Views and Reviews

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

Thursday, 20 February, 2014 by Katarzyna Falecka

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.


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Jeremy Deller – English Magic (William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow)

Tuesday, 18 February, 2014 by Aindrea Emelife

We sit starving amidst our gold, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, 2013

We sit starving amidst our gold, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, 2013

Jeremy Deller is a modern day alchemist. This rings especially true in light of his latest exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow – ‘Jeremy Deller: English Magic’ – last experienced in the British Pavillion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Deller has never followed the rules, has none of the traits of an artist and yet his works speak more truths than many. With a sharp and meticulous sense of observation and a willingness to shake things up (but not too much), the Turner prize winning artist proves that he has come a long way from his early works as his left-wing leanings and ideas of equality and social justice take the form of curiously uplifting works that reference the much labored over topic of politics and the Iraq war, but also tax evasion and Ziggy Stardust.

Deller, who studied Baroque art at the Courtauld Institute, has all the majesty of his 17th century counterparts as he weaves magic in the social world of 21st century Britain, summons forth the politics of today and interprets them with a self-conscious critique and celebration – he is as much a history painter as Beuys or Rembrandt. He is not a conceptual artist in the same was as Kosuth, but a sociologist, anthropologist and historian.

The landmark piece of the show takes the form of a large mural where Deller, ever-loyal defender of Venetian legacy, depicts the Victorian designer at loggerheads with billionaire money-magnate Roman Abramovich as he launches his yacht, Luna, into the lagoon. ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’ was supposedly sparked by Deller’s fury at the ship’s appearance in the quay during the 2011 Venice Biennale. The Giardini, one of the historic city’s treasures, bastardized by contemporary wealth serves as a harrowing symbol of a recurrent theme in Deller’s oeuvre. It draws on Morris’ call for a socialist reform, the collapse of communism and the capitalist growth in the former Soviet Union.

Deller focuses on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in another work, where he enlisted former soldiers to draw scenes from their experiences. Painted from prison, where many of our troops end up, it is a shining example of his role as an authentic social documenter of modern day Britain. Deller does not shy away from the real.

Indeed, the exhibition captures the essence of Morris’ thinking – “I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few” – and Deller’s collaborative work ethic references the Arts and Crafts ethos. This is an exhibition that encourages visitors to get involved.

Deller’s work may shout where Morris whispers, but the material works brilliantly with the gallery’s permanent collection, as we walk into  the 19th century and back into the more familiar world of Deller’s as he puts a contemporary frame on his idiosyncratic vision of Britain and its securities. He is an alchemist, but he is also a catalyst; he makes connections between things and leaves them open. It is up to us to react as we wish, but always with a slice of humour.

Aindrea Emelife is a second-year BA at the Courtauld.

Jeremy Deller: English Magic is at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow until 30 March, before moving to the Bristol Museum and Art gallery then the Turner Contemporary in Margate later this year.

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Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné (1888-1944): From Cubism to Surrealism (St Petersburg Gallery, London)

Thursday, 13 February, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami


The Sphinx of St Petersburg(1909) © St Petersburg Gallery

If every ground-floor window on Cork Street is alive with the lure of artworks, St Petersburg Gallery’s is ablaze with a kaleidoscope of colours and styles. Dazzling variety is indeed one’s first impression of Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné’s work, an impression strengthened by the exhibition’s title, From Cubism to Surrealism.

Indeed, from the realistic style of Mansions (1907), to the Cézannist landscape Red Roof (1910) via the impressionistic touches of Barges on the Dnieper (1907) and the green shadows of Nude (1909), Baranov-Rossiné’s early paintings seem to chronicle the discovery of the French avant-garde in Russia. Influenced by the artistic discoveries of the group ‘World of Art,’ these works seemingly reflect the international climate of turn-of-the-century St Petersburg, where Baranov-Rossiné studied. Yet despite their formative importance, these works are relegated to the gallery’s lower ground floor.

