“The CAA’s 100th Annual Conference couldn’t have come at a better time for the city…”
“Looking forward to warm sunshine…”
“I’ve seen so many people knitting during sessions. Is there a group art project happening that I’m not aware of?”
“I’ve heard rumors of a cage match between art history profs and painting profs tomorrow.”
“If the panel is not good, I’ll be devastated. Hard to suck the fun out of Polke.”
“How many people would watch a web stream of a CAA panel?”
“David Antin confronts mystery of Duchamp’s sugar cubes–and art itself–in acceptance speech…”
“A whole panel with ‘no talking allowed’ – excited for this silent format focused on visuals”
“This is like the art history Oscars...”
“This Rosalind Krauss session at #CAA2012 is PACKED! Morbid curiosity?”
“‘That was sooo graduate student’ – overheard at #CAA2012″
“So listen closely, Grasshopper, as I parse my infinite CAA wisdom into some key points…save the sweet talk for quiet moments…don’t put all your jpegs in one basket…I can now identify the conference dress code as thoroughly ‘biz cas’…Surrounded by aesthetics, it might appear very pure and civilized, but under the surface we’re dealing with the sordid world of ‘networking.’”
“Psychotropic drugs and yayoi kusama. Great transnational fluxus panel.”
” ‘Aztec rulers were cool and hot’ – Emily Umberger”
“Seriously, Kincaid its only secondary to Rockwell because nostalgia? #caa2012 me thinks not!”
“Love the idea of 4-dimensional calendars integrated into the Olmec landscape.”
“So far a good first day at #CAA2012 with solid papers. But oh do I tire of academic, “This is a comment / mini-lecture, not a question” Q&As”
“At the Job Hunt 101 session. Looks like its going to be pretty packed.”
The College Art Association conference kicks off today in L.A. I expect record tweeting this year, considering the number of people who’ve already reported boarding a flight to #CAA2012. On Hyperallergic, Jeffrey Songco shares his “10 must-see sessions.” Meanwhile, if you lost a yellow floral (eyeglasses?) case at CAA last year, you’re in luck: PSU Press kindly brought it back. We’ll be rounding up conference coverage from all over, and publishing some of our own, from various contributors. Happy conferencing!
The schedule of sessions for the almost-here College Art Association Conference in Los Angeles is overwhelming. Thankfully the abstracts have arrived to help clarify some of the content. While attendees will undoubtedly seek out sessions that pique their personal and research interests, I would like to suggest five sessions which are likely to appeal to a broad range of art historians by focusing on pedagogical and disciplinary issues.
1. The State of the Discipline
Chairs: Sandra Esslinger, Mount San Antonio College; Deana Hight, Mount San Antonio College
While many of us may feel we already have answers to questions this session is likely to pose, it seems important for anyone who wishes to imagine their future in Art History.
2. What Is Conceptual Thinking?
Chair: Steven Bleicher, Coastal Carolina University
Like conceptual art, conceptual thinking is an area that I find to be challenging for my students. I look forward to being in their shoes for a couple of hours.
3. Who Do We Teach? Challenges and Strategies in Recognizing Our Students, and Developing and Supporting Curriculum for Multiple Constituencies
Chairs: Joan Giroux, Columbia College Chicago; Cindy Maguire, Adelphi University
Speaking of being in their shoes, shouldn’t we strive to better understand our students? We spend so much energy helping them understand who we are and what we do, and I for one am often surprised by them.
4. Flying Solo: The Opportunities and Challenges Presented to the Solitary Art Historian in a Small College
Chairs: Laura J. Crary, Presbyterian College; William Ganis, Wells College
Though on it’s surface this session has a narrow focus, I suspect that many of the questions presented will be relevant to even those art historians in larger departments. I, for instance, fly tandem. Nonetheless I am looking forward to learning about how other historians have embraced the challenges of interdisciplinary pedagogy and small departments.
5. Technology in the Art History Classroom: A Hands-On Learning Workshop
Chair: Sarah Jarmer Scott, Wagner College
I’m always looking for new opportunities to engage my students. Many of the technological and pedagogical advancements I’ve experienced have made a positive impact on my classroom, and many of them have been more distracting than productive
[Craven] died Saturday from an apparent heart attack while playing tennis, his family said. Craven became a professor at UNM in 1993 and was the fine arts department chair for two years. He published 10 books and more than 150 articles in scholarly journals … Craven received his distinguished professor title in 2007 while at UNM. He was fluent in four languages and traveled the world giving speeches at more than 100 universities.
