Visiting Curator Stephan Kemperdick

20150120_181056_AndroidThe Courtauld’s visiting scholars programme this term brought us the current curator of Early Netherlandish and German paintings at the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stephan Kemperdick. His three-day takeover of the Research Forum proved immensely popular, especially the opening lecture in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre: packed-out with people eager to know “What Happened Around 1430?” The answer to this intriguingly question-marked lecture title was quite simple: Jan van Eyck. Stephan showed how van Eyck’s painting of what he saw rather than simply what he knew rippled throughout Europe: albeit less “intellectual” painters who copied his motifs, such as cast shadows, rather than observing Nature for themselves.

Courtauld staff and students between plaster cast replicas of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême (?)

Courtauld staff and students between plaster cast replicas of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême (?)

The following day we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum Cast Courts with Stephan for a look at Early Gothic Sculpture. Essentially, we looked at fold style for about two hours: an indulgently obscure way for a group of art historians spend a morning. The stiff, decorative V-folds of the effigies of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart from Fontevraud Abbey we contrasted with a smaller, unknown queen who is often thought to be of the same series. Usually identified as Isabella, consort of King John, who died in 1246, she posed a problem. The much deeper, naturalistic folds that suggest the body underneath clearly separated her from the late-twelfth-century English kings, but also not advanced enough for the more monumental style of the mid-thirteenth-century. A look at Romanesque sculpture, such as the façade of Santiago de Compostella, revealed supposedly ‘Gothic’ ideas of folds in contrast to the alleged firmly “Gothic” Fontevraud monuments. We also had a good long look at the extraordinary Ecclesia and Synagogue from the south transept of Strasbourg Cathedral: both in their technical skill and their surprising sultriness.

Considering casts of Strasbourg Cathedral's Ecclesia and Synagogue, of the 1230s

Considering casts of Strasbourg Cathedral’s Ecclesia and Synagogue, of the 1230s

For his final talk, Stephan filled the Research Forum room to give an afternoon seminar of the history of the reception of the Ghent Altarpiece after its completion. What emerged from his study of the early accounts of the altarpiece – including Albrecht Dürer’s visit in 1521 – is that all of the viewers saw the altarpiece in its open state. Many of them seem to have visited on weekdays (it’s always special to realise an art-historical event happened on a Tuesday), outside of major feasts, when the altarpiece would be firmly shut. This meant that these viewers were considering the altarpiece entirely from an artistic perspective: never including the outsides of the shutters, which were presumably returned to its normal closed state after the tourists’ departures. However, the copy by Michel Coxcie, made for Phillip II of Spain and now split between Brussels and Berlin, Stephan showed was keen to replicate the work as a liturgical object. Not only were the folding wings included, but the original donors were replaced with the Evangelists: showing that function was valued over the precise subjects. After a good question session, Stephan’s visit concluded – as most things do at the Courtauld – with wine, and reflections on what had been a very stimulating few days.

Thank Francis It’s Friarsday: Art, Architecture and the Friars: New Work and Future Prospects (23rd May 2014)

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

This was no Friday, but a Friarsday, when the lecture theatre became like a plenary general chapter meeting of scholars working on mendicant art and architecture, discussing the large amount of scholarship that has recently appeared on the friars in Italy. It was a highly discursive day at which the Courtauld excels, highlighting the new avenues of enquiry medieval art history is taking in pursuit of meaning.

The first papers were given by Caroline Bruzelius and Erik Gustafson, focusing on the architecture of the mendicants. They investigated the social context of the friars’ vast hall-like churches, generally held as being tremendously influential on urban late Gothic architecture, a tall order for men who asserted monastic poverty. The architecture certainly suited the uncertain nature of their income from lay bequests: built piecemeal, but of high impact in terms of sheer scale. The twelfth-century reformed Vallumbrosan and Camaldolese monks were also shown as important precedents for both their rule and architecture, a revelation to many.

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

In the next session imagery took the fore, something the Franciscans are commonly credited in having an enormous influence in, trailblazing a new naturalism looking forward to the Renaissance. Janet Robson demonstrated through the fresco cycle at Assisi how we should not treat images as encoded texts, but instead as lived intellectual experience tied up in artistic representation. This was also how John Renner engaged with the statue of St. Francis in Siena, performing a sculptural exegesis on its form to interrogate it as an object of Franciscan belief and self-identity.

