Tim Barringer, ‘Aspiring to the Condition of Music’

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), 1879, oil on canvas, 186.7 x 139.7cm. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco.

In 1879, infuriated at having been denied full payment for The Peacock Room, the daring interior design scheme he had created for the London townhouse of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, James McNeill Whistler satirised his miserly patron in a remarkable portrait. The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre transforms Leyland, shown wearing one of his beloved frilly shirts (hence ‘frilthy lucre’), into a deranged peacock playing a piano loaded up with money bags. While the piano is included here for satirical effect, mockingLeyland’s pretensions to the role of talented amateur musician, it also points to an important if largely overlooked connection between music and art in late Victorian culture. In a lecture this past October, Tim Barringer drew our attention to this neglected subject, using a series of visual and musical case studies (the latter relayed at impressive volume via the robust speakers in the seminar room) to give a more complete picture of the sensory worlds within which artists and collectors moved.

By the time of the Whistler-Leyland spat, the music room equipped with a grand piano had become a key space within the home of the connoisseur, where music and painting were enjoyed together as a single aesthetic experience. For artists sympathetic to the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, moreover, music could serve as the model for a radical kind of painting in which formal concerns take precedence over social or political ‘content’ (something which throws light on Whistler’s use of musical terms in his titles, such as nocturne, harmony and symphony). Yet, as Barringer went on to argue, works by late Victorian artists often acknowledge the alarmingly powerful effect of music on the emotions. In The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt, a piano is employed as a weapon of seduction by the male philanderer, who fingers the keys in order to spice up the atmosphere in the claustrophobic room where he is entertaining a female companion, probably his mistress. The young woman, though, wears a rapt, distant expression which suggests that her ear has been caught by sounds of a higher order – reformed preaching, perhaps, or the stirring harmonies of an edifying hymn.

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9cm. Tate Britain, London.

In discussing the aural dimensions of The Awakening Conscience, Barringer made the interesting remark that certain groups, including women, were believed to be particularly susceptible to the impact of music. One question left unanswered by the talk was whether contemporary scientific accounts of how sound operates on the mind provide additional perspectives on the visual material considered here. Possibly this is an area that will be dealt with in Barringer’s forthcoming book, one that the author admitted he is finding difficult to finish because the research is so fascinating.

Martin Myrone, ‘“Like a great circus tent”: folk art, art history and the museum’

George Smart, The Earth Stopper, early 19th century applied felt on watercolour paper background, 32.5 x 44cm. London art market, 2006.

It can be easy to forget how restricted a view of art production most of us really have. The works sitting pretty in our major museums and galleries are the towering emergent trees in our cultural ecosystem; while often wholly unrepresentative of mainstream forms of creative activity (being, as we say, ‘original’), they nevertheless absorb a disproportionately large share of the available resources: scholarship, exposure in exhibitions and publications, and money. At the other end of the scale – in the murky zone below the forest canopy – are the various popular practices known as ‘folk art’. This term encircles a formidably diverse range of phenomena. It can refer to artefacts which are recognisable as works of art, such as the small felt collage pictures made by George Smart, the tailor from Frant, as a sideline to his business. But it also encompasses context-specific performances (morris-dancing, story-telling) and activities so ephemeral or routine – traditional jam making, for example – that to refer to them as art at all requires a stretch of the imagination for most historians. In his talk on 1st October 2012, curator Martin Myrone explored the museological issues raised by the British folk art tradition, focusing on the question of how this fascinating but deeply problematic body of material might best be offered to the public in an upcoming exhibition at Tate Britain.

Lion figurehead, c.1720, wood and oil paint, 234 x 51 x 58cm. National Maritime Museum.