Chika Okeke-Agulu writes:
I just got this news of the transition of David Craven, one of the scholars whose work I really, really admired; a pioneer Latin American art historian in many ways. He contributed immensely to the development of rigorous approaches to the art history of modernism outside of Europe. And who will forget his tour-de-force essay, “Latin American Origins of Alternative Modernism“? Any student of modernism who ignores it does so at his own intellectual peril! But come to think of it; does anyone know of any invention more stupid than Death?
I belatedly note the sad passing of Dorothea Tanning, 101. There’s little I can add at this point to all that’s been said, though I knew her briefly, when in 2004 I fact-checked Jane Kramer’s New Yorker profile of the artist. Tanning’s aversion to phones and email necessitated that I twice trek to her apartment and once to her studio. Kramer instructed me to bring her champagne, noting her fondness for a late-afternoon swig, and I was never to refer to her as a “woman artist.” Tanning’s apartment brimmed with art and curios. My jaw dropped before a Duchamp rotorelief. She excitedly instructed me to set it in motion, “not something you get to do at MoMA!” she exclaimed. My inner conservator shuddered, but her commands were difficult to resist. Most everyone around her seemed to fear her utterly. I think she appreciated that I didn’t much. Not that I’m particularly brave; I just had no choice but to ask her my questions, and if one got me ejected, well then that would be that. None did, though silence often descended, and it persisted until I moved on. I’d say, “If you don’t respond, I’ll take that as a yes.” More silence. How much of that profile she actually agreed with, I’ll never know. She treasured mystery, in life and art, and that I appreciated.
The Courtauld Institute has announced
the sudden and entirely unexpected death yesterday, at the age of 66, of John House, Emeritus Professor of the Institute. One of the pre-eminent scholars of nineteenth-century French art of his generation, John served The Courtauld with great distinction from his appointment in 1980 up until his retirement as the Walter H. Annenberg Professor in 2010.
Alexander Nagel’s award-winning The Controversy of Renaissance Art focuses on Italy. In his words,
This book offers an alternative to the view that Renaissance art struggled to break away from the confines and superstitions of medieval religion, but at the same time it ranges itself against the more recent tendency to let the art fall back into a long Middle Ages of ongoing religious devotion, civic ritual, and institutionally driven art. Many characteristics that we now recognize as typical of a modern conception of art–the taste for aesthetic refinement beyond the value of the materials or even the degree of technical master; the ability to see and choose from an array of styles, and the interest in correlating styles to geographical areas and historical eras; an art modeled on literature not only in the sense that it takes literary material as its content but also in the sense that it demands to be “read” using the interpretative faculties traditionally demanded by literature–seemed to many like excellent tools with which to reform religious art … For several decades, the most experimental strains in art-making joined forces with the most advanced religious thought …
Nagel’s book is ambitious. His synoptic treatment of historical and theological contexts proves forbidding for this non-specialist. But his close-up descriptions of individual works are often accessible and sometimes stunning, reminiscent of Michael Fried at his best. For example, Here is Nagel on Jan van Eyck’s “Stigmatization of Saint Francis“:
We do have the powerful sense that the sun-flushed figure of Francis is a portrait of an actual person. The effect is strange, and not simple. On the one hand, the portrait quality is of a piece with the carefully observed rocks and cityscape, or details such as the furrowing skin on Brother Leo’s temple, pushed up by his hand as his head becomes heavier with sleep. These descriptive effects offer a kind of visual traction, insisting that we have broken through any iconographic convention of the “story” of the Stigmatization, that we have somehow been transported to the actual place and are eyewitness to the event. At the same time, there is something unsettling about all this description. The figure’s head, with those full cheeks and that incipient double chin, attracts inordinate attention. It is not just a recognizably human face, someone we could know, an effect made more pointed by the fact that his hair, mussed as it is, is cut in a style fashionable in the Netherlands in the 1430s. All of this produces an effect of doubleness and dislocation, the sense that someone is “playing” Saint Francis.
