Views and Reviews

Walter Crane and the Arts and Crafts Watercolour (Richard McDougall Lecture, 10th December 2013)

Thursday, 12 December, 2013 by James Alexander Cameron

I had been rather looking forward to the annual Richard McDougall lecture on British watercolours, as during my time at studying for a BA at Manchester in 2008, there was a particularly rewarding exhibition running at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Walter Crane and Socialism. It introduced to me the extraordinary breadth and beauty of Crane’s output, a truly thoughtful and polemical High Victorian. Meaning is woven throughout his works, ranging from Socialist banners to children’s books, forging a broad, personal visual language not dissimilar to William Blake. Little did I realise the curator of this exhibition was tonight’s speaker, Morna O’Neill, the top authority on this otherwise rather neglected figure.

Walter Crane's studio

Walter Crane’s studio

In a photograph of Crane’s studio in 1885, the oil Freedom sits opposite his watercolour Pandora, the latter not distinguished by embodying the Aesthetic dictum “art for art’s sake”, but instead just as didactic as the oil. Crane encouraged the act of connoisseurship as a way to knowledge, and many details in Pandora act as emblems towards a theme of universal Hope. Particularly resonant for Crane are the sphinxes which hold up the eponymous box: ciphers for individualism against the Orpheic artist’s dream of Socialism. But all this begs the question: why choose watercolour at all? The nineteenth-century British watercolour is a strange thing, as was explored by Colin Cruise at last year’s lecture. Burne-Jones’ The Merciful Knightbravely exhibited at the Old Water Colour Society in 1864, was one of the first works to challenge what watercolour could be. It was in this context that Crane would develop his own concept of an Arts and Crafts watercolour.

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

It is rather a paradox to suggest that watercolour’s medium specificity is fluidity and ambiguity, but its role for Crane was a site of experimentation and self-referentiality. This reminded me again of Cruise’s lecture, where in Rossetti’s early watercolour, The First Anniversary of the Death of BeatriceDante is shown working in the medium in which he is painted. Crane was less direct in his reflexivity. In Pandora the mosaics of the floor and the curtain were based on Crane’s own objects that were originally designed in watercolour. Crane used watercolour extensively to provide designs for the production of Decorative arts, and also of his tremendously beautiful children’s books. Crane’s Art’s and Crafts watercolour then works as bridging the gap between designer and maker, not an end in itself, but a means to an ideal as yet unrealised.

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour, exhibited (private collection)

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour (private collection)

Surprisingly, Morna spent much time on the iconography of Crane’s works, and less on the specific painterly potentiality of watercolour, although this was explored in the evanescent visionary reverie in the Youthful Poet’s Dream (1869). Yet the central issue of Crane’s exploration of the dynamic between illustration and narrative: the act of looking as a way to knowledge, is very reassuring to any art historian who still likes looking at paintings. And one hopes Morna can see the Pandora itself soon as a way to knowledge, as currently it sits in a very private collection…

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How to draw the wind …

Tuesday, 10 December, 2013 by Niccola Shearman

Frank Davies Memorial Lecture Series, Art and Vision Science

Double Echo: Exploring the Resonance Between Art and Science, Chris Drury, Tuesday 3 December 2013

Trace the flight of an Albatross circling the Antarctic over a period of eighteen months and use this to frame an ice-blue knot of continental wind patterns registered on one day;  rake a spiralling trail based on Native American weave patterns in the Nevada desert only to see it blown away again overnight. These are some of the ways in which artist Chris Drury maps the complex patterns that govern landscapes and climate, and repeat in the rhythms of the human organism. ‘Double Echo’ was the title for a discussion of drawings and sculptural works which respond to scientific studies with an embodied experience of place as well as a conceptual concern with the language applied to the conjunction of imagination and understanding: the repeated phrase ‘everything and nothing’ captures an overwhelming encounter with the vastness of the Antarctic; and perhaps the difficulty we all have in connecting our own lives to the big picture.

