, Dr. Alina S. Platonova described the less coercive encounter of different cultures and architectural styles in the experimental context of a vast temporary exhibition.

The conference’s last session, ‘Russian Art Abroad,’ was among my favourites. Nicholas Bueno de Mesquita’s paper was particularly interesting as it described an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. Titled Art in Revolution, the show opposed a purely formalistic interpretation of avant-garde art. Thus, it both facilitated the rediscovery of politicised avant-garde architecture and tangibly revealed Cold-War tensions, witness a closed-down reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Proun room.

All together, the conference was a fantastic opportunity to discover many different facets of Russian art. Focusing on collections and exhibitions, it revealed the importance of art in personal and national self-representation. Encompassing both the production and the reception of artworks, it also offered insights on changing interpretations of Russian art in England and Western Europe.


Flip, Linger, Glide: The Movements of Magazine Pictures and Their Publics c. 1915


Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

Jennifer Greenhill’s talk focused on the illustrations of early 20th -century female periodicals, especially the work of American illustrator Coles Phillips (1880-1927).  As owner of an advertising agency and illustrator of mass-consumption magazines, Phillips is a fitting character to challenge the prevailing historiographical interpretations of magazine illustration. On one hand, Greenberg and other modernists scorned magazine illustrations as mere kitsch. On the other, many museums display illustrations and magazine covers framed on the walls, like ‘high-art’ paintings. Greenhill certainly considers illustrations art. However, she also focused on their role within magazines, where they can be flipped over, lingered on, or glided through.

Greenhill placed particular importance on the interface between the reader’s body and the printed image. She argued that certain illustrations respond to typical patterns in reading, inviting and expecting specific forms of engagement from their beholders. Although illustrations in early 20th-century magazines generally conformed to the ‘pretty girl’ type and invite a gender analysis, Greenhill’s main focus was on the formal properties of magazine cover-images, which visually compelled the reader to directly interact with the magazine’s materiality.

Reflecting this approach, Greenhill’s lecture featured a number of detailed visual analyses, the most sustained of which focused on Coles Phillips’ 1915 cover design for Good Housekeeping. Showing a young woman immersed in a book, the cover promoted a positive image of the female readership as contemplative and engaged, a representation that was relatively rare at the time. At the same time, the cover also functions as advertisement for the magazine, which was more book-like in its format and more literary in content than its competitors. Uncluttered by text, the cover easily became a collectible, a practice which publishers explicitly encouraged.

Most noticeable in this Good Housekeeping cover is Phillips’ signature fade-out technique. Whilst some forms are described in detail, others lack any outline and merge into the background. Thus, the fade-out technique emphasised two-dimensionality. Yet some parts of the image, like the folds in the woman’s dress, are accurately described and tactile in their three-dimensionality. At the boundary of flatness and illusion, the cover evokes art historian Alois Riegl’s concept of ‘haptic vision.’ Showing Phillips’ sketches along with the printed copy of his designs, Greenhill demonstrated how tactility and openness were already major bconcerns at the pre-production stage.

Titled ‘A Brown Study,’ as in the contemporary phrase denoting a state of deep thought, the 1915 cover puts a commercial spin on the contemporary fascination with psyche and self-discovery, staple themes of the Good Housekeeping. Indeed, Phillips illustrations often challenge the rising popularity of photography, demoting its high-art ambition by emphasising its commercial associations.

Greenhill’s lecture was a work-in-progress for a chapter in a forthcoming book. Yet by tightly basing her arguments on visual evidence, she delivered an inspiring and eye-opening talk.

War Memorials of the Great War: Britain, France, Germany: Jay Winter

Jay Winter

Jay Winter

People have died in thirty-one separate armed conflicts so far in 2014, the centary year of the outbreak of the Great War, thought at the time to be the war to end all wars. The fact so military conflict continues to claim lives and the approaching anniversary of the start of the Great War, meant that Jay Winter’s seminar ‘War Memorials of the Great War: Britain, France, Germany’ certainly hit home. The very name of the Great War of 1914- permanence and remembrance: to be great, whether for better or for worse, is to be remembered. Yet how does one memorialise war that remains not so great? Conflict memorialisation is riddled with blame and atrocity, therefore how do we remember these events effectively without lessening the horror of the event? And how does it remain current, a message to be passed on to future generations?

The implications of glory and greatness formed one dimension within Winter’s seminar, whilst the other culminated in an exploration of the cult of names that developed as a result of the Great War, as names became substitutes for the deceased; developments in artillery in the early 20th century reshaped modern warfare, rendering the bodies of the deceased unrecognisable. The other half of Winter’s seminar focused on a perhaps unanswerable question: how does one memorialise the lives of five million men who have vanished? To my mind he seemed to highlight the issue of how the memorials that have attempted to do so have in-corporeally vanished in front of our eyes today, receding into landscape of our surroundings.