Baranov_Politech Sculpture2

Polytechnical Sculpture (1915) © St Petersburg Gallery

Greater prominence is given to works displayed on the gallery’s ground floor. With one exception, these are all from the period between 1910 and 1915, when, under the alias Daniel Rossiné, the artist was living in Paris among the well-known émigrés of the creative colony La Ruche.

Placed on each side of the entrance, Still Life with a Shell (1910) and Maternity (1910) reveal the impact of post-Impressionism and synthetic Cubism on Branov-Rossiné’s work. Unfortunately, excessive emphasis on these works prevents the viewer from seeing Baranov-Rossiné’s career as a unitary development, eventually presenting him as an eclectic creator without a personal style. On the contrary, sculptures such as Polytechnical Sculpture (1915), Rhythm (1913) and Dance (1914) are original experiments with three-dimensional form and unconventional sculptural materials such as polychrome metal, cardboard and even crushed eggshell.


Counter Relief (1917) © St Petersburg Gallery

The later Counter Relief (1917) manifests the same interest with three-dimensionality, yet employs a very different style. Marking the artist’s return to Russia after the Revolution of 1917 and directly borrowing its title from Tatlin, this work reveals Baranov-Rossiné’s willingness to embrace a new art for a new order. In fact, Baranov-Rossiné gained immediate recognition upon his return to Russia and obtained important official positions such as Head of Painting at the Petrograd Free Studios.

Despite Baranov-Rossiné success in Bolshevik Russia, no other work of this period is included in the show. Lack of information on this period is all the more regrettable for it is in Russia that the artist perfected his Octophonic Piano (1920-1923), a silent instrument which, when played, projected ever-changing coloured patterns through a magic lantern. Yet for all its whimsical appeal, little importance is given in the exhibition to Disk for Colour Music (1921-1922), now but a cracked and inert memorabilia of the artist’s life.

Around the disk, the artist’s earlier and later works are juxtaposed in a synthesis that is often hard to follow. Certainly, the resulting exhibition has striking visual dazzle; but fascination can all too easily turn into disorientation, as the viewer is offered no contextual information to decode this catalogue of heterogeneous styles.

Constanza Beltrami is a third-year BA student at the Courtauld.

Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné (1888-1944): From Cubism to Surrealism is at the St Petersburg Gallery, London until 29 March 2014.

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A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany (Courtauld Gallery)

Tuesday, 11 February, 2014 by Lindsay Wells

Spring might still be over a month away, but the winter rain cannot darken the stunning natural views currently on display at The Courtauld Gallery in “A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.” This exhibition, jointly organized with the Morgan Library and Museum, explores important developments in German and British landscape painting from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These years were a time when artists in both countries increasingly began to turn away from conventional classical landscapes (think Claude Lorrain) in favor of evocative scenes painted directly from nature.  Indeed, the exhibition title captures the idea of personal interaction and interpretation that became central to the Romantic landscape tradition.

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, (1814-15), The Morgan Library & Museum

The oil sketches, drawings, and watercolors in this exhibition are spread across three rooms on the top floor of the gallery.  Their subjects range from rural hills and lush forests to haunting churchyards and imposing ruins.  The first room focuses on early Romantic landscapes by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, and Jakob Philipp Hackert.  Hackert was one of the first advocates in Germany of painting landscapes out of doors, and his careful observations of botanic detail can be seen in the leafy foreground of his View of the Villa of Maecenas and the Falls of Tivoli (1783).  Particularly interesting is the second room of the exhibition, which is filled with paintings and drawings of clouds by Franz Kobell, Johann Georg von Dillis, and John Constable.  This in-depth look at the role weather and atmosphere play in influencing the mood of a landscape serves as an apt transition into the final portion of the exhibition.

