Views and Reviews

Design to the T: The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Sunday, 18 May, 2014 by Aimee Rubensteen


Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Squeals of delight slip from the lips of students, older ladies and a few gentlemen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition of Italian fashion from 1945 to the present, a show promising to be both comprehensive and glamorous. And, like a good stilista, or fashion designer, the V&A delivers with great taste.

Displaying Italian trends chronologically, the exhibit is divided into five sections. Each section is designed differently and provides a palette for the clothing on view. Wood covers the walls and the floors in the first room that is dedicated to Giovanni Battista Giorgini’s fashion shows in Sala Bianca, or ‘White Hall’ in Florence’s Pitti Palace in the 1950s. When the gowns are displayed in front of this organic material, rather than standard white walls, they take centre stage.


Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The next section, ‘Tailoring,’ is a room with black walls and black felt-like floors bringing the viewer into the designer’s studio. The wall text is displayed on an oversized wooden textile spool, subtly reminding the viewer of Italian fabric factories. In the 1960s, the popularity for ready-made suits and garments tailored to individual clients increased. As much as the stitching of skirts and non-matching menswear suits impressed me, I could not help but examine the unexpected wallpaper. A detail of a pattern for tailoring (1960) covered the walls, marrying historical documents with contemporary design.

The third room, ‘Made in Italy,’ demonstrates the campaign of the same name that ensured style. In the new fashion capital, Milan, manufactured fashion became wildly popular in the 1970s. The wall text notes that a stilista ‘aimed not to create the perfect outfit but the perfect style.’ The floor-to-ceiling mirrors in this section enable visitors to gape at and appreciate each detail of each outfit from multiple angles. More importantly, the mirrors reflect the viewer and their style in tandem with the fashion on view. The mirrors force the questions: What is your personal style? How does your ensemble measure up to the ones on display?


Dolce & Gabbana: Ankle boots, black leather stiletto heels with gold, white and pink embroidery, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The showstopper is the section about The Cult of the Fashion Designer. Since the 1990s, designers have become celebrities, often more photographed than their own designs. Upon entering this room, paparazzi cameras flash and click on a large video screen in the white circus tent that hovers over the runway-like display. The dressed mannequins’ shadows grow larger-than-life against the white fabric echoing the image of the celebrity designers who made them.

This exhibition reminds the public of a time when fast fashion was not consumed daily. The way in which the show demonstrates Italian designers’ dedication to each stitch is with its own attention to exhibition design. Like all the shoes that are displayed with one foot slightly in front of the other, as if the mannequin is taking a step forward, Italian fashion is leaping into the future. The question is not whether Italian fashion has a future, but how other designers will keep up with the Italians’ pace.

Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Design to the T: The Glamour of Italian Fashion is at the V&A til the 27th July 2014.

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Matisse: the cut-outs (Tate Modern)

Saturday, 3 May, 2014 by Tijana Todorinovic

After an eleven-year interlude, the works of Matisse return to Tate Modern. After the Matisse Picasso exhibition in 2002, the focus is now solely on Matisse and his now iconic, paper cut-outs, and related works of his late period. Not surprisingly for one of the most celebrated artists of modern times, the show was heavily marketed as a ‘blockbuster’  and predictably, the crowds are flocking to Bankside. And rightfully too, for the objects here engage on a profoundly material level.

The exhibition consists of fourteen rooms, beginning with a video of an elderly Matisse cutting curved shapes into a piece of blue-painted paper. This emphasis on the physicality of the works as well as the creative process is continued in the presentation of the works through each room, despite the additional roughly chronological lay-out of the exhibition itself. This proves highly effective; visitors are able to walk through each room and feel the development of the works by engaging visually with the exhibits.

Icarus 1946 Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Icarus 1946
Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

The displays are also sensitive to the content and colour palette of each, although not always. For example, a cabinet shelf is used in the third room to display all of the bright pages of the printed JAZZ book (1947), with some of the key prints framed above in their original paper cut-out form. The following room is appropriately much smaller and emptier, displaying Matisse’s more spontaneous, less colourful ‘Oceania’ cut-outs as they would have been in his apartment where they had first been pinned. Less inspired is the display of works in the eighth room, where cut-outs like ‘Zulma’ and ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ are simply hung around the white room.

In my mind, the exhibition rightly supports an entirely visual experience. There are of course information labels with the title, date and extra information about each work, but the placement of these labels means the viewer does not see them and the works; instead the labels and titles, to this end often coloured a more subdued grey, are there as a reference should the viewer wish to engage with them. If not, all the main texts throughout the exhibition are usefully included in the free exhibition information booklet.