As the case studies which Myrone presented to us reveal, a key difficulty associated with folk art is its resistance to the various labels (author, date, genre, etc.) which museums rely upon to contextualise and interpret objects for their audiences. One of his most striking examples, the ship’s figureheads preserved in British naval collections, illustrate some of the complexities involved here. These anonymous wooden sculptures cannot really be viewed as instances of a period style because over the centuries they have been repeatedly stripped down and repainted. Nor does their level of craftsmanship allow them to be presented as ‘timeless’ aesthetic objects which can be appreciated by museum visitors without a supporting framework of historical information. Like most folk art, they occupy an uneasy position between high art and the straightforwardly functional.

The ambiguous status of folk art also carries a political charge. As one contributor in the discussion session pointed out, to transplant a work from, say, the Reading Museum of Rural Life into a prominent art museum like the Tate is a significant act of redescription, one which involves certain risks. If the work falls short of the high aesthetic standards with which its new home is associated, it may end up seeming hopelessly clumsy, vulgar or irrelevant; a gesture intended to celebrate folk art may expose it to ridicule. On the other hand, bringing unusual materials into the museum can also help to refresh our ideas of what counts as art.  It will be interesting to see how Myrone and his team choose to manage the challenges of folk art in a few years’ time.

Toshio Watanabe: Ryoanji Garden as the Epitome of Zen Culture

Ryoan Ji, Kyoto zen garden

The final lecture in the 2012 Frank Davis Lecture Series was given by Prof Toshio Watanabe, from the University of the Arts, London. At its centre was an extraordinary object, the Ryoanji Garden in Kyoto, regarded as one of the finest examples of the Japanese Zen garden. As we discovered in Prof Watanabe’s fascinating lecture, Ryoanji’s canonical status is a more complicated affair than the garden’s antiquity might suggest.

I have, I confess, very little knowledge of Japanese dry gardens, and the lecture slides filled me with a mixture of wonder tinged with bafflement. In the everyday meaning of the term, Ryoanji is scarcely a garden at all: it’s a rectangle of raked shingles, in which a small number of rocks have been significantly placed; the only vegetation is small patches of moss forming islands around these mysterious objects. The garden’s history, in Watanabe’s account, only adds to its strangeness: its designer is unknown, and it was constructed at some point between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (recent scholarship favours the later date). Its austere beauty, as part of the Ryoanji temple complex, clearly suggests a contemplative purpose, though the ritual or symbolic intent of its authors remains a matter of scholarly conjecture.

The subject of the lecture was not the history of Japanese gardens – though I would have been happy enough to sit through that. Watanabe’s theme was the creation of canons, a process that results, in Ryoanji’s case, in 300,000 visitors a year. It turns out that the origins of this pilgrimage are not lost in the mists of time, but can be specifically dated to the inclusion of Ryoanji in guides to Japanese gardens from the 1920s onwards. The key turning point was 1935, when the American author Lorraine Kuck linked the garden to Zen Buddhism in her book One Hundred Kyoto Gardens – previous scholars had been more circumspect in their claims, if they mentioned Ryoanji at all. The lecture then sketched out the progress toward Ryoanji’s present-day mythic status, passing through American transcendentalism (five million copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the Tokyo Olympics of 1964,  and the works of John Cage. At some point along the way, Kuck’s speculative theory of Ryoanji’s Zen credentials became hardened into certainty.

The joy of Prof Watanabe’s lecture was that it spoke, with great clarity, to a fundamental issue in the history of art. How do works of art enter the canon, and what does this inclusion signify? A simple appeal to artistic quality is, clearly, inadequate: works may be elevated or ignored for all kinds of contingent reasons. Watanabe did not suggest that we can do without the canon – it’s basic to cultural value systems, and to the creation of interest groups – only that we should be aware of the complex power relations that underlie them. And that, as the Ryoanji example perfectly illustrated, historians need on occasion to follow received wisdom back to its original sources.