CAA announced the winners of its Barr and Morey awards, among others. Winning the Morey award for best book is Alexander Nagel’s The Controversy of Renaissance Art, “a compelling reexamination of the key paradoxes that define this era and the works associated with it.” The Barr award for best catalogue goes to Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance, “Maryan Ainsworth’s decades-long exploration of the artistic legacy of this place and time.”
(We’ll continue our reviews of the nominees shortly.)
One of four books nominated for CAA’s Morey Award, Michael W. Cole’s Ambitious Form: Giambologna, Ammanati, and Danti in Florence is a group portrait of three late Cinquecento sculptors. They are most often compared to their forerunner Michelangelo, but were just as influenced by each other, Cole writes:
Early writers make it clear that sculptors and their partisans mocked one another’s shortcomings, publicly … [M]ost vicious of all was the sculptor Michelangelo Naccherino’s denunciation of Giambologna, his former teacher, to the Inquisition in 1589 … We can only assume that artists so intent on undermining one another would also have paid close attention to the work their rivals produced.
Cole also puts the sculptors’ efforts into a larger context, in a belated attempt to bring T.J. Clark’s methods to the study of early modern Italian art, “to see the politics in pictures,” and specifically to ask how “shared ambitions led sculptors to become political actors”:
The sculptors worked primarily for a single individual, but the things they made addressed a broader public … The indifference they could show to any kind of market must have seemed a liberation as much as a limitation. This is not to say, however, that the Medici dukes deserve the adulation some recent fans of their collections have offered them. These were men who crushed the residual early republics of Europe, who unhesitatingly jailed enemies or disposessed them of home and property, and who invaded and colonized foreign territories, strategically using sculpture along the way. Exhibitions celebrating the dukes’ “treasures” and their “magnificence” have sometimes helped to render invisible these rulers’ brutality …
Cole evokes a time in which artists and patrons were outwardly pious but often much more interested in fame and power than the saints they were bronzing: “Giambologna, who may never have gone to mass or said confession … devoted much of his late career to the design and execution of chapels.” Those chapels bore witness not just to Giambologna’s genius but also to the godless score-settling of his patrons and their families. Cosimo de Medici (and his uncle, the Cardinal Giovanni Salviati) expelled the Dominicans from their own church, San Marco, flatly stating “San Marco was founded and built by my house and was mine, and I could dispose of it as my own possession and without license from His Holiness or any other person.”
Cole sees parallels between the late Cinquecento and today:
The artists this book concerns were working at the moment that the gallery was just beginning to take shape, the moment when it was just beginning to be possible for an artist to think of his or her paintings and sculptures as autonomous things. Not accidentally, it was also the moment when “Italian” art was becoming truly European, as the impact of travelers from abroad became unavoidable and as Italy’s products began in numbers to find homes well beyond the peninsula’s shores. It is a moment that suits our own, our identification of the modern with the cosmopolitan. Yet what we lose with our comparative, microscopic gaze is the experience of a place.
The National Gallery’s Edgar Degas Sculpture may look like your average permanent-collection catalogue, of the kind that well-funded museums are perpetually issuing and re-issuing for the sake of scholarship (and self-promotion). However, details of provenance and material history are truly fascinating when it comes to Edgar Degas. He was unusual in his materials and in the choices he made to not finish and not distribute so much of his work. His legal and intellectual heirs have proved nearly as creative in interpreting those wishes, triggering a variety of controversies. This catalogue wades into these flaps including the latest one with a passive-aggressive footnote: “A group of plasters reported to have been found in the Valsuani foundry came to our attention as work on the present catalogue was in progress. They are intentionally not included herein.” The attempt to draw such lines between “genuine” and “fake” Degas sculptures is always risky business and threatens to devolve into a charade that makes everyone involved look foolish. As Caterina Y. Pierre so aptly put it in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: “[The prospect of an authenticity symposium] has the potential of turning into un dîner de cons; all of the Degas bronzes, including the Hébrard casts, are posthumous, and archival records for all of the plasters and waxes are sketchy at best … all Degas’s bronzes that we look at are merely simulacra of, and have many degrees of separation from, the artist’s original materials and intent.” I wish the essayists in Edgar Degas Sculpture exhibited a bit more self-consciousness about the ironies inherent in their enterprise. I feel they missed opportunities to make observations about the nature of authenticity, a fraught subject for nearly all art historians (and scholars outside the field—witness the recent controversies over the publishing of posthumous work by Nabokov and David Foster Wallace). Perhaps such questions seemed too ethereal for such a doughty catalogue, but that’s just conservatism. That said, much “Degas sculpture” is interesting to look at on its own terms, and this catalogue provides a wealth of illustration and technical information. It gives you the blessed opportunity to decide for yourself what is real.