Samuel Palmer Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (1828) The Morgan Library & Museum

The third and largest room focuses on one of the most recognizable characteristics of Romanticism: the sublime.  The overwhelming power of nature is readily apparent in works such as Carl Philipp Fohr’s The Ruins of Hohenbaden (1814-15), which depicts the crumbling remains of a once-mighty structure slowly being engulfed by its sylvan surroundings.  “A Dialogue with Nature” also draws attention to specific motifs commonly found in British and German Romantic landscapes of this time.  Images of twisted and gnarled trees, for example, appear in works by both Samuel Palmer and Karl Friedrich Lessing.  Vivid highlights and writhing lines make Palmer’s watercolor and ink drawing Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (c. 1828) a striking interpretation of this subject.  In addition to pointing out similarities, the layout of the exhibition also invites viewers to compare stylistic differences between British and German approaches to landscape painting.  For example, Caspar David Friedrich’s finely detailed Moonlit Landscape (c.1808) is hung side by side with another nocturnal scene, the more atmospheric On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen (1841?) by J.M.W. Turner.

The landscapes in this exhibition present a fascinating combination of frank observations imbued with poetry and emotion.  Their intimacy and immediacy is sure to leave an impression upon all those who visit The Courtauld’s “A Dialogue with Nature.”

Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany is at the Courtauld Gallery until 27 April 2014.

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The Visual Brain and the Straight Line

Tuesday, 11 February, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami

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.

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Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (Royal Academy of Arts)

Friday, 7 February, 2014 by Vincent Marquis

Sensingspaces1“Allowing room for the visitor’s imagination is essential if a space is to become a satisfying physical experience.” These are the words of Li Xiaodong, one of seven architects who have been invited to transform the neoclassical galleries of the Royal Academy for their freshest exhibition, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Xiaodong’s suggestion captures the spirit of the exhibition, which sets out to evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery space.

The exhibition is carefully divided yet without any imposed sequence, each architect having been allocated one or two rooms. Many structures are visually and conceptually striking, such as Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Blue, an imposing pine wood construction occupying half of Room 2 in which visitors are invited to enter. In Room 6, the Ireland-based Grafton Architects call attention to the dramatic effects of roof light with their suspended plaster panels. Elsewhere, the Burkinabe Diébédo Francis Kéré created a stunning tunnel from honeycomb plastic linking two of the rooms, transformed by the visitors’ gradual addition of coloured plastic straws. Surely, the works in this exhibition succeed in heightening our awareness of the sensory realm of architecture. Be it through visually destabilizing environments, tactilely appealing surfaces, or even the smell of materials, the works underscore the ways in which architecture may have a direct impact on our bodily and mental states.

One of my concerns is that the exhibition is rather under-curated. The galleries display only basic factual information about the work they contain. And the iPads at the entrance of the exhibition, through which one will essentially learn about the production processes of the structures, do not offer much more. We learn little about how the architects have concretely sought “to address the human spirit,” and the way they have used “their appreciation of history to create buildings that acknowledge the past but are also highly meaningful within the present” remains completely speculative for the viewers.

I also wonder whether Sensing Spaces will have the long-lasting impact it hopes for. The statement of curator Kate Goodwin begins with a reflection on the ignored ubiquity of architecture in our daily activities, acknowledging how it very often is only the background to our lives. “Working, sleeping or playing,” she writes, “mostly take place within, and interact with, architecture.” The structures are quite spectacular in themselves, but precisely for this reason one is unlikely to engage differently with ordinary, everyday architectural spaces. The question remains open as to how these everyday spaces can become more rewarding, more satisfying.

Vincent Marquis is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy until the 6th April 2014.

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

Wednesday, 5 February, 2014 by James Alexander Cameron

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.

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Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed (Soane Museum)

Thursday, 30 January, 2014 by Aimee Rubensteen


The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

Sir John Soane’s Museum is the most fitting setting for the first major survey of Alan Sorrell’s oeuvre. Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) was an English artist who worked in multiple mediums, but is best known for his archeological illustrations. Like Sir John Soane, an architect who became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, Sorrell was a draughtsman who became Senior Assistant Instructor of Drawing at The Royal College of Art. Soane and Sorrell succeeded in their craft so much so that they enabled future artists to work as well as they did within the academic tradition. Framing Sorrell’s work inside the Soane’s Museum encourages viewers to engage and interpret the art like a new student discovering line, shape and colour in a new light.

