The Newsreel, the Daredevil and the Cameraman: character and play in the interwar newsreel, by Dr Sara Beth Levavy. Modern and Contemporary Seminar, Monday 4 November.
With a focus on the pivotal role of the cameraman in the newsreel films of the interwar years, the new Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellow introduced Monday’s seminar participants to her on-going research project and subject of a PhD from Stanford University. Drawing from a wealth of observations on the function of newsreel as a representation of contemporary vision and experience, Dr Levavy’s paper provided plenty of evidence for the existence of a specific genre that belongs as much to the story of Hollywood as it does to the history of journalism. Clips of engineering triumphs and death-defying antics helped to relay the visual excitement of the extraordinary in the everyday as framed for an American public of the 1920s and 30s: footage which, once circulated in often purpose-built movie houses, would frequently be recycled into feature films by the big corporations.
Reflecting on a production policy of thrills, spills and modernity in motion, Dr Levavy explained how the industry specialised in the rapid repackaging of ‘news’ to offer what she describes as ‘a meditation on the new’. A key figure in the important illusion of real-time experience was that of the cameraman, who with a fluid position both inside and outside the frame could embody the roles of character and operator, thereby functioning as the human intermediary between audience and screen. And it really did come as news to much of the contemporary audience just how closely these crafted characters can be identified with the standard super-hero as personified by crusading journalist Clark Kent, aka Superman. Not only was this trope – combining an incorruptible search for truth with lightening speed and the all-important aerial view – consciously immortalised on celluloid in Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), but there are acres of film depicting cameramen risking life and limb to bring the latest real-life spectacle to a news-hungry public.
For those of us with a passing familiarity with British or European newsreel, there was perhaps an expectation of a certain perspective on some of the grittier reality of this era, if not actual images of war, or indeed propaganda. Responding thoughtfully to such issues, Dr Levavy was careful to point out the deliberate suspension of ideological critique from her study. Partly this is due to a tacit acknowledgement of its established presence in the wider discourse. Chiefly, however, it is because she takes her methodological lead from a body of material constructed precisely to exclude such perspectives; a fact underlined succinctly by her consideration of an alternative title to her PhD, ‘There was always a monkey’. Instead, there are other questions to be asked of a genre that sits between entertainment and reportage. Concerning the standardised exhibition structures, these include the intriguing figure of the cameraman at the heart of a construction that is seen to represent a particular world – but one that only exists within the cinema.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: newsreels, Research Forum | Comments Off
Fifth Early Modern Symposium: Bringing Art into Being in the Early Modern Period (27th October 2013)
Convened annually by two PhD students from the Courtauld, the Early Modern Symposium is an opportunity for scholars of all levels to give papers covering a period of almost three centuries, from around 1550 to 1800, and to discuss theoretical and methodological questions relevant to current research in the field. Anya Matthews and Giulia Martina Weston, who jointly organised this year’s event, proposed to explore the vast array of processes that make possible both the conception and birth of the work of art. Such a proposal was a perfect complement to last year’s theme, “Art and its Afterlives.”
The programme of the day dealt with the problems related to the study of workshops, of failures and successes of the creation process, and of the question of material specificity. It also suggested that we reconsider the role of the artist-creator in the wake of twentieth-century art historical analysis. This was why it was important to have several contributions focusing on the Renaissance, for it was then that the ideas of the artist as heroic creator and their artwork as a unique creation gained prominence. In her paper on Raphael’s workshop, Anne Bloemacher returned on the gap between the conception of the artistic idea and the delegation of execution. Sefy Hendler, by revising the issue of the paragone in fifteenth-century art theory, showed how a studio drawing by Parmigianino attempted to bridge the arts and offered a variety of vedute on one sheet.