(Read our coverage of the other CAA Barr Award finalists: Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance and Imagining the Past in France: History in Manuscript Painting, 1250–1500.)
Next up in our CAA Barr Award coverage, a consideration of Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance: It delivers 484 pages of catalogue-raisonné detail, scholarship-packed analysis, and long-overdue re-evaluation of this neglected artist. It also overstates its case. Nearly every essay protests Gossart’s low reputation and minimizes his failings. “One of the most innovative and versatile artists working in the sixteenth century”; “the revolutionary nature of his art.” In their foreword, Thomas Campbell and Nicholas Penny compare him with Jan van Eyck, but alas Gossart suffers by this comparison, among others. For every stunning Young Princess (1530) there’s a Holy Family (1510), in which the Christ Child’s arm rests on his mother’s breast as if it were a Barcalounger, or a Virgin and Child (1532), where the boy has apparently impaled his genitals and had half his face transplanted to the other side by an early plastic surgeon. Countless Gossart heads seem to have found themselves on the wrong end of a chunk of falling masonry. Blessedly, the catalogue entries take a more nuanced view of the artist, calling him out on many an awkward patch of paint. Overenthusiasm isn’t such a sin anyway, and I’ll treasure this catalogue for some time to come. Be sure to read Homa Nasab’s interview with curator Maryan Ainsworth in ARTINFO and Andrew Morrall’s take in caa.reviews ($) (“It will become the standard reference work on the artist and the starting point of all future research”).
Also in caa.reviews, Katherine Manthorne considers ($) Kirsten Pai Buick’s Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject:
[This book is Buick's] anticipated full-length examination of this sculptor’s career. It is a thoughtful, groundbreaking study that should be a must-read for anyone interested in art of the United States and in a nuanced treatment of race, ethnicity, and gender. Buick’s book challenges late twentieth-century identity politics of current art history that maddeningly continue to insist that black or Native American or women artists reproduce their race and gender in their work … Buick situates her subject within the culture that shaped and instructed her in the cultures of “True Womanhood” and of “Sentiment.” But most of all, she reinserts her into the context of nineteenth-century American art, devoid of any hyphenated qualifier….
Contained within Buick’s reinterpretation of Lewis is a critique of, or at least a dialogue with, the field of art history itself … This is something that is definitely missing these days; the lively debates and disputes that used to pepper conferences and Letters to the Editors are now replaced with more politically correct and neutral comments … I find this willingness to take on one’s predecessors a refreshing breath of fresh air. Art historians need to recapture some of this give and take, as we shape the field for a new century and a new generation of scholars.
Caa.reviews offers a welcome if belated review ($) of Peter Stewart’s 2008 book The Social History of Roman Art. Brenda Longfellow writes:
In an innovative twist, Peter Stewart embeds a summary of social-historical scholarship into his book on the functions and reception of Roman art … Each chapter focuses on a theme that has received much scholarly attention: artists and workshops, domestic and funerary art, portraiture, political and religious art, and art produced in the provinces…. Stewart advocates focusing on the immediate context of art produced in the provinces and points out that imagery does not always travel from the center to the periphery. New styles, whether found in the provinces or introduced during later time periods, indicate different aesthetic tastes, expectations, purposes, and modes of viewing and should be judged on their own terms, not as failures to meet earlier standards or standards in other parts of the empire…. Accessible to advanced students and scholars in related fields, The Social History of Roman Art challenges many long-held assumptions and inspires the reader to consider new avenues of inquiry.