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa - Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa – Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Introducing his talk with a suitably big event, Drury described how the landscape formed by a meteorite landing billions of years ago triggered a fascination with life’s patterns of destruction and regeneration that has inspired work on all scales from the geophysical to the thumb-sized. In this context, a study of the tenacious processes of bacterial and fungal growth that can both spell death and survive a nuclear wipe-out have resulted in fragile mushroom clouds that hang in an interior space, and glass etchings that trace patterns left by a drop of deadly spores. A related video work reflects on the shattering effect of the explosions at Nevada’s nuclear test site. Registering the vibrations of a column of smoke when hit by force of sound, the silent film also memorialises the spiritual-cleansing rituals of Indigenous practice based on the burning of desert sage brush. And a technological encounter with climate-change monitoring resulted in a series of layered drawings which combine physics with an individual’s physiology. Hearing the pilot of the survey plane describing the wave-like echogram of a cross-section of Antarctic ice-sheet as being like ‘taking the heart-beat of the earth’, Drury introduced him to cardiographers working at a London hospital, in order then to combine images of the blood flow in this man’s own heart with those pulses registered in the iced-over mountain range.

Drury’s works demonstrate a political engagement with climate change grounded in scientific research that already challenges comprehension when it extends into limits of particle physics and chaos theory. Exploring the aesthetics of such complexity, the art responds imaginatively to fragile habitats while also playing with contrasts of scale which -as pointed out during the question session – evoke a metaphysical fascination with the microcosm and the macrocosm. The key to this appeal lies in a delicate balance between immersion in an environment and the objective study of universal patterns. The result is an image of a whole which complements the research scientists’ atomized view of detail. And this rounds up the series rather neatly by bringing us back to the first Frank Davis lecture on perception and visual wholes, and yet also leaves plenty of complex paths still untrod.


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Re-interpreting Aby Warburg: a 2013 conference in London on a 1905 lecture in Hamburg

Monday, 2 December, 2013 by Camilla Pietrabissa and Maeve O'Donnell-Morales

Dürer and Warburg: Interpreting Antiquity took place on 22 and 23 November 2013 at the Courtauld and the Warburg Institutes

Christopher Wood and Peter Mack at the Warburg Institute

Christopher Wood and Peter Mack at the Warburg Institute

If Aby Warburg was obsessed with the unexpected eruption of ancient forms of extreme expression in Renaissance art and beyond, Christopher Wood is obsessed with the way in which such methodological innovations could prompt the recognition of the complex temporality of the work of art (see Anachronic Renaissance, 2010, co-authored with Alexander Nagel). In the keynote lecture delivered last Friday at the Warburg Institute, Wood paid his homage to Warburg in focusing on Dürer’s drawing The Death of Orpheus (1494).

Wood developed his argument around the concept of PATHOS and how in some cases, like sodomy,  “passions” can be crimes, or for renaissance humanists, educational practices. He proposed the term “wobble” to refer to the horizontal recombination, or to the continuous mythic substitutions happening within certain formulas, in order to overcome the polarities of artistic analysis – for instance, Apollonian and Dionysian. Instability in formulas of passions proves more productive than fixed meaning.

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus, 1494

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus, 1494

On Saturday, Marcus Hurttig reconstructed the history of that lecture and its parallel display, highlighting the difficult relationship between Warburg and Alfred Lichtwark, the first director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Most importantly, Hurttig’s paper compared the small display of originals organised for the conference to the bigger exhibition of about one hundred fac-similes plates that Warburg had assembled that same year at the Volksheim in Hamburg (this story was reconstructed in 2011 by Hurttig in an exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle about Warburg’s previously unknown activity as a curator).

Thomas Schauerte’s close reading of two woodcuts from around 1494 (Ercules and The knight and the Lansquenet) was very traditional in its method, but it successfully posed the question of the use of contemporary sources in Dürer’s early years; Porras’ paper on The Death of Orpheus focused on the inscriptions and on technique, providing a reading of the social context of production of , and on the artist’s ambitions.