Interior decoration was considered by Claire Gapper’s investigation of the development of English plasterwork as a necessary interaction of a multiplicity of figures – architects, draughtsmen, decorators and their patrons, some of varying degrees of competence (see image). Other interventions extended across periods. The rather intensely theoretical approach of Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros dealt with the history of the dichotomy heuresis/mimesis and proposed to integrate praxis into this paradigm, through the mediating use of iconopoiesis. Working on cultural and geographical distances, Carrie Anderson presented the case of tapestries with rather unlikely Brazilian fauna such as zebras and rhinoceroses donated by the governor-general of Dutch Brazil to Louis XIV as showing the exciting possibility of a transglobal exchange of ideas at an early period.
This is just a small selection from what was a long day, yet one which managed to retain its audience’s interest throughout with a wide variety of approaches and themes. The current interest in art-making processes is spurred by an increasing union of the old divisions of the historical field, encouraged by the universal assimilation of the issues raised by Aby Warburg and post-structuralist traditions. In recent scholarship, investigations across disciplines, bridging works and practices of different kinds and including material from science, popular culture and across time, are more the rule than the exception. However, if this conference was to be taken as a statement on the willingness of academia to deal with the question of process in art making, it would be inevitable to admit that, while the interest is there, it is too early to say which methodologies and themes will prevail in future scholarship.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: Artist, Conference, Creation, Drawings, Early Modern, Idea, Renaissance | Comments Off
Thursday, 24 October 2013
Artists’ talks provide both the chance to observe an artist’s public self-fashioning, and to venture behind the scenes of art production. Shirin Neshat’s profuse account of her professional trajectory insists on the collaborative origin of her work. Her narration is marked by two moments of rupture: the first when she decided to quit her art education, which she deemed too conventional and too focused on the discovery of talent; the second when she decided to give up photography and take up video instead, creating double-channel projections that could circulate outside of the elitist world of contemporary art. In her words, she is “addicted to new beginnings,” such dramatic changes having ultimately increased her will to collaborate with other artists, actors, curators, or directors. (In fact, this very event was conceived as collaboration between the newly appointed member of the Courtauld faculty, Sussan Babaie, the director of the London Film School, Ben Gibson, and the independent curator, producer and writer, Vali Mahlouji).
The talk started off with the projection of a video entitled Passage (2001) conceived and realized with American musician and composer Philip Glass. Amidst a stark yellow desert, a traditional Islamic funeral ceremony is being prepared: the camera intercuts between the procession of men, carrying the body enshrouded in white cloth and the circle of women digging the grave with their hands. Nearby, a young girl plays with small stones. The procession reaches the burial site as the soundtrack climaxes and the overall tone becomes highly dramatic; a fire ignites behind the girl and encircles the gathered group.
This short film integrates all distinctive features of Neshat’s work: the portrayal of the two separate worlds of men and women, the reassessment of traditional rituals, the choice of contemporary political debates that are of interest both for Islamic and Western audiences (after all, the artist moved to New York as a young adult, in 1978, bridging both cultures in her biography). After being attacked by activists, artists and critics for her work, she has resolved to make highly stylised films and photographic installations, in the attempt not to take any political position. Even when asked about her personal religious belief, she is evasive: Neshat is careful to keep any matter of possible political conflict aside.
What emerged out of this talk, then, was the existential difficulty of being a successful artist directly confronting such politically charged issues: as a consequence of her success, Neshat is constantly pushed by galleries to make recognisable (and sellable) work all the while being criticised by members of the same artistic milieu. Confronted with a young audience such as the Courtauld’s, Shirin Neshat felt compelled to offer this advice: fight to make any creative work available to wider audiences, consider making tangents, and most importantly, collaborate.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: artist's talk, Research Forum, video art | Comments Off
Last night the Research Forum was celebrating the release of Thames and Hudson’s The Books that Shaped Art History, a collection of sixteen essays by eminent art historians on seminal publications from within our still anxiously young discipline. Chaired by former director of the Courtauld, the infinitely amiable Eric Fernie, the session invited three of the authors to reflect on their pieces in a packed Kenneth Clark lecture theatre.