Meanwhile Sheila Dillon has reviewed Jane Fejfer’s Roman Portraits in Context, also from 2008:
[P]ortrait statues and busts were arguably one of the most important and prominent forms of Roman public art and played a crucial role in constructing and communicating Roman social and political identity. Fejfer’s aim is to focus on the reconstruction of the socio-historical and physical contexts of portraits, rather than on more traditional scholarly concerns of portrait typology, chronology, and stylistic development, although these topics are dealt with as well … Fejfer has assimilated and summarizes a tremendous amount of secondary literature; while this avalanche of data can sometimes overwhelm the reader, there is a great deal here that is new and interesting. Even those whose research specialization is Roman portraiture will learn a lot from Fejfer’s book…. The material is endlessly fascinating and visually engaging, and the many new and provocative observations and interpretations contained in this study should provide fruitful avenues for research in Roman—and Greek—portraiture for many years to come.
Wendy A. Grossman. Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens. Washington DC: International Art and Artists, 2009. 184 pp.; 23 color ills.; 259 b/w. $39.95
Wendy A. Grossman’s thoroughly researched and lucidly written exhibition catalog Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens effectively reveals the process “by which African objects, formerly considered ethnographic specimens, came to be perceived as Modern art in the West” (XII). Photography and Man Ray are both at the center of this process, and given the wide range of interest which converges in the catalog, it will be of great interest to a variety of readers. At the core of the catalog is the argument that the photographs by Man Ray and other photographers of African art objects from the early twentieth century are anything but neutral. Grossman demonstrates that these photographs, in fact, not only serve to elevate the objects photographed from the status of ethnographic artifact to art object, but also to incorporate elements of those objects into the aesthetic and conceptual discourses of Modernism.
One of the most impressive aspects of the catalog is the way in which it is positioned to appeal to a spectrum of readers. For scholars of Man Ray or Modernist Primitivism it is required reading, offering exciting new research into little-explored aspects of these fields. For students of these topics or those with casual interest, Grossman provides concise contextual histories near the beginnings of most chapters which serve to ground the reader in the topic at hand. Several sidebars serve to illuminate aspects of the project not directly explored in the text proper, such as Charles Sheeler’s photographic album of the John Quinn collection, and Man Ray’s cover image for Henry Crowder’s book Henri Music which featured a photomontage of African objects. A “Concordance of African Objects” follows main text, providing substantial context on the African objects themselves and adding yet another dimension to the catalog.
The catalog is organized thematically and largely chronologically, with the first two chapters discussing the relationships between American modernism and African art, and the context for Man Ray’s interest in “primitivism” in his early career. In the following chapters, specific episodes of Man Ray’s work involving African art are discussed in detail. Underlying much of Grossman’s analysis is the contention that the production of meaning in Man Ray’s photographs is based more on their context than any other factor. Given that Man Ray’s work was visible in such a variety of contexts, and to a variety of audiences, this important point is often absent in analyses of his photographs, as Grossman points out.
In her final chapter, Grossman discusses several of Man Ray’s fashion photographs that contain African objects. Here she makes a compelling case for Man Ray’s work as a vital link between the Modernist Primitivism of the avant-garde and trends in fashion and illustration that make use of African art. Others have noted that this final chapter is perhaps less resolved than the others, and may seem a surprising choice with which to end the catalog. I however tend to agree with some that Grossman’s last chapter effectively opens up the topic to further investigation either by Grossman or another scholar.
 Rebecca Keegan. “Wendy Grossman, ‘Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens’”. H-Net Reviews. April 2010. Web. 17 December 2011.
 Elizabeth Harney, “Wendy A Grossman, ‘Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens’; Maureen Murray, ‘De l’imaginaire au museé: Les arts d’Afrique à Paris et à New York (1931-2006)’; Peter Stepan, ‘Picasso’s Collection of African and Oceanic Art’”. The Art Bulletin. Vol XCIII, no. 3. Sep 2011, 381.