The questions that formed the core of Winter’s seminar are, in my opinion, unanswerable – and although Winters brought them to light, his attempts to answer them were rooted in his perception of the Great War. The use of names, tangible materiality and the abstraction of monuments seemed to be his answer, derived from the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The development of warfare has of course progressed even further, if we consider for example the invention of nuclear weapons – more damage can be done, more lives can be lost and this seems to indicate that memorialisation needs to develop to keep pace with these horrific changes in the very nature of warfare.


An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential: Heather Norris Nicholson

By :

Katarzyna Falęcka


Forming the third lecture of the Spring 2014 Friend Lecture Series, Dr Heather Norris Nicholson’s talk entitled An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential, examined the ways in which non-professional film footage can serve as a fertile resource for the studying of the history of dress. The lecture series emerged from the MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920 – 1945, which investigates the common means by which fashion, non-fiction film and documentary images reveal new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Dr Nicholson, who is a Andrew W Mellon Foundation / Research Forum Visiting Professor at The Courtauld, proposed therefore to incorporate alternative sources of visual heritage into academic research. Many examples of amateur film are archived within the North West Film Archives, Manchester, and are readily accessible to scholars. The archive includes 36,000 items from the 1890s to contemporary video production, both professional and amateur.

As Dr Nicholson noted that both amateur film and dress history allow for an independent construction of self-hood and form a mode of communication, also expressing a sense of individual agency. This becomes clear in a black and white amateur film depicting adolescents dancing at a social club in 1957, in a small town close to Manchester. The continuous focus of the camera on the youth allows for the dress historian to analyse the local fashion, the means through which young people communicated their identities to a wider public and the relationship between local dress codes and the urban fashion standards in nearby Manchester. However, every representation requires an analysis of the conditions of its production. The film was made by a local paint manufacturer, who engaged with amateur film making as a hobby. This was not an isolated case; after the introduction of lightweight cameras in the early 1920s film making quickly became a popular recreational pass time in Britain. An increase in amateur film clubs followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heather Norris Nicholson

Heather Norris Nicholson

Amateur films were produced for a variety of reasons: documenting family life, travels, festivities, as well as capturing the steadily disappearing communal life styles. As a source, amateur film raises multiple questions. How do they relate to official imagery? What reasons motivated their production? And how were they used? The film footage by Michael Goodger, a teacher of liberal and general studies in Salford who sought to document the disappearing street life of a working class neighbourhood in Manchester, presents a private and intimate mediation of the changing urban landscape. Seeking to capture the fast changing face of Salford’s housing, he engaged with amateur film making in order to offer teaching examples which were familiar and relevant to his students, many of whom came from the Salford area. Goodger’s films were therefore motivated by the shifting urban ecology and had a pedagogical purpose. As an outsider to the communities he had filmed, Goodger adopted working class dress, at times even carrying a ladder with him.

Theorised by the magazine Amateur Cine World, amateur film steadily became professionalised. The shift from a private use of the camera to one that carried pedagogical and political implications, demonstrates a plurality of motivations for the production of alternative imagery. These films allow us to examine the aesthetics of the everyday, keeping in mind, however, that the camera often alters the scene represented. Nevertheless, amateur footage reflects a mode for storytelling and expresses an idea of self and society, which is crucial for the studying of dress history.


The Visual Brain and the Straight Line

The Courtauld Institute of Art

Caroline Villers Research Fellowship Lecture: How our Visual Brains Interpret Painted Lines

Tuesday, 4 February 2014, Dr Pia Gottschaller (Caroline Villers Research Fellow 2012-13)

Reflecting the focus of the Caroline Villers research fellowship, Pia Gotschaller’s work is mainly focused on technical art history. Her interests are decidedly modern, ranging from Lucio Fontana to Bridget Riley. Influenced by the work of Semir Zeki in the field of neuroaesthetics (the use of neuroscience to understand aesthetic experiences at the neurological level), Dr. Gotschaller’s research explores both art and the brain. The lecture examined how the visual brain interprets straight lines, demonstrating that there is nothing simple in them, and in their usual association with light, science, and human intelligence.

The lecture’s opening slide was Richard Hamilton emphatically figurative Swingeing London. These were contrasted with details from the geometrical paintings of Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha and Mark Rothko.

The speaker showed that ‘straight’ is the geometry of a crystal, or, in the 2012 film Prometheus, the ‘good guys.’ And yet, the real straight line – without depth or width – is only a mathematical abstraction. In human terms, the difference between the straight and the crooked is only one of degree. Whereas some artists used straight lines for their perceived semantic neutrality, others employed them to symbolise the machine aesthetic.

Straight lines as described by Dr. Gotschaller are not drawn with the help of pencil, but rather with masking tape. So that the history of the art she considers starts in 1935, the year when this type of tape became widely available. Using masking tape poses specific handling problems. For example, paint can bleed under the tape, transforming the most rigid of lines into a soft and wavy blur. Can viewers eventually tell that this hazy line was meant as straight? Or is the difference between the masking tape and the hand-drawn lines the expert’s call?