John-Paul Stonhard both authored the essay on Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art and was co-editor of the whole publication with Richard Shone. Shone had composed a list of seminal books in 2007, which subsequently disappeared. This “lost list”, generated much fascination in the audience but as much that was revealed was that it had one book in common with the final (Fry’s Cézanne), but mostly the authors were the same. A helpful paraphrase of Gombrich: “There is no art history, only art historians” recognised how much personality dominated this evening. Clark was embodied by his own concept of the Nude; “balanced and prosperous”, and there was little escaping the ghosts of these figures this All Hallows Eve.
Looming over Susie Nash was the spirit of Erwin Panofsky, grasping his Early Netherlandish Painting. His book is an enormous achievement, a synthesis of material and ideas into a seemingly impregnable fortress of apparatus, and perhaps this almost Biblical authority it seemed to exude led to antagonism towards it when Susie herself was a student. Yet it was also Panofsky’s relationship with the object that seems remarkable within current methods of art historical interrogation. For Panofsky, the back of a painting rarely meant evidence for its provenance and manufacture, because most often it was the matte reverse of a glossy photograph. His book was written almost entirely surrounded by reproductions, often black and white, and this is evident in his text where occasionally he clearly has no idea what colour a painting was.
Paul Hills had a much more portable tome to review, with no footnotes at all. Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in Pictorial Style is often seen as the Rough Guide to Social Art History, yet Paul did remind us of its oft-forgotten subtitle showing that the inherent Form of paintings was still central to the investigation. Paul was the closest of all to his author, which allowed for a personal insight into its original context. Baxandall perhaps meant it as a challenge to the Courtauld, but in fact it was its sister institution the Warburg which was greater perturbed by his concept of “Period Eye”, seeing it as a redressing of the hoary old zeitgeist.
Inevitably, the thoughts at the end of this evening was if the presenters would be reviewed in “More Books that Shaped Art History”, who in the audience who would be considered for “Even More Books that Shaped Art History”, and the undergraduates in the Halloween Party downstairs who might make it into “Oh no! Not more books that Shaped Art History”.
Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: art history, Book launch, Courtauld, Historiography, Panel | Comments Off
Tate Modern’s freshest exhibition traces the artistic career of Paul Klee, commonly considered one of the most highly regarded artists of the early twentieth century. Beginning in Munich in the years 1912-13 through to the artist’s last years in Switzerland around thirty years later, the exhibition brings together works that exemplify Klee’s idiosyncratic pictorial constructions and use of line and colour in painting.
Curator and Courtauld alumnus Matthew Gale has carefully selected fascinating works by the German-Swiss artist, many of which are rarely given attention in the paradigmatic visual histories of Klee’s artistic developments. The most striking examples are perhaps found in Room 10 – where one can see how Klee combined drawing and sprayed or splattered paint in Sacred Islands or Clouds (both 1926) – and in Room 13 – where works such as Clarification and Memory of a Bird (both 1932) exemplify the artist’s use of pointillism.
The chronological principle privileged throughout the exhibition – which, in other contexts, sometimes feels reductive or simplifying – has the merit of organizing a quite diverse and, at times, not obviously reconcilable body of work, and of helpfully juxtaposing it – never too simplistically – to historical and social dynamics. The many inclusions of Klee’s own words and the division of space into relatively small rooms each introduced by section labels successfully avoid the now pervasive sterilization of gallery spaces.
My only misgiving is that I doubt that “Making Visible” is the most appropriate title for this exhibition. If at the start we are indeed led into thinking that the exhibition will address the various shapes that Klee’s concerns with vision and the visible took throughout his artistic career – the walls of the opening room are upholstered with the quotes “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible” and “Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things” – those concerns are not explicitly brought back in the subsequent rooms. Paul Klee: Making Visible rather takes the form of a survey – to be sure, a thorough and articulated one – of the artist’s pictorial techniques and innovations, which I would not have so easily identified with interests in vision and visuality. But this is a quite minor hitch when compared to the exhibition’s overall successful achievement of its aims.
Vincent Marquis is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Paul Klee: Making Visible is at Tate Modern until 9th March 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Abstract, Modern, Monograph, Paul Klee, Tate | Comments Off
“Visual Insights: What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain”
Professor Margaret Livingstone, Tuesday 22 October 2013.
