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.

Giotto’s Circle and Medieval Work in Progress: ‘Illuminated Manuscripts: Art and Science’

The new research presented by Dr Stella Panayotova (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) at the Research Forum on 24 April 2013 is a perfect summation of the huge advances being made in the field of manuscript studies thanks to exponentially rapid developments in science and technology. Already relatively well-known works of medieval art were shown in a new light, as Dr Panayotova explained how the use of digital reconstruction can debunk certain myths surrounding medieval manuscript production that have been readily spread through literature. Such myths were based on the conclusions of a small selection of academics in an age before such impressive technologies were readily available and have been accepted largely without question by a majority of medievalists. However, the work of Dr Panayotova and the MINIARE project (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) highlights just how much more research there is to be done in the area.

In collaboration with the Getty, several manuscripts were subject to a variety of intense analytical processes in order to map out more accurately than ever the exact make-up of the manuscripts’ pigmentation. Here, the focus was on the work of Pacino di Bonaguida, a fourteenth century Italian artist whose oeuvre included not only illuminated manuscripts, but also altarpieces. The work for which he is perhaps most well-known, the Chiarito Tabernacle, also went under the microscope.

One of the most useful ways to use this new technology is to distinguish between different artistic hands, not just in manuscripts but in other art objects also. Indeed, it was amazing to see how delicate and subtle some of the stylistic differences between hands were – brushstrokes, for example, can vary greatly in a way that would have otherwise been imperceptible to the naked eye, such as the use of linear, parallel strokes as opposed to cross hatching. It also highlights similarities in the treatment of shadows – particularly noticeable in paintings of flesh and skin – thereby allowing us to draw links that would have perhaps been too anachronistic before. Viewing the manuscripts under UV lights allows for an analysis of the organic make-up of the pigments, what materials have been used and, therefore, which paints were likely to have been mixed in the same workshop or by the same artist and which were done separately. This may initially seem highly technical, but what Dr Panatoyova has shown is that using science in this way can allow us to give a lot more weight to arguments around the provenance of medieval artworks.

It was especially fascinating to hear Dr Panatoyova’s theories on the knowledge and use of colour optic theories in the medieval period, and how our ability to see the subtle techniques utilised by artists gives us much greater insight into how they were thinking about shadow and light. But this is only the beginning – the most exciting thing is speculating on how exactly these technologies might advance our research in the future.

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.

Modern Science and the Avant-Garde: Rethinking Alexander Calder

Vanja Malloy

I’ve always secretly wished I was really good at science and could do physics. My dad tried particularly hard to get me interested having studied it himself at university, but the truth is I never had teacher at school that could get me engaged unless it was art or drama. Now having found my ‘calling’ (at least for now!) in art history, I always admire scholarship that finds new ways of fusing the two together.

Fig 1: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Orange Anvil, 1960

Fig 1: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Orange Anvil, 1960

Bringing astrophysics into the study of Alexander Calder’s Constellation series (figs. 1 & 2) proved the ways in which an understanding of science and its role within the contextual climate can open whole new realms of meaning. The prospect can often seem daunting for those less scientifically inclined. I won’t lie about the fact that when the speaker began discussing cosmic nuclear gasses, interstellar matter, and the 4th dimension of space time, my heart sunk a little with the feeling my scientific ignorance would cost me a full understanding of the debate. However it is not just that these ideas explain the artwork, but it was argued that the artworks themselves are creative explanatory models for what were new theories about the cosmos, an explanation that certainly helped me!

In terms of art historical context, I was particularly taken with the discussion of the Dimensionist Manifesto (1936), created by Charles Sirato and signed not only by Calder, but Arp, Picabia, Miró, Kandinsky, Delaunay, Duchamp and Nicholson to name but a few. Clearly Calder’s astrological endeavours speak to a wider contemporary artistic phenomenon, and focusing on his particularly astute intellectual response in relation to this elevate him from his usually marginalised status. Indeed Calder had trained for four years as an engineer, and so his technical understanding most likely surpassed some of his contemporaries. The manifesto states:

“It is, on the one hand, the modern spirit’s completely new conception of space and time (the development of which, in geometry, mathematics and physics – from Bólyai through Einstein – is on going in our days), and on the other, the technical givens of our age, that have called Dimensionism to life.”[1]

It was suggested that every element of the Constellations colour, line, and shape are representative of specific scientific language and diagrams. As you may have noticed from my first blog post, I like unusual formal connections. Therefore I was fascinated by the comparison of the ‘hourglass’ shapes in Constellation with Two Pins (fig. 2), to the diagram of a light cone (fig. 3). It seems that in coming together within the artwork, these complex theories help to explain each other.

As with any Research Forum event, the depth of analysis was such that I could not fathom to cover it here. But I would like to end by reflecting on a phrase I can’t get out of my head, about making the connection. Calder’s works literally connect stellar forms with spindly stems, making connections between the shapes, which can be seen to represent scientific theories, and at the same time reminding us that the connection between art and science is often a lot closer than we imagine. Unfortunately I think it is the cultural heritage of Enlightenment reason vs. Romantic emotion (i.e. Science vs. Art) that tell us they are not, a barrier still often hard to break down.

Fig 2: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Two Pins, 1943 (Photo:

Fig 2: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Two Pins, 1943

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’ (Source:

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’