It’s awards season again. CAA’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Charles Rufus Morey prizes may not be as ballyhooed as the Oscars but they are coveted by members of the American art history academy. This week I begin examining the finalists for this year’s Barr Award, which is awarded to museum catalogues published between September 1, 2010, and August 31, 2011:
- Maryan W. Ainsworth, Stijn Alsteens, and Nadine M. Orenstein, Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance; the Complete Works (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, in association with Yale University Press, 2010)
- Suzanne Glover Lindsay, Daphne S. Barbour, and Shelley G. Sturman, Edgar Degas Sculpture (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2010)
- Elizabeth Morrison and Anne D. Hedeman, Imagining the Past in France: History in Manuscript Painting, 1250–1500 (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010)
First up: Imagining the Past in France. If you are feeling sentimental about the fate of the book, in this age of bookstore bankruptcies, digital competition, and limited attention-spans, then take heart. This catalogue will whisk you to an era when the book mattered greatly to its public and received the attentions of top artists. In her introductory essay, Morrison paints a touching portrait of those craftsmen, who struggled to adapt the religious illuminated manuscript to the secular topics increasingly prized by their customers. At first, they amusingly tried to cram complex narratives into drop-caps (“historiated initials”). This had worked with well-known Bible scenes, which can indicated synecdochally, but good luck with the War between Antiochus and Ptolemy.
Four excellent thematic essays follow Morrison’s, then a long series of detailed object entries. I most enjoyed Gabrielle M. Spiegel’s essay, which asks why the aristocratic public demanded secular histories in this moment. She identifies various ideological ends to which history was put, but also finds ways in which books slipped out from underneath and even subverted those ends:
The French aristocracy, no longer able to impose its needs and concerns in the governance of the realm, contributed to the dominant ideology itw own defeated discourse, achieving on a literary level the success that eluded it on the political … It is, perhaps, one of the finer ironies in the history of medieval historiography that the original quest involved in the French aristocracy’s romancing of the past should issue, ultimately, not in an idyll of a lost age but in a new vision of the French nation.
The catalogue is copiously illustrated in color, but the image quality being only average, its greatest strength is its prose, which breaks scholarly ground and addresses the general reader. It is particularly strong on the issue of word-image interaction, which seems increasingly relevant in our age that mixes the two so promiscuously, on- and offline.
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan
The National Gallery, London, 9 November 2011 – 5 February 2012
Gerhard Richter: Panorama
Tate Modern, London, 6 October 2011 – 8 January 2012
Two great exhibitions currently taking place in London, Leonardo Da Vinci: Court Painter at Milan at The National Gallery (until 5 February 2012) and Gerhard Richter: Panorama at the Tate Modern (until 8 January 2012), offer a telescopic opportunity to consider how artistic concerns in Western culture have (and have not) shifted in the last half millennium. Though the artists are from entirely different eras, these exhibitions share at least two common themes: the primacy of the artistic process, and the exploration of artistic illusions. Where Leonardo’s process is explored through careful presentation of his drawings alongside his paintings, Richter’s process is made explicit in the wall texts that accompany the exhibition. Some of Leonardo’s greatest innovations were his careful studies of nature and the lifelike illusionism of his paintings. Richter’s work on the other hand points to the false nature of illusions, and questions the authority of representation.
The Leonardo exhibition is small and very rich. Each room is dedicated to one or two Leonardo paintings alongside related drawings and works by his followers. The first room focuses on Leonardo’ Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician) of 1486-7, and frames Leonardo’s innovations in easy-to-grasp terms: he was one of the first artists to break out of the standard profile portrait formula dominant in 15th century portraiture. The Musician has the quality of a film still, as if frozen in some very subtle motion. The nearby Portrait of a Young Man from 1490-1 by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio sets up the theme of using Leonardo’s followers’ works as foils to the master, and that strategy works best here. This comparison heavily favors Leonardo, as his portrait has a sense of liveliness absent in Boltraffio’s picture. However, in some works which appear later in the exhibition, particularly some of the drawings in the room dedicated to the Virgin(s) of the Rocks, Boltraffio’s work is at times quite masterful.