The biological and neurological foundations of Warburg’s pathosformel were the basis of David Freedberg’s lecture. Experiments on the mirror system, whose function in aiding perception is subject to speculation, shows for Freedberg the empirical and scientific basis of Warburg’s Pathosformel. When the viewer lays his eyes upon the depiction of an upraised arm, a bended knee or an open palm, his brain begins the process of enacting these gestures.  Once self-awareness intrudes and the viewer realizes that they do not need to make these gestures themselves, then we are opened up to the opportunity for self-reflection and aesthetic judgment.  By extension, Dr. Freeberg’s research helps us to appreciate the timeless and universal claims of Warburg’s analysis of the function of gestures for, by virtue of scientific evidence, such empathetical and neurological reactions to art are a part of our intrinsic, internal wiring.

Panel discussion at the Courtauld Institute

Panel discussion at the Courtauld Institute

Philipp Ekardt provided a survey of art historical reactions to the story of the discovery of the Laocoon statue in 1506, and then offered a succinct introduction to the methodological subtleties that distinguish Warburg’s analysis of this famous statuary masterpiece.  In particular, he highlighted pathosformel‘s methdological capacity to focus on individual passages within the work of art, free from the context of the work overall.

As the first scholar to catalogue Panofsky’s personal correspondence, Dieter Wuttke has had unique access to his thoughts and hopes; he provided an intimate and sentimental portrait of the relationship between Panofsky and Warburg.  It was thus a remarkable opportunity to hear his retelling of the collegiality, if not friendship, between Panofsky and Warburg.  As the speaker pointed out, this relationship may come to us as a surprise given the fundamental differences between the corresponding methodologies and bodies of work of these two giants.  Nevertheless, the first-hand accounts that Wuttke cited cannot deny the degree of interaction between them, ranging from their first visit in 1915 when Panofsky and a group of students went to on a field-trip to visit Warburg, to their life-long correspondence and many evenings spent in discussion, to Panofsky’s election as director of the Warburg Institute.

Conceived by Courtauld curator Stephanie Buck and Warburg’s archivist Claudia Wedepohl as a contemporary parallel to the lecture delivered by Aby Warburg in Hamburg on 5 October 1905 and titled ‘Dürer and Italian Antiquity’ (Dürer und die italienische Antike), this conference was also a complement to the Courtauld’s current exhibition The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure and especially to its smaller sister-display Antiquity Unleashed: Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna. In the latter, visitors can see the same original works Aby Warburg had borrowed from the Hamburger Kunsthalle to illustrate the argument of his lecture more than one hundred years ago.

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Turner and the Sea (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Sunday, 1 December, 2013 by Percy Darukhanawala

View into the exhibition

View into the exhibition

An exhibition of nineteenth-century marine paintings would not normally be the first port of call for my eye, one more accustomed to the sophistication of modernist primitivism and roughness. Canvases of yellow, varnished vessels on glass-blue seas – passing ships in the day – can blend into their own sea of anonymous repetition. By the time one reaches the second section of this remarkable exhibition, though, such a lazily prejudiced approach is forcibly ejected from one’s mind.

In the large and high exhibition hall at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), the curators have created a transparent maze of rooms which directs the viewer chronologically through J.M.W. Turner’s (1775-1851) career. While it is remarkable enough that this is the first ever full-scale examination of Turner’s creative engagement with the sea, an opportunity to witness briskly his development of painting style is a latent but signal bonus.

From the early rooms – where the master is finding his own voice and language while giving a (provisional) nod to the tradition of the genre, to the last rooms where some of the works (unfinished or not) could almost slot effortlessly into an exhibition of abstract work – texture, composition, scale and atmosphere bombard the sensitive viewer. I was lucky enough to be let in before the public and, at times, it was as if I was stranded in a vortex of temperamental breakers, proud vessels and daunting skies threatening to overcome me from all sides.