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

Donal Cooper and Claudia Bolgia returned to buildings to look at them as  as venues for art and ritual. What was revealed here was that narrow genres are unhelpful. Objects and spaces are not limited to one purpose nor does form prove function, the church had many spaces common to both layman and friar. Then the final pairing continued to investigate these concepts with more specific approaches. Amy Neff showed how prayer books could carry specifically Franciscan strategies of ascent through prayer outside the convent, influencing the wider world. Finally Michaela Zöschg took us beyond the visual into the world of sound: and how the female convent allowed not just avenues for seeing, but also for hearing, and how the acousmatic could even more so demolish ideas of segregated space and experience.

This was a conference not just of relevance to those who work on the religious orders, but also medieval art generally, and it showed how art history needs to branch out into many disciplines, methods and sources if it is to uncover the situation of the making of the work of art. One figure who cropped up in the discussions was T. S. Eliot, appropriately for modern medievalists, a trailblazing Modernist with great esteem for the past and tradition. “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice”, he writes towards the end of The Four Quartets. It seems however, with the variety of approaches embodied in every paper, next year’s art historians will need to speak in  tongues to really comprehend the intellectual and material context of mendicant art.

Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America (Saatchi Gallery)

‘Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America’ is a moving, intriguing exhibition of wide-ranging art from sixteen contemporary artists, often with complex socio-political influences. The diversity of media and raw talent of several of the artists on display promised a successful, unconventional display, something achieved in part. Unfortunately, something is missing.

This issue could relate to the vague curatorial purpose of the exhibition, evident in its very name; Pangaea refers to an ancient supercontinent, which united most continents in one landmass, and began to separate around 200 million years ago. The word roughly translates to ‘all lands’: an alarmingly wide theme to cover. Latin American and African art is rapidly gaining wider recognition, with recent art fairs such as 1:54 setting precedent for further platforms in London, and it is refreshing to see such art on display in such a prominent gallery. However, Saatchi Gallery offers no explanation for the specific combination of Latin America and Africa, other than their roles as former ‘sister continents’, and the ‘parallels between their distinctly diverse cultures and creative practices’. This puts the exhibition at risk of ‘otherising’ its contributors; emphasis is placed upon continent-of-origin rather than preventing generalisation by selecting a narrower curatorial theme.

Aboudia Untitled (Diptych) 2011 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas © All rights reserved - The Saatchi Gallery / Aboudia

Aboudia – Untitled (Diptych), 2011
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
© All rights reserved – The Saatchi Gallery / Aboudia

Despite this, many of the actual works on display counter generalisation. This is exemplified in Aboudia’s powerful canvases, carried out upon collages of newspaper clippings, including images of hair braiding techniques and African masks. This, juxtaposed with the violence of over-painted imagery of childlike figures brandishing guns, displaces simplistic understanding of culture by bringing to light the trauma of the political state of his native Republic of the Ivory Coast. The cacophony of vibrant colour, combined with an unsettling naivety of figuration, challenges Western expectations of primitivism, displaying instead politically charged imagery of the complexities of contemporary urban life.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou - Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) 2012, C-print

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou – Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) 2012, C-print, © All rights reserved – The Saatchi Gallery / L. R. Agbodjélou

This challenge to the viewer is also evident in the series of large-scale photographs by Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, entitled ‘Desmoiselles de Porto-Novo’. These works present semi-nude female models in a colonial mansion, addressing the viewer from behind wooden ceremonial masks. The series’ title suggests a play upon Picasso’s ‘Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, referencing the influence of African art and masks upon the development of cubism, yet with a melancholic realism which draws the viewer back to the social reality of life in Porto Novo, and the impact of colonisation.

Rafael Gómezbarros Casa Tomada, 2013 © Gabriela Salgado, © Saatchi Gallery

Rafael Gómezbarros – Casa Tomada, 2013
© All Rights reserved – Gabriela Salgado / Saatchi Gallery

Further highlights include work from Oscar Murillo, who draws on his experience of emigration from Colombia to London to create a chilling examination of class, cultural coding and migration of materials, and Rafael Gómezbarros’ simultaneously playful and macabre installation of oversized ants, referencing the plight of displaced immigrants. However, the exhibition’s overall effect is shaken by curious juxtaposition of such powerful and unconventional works with garish Pop Art inspired canvases and somewhat derivative abstraction. Having said this, any questionable curatorial choices are more than made up for by the quality of several of the artists on display.

