Review of HIAA Keynote Lecture by Talin Grigor

The final keynote of the HIAA conference was delivered by Professor Talinn Grigor of University of California Davis Arts. Entitled ‘Modernism as (a)Politics: Marginality and the Autotomizing Discourse on Architecture in Pahlavi Iran’, Professor Grigor charted the pivotal involvement of architects from religious minority backgrounds in the construction of a new Iran during the 1930’s to the 1960’s. The talk began by setting the scene that surrounded the advent of Iranian involvement with Modernist architecture. Grigor introduced Gabriel Guévrékian (b.1892/1900 – d.1970), an architect of Armenian heritage who became instrumental in the Congrés International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) (founded in 1928 and disbanded in 1959) alongside Le Corbusier. CIAM’s manifesto on architecture suggested an ambivalent relationship to the state: although there was a split between design and politics for many Modernist architects, there was an overriding belief that social problems could be remedied by urban planning and these mega projects needed the patronage of those in command of the state. In a political atmosphere where the Bauhaus met its end at the hands of the Nazis in 1933, architects needed to shape the nature of their relationship with power. As leaders of the Modernist movement dispersed to climes beyond Europe, Guévrékian accepted an invitation in 1933 from Reza Shah Pahlavi (r.1925-1941) to act as the chief architect who would erect a contemporary vision of Iran. This was a project that entailed superseding the ad-hoc quotations of Safavid (1501-1736) and Victorian decorative styles which comprised the urban schema of the previous Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) with a distinctly modern update.

Talinn Grigor

Grigor then took the opportunity to posit the key questions which informed her research into the subject of this talk. Firstly, why, given the staunch nationalist prerogative of Reza Shah did the most eminent Modernists emerge from Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities? And secondly, how did these figures come to pursue architecture in the first place, and then succeed in realizing the Pahlavi Modernist vision?

During the interwar years, those from Armenian, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Baha’i backgrounds came to serve as the pioneers of Iranian Modernism and built a secular vision for the country. Despite the homogenising policies of a new, burgeoning Pahlavi nationalism, marginality could be seen as a privilege: those on the periphery could enjoy both a degree of separation from the masses in belonging to a small community whilst taking a space on the international stage of Modernist architecture. This was also a process of integrating modernity into the larger Iranian polity. In an expansion on the structure of modernity laid out by Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r.1848-1896), Modernism gestated in the schools which were set up for minority communities. Vartan Hovanessian, the second Modernist architect to return to Iran after having trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, set out on building an arts academy for Armenian girls to serve the needs of the arts and women’s education. Institutions like this set the contemporary standards for architecture and attracted the attention of the Pahlavi cultural elite.

Meanwhile, Guévrékian worked to apply the Modernist aesthetic to all public structures. This new modernity was primarily articulated in the spaces of the bourgeoisie – spaces of middle class leisure, from swimming pools to cinemas such as the Metropole and the Diana that ushered in a new aesthetic. Innovation and interaction went hand in hand. The wealthiest families of Northern Tehran, however, interpreted Modernity though their own commissions, which created a clean minimalism of columns and dissected tiers that was informed by an enduring upper-class affection for the Neo-Classical. At the highest rung of society, imperial projects displayed an eclectic and revivalist style which borrowed from an inheritance of Qajar buildings, Sassanian motifs and Safavid conventions. Tehran’s green and white marble palaces within the Sa’dabad complex displayed this fusion of old and new, whilst the likes of Karim Tehrarzadeh Behzad oversaw projects for the north façade of the parliament building and the mausoleum of Ferdowsi in Tus, north-eastern Iran in an imposing, monumental style.

Bank Melli, Iran, Sandogh Pasandaz

The readiness of patronage, Iran’s economic buoyancy and its rich social atmosphere made it the ideal soil in which to plant an idiosyncratic, localised Modernism. The likes of Hovanessian, Mohsen Forughi and Keyqabad Zafar tried to remain apolitical, tussling between an Avant Garde spirit and the parameters set out by official endorsement. In journals such as L’Architect, practitioners set out architecture as a solely technical endeavour. Many even went as far as refusing the residual attraction to historicism; the past was not seen as the direction in which to approach the future, with the motifs of lions and cows – as quoted from the capitals of the columns of Persepolis – being perched outside the building of Tehran’s national bank being seen as implicit in “turning the capital into a zoo”.