Off the Nore Wind and Water (c. 1840-45)
© Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The highlights in this exhibition can hardly be accidentally overlooked: the (second version of the royally commissioned) Battle of Trafalgar (1823-24) dominates an entire wall, and a mournful, ghostly The Fighting Temeraire (1839) needs no introduction. The hang at the NMM allows close contact, often at eye level, with these grand but oddly informal paintings. Examining Turner’s unpredictable impasto and moody brush-strokes and comparing them to van de Velde, Gainsborough and Constable (all on show) provides a helpful contextualizing benchmark. The collection of prints and watercolours, in their own separate section, makes visible the process of Turner’s draughtsmanship without the noise of oil. Frighteningly delicate mezzotints almost defy the genre and give further (unneeded but welcome) testament to Turner’s confidence and versatility.

The final two rooms uncover a man who, even in his sixties and seventies, almost quite literally did not stop drawing, painting, innovating and, above all, looking. The enthusiasm to develop his vision is exemplified by Off the Nore Wind and Water (c. 1840-45). In a circumvention characteristic of fragmented modernity, Turner disposes of the need to distinguish between finished and unfinished work.

Turner, Study of Sea (c. 1820-30) © Tate

Turner, Study of Sea (c. 1820-30) © Tate

The most natural instinct at the end of this exhibition is to start again and re-examine the early output in light of the journey one has undertaken through the labyrinthine layout. I left the exhibition wondering how these amazing and varied works would look alongside some of the later British masters of the sea: inter alia Alfred Wallis, Joan Eardley, and Maggi Hambling…

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld

Turner and the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich until the 21st April 2014.

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Architecture and Music in Renaissance Venice (Thursday 21st November)

Sunday, 24 November, 2013 by James Alexander Cameron

Howard1They say architecture is “frozen music”, but this week has been a particularly noisy one for this art historian. First there was the Liturgy in History study day at Queen Mary University, where both the seminar room in Whitechapel and then St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield were filled with beautiful singing, including us lay people lending our voices to provide the drone of Perotin’s thirteenth-century Viderunt Omnes. Then at Mellon Centre on Wednesday, the rector of Ranworth provided those gathered with a rendition of the Gloria attached to his church’s medieval lectern in a round table seminar about the great rood screen.

This means that the Art History and Sound series, organised in the Courtauld Research Forum by Ph.D. students Michaela Zöschg and Irene Noy, is in very good company of a consideration of the sonic environment of the visual arts. This Thursday marked the second of three autumn lectures after a successful series of workshops last year.

Deborah Howard, the co-author of Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, came to the Courtauld to demonstrate the methodology behind the book. Did the great architects, Sansovino and Palladio, while designing their temples to Counter-Reformation piety, allow provision for the Gabrielis and Monteverdi to achieve the same with their ground-breakingly sophisticated polyphonies?

Howard3Although audience surveys were used in the project, rather than this subjective evidence, much attention was given to presenting the results of computer modelling simulations to actually show what was happening to the sound in these churches. There was little problem in a shoe-box like the Ospedaletto – the sound quickly reverberated from off the roof to seem like it was raining down to the audience without any dissonance.

The monumental Il Redentore however proved more of a problem. It was fine for the daily offices of the Capuchin friars in the enclosed choir. However, for the great festival day when the choir were stationed under the mighty dome, the simulation showed how it would reverberate the sound waves like “a giant food processor”, throwing down the carefully orchestrated polyphony that had been composed specially for the day as an utter muddle of sonic hummus. But it was shown how on such days, the church would be covered in tapestries, draped in hangings and filled with robed bodies, to give a much more promising situation, and that the composition would not be destroyed by the architectural setting. The same was demonstrated in a festally adorned San Marco, the sound given a clarity and vibrancy when the harmonies would have been all but obscured in an empty church. All well and good for Renaissance polyphony, but was this a happy accident rather than design? Did Palladio really reassure a frustrated Gabrieli at rehearsals it’d be alright on the night?

