Ways of Seeing

“Visual Insights: What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain”

Professor Margaret Livingstone, Tuesday 22 October 2013.

For the second Frank Davis memorial lecture of 2013, the Courtauld community and guests were given a privileged glimpse into the workings of our own visual processing by Margaret Livingstone of Harvard Medical School. Applying developments in neurobiology to a study of pictorial reception, Professor Livingstone’s research in recent years has explored the evidence that artists also spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we see. Along with plentiful information on the finely tuned operation of neurons within the visual pathway, it was the interactive experience – facilitated by red-green cinema specs – which cemented for the audience the evidence of how the brain processes retinal responses to pictures, faces, and pictures of faces.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Those who had turned up to hear the big neurological reveal on the secret of the Mona Lisa’s smile were not to be disappointed, but first we needed the basic picture. Through diagrams illustrating the opposing actions of ganglion cells on the retina, which can both fire or repress signals depending on the area receiving light, Professor Livingstone demonstrated the dominant principles of luminance and contrast at the base line of vision. This evidence helps to access the employment of light and shadow throughout the history of art, from the uniform brilliance of haloes in a Duccio altarpiece to Impressionist experiments with movement created by subtle variants in light value. Such effects were further explained by a diagram of the primate brain showing the division of two distinct functions: the ‘what system’ which has developed to recognise objects, colour and faces; and the ‘where system’ which takes the more general role of detecting spatial relations of depth, distance, figure/ground, and movement. These separate functions are behind the puzzling effects of optical illusions and those red-green patterns familiar from optical examinations; and, as illustrated with works by Monet and Mondrian, are expertly manipulated by visual artists. Correspondingly, we were shown how it could be the difference in acuity between central and peripheral vision which is behind the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.

Returning to the visual peculiarities of artists themselves, the lecture concluded with an intriguing insight into the properties of stereovision and the likelihood of ocular misalignment or of dyslexia as a contributing factor in the artist’s particular facility in translating volumes into flat pictures. A graph based on Rembrandt’s depictions of his own eyes in a series of painted and etched self-portraits provided a convincing argument in favour of the research, as of Professor Livingstone’s parting comment; namely, that ‘if you can make a graph of the unlikeliest thing, you can get published’. The background to this science and its application to artistic vision are explained in Margaret Livingstone’s book, Vision and Art (2002), available in the Courtauld Library.

The Art of Collecting: Questioning Status and Practices

In this workshop, held on Thursday 13 June, Courtauld students Agathe Jacquemet and Amélie Timmermans set out to explore why and how people and organizations collect art. The afternoon began with a short video of three different collectors discussing why they collect, what defines them as a collector, and how they purchase and develop their collections. Following the video, Jeffrey Boloten, Co-Founder and Managing Director of ArtInsight Ltd, introduced the workshop’s speakers, who represented both private and public collections.

The first half of the afternoon was devoted to private collections and featured Philip Hook from Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Department and art advisor Alex Heath, who is Chairman and Managing Director of International Art Consultants Ltd. Hook’s lecture, titled Why Collectors Collect, presented a pie chart of the various motives for developing private collections: spiritual enlightenment, investments, status, and aesthetic/intellectual pleasure. Overall, Hook promoted the virtues of collecting for spiritual enlightenment and intellectual pleasure, concluding with, ‘You need to see your art in order to stay alive’. Heath’s lecture, titled Advising Collectors in their Collections, approached private collections from the opposite angle, examining the methods and factors essential to advising a broad range of collectors. Having little background knowledge on economic and financial theories, I found Heath’s treatment of art as a good to be consumed and his discussion of the importance of wealth management in building private collections to be particularly interesting.

The second half of the workshop had a very different tone, focusing on building public collections, particularly the Art Fund’s, discussed by Head of Policy and Strategy Sally Wrampling, and the Courtauld Gallery’s, discussed by the Head of the Gallery Ernst Vegelin. Wrampling presented several of the Art Fund’s joint purchases from the past few years and explained the process of helping other institutions acquire works with Art Fund support. She stressed the importance of the support of Art Fund members and donors to the success of the Fund over the years. Vegelin’s lecture highlighted the importance of three of the Courtauld’s own private collectors: Samuel Courtauld, Lord Lee of Fareham, and Sir Robert Witt. It was particularly relevant in light of the current exhibition at the Gallery, Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ’20s, which showcases the benefits of Samuel Courtauld’s foresight in building his own collection. According to Vegelin, ninety-five percent of the Courtauld’s collection is composed of gifts, making it a prime example of the fruits of meticulous private collectors. It also made it a fitting topic to end the workshop with, as it illustrates the transformation of private collections into public ones.