Grigor ended her erudite assessment of the Modernist project within Iran with a broader consideration of how it then fostered the emergence of an influential elite of intelligentsia ‘from the margins’ during the 1960s. Artists, architects and poets associated with minority populations in Iran, from Marcos Grigorian, Behjat Sadr and Forough Farrokhzad to Houshang Seyhoun, all emerged as the next generation who oversaw the future of Iran’s modern incarnation, with women having a particularly pivotal role.  Encompassing some thirty years of Iran’s modern history, Grigor’s talk considered Iranian Modernism in its capacity as a ‘regional’ phenomenon as per the principal theme of the 2016 HIAA biennial. Not only this, but it located its genesis within an even smaller social geography, that of those figures at ‘the margins’ who embraced a novel aesthetic project and tried to maintain its distinctly apolitical philosophy within what were hierarchical structures of patronage and a distinctly nationalistic administrative atmosphere.

Review of HIAA Keynote Lecture by Jeremy Johns

On the second day of the Historians of Islamic Art Association’s Fifth Biennial Symposium, Jeremy Johns’ keynote speech offered a poignant and critical analysis of the state of affairs of the art historical field. Johns, a professor at the Khalili Research Centre at The University of Oxford, began his speech with news clips about the recent abolition of art history from A-level testing. Johns relayed the argument put forward by journalists and pundits that, “art history is too posh,” which he illustrated with a photograph of The Duchess of Cambridge admiring an Old Masters’ painting.

This introduction asked the audience to consider why art history is not easily shared with the public and why art history of the Islamic worlds are even more obscure to the general public? Between this cohort of renowned scholars, we often forget that this discourse has relevance and urgency for people both inside but also outside of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Research Forum. Johns’ keynote examines these questions thoroughly. He hypothesized that art history has diverted from the actual object. He posited that studying visual culture is actually just the practice of studying “things” and the “making of things.” Johns asserts that art history must return to this rudimentary goal in order to succeed in today’s trying times

Johns focused his first example on the famous Umayyad frescos of Qusayr Amra. He asserted that the new studies of these images and inscriptions were only made possible after the extensive cleaning and restoration of the site. This cleaning allowed for previously held beliefs on the iconographies of early Islam to be debunked. He then compared this issue with a well-researched site – the 12th century Capella Palatina in Palermo, Italy. This royal chapel, although well known and studied by art historians, is consistently confronted with breakthrough discoveries. As historians return to the architecture itself, they are finding more missing pieces to the puzzle. Ironically, the answers were right under their noses the entire time. In comparing these two historical sites, Johns demonstrated that the constant reexamination of objects and the ways they are produced can shed new light on human civilisation and tradition.

Johns speech then changed tone to examine his most recent collaborative project with the Labratory of Tribology and Dynamic Systems in Lyon. The project analyses and reconstructs archaeological techniques of artistic production. He found in his research on rock crystal art forms that there is a divide between practice of craft and knowledge of art. He asserts that there is an inextricable link between the physical labour of making art and the beauty, soul and originality of the finished product. In the Islamic sense in particular, this difference has a spiritual and divine context, elevating the art to a new level of importance. Johns closed with a touching anecdote about his family, more specifically, his grandfather who was an antiquing man. He taught Johns the importance of the tangibility of items and the desire for humans to work with such things.

As art historians, we have a duty to travel through time and different cultures and translate these past desires for the present. Johns’ speech truly resonated with the audience, from the most accomplished art historian in the room to the most junior like myself. His speech showed to me that the history of art is both reliant on the previous studies of others, but it also can and must evolve.

John Golding: Finding the Absolute (Piano Nobile, Kings Place)

3The title of Piano Nobile’s current exhibition of John Golding’s 1960s abstract paintings is a nod to the artist’s seminal work in the field of art history, Paths to the Absolute, which brought together his A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts series, given at Princeton in 1997. This rich yet accessible account analyses the deep spiritual quest taken by seven giants of twentieth-century abstract painting. Tracing the distinct journeys of each artist as they move from figuration to abstraction, Golding reveals that despite the differing methods and beliefs, these painters shared a common goal to attain an ‘absolute’ pictorial truth. For each of them, subliminal exploration and artistic experimentation were inextricable. Similarly, Golding’s painting also began in the world of figuration before moving gradually and thoughtfully through several abstract idioms. The works in ‘Finding the Absolute’ are significant in that they represent Golding’s earliest forays into the language of abstraction, a pursuit he would continue to develop and refine over the next three decades.

JOHN GOLDING Portman Square, 1965-66 Acrylic and oil on canvas 165.1 x 165.1 cm 65 x 65 in

JOHN GOLDING
Portman Square, 1965-66
Acrylic and oil on canvas
165.1 x 165.1 cm 65 x 65 in

Most of the works in the exhibition at Kings Place are on show for the first time in over forty years, yet they exude a freshness of spirit and maintain a thoughtful dialogue with the current revival of interest in abstract art. The paintings stand out as strong, lively statements in bold colour, yet they are characterised by a combination of complexity and multi-layered simplicity, as well as an attention to detail that demands closer looking—a practice that Golding also advocated in his formalist approach to art history. At first, the colours seem solid and opaque, but then the subtleties of their dappled surfaces begin to appear, offering a sense of atmospheric depth. The exhibition space is unique in that it allows the individual works to interact with each other across the large atrium and its adjoining hallways. Likewise, the hanging of the works animates a rhythmic energy of rebounding shapes and colours that goes hand in hand with the coinciding music programme of  ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’ at Kings Place.