Howard2Deborah did admit that the results of the project merely reinforced their expectations. But the real achievement of this lecture was to make people aware of the methodology behind it. An architectural historian may wish for a silent, empty church when wielding a tripod, but now a building resonating with “molten architecture” should also prove equally rewarding for interrogation.

For more information and music tracks related to the project, visit

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Engulfed and in Motion

Friday, 22 November, 2013 by Niccola Shearman

Regine Rapp, Art Laboratory Berlin: Some notes on the Phenomenon of Perception in Contemporary Installation art, Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1988 (from the exhibition "Ten Characters" at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York). Photo: D. James Dee // Image Courtesy of Ilya Kabakov: VG Bild Kunst Bonn

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1988 (from the exhibition “Ten Characters” at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York). Photo: D. James Dee // Image Courtesy of Ilya Kabakov: VG Bild Kunst Bonn

In a continuation of this term’s investigations into the relationship between art and perception, this week’s Frank Davis Lecture concerned the spatial aesthetics of installation art. Central to the research of Dr Regine Rapp from the Art Laboratory Berlin is the application of reception theory in assessing the multisensory experience of the viewer when entering the spaces shaped by artists. Combining the physical with the conceptual, this lecture aired new experiments into age-old issues of reactions both to illusion in art and to the authority of exhibition spaces.

With multiple visual and audio examples, Dr Rapp’s talk examined how the viewer’s presence in and motion through an installation both completes the work and also induces a sense of being engulfed by an environment.  Depending on the situation, the response can be a kinaesthetic one, brought about by the body’s physical engagement with an environment, and/or a synaesthetic one that mixes sight and sound to disorientate and to distort the expected sensation of space and time. The former effect was exploited by the subversive strategies of Russian artist Ilya Kabokov working around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. His Total Installations worked by constructing an oppressive atmosphere that in one example took the form of a cramped artist’s room in a soviet communal flat, the chaotic pressure below contrasting with the sense of relief where the occupant had catapulted his or herself through the ceiling and into space. Dr Rapp commented on the 3-D trompe l’oeil effect of such works and their references to a controlled state environment, as illustrated for instance by the same artist’s hanging sculpture of flies arranged to form the outline of a Russian orthodox onion dome, itself position in a roped-off space.

frankdavisThere is an interesting element of institutional and consumer critique to the Transformation Installations in which Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl stages the deadening non-site environments of airports and trade fairs. While the audience would no doubt have agreed with the alienating effect of these carefully composed ‘still-lifes’ of the everyday commercial landscape, the productive insights to be gained from the splicing of illusion and disenchantment in cavernous expo halls were less convincing. Perhaps one had to be there …  Where I would like to have been is in the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin for the experience of the Ghost Machine, a guided solo walk behind the scenes and back in time mediated by audiovisual technology. Describing the physiological surround effects achieved by the artist’s recording of a script through a dummy head, Regine Rapp suggested that Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures-Miller’s interactive walks present a new form of art work that might be characterised as a ‘trompe l’oreille’. Certainly, in expanding the embodied aspects of exhibition and performance, this last example illustrated very well the project’s focus on the physiological response at the heart of reception studies. If there was something missing from the equation however, perhaps it was the weight of scientific evidence that, conversely, has been the prime concern of previous lectures. For more on this side, go to the  for information on recent collaborative research into the phenomenon of synaesthesia.

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Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (British Library)

Friday, 22 November, 2013 by Esther van der Hoorn

Georgians1Georgians Revealed, currently on at the British Library, marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I in 1714. The king and his successors would lend their name to a period in British history characterised either as vulgar and rowdy or as excessively obsessed with decorum and ideology. The British Library aims to showcase it from a more neutral perspective. Upon entering the first room, where from the ceiling hang garlands of prints displaying different aspects of Georgian life, we read that the Georgian period saw “unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes”.  With this opening statement, the exhibition sets itself an important, but difficult task: to give a general account of “the Georgians” by considering change as the determining characteristic of their times. Unfortunately, because of the isolationist perimeters chosen, the lovely display does not quite manage to do so.