The Art of Collecting provided an impressive range of speakers and topics, highlighting the difficulties with and complexity of developing and managing both private and public collections and opening up further debate on the changing function and status of collecting art in the twenty-first century.

Light, Colour and Veils

Some conferences, such as last month’s Beyond the Western Mediterranean, set out to break new ground, but some are held just to celebrate and inspire. This was the mood for the day-long event at The Courtauld in honour of retiring professor Paul Hills. The duly prophetic Peter Mack from the Warburg set the tone for the day by explaining how Paul, with his deep pleasure in paintings, uses them as tools with which to think. Getting intense enjoyment out of a work of art is something I feel is a skill in itself. However, it seems almost selfish to indulge in if you can’t pass anything from the experience to others without pretence or arrogance, two words that could never apply to Professor Hills.

Highlights of the day’s papers included Jane Bridgeman’s explanation of the different sort of female head-coverings in Renaissance Italy: mantles, veils and wimples. It was stimulating to be reminded that the beautiful costumes of the Madonna that the Christ Child tugs at in so many medieval paintings are in essence a symbolic yoke of the repressed female. Beverly Louise Brown’s reassessment of Titian’s Jacopo Pesaro presented by Pope Alexander VI to St Peter was particularly lucid and revealing. Usually considered as a clumsy piece of juvenilia where the young artist could not even get St Peter’s mantle the right colour, Dr. Brown showed how Titian was working in a tradition of dressing St Peter in red papal robes, and the saint’s somewhat stilted appearance may have been an allusion to his statue in the Vatican of which pilgrims would kiss the foot. Paul Smith’s characteristically packed paper on colour theory formed an excellent closing to the conference.

What made the day special was the presence of actual art and artists: something Professor Hills surely appreciated. The print room had been prepared with a selection of appropriate master drawings, serving to bring people together at the lunch break and prompt rich discussion at this often awkward stage of a Saturday conference when many disappear up the Strand in search of calorific sustenance. Films were also presented, in person by Nicky Hamlyn and in absentia by Shirazeh Houshiary, which prompted thoughts on the materiality of the veil, as well as the noisiness of the 16mm projector (a topic for another conference). Christopher Le Brun, president of the Royal Academy, spoke openly about his own paintings: how by veiling the canvas in paint he unveiled his own persona to the world at large. It was a reminder that the creation of the work of art could be an uncomfortable process, much more fraught than the art historians’ task of picking it apart at their leisure.

I work with so many broken bits of English Gothic art, sad shadows of great works through poor drawings, all but demolished Abbey ruins. However this inspirational conference reminded me I want to see them as an art historian, and yearn to pass on at least a small fraction of the pleasure which they give me, to show that they are examples of beautiful and profound music in a noisy world.

Patterns of Dissent: Contemporaneity in South Asian Art–Subodh Gupta & The Routes of Success

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Being familiar with Subodh Gupta’s large-scale sculptural installations, it was surprising to hear him speak at The Courtauld on 21 May– for his particularly modest, humble manner of approaching his own artworks and practice was somewhat unexpected in light of his ambitious pieces. One thing the artist and his work clearly have in common, however, is that they are immensely powerful. His latest installation at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row, What does the vessel contain, that the river does not (2012) is a huge Keralan fishing ship, hand-sewn in the traditional way and filled with the everyday Indian domestic objects that Gupta is perhaps best recognised for, steel kitchenware, amongst other pieces of furniture, broken or whole. This miscellany collected within a symbol of travel and trade seems a fitting culmination of the fourteen years of work that Gupta discussed at the seminar, for his oeuvre is inherently tied up in his personal experiences.