Henri Matisse, The Snail 1953 Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse, The Snail 1953
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Many key pieces are displayed, in particular the Blue Nude cut-outs (which are given their own room and comparing them to some of his earlier sculptures) and The Fall of Icarus, building up to his larger and more abstract cut-outs such as The Snail. But, what ultimately makes this exhibition well-worth visiting is the chance to see the smaller details often lost in reproductions of them: to see every little pin-hole, and every crease on the painted paper.

Tijana Todorinovic is a first-year BA student at the Courtauld.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at Tate Modern until 7th September 2014.

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Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov (Pitzhanger Manor)

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014 by Matthew Wells

This exhibition, showing at the gallery alongside renowned Regency architect John Soane’s pile in Ealing, features photographs of work by two 20th century architects: Konstantin Melnikov and Le Corbusier. Eloquent text panels introduce each architect and individual images. The photographer Richard Pare depicts buildings in three distinct ways in this exhibition: architecture as objects, buildings and landscapes, or rooms. People are not the subject of the photographs. There are a few individuals lurking in the backgrounds of some prints but these images are mostly forgettable.

Only one building designed by Melnikov is present. The Melnikov House, a suburban villa formed by two interlocking cylinders with hexagonal windows. Two large prints – side by side – to form a sort of interior panoramic of the house’s studio, but fail to create any sort of coherent image. Sunlight from several windows makes for a harshly lit interior –  too intense to view all at once. Another diptych, this time of the salon, is photographed diagonally from interior stairs in the left background, stacked paintings by the architect’s son, and onto a desk in the right foreground. The viewing axis of the photographs suggests a spectrum from the intensity and privacy of the desk which reduces across the room and onto the staircase: this room is connected to others and can be left freely. Diffuse light softens the lilac painted walls and reveals scars in the plasterwork where light-fittings used to be. Perhaps comfort isn’t the right word for the effect but there is certainly a lack of anxiety in this image.

Unité d'habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

Unité d’habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

A range of Le Corbusier buildings are displayed, from early projects like the Villa Le Lac, to later work such as the priory of La Tourette. Here Pare demonstrates the anxiety between landscape and building in the work of Le Corbusier. A photograph of the rooftop of the Unité d’Habitation shows the contrast between the building’s garden with the Mediterranean in the background. Photographed orthogonally, the seated enclosures of the middle-ground are reflected in a manmade pool in front of them and the coastline is reduced to mere scenery.

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Another photograph, this time of Villa Le Lac, has the familiar composition of Pare’s photographs of Corb’s buildings: the landscape is photographed orthogonally with the building shown obliquely at one side of the image. But rather than portray the building an object, Pare allows us just a little portion of it: a pocket of covered space and a doorway which connects back into the open-plan villa. The lakefront wall runs along a boundary marking the threshold between site and landscape. On the left edge the wall rises up to form a garden room with a frame-less window at its centre. Underneath this opening are two chairs either side of a concrete table. Compared with the plan libre and ribbon window of the villa’s interior, this window frames a fixed subject (the landscape) where all chance is abolished. Perhaps like one of Pare’s photographs.

Matthew Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld

Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov is at the PM Gallery, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, until the 11th May 2014.


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Burnt Generation: Contemporary Iranian Photography (Terrace Rooms, Somerset House)

Friday, 25 April, 2014 by Natasha Morris

Bakak Kazemi  Khoramshahr Number by Number

Bakak Kazemi Khoramshahr - Number by Number

Iran’s Generation X, known as Nasl-e Sokhte, encompasses those born between 1963 and 1980. They are known as ‘The Burnt Generation’, born to an epoch bookended with the events of The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. The human and material spoils of conflict and talismans of everyday life appear scattered through the images in the Terrace Rooms. The spheres constantly encroach on one another in a display that aims to show the inner realities, both public and personal, of modern Iranian society. The featured contemporary photographers, each of whom has lived and worked in Iran, operate through varied means: from documentary and photojournalism, to portraits and more conceptual work. They unite in a bleak neutrality of palette, lining walls in shades of brown, grey and black. It is punctured only by the suspended bulbs of green from Abbas Kowsari’s Lights series, the traditional colour of Islam in glowing neon, which line the neighbourhoods of Tehran in festivity.

Newsha Tavakolian, Look, 2013

Newsha Tavakolian, Look, 2013

Burnt Generation opens with two voyeuristic glances into this interior world. Ali and Raymar’s series We Live in a Paradoxical Society shows scenes from a life glimpsed through the doorframes of Iranian families. Characters enter and leave vignettes of kitchen-sink realism. Pathos is located unexpectedly in the half eaten watermelon on the arm of the chair and the act of a father breaking an egg into a pan whilst cooking with his sons. The series is mirrored by Newsha Tavakolian’s Look, whose solitary unhappy birthday party for one distils the dissolution of the burnt generation itself. The element of social documentary in Look attests to Tavakolian’s vocation as a photojournalist, turning her experience as an eighteen-year-old chronicler of student uprisings to the subject of her neighbours. From the window of her apartment block in Tehran, the interior pictures were captured at precisely 8pm over a period of six months. The newspapers, shirts and handkerchiefs that litter the furniture of the subjects’ homes are as crumpled as their expressions. Looking closely at the cold-toned portraits, you can see the men have been crying too. The domestic thread is culminated in Babak Kazemi’s affecting Khoramshahr Number by Number: a series of double exposures of number plates from a town located on the Iran/Iraq border that experienced eight years of war.