For the second Frank Davis memorial lecture of 2013, the Courtauld community and guests were given a privileged glimpse into the workings of our own visual processing by Margaret Livingstone of Harvard Medical School. Applying developments in neurobiology to a study of pictorial reception, Professor Livingstone’s research in recent years has explored the evidence that artists also spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we see. Along with plentiful information on the finely tuned operation of neurons within the visual pathway, it was the interactive experience – facilitated by red-green cinema specs – which cemented for the audience the evidence of how the brain processes retinal responses to pictures, faces, and pictures of faces.
Those who had turned up to hear the big neurological reveal on the secret of the Mona Lisa’s smile were not to be disappointed, but first we needed the basic picture. Through diagrams illustrating the opposing actions of ganglion cells on the retina, which can both fire or repress signals depending on the area receiving light, Professor Livingstone demonstrated the dominant principles of luminance and contrast at the base line of vision. This evidence helps to access the employment of light and shadow throughout the history of art, from the uniform brilliance of haloes in a Duccio altarpiece to Impressionist experiments with movement created by subtle variants in light value. Such effects were further explained by a diagram of the primate brain showing the division of two distinct functions: the ‘what system’ which has developed to recognise objects, colour and faces; and the ‘where system’ which takes the more general role of detecting spatial relations of depth, distance, figure/ground, and movement. These separate functions are behind the puzzling effects of optical illusions and those red-green patterns familiar from optical examinations; and, as illustrated with works by Monet and Mondrian, are expertly manipulated by visual artists. Correspondingly, we were shown how it could be the difference in acuity between central and peripheral vision which is behind the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.
Returning to the visual peculiarities of artists themselves, the lecture concluded with an intriguing insight into the properties of stereovision and the likelihood of ocular misalignment or of dyslexia as a contributing factor in the artist’s particular facility in translating volumes into flat pictures. A graph based on Rembrandt’s depictions of his own eyes in a series of painted and etched self-portraits provided a convincing argument in favour of the research, as of Professor Livingstone’s parting comment; namely, that ‘if you can make a graph of the unlikeliest thing, you can get published’. The background to this science and its application to artistic vision are explained in Margaret Livingstone’s book, Vision and Art (2002), available in the Courtauld Library.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, Research Forum, vision science, visual art | Comments Off
Elizabeth I has been somewhat overshadowed by her namesake in recent years, but the curatorial team at the National Portrait Gallery, led by Tarnya Cooper, have sought to reestablish her as the mighty monarch she once was, as well as attempting to depict the lives of her subjects.
For a shy monarch the range of portraits of Elizabeth in the opening rooms are impressive, including rare examples of those painted from life. This was a time in which her image began to mean many things – from the power and prestige of its owner, to its reassuring qualities in the face of war. Her image was also one of the first to be mass produced, again evidenced in the exhibition with fine examples of coins, miniatures and portraits made from copies.
The largest room at the rear of the U-shaped exhibition space is concerned with the Nobility, Gentry and Court. This section opens, poignantly, with a portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh accompanied with a poem begging for Elizabeth’s forgiveness after his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. The rest of the room is given over to detailing the huge advancements made throughout this era. Travel and adventure are shown in the portraits of Elizabeth’s Moorish ambassador and the Arctic explorer Frobrisher, and the fruits of other exotic endeavours are scattered throughout, the highlight being the first depiction of a Guinea Pig as a household pet.
All of the advancements were made possible by the increasing trade during the Elizabethan era, and these men and women have their own room in the exhibition. Again what is truly astounding in the works in this space are the international ties and the draw London must have had during this period. There are a series of remarkable, candid family portraits of the Wittewronghele family as well as many others from what would have been at that time far-off lands.
Towards the end of the exhibition the works began to peter out somewhat. The section on Professionals, Writers and Artists is a little sparse, although the painting of the poet John Donne is a highlight. In an attempt to represent the entirety of Elizabeth’s people the curators have left a small space for the Working People and the Poor, but it is really inadequate to get a truly rounded picture of their lives. This, though, is not the curators’ fault. As they openly admit there simply are not many representations of the poor during this period, and I think it is nice that they end the exhibition with this admission, rather than simply trying to hide it in the beginning or middle of the exhibition.