It was interesting to hear the anecdotes that accompany some of his most well-known pieces, as they are linked to his life – whether they were events that had taken place, conversations he had had, or simply his own thought processes – as Gupta told us, “My journey is my art.” The importance of his discovery of Duchamp was particularly touching, and one that makes so much sense when considering his sculpture – the way he elevates the quotidian to something aesthetically beautiful is quintessentially Duchampian. For example, speaking about his works Across Seven Seas and Everything is Inside (both 2004) he spoke about how he used to travel to Europe via the Gulf, and on his return journey would see Indians who were working in the Middle East with large, tightly and carefully wrapped bundles. He asked people what they had packed in there, expecting them to contain fragile and precious items; however, they usually only held gifts for the workers’ families back home. He found these bundles, as commonplace as they turned out to be, so beautiful that he created the two sculptures based on them. Aam Aadmi (2009), a collection of incredibly realistic painted bronze mangoes in a wooden crate, is similar treatment of the everyday – and as “aam aadmi” (literally translating from Hindi as “mango people”) is a colloquial term used by politicians to refer to the “common people”, it becomes a celebration not only of everyday objects but of the general masses.

Gupta then went on to talk about his early years, the beginning of his artistic career in art school in Patna, how he initially wanted to become an actor, as well as his experience of working in the Khoj workshop in 1997 – a liberating environment where the artists could work free from gallery influence for the first time. Needless to say, it was fascinating to hear the experiences that preceded such an incredible body of work.

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.”

Memorabilia from an Age of Troublemaking – Liu Dahong and Katie Hill in Conversation

Liu Dahong, Gazing into Space. Oil on Canvas, 2011. Courtesy the artist, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong and Rossi & Rossi, London

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Dahong began his presentation on 30 April by stating that he has lived through three dynasties—the first being Chairman Mao’s reign, the second when he left power, and the third the current regime. He explained that this is the lens through which all of his paintings must be viewed. Liu’s work illustrates the merging of past and present histories by weaving references from his own childhood with contemporary political issues. It not only reflects his own histories, but also the nature of history as both an account of factual events and a myth composed of personal memories.

Sotheby’s Institute of Art lecturer Dr. Katie Hill engaged Liu in dialogue about the overarching themes present in his most recent series of work, ‘Childhood’, currently on view at Rossi & Rossi. This show presents the work, along with written text by Liu, in book form. During the conversation, Hill described this book as a kind of ‘textbook’ that was available for visitors to purchase and contribute to. As Liu explained, alongside the pages of his images and explanations were also blank notebook pages to which spectators could add their own impressions and thoughts about his work. This concept, he noted, comes from his continued practice of journal keeping, again bringing elements of his childhood history into his contemporary practices, merging his own history and opinions with those of his audience.

I was particularly interested in the dialog regarding Liu’s painting, Battling the Seaweed Sea (2011). Liu introduced this image with a folktale from his childhood about children who were brave enough to stay out with their sheep during a storm. Thus the image depicts two mischievous children peddling through the water ‘battling the seaweed.’ But as Hill suggested, the image also reflects contemporary ecological issues: the green sea signifies the extreme pollution. Again, Liu brings together the myths of his childhood with current histories, creating a visual link between the past and present.

Another link present throughout Liu’s body of work is one between the Far East and West. The first work Liu presented was a digital tour of a ‘Chinese Church’ to highlight the differences between Chinese and Western culture. Many of Liu’s works utilize Western, particularly Christian, motifs and structures to display distinctly Eastern themes. During the audience question-and-answer session, Hill and Liu discussed his reasons for adopting this format. Utilizing Christian iconography, but placing Chairman Mao’s image in it, demonstrates the widespread influence Mao had, comparable to that of Christianity. The Western forms facilitate the translation of the influence of Chinese political figures.

Overall, Hill and Liu highlighted this idea of translation—translating various histories and myths, translating childhood experience, and translating Chinese culture and politics into visual forms that can be understood and experienced by a broad and diverse audience.

Utopia III: Contemporary Russian Art and the Ruins of Utopia

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, 1968-88

In February, I attended the Utopia III conference held through the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre. The conference was the third in a series addressing the theme of ‘utopia’ within Russian art, with each focusing on a different time period; Utopia III focused on contemporary art. This was the first of the conference series I was able to attend, and it left me regretting that I had missed the previous two.

Days later, I still found myself thinking about the idea of utopia, both as it concerned Soviet art and as it connected to other realms of my academic and non-academic interests— particularly, my penchant for reading dystopian novels, which normally constitutes a wholly non-academic escape. I found the keynote speaker, Mikhail Epstein, particularly intriguing in this respect. His topic, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Russian Conceptualism’, drew parallels for me between the concept of the utopian he described, which he argued was grounded in philosophical ideas predating Soviet ideology, and the philosophical exercise that seems to be at the heart of many dystopian novels. Central to the genre, of course, is the desire to posit the ramifications of Soviet-era politics and totalitarian moments of 20th century history, but also often motifs drawn from classical-era philosophies of government.