Dr. Robert Travers, Dr. Charlotte de Mille, and Professor Paul Greenhalgh introducing ‘Finding the Absolute’ on Friday, 6th of February.

Dr. Robert Travers, Dr. Charlotte de Mille, and Professor Paul Greenhalgh introducing ‘Finding the Absolute’ on Friday, 6th of February.

Professor Paul Greenhalgh — current director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art and former student of Golding — introduced the exhibition on Friday night, taking the opportunity to celebrate the Kings Place show, as well as to announce another exhibition centred on Golding opening at the SCVA this weekend. ‘Abstraction and the Art of John Golding’ draws from their impressive collection to present a diverse survey of the origins and development of abstract art at the beginning of the twentieth century alongside a selection of canvasses by Golding.

Although his overwhelming success in the field of art history often overshadows his work as a painter, it was on the latter that Golding based his career and for which he wished to be remembered. With these two shows, Golding’s painterly responses to the materials, methods, and monumentality of his objects of academic study take their places among the giants of the abstract painting that he described so eloquently.

Jenna Lundin is a PhD student at the Courtauld.

John Golding: Finding the Absolute is at Piano Nobile, Kings Place until 4 April, 2015

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

By :

Katarzyna Falęcka

 

Forming the third lecture of the Spring 2014 Friend Lecture Series, Dr Heather Norris Nicholson’s talk entitled An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential, examined the ways in which non-professional film footage can serve as a fertile resource for the studying of the history of dress. The lecture series emerged from the MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920 – 1945, which investigates the common means by which fashion, non-fiction film and documentary images reveal new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Dr Nicholson, who is a Andrew W Mellon Foundation / Research Forum Visiting Professor at The Courtauld, proposed therefore to incorporate alternative sources of visual heritage into academic research. Many examples of amateur film are archived within the North West Film Archives, Manchester, and are readily accessible to scholars. The archive includes 36,000 items from the 1890s to contemporary video production, both professional and amateur.

As Dr Nicholson noted that both amateur film and dress history allow for an independent construction of self-hood and form a mode of communication, also expressing a sense of individual agency. This becomes clear in a black and white amateur film depicting adolescents dancing at a social club in 1957, in a small town close to Manchester. The continuous focus of the camera on the youth allows for the dress historian to analyse the local fashion, the means through which young people communicated their identities to a wider public and the relationship between local dress codes and the urban fashion standards in nearby Manchester. However, every representation requires an analysis of the conditions of its production. The film was made by a local paint manufacturer, who engaged with amateur film making as a hobby. This was not an isolated case; after the introduction of lightweight cameras in the early 1920s film making quickly became a popular recreational pass time in Britain. An increase in amateur film clubs followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heather Norris Nicholson

Heather Norris Nicholson

Amateur films were produced for a variety of reasons: documenting family life, travels, festivities, as well as capturing the steadily disappearing communal life styles. As a source, amateur film raises multiple questions. How do they relate to official imagery? What reasons motivated their production? And how were they used? The film footage by Michael Goodger, a teacher of liberal and general studies in Salford who sought to document the disappearing street life of a working class neighbourhood in Manchester, presents a private and intimate mediation of the changing urban landscape. Seeking to capture the fast changing face of Salford’s housing, he engaged with amateur film making in order to offer teaching examples which were familiar and relevant to his students, many of whom came from the Salford area. Goodger’s films were therefore motivated by the shifting urban ecology and had a pedagogical purpose. As an outsider to the communities he had filmed, Goodger adopted working class dress, at times even carrying a ladder with him.

Theorised by the magazine Amateur Cine World, amateur film steadily became professionalised. The shift from a private use of the camera to one that carried pedagogical and political implications, demonstrates a plurality of motivations for the production of alternative imagery. These films allow us to examine the aesthetics of the everyday, keeping in mind, however, that the camera often alters the scene represented. Nevertheless, amateur footage reflects a mode for storytelling and expresses an idea of self and society, which is crucial for the studying of dress history.

 

The Books that Shaped Art History (Book Launch, 31st October 2013)

Last night the Research Forum was celebrating  the release of Thames and Hudson’s The Books that Shaped Art History, a collection of sixteen essays by eminent art historians on seminal publications from within our still anxiously young discipline. Chaired by former director of the Courtauld, the infinitely amiable Eric Fernie, the session invited three of the authors to reflect on their pieces in a packed Kenneth Clark lecture theatre.