Some of the most celebrated portraits by Leonardo come in the next room, where the Portrait of a Woman (The Belle Ferrioniere), c. 1494, and the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine), c. 1490, are arranged to vie for the viewers’ attention. That the cult of feminine beauty is still so dominant in contemporary culture surely helps these two pictures resonate with viewers. The crowds of visitors gathered in front of these women were practically impassible. In this case, one’s patience is indeed rewarded, as both of these pictures are exquisitely beautiful, with enough mystery to hold one’s attention for long periods. Despite the explanations offered for the awkwardly tense ermine held by Cecilia Gallerani, it just looks unsettling, particularly juxtaposed with the sitter’s delicate expression. The Belle Ferrioniere, however, unnerves you with her eyes. Certainly she is posed, and seems aware of the fact that she is being observed. Yet some clever, defining action appears to be taking form in her head, and we are left to imagine what it might be.
Focusing on Leonardo’s interest in the human anatomy, his unfinished Saint Jerome from c. 1490 is the centerpiece of the following room, with a dozen or so drawings that demonstrate Leonardo’s explorations of the human body. The Saint Jerome is a pleasant surprise simply because of how easy it is to see in this exhibition. At the Vatican Museums in Rome, the Saint Jerome typically hangs in small alcove which is dimly and unevenly lit. It is refreshing to see the work so beautifully displayed in The National Gallery, a rare presentation indeed, given how infrequently Leonardo’s work are lent out.
One little remarked upon advantage of this exhibition is the opportunity to see many of the Leonardo’s drawings from the British Royal Collection in the context of the artist’s practice. In this the case, the curatorial implication is that studies such as those hanging in these room are part of the process of developing paintings, like the one Saint Jerome was en route to becoming. Indeed, virtually all of the drawings by Leonardo in the exhibition are arranged to a provide a sense of the artist’s process, regardless of how tenuous the connection may be between the actual paintings and drawings exhibited in any given room.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the opportunity to view together for the first time both versions of the Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, dating from c.1485 and c. 1508. The earlier Louvre version is presented first, and its dark, mysterious presence is reinforced by the brightness and bolder coloring of the later National Gallery version. Many viewers prefer the Louvre version. It was painted first, and is generally accepted as more purely representative of Leonardo’s concetto. No doubt the sense of mystery that surrounds the Louvre picture is one source of its greater appeal. While it is of course a remarkable painting, I have to take the perhaps unpopular position the National Gallery version provides a better viewing experience in the context of this exhibition. The recent cleaning and restoration of this painting undoubtedly means that in its present state, it creates a viewing experience closer to the artist’s original intent than that of the Louvre version. Yes, the Louvre painting has had a life of its own beyond the grasp of Leonardo, and this history is presumably what the Louvre wants to preserve by leaving the picture in its present state. Yet next to (or across from) the Louvre painting, the National Gallery picture is gloriously crisp, exquisitely detailed, intensely colorful, and radiantly present. The Louvre picture is equally luscious, but heavily yellowed and desaturated. In fact, the stunning success of the National Gallery’s refurbishment hints at the possibilities that lie beneath the grimy surface of the Louvre painting.
The curatorial hand is perhaps at its strongest in the following room, where the painting known as the Virgin and Child (The Madonna Litta) c. 1495, is the focus. To its left hangs a beautiful Leonardo drawing of a woman’s head in practically, though not precisely, the same pose as the Madonna Litta. The drawing has the effect of making the Madonna of the painting look rather stiff and tired. To the right of the painting, a drawing by Bolraffio of the Christ Child greedily suckling his mother’s breast looks exactly like the version of the child in the painting. There is no conclusion from the way the visual evidence is presented other than the suggestion that the Madonna Litta is in fact not by Leonardo.
The theme of attribution follows the viewer into the next room, where the recently authenticated Christ as Salvator Mundi, c.1499, hangs, along with several drawings, the Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Yarnwinder), c.1499, and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (The Burlington House Cartoon), c.1500. In these last two rooms, the question of attribution, which in the case of the Salvator Mundi has been discussed widely in the media, has the potential to distract from pictures themselves. While the top portion of the Salvator Mundi seems remote and distracted, particularly the face of Christ (for which explanations have been offered), the bottom half is exquisite. Christ’s hands are the stars of this picture, both the elegantly shaded right hand in the act of blessing, and the left hand partially obscured by the deservedly much-discussed crystal orb.
