Fifth Early Modern Symposium: Bringing Art into Being in the Early Modern Period (27th October 2013)

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros - Between Heuresis and Mimesis - Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators of the Creative Process

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros – Between Heuresis and Mimesis – Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators
of the Creative Process

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.”

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

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.

British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day (Victoria and Albert Museum)

British Drawings gallery

A brief look through the Courtauld Institute’s course options paints a bleak picture for the study of British art. Italy and France
dominate and I dare say an exhibition presenting graphic works from one of these more celebrated artistic nations would not attempt what the Victoria and Albert has: to survey four hundred years of British drawing (from Issac Oliver to Siân Bowen) in the space of two small rooms. Yet it works perfectly, the curators have been careful to make wide reaching selections in subject, media, and artist, choices that inject the exhibition with a vigour that to many people its title might not suggest.

Henry Fuseli - Portrait study of Martha Hess,1778-79.

Henry Fuseli – Portrait study of Martha Hess,1778-79.

What becomes clear throughout the exhibition is that British art has been holding its own for more than four hundred years: from indigenous Brits, such as Frederic Leighton, almost natives like Lucian Freud, to those who spent their professional life in Britain, such as Henry Fuseli, Peter Lely and Antony van Dyck. Each of these five artists, not surprisingly, shines through particularly strongly. Fuseli’s black and white chalk portrait of Martha Hess was a personal favourite. It seems to owe much to the delicate silverpoint renderings of female faces by old masters like Verrocchio. Yet here, surrounded by a Constable country scene and a furiously sketched William Blake drawing it seemed curiously out of place, serving to remind that British art has continuously produced a multitude of fine works. This is something the curators must have intended in their selections.

Whether intentional or not the show’s small size seems perfectly suited to the realm of drawing. More often than painting, it is a private artistic pursuit. While most paintings are created with a public of some form in mind, drawings are usually for the artist’s personal use. The lineage from brain to pencil can be a pure and uninterrupted flow, in which ideas, thoughts, and secrets move more freely than in painting. Witness of this flow, made manifest in the marks on the paper, seems to provide insight into the private mind of the artist. And so covering four hundred years of an art form in two rooms begins to make sense when drawing is viewed in this way. The V&A seems to have tried to emphasise this closed personal world of drawing by attempting to transport the viewer into something similar: two small rooms for meditation and private appreciation on the products of some of the world’s greatest draughtsmen. In the first room, a cabinet of sketchbooks, never created with a viewer in mind, further adds to this feeling. The anecdotal descriptions of the drawings match this urge for insight into the mind of the artist, for instance telling us of Jonathan Richardson the Elder’s urge to draw a daily self-portrait as a kind of therapy.

David Connearn, Mappa Mundi: Drawing to the Extent of the Body, 1984.

David Connearn, Mappa Mundi: Drawing to the Extent of the Body, 1984.

Any bigger, this exhibition would have been overwhelming. It takes on an often overlooked subject and presents it in all its variously imagined glories. Most importantly, it serves to educate about the very nature of the art of drawing.

Thomas Mouna is a third-year BA at the Courtauld.

British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day will be on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Room 90 until the 13th April 2014. Entry is free.