Medieval Work in Progress: Dr Robert Mills on Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Although given a rather moderate-sounding title, as soon as Dr Mills started speaking about the bestialisation of the human in the context of medieval torture and martyrdom images, the seminar on the 22nd of May, “Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal,” immediately became much more complex than initially expected (and for those of us with darker tastes, much more interesting too). Mills began by addressing theories of “Speciesism” and considerations of how violence is represented from the perspective of the animal, and deconstructed these ideas by considering what actually constituted “animal perspective” in the Middle Ages.

In this context, Mills looked closely at how animals functioned in a symbolic manner in the late medieval period, and how this informed the pedagogical functions of bestiaries, such as the Rochester Bestiary (BL MS Royal 12 F xiii) and another in the British Library, MS Harley 3244. This was but a springboard, however, for Mills’ exploration of animality within the category of the human. Drawing upon Aristotle’s claims that man is both beyond, yet also within the animal, and that “man is by nature a political animal,” he established that the distinction between “human” and “animal” is essentially porous – the foundation of his study of both animal and human slaughter in manuscripts. There were some beautiful examples of this – particularly in Leviticus 1 of the Bible Moralisée (ÖNB Vienna 2554, on folio 27r). On this folio was a richly illuminated, deep vermillion rendering of the flaying of a cow, with the corresponding moralisation equally graphically depicting the skinning alive of St Bartholomew. Here, the flaying of the cow was so vividly conflated with human martyrdom, and the torture of both cow and saint were represented almost identically. Similarly in another Bible Moralisée (Naples, MS Français 9561), the orientation of the humans and the animals undergoing torture was exactly the same, as well as the nature of the torture and the torment on their faces – an interesting revelation, considering the common perception of medieval attitudes towards animal rights. The martyrs are conspicuously dehumanised, heightening the effect of the torture, whilst the animals are simultaneously humanised. The porousness of the distinction is no clearer than here.

What I found most interesting, though, was Dr Mills’ idea of medieval books themselves literally representing the word-made-flesh – that the bloody, torturous image of the cow being flayed in Vienna 2554 vividly recalls the production of the parchment that the illumination is painted on; medieval parchment, also called vellum, was itself made from cow or calf skin. The parchment in this context becomes performative, and is an active component of the cow’s torture; “the violence on the page,” Dr Mills explained, “serves as an uncanny reminder of the violence behind the production of the page.”

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.