John-Paul StonhardJohn-Paul Stonhard both authored the essay on Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art and was co-editor of the whole publication with Richard Shone. Shone had composed a list of seminal books in 2007, which subsequently disappeared. This “lost list”, generated much fascination in the audience but as much that was revealed was that it had one book in common with the final (Fry’s Cézanne), but mostly the authors were the same. A helpful paraphrase of Gombrich: “There is no art history, only art historians” recognised how much personality dominated this evening. Clark was embodied by his own concept of the Nude; “balanced and prosperous”, and there was little escaping the ghosts of these figures this All Hallows Eve.

Susie NashLooming over Susie Nash was the spirit of Erwin Panofsky, grasping his Early Netherlandish Painting.  His book is an enormous achievement, a synthesis of material and ideas into a seemingly  impregnable fortress of apparatus, and perhaps this almost Biblical authority it seemed to exude led to antagonism towards it when Susie herself was a student. Yet  it was also Panofsky’s relationship with the object that seems remarkable within current methods of art historical interrogation. For Panofsky, the back of a painting rarely meant evidence for its provenance and manufacture, because most often it was the matte reverse of a glossy photograph. His book was written almost entirely surrounded by reproductions, often black and white, and this is evident in his text where occasionally he clearly has no idea what colour a painting was.

 

Paul HillsPaul Hills had a much more portable tome to review, with no footnotes at all. Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in Pictorial Style is often seen as the Rough Guide to Social Art History, yet Paul did remind us of its oft-forgotten subtitle showing that the inherent Form of paintings was still central to the investigation. Paul was the closest of all to his author, which allowed for a personal insight into its original context. Baxandall perhaps meant it as a challenge to the Courtauld, but in fact it was its sister institution the Warburg which was greater perturbed by his concept of “Period Eye”, seeing it as a redressing of the hoary old zeitgeist.

 

Inevitably, the thoughts at the end of this evening was if the presenters would be reviewed in “More Books that Shaped Art History”, who in the audience who would be considered for “Even More Books that Shaped Art History”, and the undergraduates in the Halloween Party downstairs who might make it into “Oh no! Not more books that Shaped Art History”.

 

Light, Colour and Veils

Some conferences, such as last month’s Beyond the Western Mediterranean, set out to break new ground, but some are held just to celebrate and inspire. This was the mood for the day-long event at The Courtauld in honour of retiring professor Paul Hills. The duly prophetic Peter Mack from the Warburg set the tone for the day by explaining how Paul, with his deep pleasure in paintings, uses them as tools with which to think. Getting intense enjoyment out of a work of art is something I feel is a skill in itself. However, it seems almost selfish to indulge in if you can’t pass anything from the experience to others without pretence or arrogance, two words that could never apply to Professor Hills.

Highlights of the day’s papers included Jane Bridgeman’s explanation of the different sort of female head-coverings in Renaissance Italy: mantles, veils and wimples. It was stimulating to be reminded that the beautiful costumes of the Madonna that the Christ Child tugs at in so many medieval paintings are in essence a symbolic yoke of the repressed female. Beverly Louise Brown’s reassessment of Titian’s Jacopo Pesaro presented by Pope Alexander VI to St Peter was particularly lucid and revealing. Usually considered as a clumsy piece of juvenilia where the young artist could not even get St Peter’s mantle the right colour, Dr. Brown showed how Titian was working in a tradition of dressing St Peter in red papal robes, and the saint’s somewhat stilted appearance may have been an allusion to his statue in the Vatican of which pilgrims would kiss the foot. Paul Smith’s characteristically packed paper on colour theory formed an excellent closing to the conference.

What made the day special was the presence of actual art and artists: something Professor Hills surely appreciated. The print room had been prepared with a selection of appropriate master drawings, serving to bring people together at the lunch break and prompt rich discussion at this often awkward stage of a Saturday conference when many disappear up the Strand in search of calorific sustenance. Films were also presented, in person by Nicky Hamlyn and in absentia by Shirazeh Houshiary, which prompted thoughts on the materiality of the veil, as well as the noisiness of the 16mm projector (a topic for another conference). Christopher Le Brun, president of the Royal Academy, spoke openly about his own paintings: how by veiling the canvas in paint he unveiled his own persona to the world at large. It was a reminder that the creation of the work of art could be an uncomfortable process, much more fraught than the art historians’ task of picking it apart at their leisure.

I work with so many broken bits of English Gothic art, sad shadows of great works through poor drawings, all but demolished Abbey ruins. However this inspirational conference reminded me I want to see them as an art historian, and yearn to pass on at least a small fraction of the pleasure which they give me, to show that they are examples of beautiful and profound music in a noisy world.

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.