Azadeh Aklaghi’s restages dramatic and mysterious deaths from modern Iranian history in the series By An Eyewitness. The scenes combine the dimensional compositional tricks of a Caravaggio with the dramatic juncture of Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Sadegh Tirafkhan grazes the curves of the male body with calligraphic brush strokes, inspired by body painting practices amongst ancient pre-Achaemenian kings. Letters follow the lines of movement across the masculine form, evoking traces of traditional gymnastic ritual practiced at a Zoorkhaneh. Tirafkhan’s work is perhaps the most traditionally referential and least bleak on display. Overall, Burnt Generation presents a dark but innovative look at the growing pains of the Nasl-e Sokhte.

Natasha Morris is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Burnt Generation is on at the Terrace Rooms at Somerset House until 1st June 2014.

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Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice (National Gallery)

Wednesday, 2 April, 2014 by Susannah Smith

VeroneseVeronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s work to be held in the UK. The expansive selection of works clearly aims to reposition the master alongside his better known Venetian counterparts Titian and Giorgione; not only to introduce him spectacularly to the British public, but also to emphasise his importance in an art historical context.

The artist’s deft navigation of the colore/disegno (colour/line) debate is immediately striking. The poetic, colour-loving Venetian Renaissance tradition is apparent, but Veronese doesn’t trump line with colour. Instead the exhibition highlights his characteristic depiction of bright, jewel-coloured figural groups against soft-hued background scenes and pale stone architecture. Perhaps Veronese’s early beginnings as a stone cutter can account  for his intense interest in these detailed settings. The bold juxtaposition of colours cordons-off the registers of foreground action and background location to imbue the figures with a heightened presence, saturated with life, particularly evident in works such as The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1555) and The Family of Darius before Alexander (c. 1565-7).

The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–1570)

The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–1570)

The exhibition describes these chromatic juxtapositions in terms of the “theatricality” of stage sets, as if Veronese’s figures have congregated in tableaux against pastel-hued backdrops. There is certainly a sense of contrivance to Veronese’s colour choices, however beyond the “pomp” and “magnificence” which the National Gallery describes the artist’s continual contrasts produce bodies that are suffused with life and fabrics that are illusionistically tangible.

Veronese’s depiction of light is also shown to be crucial to his work. Throughout the exhibition, contrasting light depictions emphasize the different exquisitely rendered textures of luminous silks, plush velvets and the soft, powder-finish of skin. In the final room, Veronese’s late works of the 1580s emphasize the joyous use of light in his earlier works, as somewhat dulled, enigmatic figures, such as Lucretia (c. 1580-5), now emerge from dense and darkened backgrounds. These works seemingly signal a general move towards a fashion for darkened scenes, most famously taken up by Caravaggio in the 1590s.

The Dream of Saint Helena, c.1570

The Dream of Saint Helena, c.1570

Overwhelmingly, the exhibited works seem to present Veronese as an important transitional figure, whose life and work spanned the artistic developments of the High Renaissance. The influence of Titian and Raphael are clear; as is Veronese’s impact on the work of Rubens. A wander through the National Gallery’s display of Rubens after visiting the exhibition is certainly recommended; a pity that this isn’t suggested in the exhibition itself.

Besides his Venetian colore influences and the move towards chiaroscuro, a number of “split paintings” are on show, in which extra narrative scenes or symbolic registers are included in the background of paintings; the earlier Dream of Saint Helena (c. 1570) is an intriguing example. Predominantly these signal the close links between Northern Italian art and that of the Low Countries during the early modern period, as this was a popular narrative device in the Netherlands, intended to stimulate contemplation.

Veronese is rewarding viewing, both for its insights into the artistic developments of the 16th century and  the artist’s enthralling visual rhetoric of colour and line.

Susannah Smith is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is at the National Gallery until 15th June 2014.

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The Quintessential Billie Holiday

Monday, 31 March, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami

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.

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Threads of protest: hand making as world making

Monday, 31 March, 2014 by Katarzyna Falecka


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.

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

Friday, 28 March, 2014 by Katarzyna Falecka

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.

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

Friday, 28 March, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami


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.


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

Tuesday, 25 March, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami


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.

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