Izzie Hewitt is a third year BA at the Courtauld.

Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America is at the Saatchi Gallery until the 2nd November 2014

Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné (1888-1944): From Cubism to Surrealism (St Petersburg Gallery, London)


The Sphinx of St Petersburg(1909) © St Petersburg Gallery

If every ground-floor window on Cork Street is alive with the lure of artworks, St Petersburg Gallery’s is ablaze with a kaleidoscope of colours and styles. Dazzling variety is indeed one’s first impression of Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné’s work, an impression strengthened by the exhibition’s title, From Cubism to Surrealism.

Indeed, from the realistic style of Mansions (1907), to the Cézannist landscape Red Roof (1910) via the impressionistic touches of Barges on the Dnieper (1907) and the green shadows of Nude (1909), Baranov-Rossiné’s early paintings seem to chronicle the discovery of the French avant-garde in Russia. Influenced by the artistic discoveries of the group ‘World of Art,’ these works seemingly reflect the international climate of turn-of-the-century St Petersburg, where Baranov-Rossiné studied. Yet despite their formative importance, these works are relegated to the gallery’s lower ground floor.

Baranov_Politech Sculpture2

Polytechnical Sculpture (1915) © St Petersburg Gallery

Greater prominence is given to works displayed on the gallery’s ground floor. With one exception, these are all from the period between 1910 and 1915, when, under the alias Daniel Rossiné, the artist was living in Paris among the well-known émigrés of the creative colony La Ruche.

Placed on each side of the entrance, Still Life with a Shell (1910) and Maternity (1910) reveal the impact of post-Impressionism and synthetic Cubism on Branov-Rossiné’s work. Unfortunately, excessive emphasis on these works prevents the viewer from seeing Baranov-Rossiné’s career as a unitary development, eventually presenting him as an eclectic creator without a personal style. On the contrary, sculptures such as Polytechnical Sculpture (1915), Rhythm (1913) and Dance (1914) are original experiments with three-dimensional form and unconventional sculptural materials such as polychrome metal, cardboard and even crushed eggshell.


Counter Relief (1917) © St Petersburg Gallery

The later Counter Relief (1917) manifests the same interest with three-dimensionality, yet employs a very different style. Marking the artist’s return to Russia after the Revolution of 1917 and directly borrowing its title from Tatlin, this work reveals Baranov-Rossiné’s willingness to embrace a new art for a new order. In fact, Baranov-Rossiné gained immediate recognition upon his return to Russia and obtained important official positions such as Head of Painting at the Petrograd Free Studios.

Despite Baranov-Rossiné success in Bolshevik Russia, no other work of this period is included in the show. Lack of information on this period is all the more regrettable for it is in Russia that the artist perfected his Octophonic Piano (1920-1923), a silent instrument which, when played, projected ever-changing coloured patterns through a magic lantern. Yet for all its whimsical appeal, little importance is given in the exhibition to Disk for Colour Music (1921-1922), now but a cracked and inert memorabilia of the artist’s life.

Around the disk, the artist’s earlier and later works are juxtaposed in a synthesis that is often hard to follow. Certainly, the resulting exhibition has striking visual dazzle; but fascination can all too easily turn into disorientation, as the viewer is offered no contextual information to decode this catalogue of heterogeneous styles.

Constanza Beltrami is a third-year BA student at the Courtauld.

Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné (1888-1944): From Cubism to Surrealism is at the St Petersburg Gallery, London until 29 March 2014.

Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture (Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium, 2nd February 2014)

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

The Thursday before the nineteenth annual medieval colloquium, the longest running of all the Courtauld’s postgraduate student conferences, was a very special occasion. It was the official launch of the new book of the Institute’s longest serving current lecturer, Joanna Cannon. Religious Poverty, Visual Riches is a long-awaited and sizeable achievement, and all were treated to a feast of black and white nibbles to match the habit of the Dominicans that the book focuses on as artistic patrons. But also much thought is given to the theme of boundaries in its pages. Not just between what is history and art history to create an engaging story of art serving the Religious Life, but also conceptual: what is connoisseurship and what is technical analysis. Most important are the boundaries of the very churches themselves: the spaces of the Laity and the Friars and the liminal areas between form the architecture of the book’s chapters.