Though by a strict definition, ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ are opposing ideas, they exist in tension, with the second reliant upon the first to exist. Both are united in a joint exercise in constructing an alternate version of reality: one optimistically plausible, the other existing in order to identify the fundamental flaws in the former. Though the term ‘dystopia’ was not investigated at this conference, I often detected the blurry line between the two. One example, used by multiple speakers, was Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment.” This installation artwork depicts the aftermath of the apartment belonging to the eponymous man in space. His cramped living quarters, wallpapered with Soviet propaganda, are now furnished by the aftermath of his successful space mission. Through the work’s highly narrative composition, the viewer is able to infer the action that preceded the current tableau, while simultaneously detecting the cracks in a supposedly utopian Soviet society: the propaganda feels suffocating, and must be escaped.

Epstein proposed that conceptual art is the visual counterpart to philosophy, and has been understood this way by some of the artists themselves. This proved somewhat controversial in the Q&A portion following his talk, although I found his argument fairly convincing. In my understanding of dystopian literature the connection seems apt: conceptual art, like literature, becomes a method of exploring abstract ideas in a concrete sense, as if running a simulation to prove exactly where grand theories, in our imperfect reality, will fall short.

Mark Cheetham, ‘Landscape & Language: from Conceptualism to Ecoaesthetics’ and Mark with Mariele Neudecker, ‘Re-Inventing Landscape Traditions for the Present’

N. E. Thing Co., Quarter Mile Landscape, 1969.

In the late 1960s, the N. E. Thing Co., a Canadian art collective, produced a series of interventions exploring the connection between landscape and language. They set up road signs next to nondescript stretches of countryside with messages like ‘You will soon pass by a ¼ mile N. E. Thing Co. landscape’, highlighting the fact that all it takes to turn mere land into ‘landscape’ is the addition of a short text. Landscape, the signs suggest, is simply where we are directed to look. For Mark Cheetham, speaking on a Monday in early October 2012 in the first of two events on the role of nature in modern and contemporary art, works like these are a stark reminder that our experience of our environment is always culturally mediated. In his talk, he went on to analyse some important recent artworks which approach nature through the medium of language. One early conceptual piece by Richard Long, for example, consists solely of lists of instructions on how to arrange sticks and other natural objects in the gallery. The lists draw attention to the display conventions that ‘tame’ nature when it is brought into the gallery, yet are themselves instances of these conventions (which usually remain unwritten); as such, they reveal the impossibility of capturing nature in a unadulterated form, even when, as with Long’s sticks, it appears to survive the conversion into art raw and unworked.

Mariele Neudecker, I Don’t Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run, 1998, mixed media including water, acrylic medium, salt and fibreglass, 75 x 90 x 61cm (with plinth).

The second event the following day gave us the chance to think further about these issues in relation to the work of artist Mariele Neudecker, who joined Cheetham to discuss the question of how the Western landscape tradition has been reinterpreted in recent art practice. Neudecker began by offering a survey of her career, focusing on particular works which speak to this theme. Characteristic of her thoughtful approach to the landscape tradition are her tank installations: backlit vitrines which contain miniature landscape dioramas submerged in hazy coloured fluid. These eerie, beautiful works reference the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich through their titles and appearance; at the same time, their relationship to this giant of the tradition is not one of straightforward emulation. As Cheetham noted later on, in the way that they demand to be viewed from different angles, and in their refusal to hide their central framing device, the vitrine, Neudecker’s tanks reveal the extent to which Friedrich presents a vision of the northern landscape cut off from time and embodied experience. I agree; but perhaps the tanks’ sensuous and explicitly visual response to Friedrich should also alert us to the fact that – for artists at least – the dialogue with tradition tends to be conducted in aesthetic as well as linguistic or conceptual terms. This can be an uncomfortable fact for art historians, who work within a discipline afflicted by an iconophobia so profound that it often seems more acceptable to look at anything (diaries, archives, inventories, texts, contexts) rather than the artwork itself. Events like this stimulating encounter between an artist and an art historian help us all to see a little further beyond our self-imposed boundaries.

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.


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.