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130


Sorrell is best known for his reconstruction drawings of British historical sites; Prehistoric, Roman and medieval. Similar to his commercial work as an illustrator (his patterns and book designs are on display as well), Sorrell captures the balance between shape and colour. The systematic attention to detail and the artistic sense of imagination creates compelling works on paper. Even though Sorrell is remembered for these drawings, I found the most compelling pieces in the exhibition to be the two self-portraits that give an intimate lens into his personal artistic process.

Self-Portrait (1928) is a drawing that Sorrell created once he arrived in Rome during his artistic endeavors. The quality of his draughtsmanship is so apparent that it begins to bleed into the viewer’s space. Pencil, ink and white gouache illuminate and stain the paper, producing an expressive moment with the artist at work. As Sorrell hunches before his easel, he looks straight out at the viewer. The contrast between the dark ink and bright gouache emphasizes the deep folds of the fabric on his body and the draped cloth beside him. The jagged edges seen throughout the composition further confront the viewer with a feeling of restlessness. The eye darts from Sorrell’s high cheekbones to his pursed lips and furrowed brow and then towards the working-sketch of the hanging lamp and multiple canvases in the background and then back to the foreground to notice the different depictions of each of the fold in his stockings. This eye movement around the image creates an entertaining (and instructive) mapping experience for the viewer.

Sorrell's late 1930s portrait

Sorrell’s late 1930s portrait

Furthermore, it becomes readily apparent that his talent is not limited to drawing when observing Sorrell’s later painting, Self-Portrait (late 1930s). Here, the artist has decidedly zoomed in to focus on his face during the artistic act of creation. His sharp gaze is literally parallel to the vertical and sharply pointed pencil in his hand. The attention to line and its function is present in his drawings and his paintings. Soane would most probably approve of Sorrell exhibiting in his home, and expanding his reputation among other artworks. The quality of Sorrell’s talent is clear, and the way he peers into the viewers’ eye he leaves no room for skepticism.

Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed was at the Soane Museum from the 25th October 2013 to the 25th January 2014.

See here for more information on Sorrell and the book associated with the exhibition.

Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

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The Visual Arts and Music in Renaissance Europe c 1400-1650 (Second Annual Postgraduate Renaissance Symposium, 18 January 2014)

Tuesday, 21 January, 2014 by James Alexander Cameron

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

It is not every Courtauld conference that starts off with a concert in an authentic Gothic interior. But the Renaissance Art and Music programme has been an exploratory endeavour throughout. On a moonlit Friday evening, the Amaryllis Consort regaled an audience in the Temple Church with music from the high Baroque, Burgundian Gothic and English Renaissance schools to much applause. However, visual references were confined to our programmes, and it was not until after the next dawn that images would take the commanding focus of the lecture theatre’s projector.

Professor Thomas Schmidt’s keynote took as its main theme a giant choirbook in Jena, considering an illuminated folio of a chant of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin beyond a usual iconographical analysis. The arrangement on the page of the four parts, their page-turning rubrics, and how the donors’ figures would work as ever-present supplicants to the Marian prayer being sung all went together to manifest the sort of four-part polyphonic performance we had witnessed in the Temple into a tangible artefact.

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

These themes were restated and developed throughout the day. Moritz Kelber’s paper picked up on the meeting of note and page with a “singing shield” at the beginning of some printed musical scores for the diet of Ferdinand I. A coat of arms emblazoned with a solmized representation of the name of German Emperor was presented as “eye music”, where the score itself could make visual play with the musical script. Brian Keene’s paper on a dismembered antiphonary from the Carmelite Friary in Florence placed it within the daily life of the church, but also explored its creation through the agency of the friars, lay confraternity members and of course the artists who laboured on the church’s manuscripts and frescoes.

But the day was not just about objects that were at the centre of musical performance, but also reflections of it.  Alex Robinson’s consideration of paintings of balls and ceremonies in the court of Henri IV showed how bands of musicians were more often convenient cultural signs than accurate records. Kelly Lam’s analysis of The Music Lesson, a National Gallery canvas newly attributed to Titian, also showed paintings as untrustworthy documents: the bass viol (which Titian himself holds in Veronese’s Wedding at Cana) is held in a near unplayable position. Both Simon Jackson, on the metaphysical poet George Herbert’s creative links to the courtly masque and Daniel Walden, on the Garden of the Villa di Pratolino, relied heavily on textual accounts and documentary evidence to recreate even more ephemeral displays and the intellectual and musical culture around them.