As would be expected from the British Library, the exhibition impresses with an astonishing number of precious books and other printed material, mostly from the Library’s own collections. A section on “Reading for Pleasure” explains that the period saw a rise of relatively new types of books and prints, such as encyclopaedias, newspapers and commercial pamphlets. A fine example is the 1807 botanical encyclopaedia The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton, which is on display. As an institute promoting and facilitating access to the book, however, the British Library could have gone beyond illustration, addressing and questioning more clearly the importance of print culture to the Georgians.

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. 'Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic' Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. ‘Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic’
Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

Although prints and books are the most prominent features throughout the exhibition, several themes are complemented by the inclusion of paintings, costumes, and decorative arts. In a section on the social custom of drinking tea, a display is made up of Joseph van Aken’s 1720 painting An English Family at Tea, a wooden tea table, some porcelain, and two pamphlets on “The Conversations and Reflections at the Tea Table”. In another section, the birth of the fashion industry is brought to life by several costumes. In confronting us with these recognizable facets of modern life, the exhibition comes closest to fulfilling its promise of revealing the making of modern Britain.

But whose Britain is this anyway? The exhibition focuses on the emerging middle class, which grew to constitute one-third of the country’s population, and on London. While choosing to focus on the capital might seem reasonable because of the influence of the Georgian court on the eponymous era, generally speaking the exhibition seems to somewhat limit itself by indulging in the Georgians’ self-referentiality. These were chaotic and uncertain times: change always involves some sort of loss. The middle class appears to have responded to global expansion by establishing a popular culture that faced very much inward, as in the case of the strict rules of etiquette addressed by the exhibition. Although these reactionary dynamics are mentioned, the exhibition insists on presenting the Georgians only as ushering in modernity as progress, thereby allowing them to remain in an historical comfort-zone.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Despite these remarks, however, the stylish display, engaging themes, and beautiful materials presented surely make Georgians Revealed worth visiting. When doing so, do not miss Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk, a complimentary garden installation in the Piazza, which is part of the Cityscapes Garden Festival.

Esther van der Hoorn is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain is on at the British Library until 11 March 2014.

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The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure (The Courtauld Gallery)

Wednesday, 13 November, 2013 by Laura Llewellyn

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving her free lecture at a late opening

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving a free lecture at a Dürer late

The Courtauld’s latest exhibition offers a glimpse into the formative years of an irrefutable giant of the German Renaissance. Centring on Dürer’s so-called Wanderjahre, something akin to an extended gap year, it tracks Dürer’s four-yearlong travels in the Upper Rhineland and possibly also to Italy. But this isn’t a one-man show. Instead, through a collection of rarely-exhibited works on paper, the focus is on Dürer as a product of the artistic influences he encountered as a young man.

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478 © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Throughout, works by the young artist hang alongside a range of works by elder masters who Dürer came across on his travels, either in person or through their work. Particular (and well-merited) prominence is given to Martin Schongauer, who Dürer never met but greatly admired. His ten engravings showing Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins are enchanting.

At the crux of the exhibition is the Courtauld’s double-sided drawing A Wise Virgin and Dürer’s left leg from two angles. This work – one side beautifully finished, the other hastily sketched – is presented as a symbol of the two strands of the young Dürer’s artistic practice: a new emotional intensity in figure drawing and the sustained scrutiny of his own body. This lively union of experimentation and expressiveness also appears in a sketch of the Virgin and Child, where the artist’s own hands hover above the figures’ heads. In a self-portrait, Dürer seems to probe the limits of his ability with a daring frontal angle and his cheek resting in his palm, while a swiftly executed image of his young wife inscribed with the words “Mein Agnes” offers a rare and intimate snapshot into his domestic life.

Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92 © Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92
© Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Other drawings, like the Three studies of Dürer’s left hand, are highly finished and elegantly arranged. Such works seem anticipate an audience. This awareness of his viewer, as well as his excellent draughtsmanship, would help Dürer to become the master printmaker for which he achieved lasting fame. The important relationship between drawing and engraving is neatly illustrated by the Prodigal Son print hanging alongside its rare preparatory sketch.

The display in the second room suggests the curators’ conviction that Dürer did cross the Alps into Italy, a matter of on-going debate. Evidence of Dürer using Italian sources appears in an engraving of Philosophy displayed alongside Dürer’s drawn copy. The remarkable Men’s Bath is an example of Dürer’s stunning technical ability in woodcut even at this young age. In comparison, the woodcut from his master’s workshop hanging nearby seems almost course and stiff.

Albrecht Dürer Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94 © Albertina, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer
Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94
© Albertina, Vienna

Though not officially part of the exhibition, a small accompanying display warrants mention. This room recreates a famous lecture delivered by the influential cultural theorist, Aby Warburg, entitled “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” (1905). Tackling the challenge of staging the lecture in exhibition format is commendable, though it has only partial success. Without prior knowledge of the lecture, the cohesion of this room remains somewhat obscure. On display, however, are some of the finest engravings by Italian masters of the early Renaissances alongside some of Dürer’s most exquisite drawings and prints including the Death of Orpheus, Melancholia I and Nemesis. So all scholarly history aside, visually speaking this room is a joy and must not be missed.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure is at the Courtauld Gallery until 12th January 2014

Laura Llewellyn is a PhD student at the Courtauld

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Like an Eggshell minus its eggs: Frieze Art Fair 2013

Monday, 11 November, 2013 by Sarah Hegenbart

noname3The Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers once pondered about the question of how art contains meaning for its viewers. When looking at his beautifully fragile eggs exhibited at Hauser & Wirth at this year’s Frieze, one might wonder whether such meaningful art might be discovered beyond the spectacle of London’s renowned art fair.

A good starting point in the quest for meaningful art might be the variety of performance-based and participatory practice that one can find at Frieze this year. These art forms invite the viewer to take part in the construction of meaning so that one might suspect that they contain a high degree of meaning for the viewer when doing so. Given that these practices originated in the desire to create un-sellable art outside of any institutional contexts, it is surprising that Frieze incorporates these practices, which manifests somehow a reductio ad absurdum of their origins. Yet, does it work?


If one has a look at the re-staging of James Lee Byars’ performance ‘Four in a dress’ (a group of four performers is united through the same piece of cloth that connects all of them with each other) at Michael Werner, one quickly realises that it does not. Whilst Byars originally invited the audience to participate in the performance, a pedestal now separates the performers from their audience. The pedestal almost functions like an artificial value enhancer: the performance is declared to be an artwork of high value through the pedestal it is put on. This ignores the fact that the meaning of this piece might only be realised through the interaction with the audience. The irony is that the pedestal that was employed to emphasise the meaning of this artwork at the same time destroys it by drawing a gap between the artwork and its viewers.

Another piece that promises meaningfulness is Pilvi Takala’s ‘The Committee’, the recipient of the Emdash prize. The artist delegated her authorship to a committee of children from Bow who could decide what to do with her prize money. The committee concluded: “We want to build a five star bouncy castle” ( Takala’s work is certainly a nice and politically correct attempt to democratise discourse structures, but somehow the ‘Bouncy Castle’ evokes allusions to Angelo Plessas’ ‘Temple of Play’- a spectacular-sized word for ‘playground’ commissioned for the kids of those who can afford the exorbitant entry prices to Frieze (so probably not the children of Bow). Both promise easy entertainment and distraction. Is this why Plato was so worried about the shallowness of this kind of art that prevents us from understanding a significant meaning beyond mere appearances?