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen's chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen’s chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

This was why the following Saturday conference was given over to theme of Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture. The first session brought us into the conceptual realm of historiographical geography and nationalism. Sophie Dentzer begun the day by showing the exuberant vaults of fourteenth-century England were subject to circumstances. Being often retro-fits on to earlier buildings, and not unknown elsewhere in Europe, consequently she advanced that the English Decorated Style may not have been as English as we thought. James Hillson similarly used his new research into the almost obliterated royal chapel at Westminster to show that some parts may have been designed and built nearly half a century later than usually proposed, 1340s rather than 1290s, to remind us that invention should not be tied to centres of power.

In session two, Federica Gigante’s illustration of painted textile showed how meaning could be carried across media: the draping of holy Islamic objects in fabrics into the painting of whole sections of Christian buildings in such patterns to demarcate their importance. But Maria Alessia Rossi’s extremely involved study of fourteenth-century pictorial cycles at Thessaloniki through the textual evidence of homilies and the liturgy reminded us that a work of art can contain different but parallel meanings. A contemporary audience could read motifs in multiple ways, and it is no mean task for the art historian to synthesise them into a single interpretation.

 St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene
in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

After lunch, we had consideration of objects that stood at a physical threshold. First Cristina Dagalita gave us a new reading of the tempting prince with a horrifying gisant back among the Wise and Foolish Virgins on the portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. He was identified with the fool “who said in his heart there is no God”, as pictured in the margins of Psalters, tempting the foolish Virgins away from the true door where Christ waits inside for His brides. Karl Kinsella applied an intellectual exegetical reading to Doors in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, a transition between realms: Earthly and Heavenly, pre- and post-lapsarian, Life and Death.

Synagoga at Strasbourg

Synagoga at Strasbourg

The day was brought to a close with one of the oldest boundaries of all: that of gender. Monica Winiarczyk showed Synagoga, the downfallen counterpart of Ecclesia, as a positive figure: an illustration of the Jewish people within salvation history, and therefore a potential bride of Christ rather than totally damned. Andrea Mattiello’s case studies of some fourteenth-century Byzantine churches in Greece with fascinating surviving frescoes showed that delimiting their two-storey spaces into male and female, priestly and lay, elite and common was more difficult than it first seemed. Finally Niamh Bhalla’s study of gender in Byzantine Last Judgements brought the day to a thoughtful close: an apparently misogynistic view of sin that was reinforced in a society with a extremely fluid concept of the performative act of gender: where does a masculine female saint stand in a culture of Eunuchs, celibate priests and the glorious Virgin Mary?

Such literal gendering reminds of the wider view of the importance of concepts of contraries, but also the vast spectrum in between which all speakers touched on throughout the day. The conversations within the community of the Courtauld and our gratefully received visiting speakers and audience this weekend certainly boded well for such far-reaching art historical discourses in the next generation of scholarship.

Daumier: Visions of Paris (Royal Academy of Arts)

DaumierposterSince its founding in 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts intended to create a venue to promote the exhibition and education of visual art. The Academy continues to teach the public with their new exhibition, Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris.

Honoré Daumier is displayed as a documenter of everyday life in nineteenth century Paris. He observed the people on the streets and the changing reception of art around him. Amidst the political and social climate, Daumier picked up his pen and created comical caricatures of the bourgeoisie for newspapers. Censorship was particularly adamant at this point, and while his images were continually published, it was not without consequence. His depiction of King Louis Philippe as Gargantua (1831) placed him in jail for six months. This dedication to art, despite public or authoritative opinion reflects Daumier’s pursuit for artistic expression. Visions of Paris enables the viewer to explore Daumier’s Paris in various media.

Man on a Rope, c. 1858 Oil on canvas Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Man on a Rope, c. 1858
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Even though Daumier didn’t create pictures from direct observation, his keen attention to human expression and behavior is readily apparent in his oeuvre. Each line, whether painted or etched is filled with such emotion that it begs the viewer for a second glance. At close range, the lithographs’ lines overlap and crisscross to create realistic, but also expressive, subjects. The technique used to shade every dip and curve transform a subject into an expressive gesture, like a string of letters that are linked to create a descriptive word. Each mark has its purpose, and even in his paintings, Daumier’s attention to line is clear.

In The Miller, His Son and the Ass (1849), Daumier’s brush strokes are deliberate.  The use of pigments starts to parallel the cross-hatching of lines in Daumier’s lithographs. This is especially seen in figures’ flesh, which creates a landscape of shapes on the forearms. The flesh of the laborers begins to shimmer and become more than just a record of everyday life. As the exhibition notes in its pamphlets, Daumier makes memorable pictures of ordinary moments.

