Review of HIAA Keynote Lecture by Jeremy Johns

On the second day of the Historians of Islamic Art Association’s Fifth Biennial Symposium, Jeremy Johns’ keynote speech offered a poignant and critical analysis of the state of affairs of the art historical field. Johns, a professor at the Khalili Research Centre at The University of Oxford, began his speech with news clips about the recent abolition of art history from A-level testing. Johns relayed the argument put forward by journalists and pundits that, “art history is too posh,” which he illustrated with a photograph of The Duchess of Cambridge admiring an Old Masters’ painting.

This introduction asked the audience to consider why art history is not easily shared with the public and why art history of the Islamic worlds are even more obscure to the general public? Between this cohort of renowned scholars, we often forget that this discourse has relevance and urgency for people both inside but also outside of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Research Forum. Johns’ keynote examines these questions thoroughly. He hypothesized that art history has diverted from the actual object. He posited that studying visual culture is actually just the practice of studying “things” and the “making of things.” Johns asserts that art history must return to this rudimentary goal in order to succeed in today’s trying times

Johns focused his first example on the famous Umayyad frescos of Qusayr Amra. He asserted that the new studies of these images and inscriptions were only made possible after the extensive cleaning and restoration of the site. This cleaning allowed for previously held beliefs on the iconographies of early Islam to be debunked. He then compared this issue with a well-researched site – the 12th century Capella Palatina in Palermo, Italy. This royal chapel, although well known and studied by art historians, is consistently confronted with breakthrough discoveries. As historians return to the architecture itself, they are finding more missing pieces to the puzzle. Ironically, the answers were right under their noses the entire time. In comparing these two historical sites, Johns demonstrated that the constant reexamination of objects and the ways they are produced can shed new light on human civilisation and tradition.

Johns speech then changed tone to examine his most recent collaborative project with the Labratory of Tribology and Dynamic Systems in Lyon. The project analyses and reconstructs archaeological techniques of artistic production. He found in his research on rock crystal art forms that there is a divide between practice of craft and knowledge of art. He asserts that there is an inextricable link between the physical labour of making art and the beauty, soul and originality of the finished product. In the Islamic sense in particular, this difference has a spiritual and divine context, elevating the art to a new level of importance. Johns closed with a touching anecdote about his family, more specifically, his grandfather who was an antiquing man. He taught Johns the importance of the tangibility of items and the desire for humans to work with such things.

As art historians, we have a duty to travel through time and different cultures and translate these past desires for the present. Johns’ speech truly resonated with the audience, from the most accomplished art historian in the room to the most junior like myself. His speech showed to me that the history of art is both reliant on the previous studies of others, but it also can and must evolve.

Conservation practice as a field of ethical, material and historical investigation

buildingConservation practice has long been kept away from the eyes of the public with museums seeking to draw attention to the aesthetic qualities of objects, which are often presented as seemingly untouched by time. The debate ‘How are Conservation Decisions Reached? The Dialogue between Curator and Conservator’ organised by students of the MA Programme Curating the Art Museum at The Courtauld in collaboration with the Research Forum, formed an attempt to scrutinise the interdisciplinary nature of conservation practices, as well as the collaboration between curator and conservator within an institutional setting. The discussion featured Dean Sully, lecturer in conservation at UCL, Rica Jones, former conservator in Tate’s Conservation Department, and Titika Malkogeorgou, an Associate a thet UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage & Material Studies, who has also been a Visiting Researcher at the V&A. All the speakers attempted to chart the intersections between curatorial and conservation practices, as well as discuss the modes of involving the public in conservation processes.

The event began with each speaker presenting their background and experience within conservation, and was followed by a discussion, first amongst the speakers and then the audience. Dean Sully mapped the traditional assumptions of conservation practice, based on the belief in preserving the physical object’s integrity through scientific enquiry. He also drew attention to the shift that has occurred in conservation practices over the past decade, which positioned the discipline between material and heritage studies. Conservation became therefore divorced from pure material inquiry and its potential to influence collective memory, as well as its ethical charges, have been increasingly scrutinised. This poses a number of challenges to the discipline has to encompass scientific analysis, art history and cultural studies.

While Sully focused on the importance of reaching out towards communities during conservation processes, Rica Jones discussed the relationship between curator and conservator. Speaking from her experience within the conservation department at Tate Britain, Jones noted the shift which occurred in that instituion’s approach towards conservation. While once loans and new acquisitions were given priority or the existing collection, now a more balanced system has been introduced. This system largely relies on the TMS database which lists all works within the museum collection together with a date for the conservation of individual works. This allows curators to plan forthcoming exhibitions and displays more efficiently, while conservators have sufficient time to examine and restore objects. With the rotation of displays every six months, works can be regularly examined. Jones noted that although such innovations as the TMS database have enhanced relationships between curators and conservators, it nevertheless remains essential conservators to inform the curators about changes that have occurred during the conservation process; conversely, it is the responsibility of curators to provide art historical information of importance to the conservation process.