Dr. Gotschaller devised an experiment to answer this question. Her sample was a group of 40 interviewees, divided between experts – art historians, conservators and artists – and ‘non-experts’ – for example, bankers. Shown details of lines from modern paintings in quick successions, the participants had to instinctively differentiate hand-drawn from straight lines.

The images selected by Dr. Gotschaller were clearly bisected by a vertical or horizontal line. In fact, recent experiments have demonstrated that brain cells cannot interpret horizontal lines as easily as perpendicular ones. She also selected images where different colours created clear divisions. As she noted, the brain tends to interpret lines as ‘hedges’ between areas. Our eyes never fixate on monochromatic expanses, but rather concentrate on points of rupture and change, thus helping the viewer to focus on the line dividing different colour fields.

Surprisingly, both experts and non-experts scored high in Dr. Gotschaller’s test. When reading an artwork, we rely as much on our experiences of a messy children’s art project as on our formal training in higher education. Thus, the test highlighted the importance of ‘tacit knowledge’: as the philosopher Michael Polanyi explained in 1966, ‘we can know more than we can tell.’

Two days after this talk, my ‘Russian Constructivism’ class met for a seminar at Tate Modern. It is among the geometrical paintings of Tate’s Structure and Clarity Gallery that I realised how inspiring Dr. Gotschaller’s talk was, and how useful her exhortation to ‘look closer’ at every straight line will be in my future studies.

Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture (Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium, 2nd February 2014)

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

The Thursday before the nineteenth annual medieval colloquium, the longest running of all the Courtauld’s postgraduate student conferences, was a very special occasion. It was the official launch of the new book of the Institute’s longest serving current lecturer, Joanna Cannon. Religious Poverty, Visual Riches is a long-awaited and sizeable achievement, and all were treated to a feast of black and white nibbles to match the habit of the Dominicans that the book focuses on as artistic patrons. But also much thought is given to the theme of boundaries in its pages. Not just between what is history and art history to create an engaging story of art serving the Religious Life, but also conceptual: what is connoisseurship and what is technical analysis. Most important are the boundaries of the very churches themselves: the spaces of the Laity and the Friars and the liminal areas between form the architecture of the book’s chapters.

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen's chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen’s chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

This was why the following Saturday conference was given over to theme of Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture. The first session brought us into the conceptual realm of historiographical geography and nationalism. Sophie Dentzer begun the day by showing the exuberant vaults of fourteenth-century England were subject to circumstances. Being often retro-fits on to earlier buildings, and not unknown elsewhere in Europe, consequently she advanced that the English Decorated Style may not have been as English as we thought. James Hillson similarly used his new research into the almost obliterated royal chapel at Westminster to show that some parts may have been designed and built nearly half a century later than usually proposed, 1340s rather than 1290s, to remind us that invention should not be tied to centres of power.

In session two, Federica Gigante’s illustration of painted textile showed how meaning could be carried across media: the draping of holy Islamic objects in fabrics into the painting of whole sections of Christian buildings in such patterns to demarcate their importance. But Maria Alessia Rossi’s extremely involved study of fourteenth-century pictorial cycles at Thessaloniki through the textual evidence of homilies and the liturgy reminded us that a work of art can contain different but parallel meanings. A contemporary audience could read motifs in multiple ways, and it is no mean task for the art historian to synthesise them into a single interpretation.

 St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene
in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

After lunch, we had consideration of objects that stood at a physical threshold. First Cristina Dagalita gave us a new reading of the tempting prince with a horrifying gisant back among the Wise and Foolish Virgins on the portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. He was identified with the fool “who said in his heart there is no God”, as pictured in the margins of Psalters, tempting the foolish Virgins away from the true door where Christ waits inside for His brides. Karl Kinsella applied an intellectual exegetical reading to Doors in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, a transition between realms: Earthly and Heavenly, pre- and post-lapsarian, Life and Death.

Synagoga at Strasbourg

Synagoga at Strasbourg

The day was brought to a close with one of the oldest boundaries of all: that of gender. Monica Winiarczyk showed Synagoga, the downfallen counterpart of Ecclesia, as a positive figure: an illustration of the Jewish people within salvation history, and therefore a potential bride of Christ rather than totally damned. Andrea Mattiello’s case studies of some fourteenth-century Byzantine churches in Greece with fascinating surviving frescoes showed that delimiting their two-storey spaces into male and female, priestly and lay, elite and common was more difficult than it first seemed. Finally Niamh Bhalla’s study of gender in Byzantine Last Judgements brought the day to a thoughtful close: an apparently misogynistic view of sin that was reinforced in a society with a extremely fluid concept of the performative act of gender: where does a masculine female saint stand in a culture of Eunuchs, celibate priests and the glorious Virgin Mary?

Such literal gendering reminds of the wider view of the importance of concepts of contraries, but also the vast spectrum in between which all speakers touched on throughout the day. The conversations within the community of the Courtauld and our gratefully received visiting speakers and audience this weekend certainly boded well for such far-reaching art historical discourses in the next generation of scholarship.