The focus is undoubtedly on the well-off in Elizabethan society but this is purely because they were the only section of society that were recorded. Overall though, despite the shortfalls of breadth, the exhibition does what it sets out to do: show the lives the first Elizabethans lived to their current incarnations.
Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Elizabeth I & Her People is at the National Portrait Gallery until the 5th January 2013.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: British art, Elizabethan, National Portrait Gallery, portraits | Comments Off
A brief look through the Courtauld Institute’s course options paints a bleak picture for the study of British art. Italy and France
dominate and I dare say an exhibition presenting graphic works from one of these more celebrated artistic nations would not attempt what the Victoria and Albert has: to survey four hundred years of British drawing (from Issac Oliver to Siân Bowen) in the space of two small rooms. Yet it works perfectly, the curators have been careful to make wide reaching selections in subject, media, and artist, choices that inject the exhibition with a vigour that to many people its title might not suggest.
What becomes clear throughout the exhibition is that British art has been holding its own for more than four hundred years: from indigenous Brits, such as Frederic Leighton, almost natives like Lucian Freud, to those who spent their professional life in Britain, such as Henry Fuseli, Peter Lely and Antony van Dyck. Each of these five artists, not surprisingly, shines through particularly strongly. Fuseli’s black and white chalk portrait of Martha Hess was a personal favourite. It seems to owe much to the delicate silverpoint renderings of female faces by old masters like Verrocchio. Yet here, surrounded by a Constable country scene and a furiously sketched William Blake drawing it seemed curiously out of place, serving to remind that British art has continuously produced a multitude of fine works. This is something the curators must have intended in their selections.
Whether intentional or not the show’s small size seems perfectly suited to the realm of drawing. More often than painting, it is a private artistic pursuit. While most paintings are created with a public of some form in mind, drawings are usually for the artist’s personal use. The lineage from brain to pencil can be a pure and uninterrupted flow, in which ideas, thoughts, and secrets move more freely than in painting. Witness of this flow, made manifest in the marks on the paper, seems to provide insight into the private mind of the artist. And so covering four hundred years of an art form in two rooms begins to make sense when drawing is viewed in this way. The V&A seems to have tried to emphasise this closed personal world of drawing by attempting to transport the viewer into something similar: two small rooms for meditation and private appreciation on the products of some of the world’s greatest draughtsmen. In the first room, a cabinet of sketchbooks, never created with a viewer in mind, further adds to this feeling. The anecdotal descriptions of the drawings match this urge for insight into the mind of the artist, for instance telling us of Jonathan Richardson the Elder’s urge to draw a daily self-portrait as a kind of therapy.
Any bigger, this exhibition would have been overwhelming. It takes on an often overlooked subject and presents it in all its variously imagined glories. Most importantly, it serves to educate about the very nature of the art of drawing.
Thomas Mouna is a third-year BA at the Courtauld.
British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day will be on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Room 90 until the 13th April 2014. Entry is free.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: British art, Drawings, V&A | Comments Off
I’ve always thought that the National Gallery could have a better temporary exhibition space – but this time its underground location was less of a weakness and more of a metaphor. For if history tells the breakdown of a liberal and democratic age into one of intolerance and bloodshed, the paintings themselves may rather tell of a death-drive spurting out from underground.
Death is what one sees upon entering the exhibition’s first room: it is Beethoven’s death mask. A witness at the composer’s passing reported it was marked by a peal of thunder. Of course, it was apocalyptic – but still, that was 1827, long before the other works in the room were selected for the Miethke Gallery exhibition recreated in Room 1. But then again, that show was in 1905. Vienna 1900 eluded me in a wink.
