Convened annually by two PhD students from the Courtauld, the Early Modern Symposium is an opportunity for scholars of all levels to give papers covering a period of almost three centuries, from around 1550 to 1800, and to discuss theoretical and methodological questions relevant to current research in the field. Anya Matthews and Giulia Martina Weston, who jointly organised this year’s event, proposed to explore the vast array of processes that make possible both the conception and birth of the work of art. Such a proposal was a perfect complement to last year’s theme, “Art and its Afterlives.”
The programme of the day dealt with the problems related to the study of workshops, of failures and successes of the creation process, and of the question of material specificity. It also suggested that we reconsider the role of the artist-creator in the wake of twentieth-century art historical analysis. This was why it was important to have several contributions focusing on the Renaissance, for it was then that the ideas of the artist as heroic creator and their artwork as a unique creation gained prominence. In her paper on Raphael’s workshop, Anne Bloemacher returned on the gap between the conception of the artistic idea and the delegation of execution. Sefy Hendler, by revising the issue of the paragone in fifteenth-century art theory, showed how a studio drawing by Parmigianino attempted to bridge the arts and offered a variety of vedute on one sheet.
Interior decoration was considered by Claire Gapper’s investigation of the development of English plasterwork as a necessary interaction of a multiplicity of figures – architects, draughtsmen, decorators and their patrons, some of varying degrees of competence (see image). Other interventions extended across periods. The rather intensely theoretical approach of Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros dealt with the history of the dichotomy heuresis/mimesis and proposed to integrate praxis into this paradigm, through the mediating use of iconopoiesis. Working on cultural and geographical distances, Carrie Anderson presented the case of tapestries with rather unlikely Brazilian fauna such as zebras and rhinoceroses donated by the governor-general of Dutch Brazil to Louis XIV as showing the exciting possibility of a transglobal exchange of ideas at an early period.
This is just a small selection from what was a long day, yet one which managed to retain its audience’s interest throughout with a wide variety of approaches and themes. The current interest in art-making processes is spurred by an increasing union of the old divisions of the historical field, encouraged by the universal assimilation of the issues raised by Aby Warburg and post-structuralist traditions. In recent scholarship, investigations across disciplines, bridging works and practices of different kinds and including material from science, popular culture and across time, are more the rule than the exception. However, if this conference was to be taken as a statement on the willingness of academia to deal with the question of process in art making, it would be inevitable to admit that, while the interest is there, it is too early to say which methodologies and themes will prevail in future scholarship.