Courtyard, Madrasa Bou Inaniyam Fez, Morocco

Courtyard, Madrasa Bou Inaniyam Fez, Morocco

This year’s Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, titled Histories in Transition, explores the theme of historicism in visual art of the modern period. For the third lecture in the series, Rémi Labrusse, of Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre, described idealist visions of the Islamic Middle East in nineteenth-century art and scholarship. Prof. Labrusse began the talk with an apology for his imperfect English, and then spoke in elegant English, and with perfect clarity, for the following hour. This was one of those rare moments, for me, which define what art history is all about: capturing the rich and complex ways in which artefacts and images incorporate the values and meanings of the culture that produced them. A tile pattern from the Alhambra, transcribed to a nineteenth-century pattern book, inflects the crisis in the self-image of imperialist Europe; or describes the shift from figuration to geometric abstraction in the history of decorative art. The narratives that intersect the visual object are never exhausted – and that’s what makes art history so fascinating.

Rémi Labrusse’s account traced two broad ideological tendencies that governed visualisations of Islam in nineteenth-century Europe. The first of these, termed orientalism, describes the construction of a fictive, exotic world, embodying values imperilled by the rise of industrial capitalism. In the works of painters such as Jean-Léon Gerôme or Frank Dillon, the Arabic world was projected as a fantasy realm, absent of modernity, an erotic blend of timeless sophistication and heathen barbarism. As Labrusse described, the inherent tensions in the imperialist project are implicit in the paintings: the ‘Orient’ was defined by its isolation from modernity, so these depictions can describe only its defilement, or its demise. Vasily Vereschagin’s horrifying Apotheosis of War (1871), a desert pyramid of skulls with feeding crows, echoes the meticulous naturalism of  Gerôme’s Arabian palace scenes: these are opposing perspectives on the same imperialist project. The history painting aesthetic, employed in the depiction of a fictionalised actuality, fails to suppress the underpinning brutality of nineteenth-century colonialism.

In opposition to the orientalist fantasies of the genre painters, Labrusse suggests that a more culturally sensitive, Islamophilic tendency emerged in European visual culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Studies of Islamic ornamentation, by authors such as Owen Jones, became exemplary texts in the movement to reform the decorative arts, following the aesthetic debacle of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Rather than serving as a figure of exoticism and colonial conquest, Islamic art offered, for the Islamophiles, a dazzling contrast to the decadent styles of the ‘age of ugliness’.

The lecture concluded with the outline of a fascinating hypothesis – my scribbled notes are a poor record of Labrusse’s subtle ideas. Among the reformists, he suggests, Islamophilia became a means of reformulating the Romantic project of classical renewal. Islamic tradition, unlike Greek and Romantic antiquity, offered a ‘weak’ model for European modernity, a path to aesthetic renewal without the oedipal constraints of the classical tradition. I am in danger of misrepresenting his arguments, so I better stop there. French readers can find more on this fascinating theme in Labrusse’s  Islamophiles: l’Europe moderne et les Arts d’Islam, published in 2011.


On the 20th of June 2012 I had the pleasure of attending Curators in Dialogue on the Persistence of Histories, part of the Revival: Utopia, Identity, Memory project led by Dr. Ayla Lepine, the current Andrew Mellon and Research Forum Post-doctoral Fellow.

As one of a series of events associated with this project, the evening’s presentations by Dr Scott Nethersole (Courtauld Institute of Art), Abraham Thomas (design curator, V&A) and Sonia Solicari (Principle curator Guildhall Art Gallery), were followed by a lively panel discussion chaired by Dr Caroline Arscott.

Revivalism was presented as a creative act that entails varying degrees of historical referencing ranging across historical periods, cultures, and media. The presentations addressed how collections, spaces and exhibitions can function as vehicles of revivalism, while the discussion brought up issues such as concepts of kitsch versus irony, the use of the term ‘neo’ and the different forms of mediation that are put between one period and another. By the end of the night, it was clear to me that revivalism has little to do with the recreation or reconstruction of forms from the past. Rather, it is about constructing new meaning through what Dr Nethersole called aestheticized evocations.

What struck me most were the layered levels of revivalism that were present in all three presentations. Each revealed revivalisms within revivalisms that extended beyond simply the appropriation of stylistic references.