Salon de 1857, Triste Contenance de la Sculpture Lithograph, second state, album impression, hand-coloured Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Salon of 1857, Sad expression of sculpture
Lithograph, second state, album impression, hand-coloured
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The lithographs are show-stoppers in the gallery despite the fact that they might be the reason why Daumier wasn’t considered a fine artist during his life time. A particular lithograph, Salon of 1857…Sad Expression, printed in Le Charivari, 1857, can serve as a metaphor for Daumier’s place among his contemporaries. In the image, the crowds at the Paris Salon are so overwhelmed with the paintings on display that they ignore the sculpture even though that it is coming to life. Sculpture, was placed lower on art’s totem pole, like Daumier’s caricatures. At last, Daumier receives the attention his caricatures in the Royal Academy.

Daumier’s wide-ranging talent is recognized in the display of 130 works. Two hundred years later, Daumier’s caricatures still seem relevant to contemporary viewers (I continually found myself silencing a few chuckles throughout the exhibition). The opportunity to see this didactic survey that emphasizes the artist Daumier as a painter, draughtsman and caricaturist for the first time in more than fifty years is not to be delayed.


Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Daumier: Visions of Paris is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 26th January 2014.

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm (Tate Britain)

Statue of the Dead Christ The Mercers’ Company

Statue of the Dead Christ
The Mercers’ Company

There are many ‘Histories’ to destroying British art, perhaps too many for this expansive exhibition of over 500 years. The main problem is that works with similar or contrasting messages are isolated from one another, and the chronological narrative is confused by redundant thematic subtitles. Starting at the Reformation, the exquisite early-sixteenth century Mercers’ Christ was a foremost victim: its agonised face and bleeding body – on Christ’s left neck a solitary vein protrudes with a dying delicacy – provoked ire from the iconoclasts. Four saints have been viciously scratched out of a late-fifteenth century painted screen, and in a rare 1380-1400 altarpiece the kneeling figures’ faces have also been attacked. To deface a portrait, it seems, is universally a stark act of iconoclasm. An English monarchist’s upturning of Oliver Cromwell’s portrait would work well, then, with the Chapman brothers’ graffiti on three Victorian portraits. There is an unexplored contrast to make between treating an image or portrait seriously – and defacing it seriously – and being content to scribble on it or turn it upside down. Otherwise, the Chapmans’ puerility baffles after such vigorous iconoclasm.

The Reformation’s campaign was to destroy the Image and replace it with the Word. This is shown well. A c.1500 Rood image of Christ was later whitewashed and scrawled with Biblical text (which would work well with Kate Davis’s beautiful 2012 palimpsests). In bold defiance of Protestant logocentrism the Little Gidding Harmony’s c.1635-40 beautiful book crams its pages with collaged images and complementary texts.

Another highlight is John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait of Henry James, thrice slashed by Mary Wood with a meat cleaver. But the Suffragettes attacked art differently from the Puritans, less for what it depicted, more for its status as the ‘cultural heritage’ of a patrician political establishment – a very different kind of iconoclasm. The exhibition tries to reconcile and generalise when really it should distinguish. If Wood’s attack on the Sargent was random, why was the attack on three painted late-Victorian ‘beautiful women’ a ‘symbolic act’, in the curators’ words?

Michael Wilkinson’s 2013 parody of the Taliban’s destruction of videotapes reminds us that censorship is still rampant. Yet censorship is different to iconoclasm and if there is a grey line between the two, it’s not until the penultimate piece in the show that we encounter it. Wilkinson might work well with Charles I’s autobiographical Eikon Basilike, redacted by Portuguese inquisitors, which languishes in Room 4.

Allen Jones, Chair 1969  Tate © Allen Jones

Allen Jones, Chair 1969
Tate © Allen Jones

Puritan-like objections to art resound throughout British history – how often it’s said Britain has a culture of words and not paintings – and this merits a lot more attention. The three general themes ‘Religion’, ‘Politics’ and ‘Aesthetics’ are vague and confusing. How were attacks on Allen Jones’s salacious 1969 ‘Chair’ ‘Aesthetic’ and not ‘Political’ (or feminist)? If it were both more relaxed and more precise about how attacking art can mean different things to different people at different times, this exhibition could go from an iconoclastic plethora of strands to a coherent map of pluralities.

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm is at Tate Britain until the 5th January 2014.