Titian - The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

Titian – The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

This conference by no means solved the inherent epistemological problems on how much we can ever know about creative links between visual artists and musicians, and how the dual experience of their outputs was received by contemporary audiences. Like the concert the night before, the truth of the experience can only be completely accessible to those who were there.

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Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group: 1913-63 (Ben Uri Gallery)

Monday, 13 January, 2014 by Percy Darukhanawala

Ben Uri Gallery, 102, Boundary Road, NW8

Ben Uri Gallery, 102, Boundary Road, NW8

To venture to the Ben Uri Gallery in NW8 is to arrive at, quite literally, a shop front – which once penetrated, courtesy of a common entry-bell, opens out into a wealth of treasures, some of which would not be out of place in the best-renowned museums of the world. Some of the exhibits in the current show are no exception.  The conception driving this exhibition is, however, simple but powerful: fifty works spanning the first fifty years of The London Group in all its modernist radicality.

Crammed into its two (ground and basement) floors, this catholic selection makes for much neck-turning. Just as one espies a small Gaudier bronze bird swallowing a fish in 1914, Gertler’s light-footed, supple Eve diverts the gaze to an act of creation, made in the same year. Some artistic groups immediately conjure up a style (the psychologically intense painterliness of Bloomsbury) or avant-garde controversy (the primal, even feral, rawness of Vorticism) or specific, not always accurate, reputations (the supposedly bloodless precision of the Euston Road School).

The reviewer with Sarah MacDougall, one of the exhibition’s two curators,  looking at Fry’s Nina Hamnett, foregrounded by Gaudier’s hungry bird

The reviewer with Sarah MacDougall, one of the exhibition’s two curators,
looking at Fry’s Nina Hamnett, foregrounded by Gaudier’s hungry bird

It would be difficult to jam the London Group into any such category – from the deceptively gentle, astute realism of Harold Gilman’s enigmatic portrait of Sylvia Gosse (1912-13, a rare image of her) via Roger Fry’s oneiric-realist depiction of Nina Hamnett (1917, lent by the Courtauld) to Bomberg’s hard-edged Ghetto Theatre of 1920 with its regimented, glum but warm togetherness, not to mention later contributions, such as Jessica Dismorr’s positively vibrating abstract forms (1936) and Dorothy Mead’s near-mutilated self-portrait of 1960 emitting the blank chill of the Cold War.

The real value of this exhibition, however, lies in the conversations without words that these paintings conduct quietly with one another: the amazement in Stanislawa de Karlowska’s colourful produce on display at a fruiterer’s in Swiss Cottage (looking back, and reminiscing, from her newly adopted country to her Polish homeland, perhaps) in 1914 conversing with the exaggerated colours of Spencer Gore’s more radical impression(ism) of Gilman’s garden at Letchworth (1912). These are different experiences of Britain, with different eyes and from different backgrounds – but from around the same time – and they each slowly reveal their own viewpoint. And such dialogues reverberate almost endlessly through the exhibition.

William Coldstream, Portrait of Mrs Auden, 1936-37,  oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

William Coldstream, Portrait of Mrs Auden, 1936-37,
oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

Some works break the involved conversations to speak directly to the viewer – none more so, in my view, than Coldstream’s portrait of W.H. Auden’s mother. My turning neck was arrested at this point. This unassuming, but staggeringly immediate portrait in different shades and tones of yellow and brown steals the show. No reproduction can convey the shimmering immediacy of this woman in old age: thin, almost frail yet erect, severe. Apprehensive, strong and vulnerable, she stares into a future where the inevitable outcome must be death, yet the painter urgently but naturally invites further enquiries about her thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For an informative, entertaining and cogent introduction to Modern British art of the early- and mid-twentieth century, it’s worth taking heed of the ‘uproar’ going on in St John’s Wood at the moment.

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group: 1913-63 is a the Ben Uri Gallery until 2nd March.

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