Dr Nethersole spoke of his curatorial decision to evoke, but not replicate, the original viewing conditions of 15th Century Italian altar pieces in order to emphasize their function within a church setting. For example, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (c.1450), is placed within a classicizing Florentine Renaissance context as a result of its permanent setting in its own small room in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, itself a post-modern neo-classical revivalist design. However, it was originally hung as one of many elaborately framed altarpieces in a church, and when it was acquired by the National Gallery it was framed in a Victorian gothic revival frame. By emphasizing the viewing conditions over a continuous historical narrative, Dr Nethersole was able to achieve a revival of 15th century displays that created new opportunities for interpretation of the objects.

Abraham Thomas addressed the importance of the Alhambra for Owen Jones in the creation of his Grammar of Ornament (1856), and the subsequent interest in his version of Arabian motifs from the Egyptian Khedive. The romanticized photographic image of the crumbling and exotic Alhambra combined with Jones’ 19th century interpretations of its decorative motifs inspired the Egyptian leaders who sought impressive palaces that represented the latest in design and technology and yet harkened back to a non-western culture.

Finally, Sonia Solicari spoke of the self-conscious engagement with the reinterpretation of historical motifs as central to determining a definition of Victorian revivalism, or neo-Victorian. Here, the complex layers of mediated evocations at work in any revival were most apparent. The Victorian era was loaded with historical revivals: from Gothic, to Middle Eastern, to craft, and these were combined with vast advances in science and technology to create what we now consider Victorian ‘style’. Twenty-first century culture has engaged with its own revivals of these references, through steam-punk, taxidermy, a renewed interest in craft techniques and the cabinet of curiosities. In planning an exhibition of current neo-Victorian art, Solicari is faced with determining not only what makes an object neo-Victorian, but also why we are turning to this era once again. Her examples included Timorous Beasties’ ‘Devil Damask’ flocked wallpaper and Dan Hillier’s artwork for ‘Flush’, a track by Losers feat. Riz MC and Envy.

I left the talks wondering about the political motivations behind revivals. Though this was not addressed directly by the presentations, it was nonetheless apparent in the objects that were talked about and the various curatorial approaches to exhibiting revivalism that were offered to us throughout the evening. I am looking forward to delving deeper into revivalism, and its many facets at the conference in November.


History of photography seminars, organised by Julian Stallabrass and Pei-Kuei Tsai, explores the history of the modern invention up to the present day by inviting academics, photographers, and curators to give a lecture at the Research Forum on Wednesday evenings a few times per term. The first of the seminars this term was given by Dr. Sarah James, UCL. She was welcomed back to the Courtauld, where she read her PhD with Professor Stallabrass in the middle part of the 2000s.

The topic of the evening was the exhibition What is Man? (1964) at the Academie der Kunst in Berlin, curated by Karl Pawek. Seen by 25 million people, it was an important photography exhibition in the relatively early days of temporary photography exhibitions in fine art context. James gave a richly detailed presentation on the subject, situating German visual culture within the historical contexts of the Cold War.

This context was woven largely through the Americanisation of post-war German culture, and within this framework, James took a comparative approach to analysing the exhibition, using the American exhibition, Edward Steichen-curated Family of Man (1955), as a basis. James offered a view of German visual culture largely influenced by their fascination for American media, with What is Man? as a response to American photojournalism found in outlets like the Life Magazine. The success of both exhibitions among the public, and their display of humanity through photomontages helps to draw an immediate parallel between the two.

The comparison across cultures and time works because of Pawek’s documented interest in Steichen’s work. On one hand, there are many similarities between the two exhibitions, such as the usage of metaphotography, conservative humanistic perspectives, international reach, corporate sponsorship, and popular appeal. However, differences emerge upon closer examination. One of the notable was that Pawek’s exhibition was not being explicitly religious in nature, whereas Steichen’s included quotes from the bible. Steichen also left out information about the photos, as they were meant to be read as simple documentary representations, and while Pawek did not include these details within the exhibition either, he did include the information in the catalogue.