Frieze Art fairThe work that best captures the spirit of Frieze is Dan Graham’s ‘Groovy Spiral’ at Lisson: spectacular and expensive. It directly captivates and engages the viewer and fulfills the promise of being entertaining. Probably exactly these pieces that prompt brief excitement work best within a context in which the spectacle rather than meaning counts.

Maybe, Broodthaers was right to wonder: Has art been drained of meaning, like an eggshell minus its egg?

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld

The annual Frieze London exhibition was in Regent’s Park from the 17-20 October 2013.



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The Beholder’s Gaze: What do our eyes see when we look at pictures? (5th November 2013)

Sunday, 10 November, 2013 by Camilla Pietrabissa


Does pictorial composition lead the beholder’s gaze when looking at pictures? Is abstract art a universal language? Is artistic perception culturally-based? Issues of art reception are central to the research of Professor Raphael Rosenberg, invited to speak at the third Frank Davis lecture on Art and Vision. Within the Institut für Kunstgeschichte of the University of Vienna, Professor Rosenberg leads the Laboratory for Cognitive Research in Art History, where quantitative methods are applied to the study of ‘the beholding of aesthetic objects.’

By employing eye-tracker instruments, Professor Rosenberg conducts cognitive surveys on the way in which eye pupils move on paintings’ surface. Thus, the main object of his research is composition, or the reception of the arrangement and organization of the pictorial surface, which had also been the subject of the first lecture in the Frank Davis series in October. Works in progress at the Laboratory include “The cultural eye”, a paper comparing how Japanese and Austrian individuals look at paintings (the former focus on nudes, the latter on landscape!) and “Is abstract art a universal language?”, an article tracing the difference in the way experts and non-experts look at abstract paintings, namely Karl Otto Götz’s Bild vom 5.2.1953.

In his presentation Professor Rosenberg claimed that the results of such experiments could support art historians by adding scientific elements to the troubled history of art criticism, concerned with the account of the beholder’s gaze in the exercise of ekphrasis and in the account of aesthetic experiences (from Procopius of Caesarea to Diderot). Although the eye-tracking system will soon be used on museum visitors, at the moment paintings are shown on the computer screen, altering greatly the results of the paintings’ appreciation. In the case of abstract painting or architecture for instance, the “materiality” of the work is a most prominent feature of the aesthetic experience.

Cognitive studies have been interested in art theory for some time now, as the Courtauld’s Frank Davis series demonstrates in gathering several scholars from different areas. Germany and the United States have founded (and funded) a good number of similar projects, stemming out of the possibilities first envisaged by Semir Zeki and John Onians. In 1994, the latter was the editor of a series of essays offered to E. H. Gombrich for his 85th birthday and dealing precisely with the problem of reception in a wide range of contexts. Included in the volume, an essay by Michael Baxandall was mentioned by Professor Rosenberg as a pioneering application of some studies in cognitive psychology and vision carried out since the 1970s.

But in that essay, Michael Baxandall had revealed his scepticism for such methodologies: “Records of scanpaths [what is now called eye-tracking] can often seem disappointingly uninformative. Features fixated are mainly those one might expect” (p. 409). Baxandall also distinguished between levels of analysis, and wrote that cognitive science deals with low level of the visual process, that is, the first phases of observation: “Higher levels of the attentive visual process introduce different kinds of problems, particularly when the attention is to complex paintings, and for various reasons I do not feel the cognitive sciences invoked here offer art criticism as much broadening suggestion for dealing with those higher levels: for that one must go elsewhere” (p. 413).

Similarly, my main concern regards the focus on physiological rather than cultural aspects of reception. In fact, art has methodologies that are proper to its historiography, and deals with complexity. Conversely, by isolating the issue of the eye movement on a flat (virtual) surface, and focusing on one element in artistic reception, this type of research (as yet) cannot seem to take into account the complexity of artworks and the cultural discourse surrounding their ideation, creation, and display.

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