Showcasing the Austrian Old Masters and their heroic models, the Miethke Gallery show established a genealogy for the new Viennese middle class. The New needed to set its footing in the Old. Accordingly, the moderns found in Ebyl and Amerling the precedents for their innovative painting – for the Kokoschka and Schiele and Gerstl in Room 2. Nevertheless, the contrast is startling, and it remains so throughout the show. For if traditional paintings are everywhere exhibited next to decidedly modern ones, this is only exhibition, not explanation: the viewer is not shown how the ones derived from the others.
The criteria for grouping paintings in different rooms are just as evanescent. After presenting the New Viennese self-constructed antiquity, the subdivisions become thematic rather than historical, concentrating on themes such as the positive perception of private life, the figure of the artist, love and loss. ‘The Appeal of the Artist’ was surely my favourite. Both Rudolf von Alt’s and Schoenberg’s self-portrait were discoveries by artists I did not know before.
Moreover, I appreciated the emphasis on the fabricated nature of Freud’s ‘tormented human subject,’ an aspect easy to ignore face to so many dramatic suicides. Other rooms however fail to deliver what they promise. Grouping together group scenes and portraits, young siblings and adults, the display ‘The family and The Child’ is too heterogeneous to delve deep into the hidden tensions of idyllic families.
But then, why should one delve? There is here enough experimentation on the painted surface. Both the Amerlings and the Schiele reveal their great mastery, made all the more evocative by the flexible and atmospheric lighting. This is definitely not an exhibition to learn about history, but it may be a good one to learn about looking. For as in Gerstl’s Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky, the revelation may lay on the surface.
Costanza Beltrami is a BA3 student at the Courtauld.
Facing the Modern is on at the National Gallery until the 12th January.
Sacred Traditions and the Arts is one of the Research Forum’s consistently exciting ventures, organised jointly with King’s College London to create a dialogue between art history and theology. Glenn Sujo (G. F. Watts Associate Artist) warned us that his paper might be rather more sombre than Grayson Perry’s Reith Lecture that had aired that morning on Radio 4. But in some ways this whole seminar addressed some similar modern anxieties about art, not least the thorny matter of beauty.
Glenn’s lecture “The Image of atrocity is never innocent: the aporiai of the visual” was about the art produced, often covertly, during and in the immediate aftermath of the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. To what extent do these “products of the imagination” adequately represent the horrific experience? His analysis of these aporiai concerned their subjects. A sketched view of a window spoke of confinement, and the seemingly simple subject of Jews transporting sewage carried an underlying message of the resilient struggle to maintain civilisation and sanitation in the ghetto. While there was not a complete disregard of treatment; sombre colours and jagged lines were considered, it was “Draw what you see” that almost became his keynote, and that these works embodied experience.
Tim Gorringe (University of Exeter) had written his lecture as a direct response to Glenn’s address. He began by stating that the “classical” view of beauty: harmony and proportion, as embodied in the art of Ancient Athens through Aquinas to Kant, when applied to religion, fails. It produces “high-grade kitsch” such as the Sistine Madonna, certainly an interesting definition of Raphael’s Roman masterpiece. For Tim, Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, through its choices in form and style addressed theological truth with greater success: the outrage at the suffering in the world. Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion achieves much the same: its initial exhibition leaving Kenneth Clark only able to remark “what an extraordinary world we live in”. For Steiner, true Tragedy in the arts required a metaphysical overlord, removed in the modern era by a secular, rational worldview. But Tim tried to show that a painter within the secular age could still articulate profound tragedy through a “silent scream” at the injustice of existence.
This series always places a great emphasis on encouraging discussion afterwards. Showing a commendable willingness to disagree, a difference emerged between the two speakers of the status of a work of art made in the wake of tragedy as an object of knowledge. Is its ultimate value as a work of truth as a document of experience, or as an ineffable, theological statement akin to Job’s questioning of the injustice wreaked upon him? Keats’ aphorism of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” is often maligned as a bit of a cop-out, and indeed it is not all we need to know. But it is a starting point. We all have our own truths, artist, viewer and art historian, and many were expressed in this highly rewarding evening.Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: art, Holocaust, Religion, Tragedy | Comments Off