On a fundamental level, James argued, Pawek presented a consistently more heterogenious view of the world than Steichen. In Pawek’s exhibition, the arrangement of photos alternated and shifted between single portraits and photos of masses, rather than focusing wholly on thematic display as Steichen did. Pawek also chose not to exclude references to racial unrest, something largely avoided by Steichen. Some of the most effective examples were from the power of the images themselves, such as Pawek’s photos of war and its aftermath, such as the images of people who survived Hiroshima. Another was the exhibition’s display of bourgeoisie engaged in ritualistic situations. By turning the lens toward the exhibition’s likely viewers, Pawek brought more depth to the critical aspect of the exhibition.

To attributing the differences to a specific German experience, James offers an interwar German photomontage as another point of comparison, focusing on the changes in the German perspective in photography. James used Ernst Junger’s collection of press photography, The Transformed World, published in 1933. Although it reached the public in a different format, it offers an interesting point of contrast to Pawek’s work, particularly in the splicing of violence with the images of everyday, creating a “stereoscoping vision” that bringing depth to the depiction of reality. To what extent his view can be representative of German visual culture in the 1930s, especially with Junger’s complex and somewhat ambiguous relationship to National Socialism, is open for discussion, but the comparison may still be useful as Pawek and Junger does share a thematic interest. In using both Junger’s and Steichen’s works, James presented a well-constructed argument that sees Pawek’s work as reflecting an intriguing confluence of both visions, and offers us a German image of man transformed by the World War II, the country’s defeat, and the aftermath.

(Click here for images)


A response by Jane Scarth


“This is something essential to art: reception is never its goal. What counts for me is that my work provides material to reflect upon. Reflection is an activity.” – Thomas Hirschhorn

Having reflected on my notes from this lecture repeatedly, I am still not quite sure how to make sense of it all. This seems bizarre, because Thomas Hirschhorn’s purpose seemed to be to rationalise his art practise, and specifically his huge, immersive installation for the 2011 Venice Biennale, CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE, (Fig. 1) which I had seen this summer.

What I understood was that in using a belief system to justify what art is and should be (“because in art it’s a matter of believing”), and so Hirschhorn presented us with the three questions he needed to answer to reach the conclusion of the work. These were set in a framework of ‘The Four Parts of the Form and Force Field: LOVE, PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS, AESTHETICS’, at least two of which, he tells us, must always be present in his work, and all four are found here. Within and from these constant elements, Hirschhorn finds an appropriate motif, which is then integrated to create the whole. Each element leading to more inherent questions and each has an answer specific to the artist (taking the form of motifs, materials, themes, etc.).

To over-simplify the logic, in CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE they take these forms:


LOVE = the motif of crystal.

PHILOSOPHY = a desire for universality.

POLITICS = urgency and panic.

AESTHETIC = the crystal meth lab/B-movie set.


The result is an artwork that is explosive, an onslaught of ideas and references, fluctuating between being at times enlighteningly coherent and at others impenetrable. But such is the creative mind. It was explained that to enter the installation you go inside the head of the artist, and on leaving you will be taking home ‘a bit of my head in your head’.

The thing I found most inspirational about hearing Hirschhorn was his unrelenting questioning of himself and his position as an artist. He creates intricate mind-maps, which are works of art in themselves, (Fig. 2) to place himself in relation to his work and so he can always refer back and reassess where he is coming from. I think that this is similar to the experience of the visitor to the show in the sense of getting lost in an extreme train of thought and having to hold onto certain reference points to relocate yourself.

Therefore to my understanding, it is entirely appropriate that one of the four banners spray painted with Edouard Glissant quotes was “You have the right not to be understood”. At times in the installation I think I understood, and at times in the talk I certainly did. However now, with the two collected experiences, and retrospect, I am not really sure that I do. Yet I don’t think that it’s a bad or even an ignorant thing, but part of the nature of the work in its process of finding logical, universal conclusions to questions that are at times without answers.