However, it is also important to keep in mind future conservators. Titika Malkogeorgou noted that often conservators working within the same department at a later date will reach different decisions about how to restore objects. Choosing as a case study an eighteenth-century dress which has been in the V&A collections since the 1960s, Malkogeorgou noted that the object has been restored a number of times and each time a different conservation approach was proposed.

In the discussion which followed, the main difference of opinions were in relation to the role of the public in making conservation decisions. While Dean Sully argued for the inclusion of the public in conservation practices so that communities could develop relationships with cultural artefacts, Rica Jones noted that conservation forms a highly specialised field and while the public should be informed about ongoing decisions, transmitting all the specialist information remains difficult. However, the recent display of Joshua Reynolds’s painting The Age of Innocence at the Tate Britain, which was restored by Jones, presented the object alongside a detailed documentation of the conservation processes. The painting, inaccessible to the public for the past decades due to its poor condition, was therefore presented as both an aesthetic and historical object, marking a significant shift in display practices.

The debate focused on a number of issues related to conservation practices which had previously been discussed in public. Without doubt, the event would have benefited from the inclusion of a curator amongst the speakers in order to make the discussion about the relationship between curator and conservator more balanced. However, through bringing together curating students and professional conservators, the debate marked a significant step in the collaboration of both groups within the The Courtauld Institute. A model for such collaboration was the 2010 exhibition Cézanne’s Card Players at The Courtauld Gallery. The catalogue included an essay by conservators from the Courtauld Conservation Department, amply demonstrating how conservation is essential for art historical research and writing and also curatorial practices.

The Visual Brain and the Straight Line

The Courtauld Institute of Art

Caroline Villers Research Fellowship Lecture: How our Visual Brains Interpret Painted Lines

Tuesday, 4 February 2014, Dr Pia Gottschaller (Caroline Villers Research Fellow 2012-13)

Reflecting the focus of the Caroline Villers research fellowship, Pia Gotschaller’s work is mainly focused on technical art history. Her interests are decidedly modern, ranging from Lucio Fontana to Bridget Riley. Influenced by the work of Semir Zeki in the field of neuroaesthetics (the use of neuroscience to understand aesthetic experiences at the neurological level), Dr. Gotschaller’s research explores both art and the brain. The lecture examined how the visual brain interprets straight lines, demonstrating that there is nothing simple in them, and in their usual association with light, science, and human intelligence.

The lecture’s opening slide was Richard Hamilton emphatically figurative Swingeing London. These were contrasted with details from the geometrical paintings of Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha and Mark Rothko.

The speaker showed that ‘straight’ is the geometry of a crystal, or, in the 2012 film Prometheus, the ‘good guys.’ And yet, the real straight line – without depth or width – is only a mathematical abstraction. In human terms, the difference between the straight and the crooked is only one of degree. Whereas some artists used straight lines for their perceived semantic neutrality, others employed them to symbolise the machine aesthetic.

Straight lines as described by Dr. Gotschaller are not drawn with the help of pencil, but rather with masking tape. So that the history of the art she considers starts in 1935, the year when this type of tape became widely available. Using masking tape poses specific handling problems. For example, paint can bleed under the tape, transforming the most rigid of lines into a soft and wavy blur. Can viewers eventually tell that this hazy line was meant as straight? Or is the difference between the masking tape and the hand-drawn lines the expert’s call?

Dr. Gotschaller devised an experiment to answer this question. Her sample was a group of 40 interviewees, divided between experts – art historians, conservators and artists – and ‘non-experts’ – for example, bankers. Shown details of lines from modern paintings in quick successions, the participants had to instinctively differentiate hand-drawn from straight lines.

The images selected by Dr. Gotschaller were clearly bisected by a vertical or horizontal line. In fact, recent experiments have demonstrated that brain cells cannot interpret horizontal lines as easily as perpendicular ones. She also selected images where different colours created clear divisions. As she noted, the brain tends to interpret lines as ‘hedges’ between areas. Our eyes never fixate on monochromatic expanses, but rather concentrate on points of rupture and change, thus helping the viewer to focus on the line dividing different colour fields.

Surprisingly, both experts and non-experts scored high in Dr. Gotschaller’s test. When reading an artwork, we rely as much on our experiences of a messy children’s art project as on our formal training in higher education. Thus, the test highlighted the importance of ‘tacit knowledge’: as the philosopher Michael Polanyi explained in 1966, ‘we can know more than we can tell.’

Two days after this talk, my ‘Russian Constructivism’ class met for a seminar at Tate Modern. It is among the geometrical paintings of Tate’s Structure and Clarity Gallery that I realised how inspiring Dr. Gotschaller’s talk was, and how useful her exhortation to ‘look closer’ at every straight line will be in my future studies.