Turning to the right, viewers find themselves faced with the large drawing known as The Burlington House Cartoon. Another one of Leonardo’s unfinished works, this one has the distinction of having been exhibited to large, adoring crowds during the artist’s lifetime. It is this aspect of the historical Leonardo that seems to unite his contemporaries with a twenty-first century audience. As the Salvator Mundi attests, Leonardo isn’t done yet. His oeuvre is a work in progress. Hence there is the pervasive sense that despite what we know about this great artist, there are things beyond our grasp which may or may or be made clear in the future.
One gets the sense from the timing and length of the Leonardo exhibition, the ticket price, and the lack of any special accommodation for the massive crowds, that The National Gallery did not foresee the frenetic popularity surrounding the exhibition. The exhibition is overcrowded, making it difficult to actually view the works on display while one is pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with other viewers. Given the institution’s dedication to public service and education, it would not be out of the question to expect some kind of special accommodation for the enormous number of people who otherwise would not get to see the show. I feel very lucky to have been able to see this exhibition, and I hope that The National Gallery could find a way to share this extremely rare opportunity with a wider audience. Of course any show of this nature is going to be crowded, but this one seemed to set a new standard.
While Leonardo Da Vinci: Court Painter at Milan focuses on a small portion of the artist’s career, Gerhard Richter: Panorama at the Tate Modern follows the stages of the artist’s career (thus far) chronologically. Whereas Leonardo is presented and understood as remarkably innovative, indeed practically without precedent, Richter looks to have spent much of his career absorbing the influences of, and reacting to, earlier artists and styles.
The topics around which the fourteen rooms are arranged vary from Richter’s rejection of Abstract Expressionism (though the specific term is avoided), to his interest in the constructed nature of landscape, to his attempts to address the intersections of political and personal history. Over one hundred works are presented in the well-lit, evenly spaced galleries, creating a refreshingly comfortable viewing experience.
Oscillating between the extremes of painterly photo-realism and pure abstraction, Richter’s oeuvre is united by themes of representation and history, or art history. One aspect of Richter’s delicately painterly images drawn from photographs is to question photography’s claim to any sort of truth. They often succeed in stealing back the authority of representation from photography itself. The wall texts emphasize the artist’s process, describing his motivations and techniques in any given phase of his career. In Richter’s case, the wall labels function as the drawings did for Leonardo, creating an overall sense of what the artist was trying to achieve and helping viewers identify with him.
Some of the most simply beautiful paintings by Richter are his large seascapes, such as Seascape (Cloudy) from 1969. One is confronted not only with an elegantly modeled surface, but also with the sense of viewing something much bigger than oneself. The deliberate painterliness of the otherwise precise pictures builds enough visual tension to open the picture to concerns outside of the raw beauty of nature and the viewer’s place in the vast openness. Here, wall texts explain Richter’s large seascapes as his attempt to deal with Romanticism, something about which the artist has serious critiques, but nonetheless can’t seem to write off.
Perhaps the most conspicuous example of Richter’s practice of incorporating elements drawn from other artists into his works is his 1973 repainting of Titian’s Annunciation of 1535, housed at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. The re-presentation is largely faithful, save for the textured softness which for many has become Richter’s trademark. Up close, Richter’s Annunciation looks almost abstract, as pools of color spill into one another. From across the room the picture glows, taking on a cinematic quality and suggesting the sort of mysterious spirituality one imagines that Titian sought to evoke in his own viewers.
On the next wall in the same room hang three large paintings of clouds dating from 1970. Each is colorful, delicate, and comfortable in its status as a painting. At this point in the show the viewer is tempted is to find comparative examples from the history of art in order to explain the cloud paintings. Wall texts help direct viewers toward Dutch landscape painting, but given Richter’s interest in photography I couldn’t help but think of Edward Steichen’s Equivalents series, an early twentieth century attempt to make photographs which would perceived as Art.
Richter’s purely abstract paintings (such as Abstract Painting, 1977) stand out in his oeuvre for his acidic use of color, which at times is quite jarring. These are certainly the loudest of Richter’s works, and they underlie his career-long interest in the tension between abstraction and representation. One curatorial curiosity of this exhibition was the placement of one or two small pictures of flowers (for example, Flowers, 1977) in rooms filled with large abstract paintings. Rather than provide a meaningful counterpoint, they serve to confuse the viewer’s understanding of the curatorial presentation, and no explanation is offered.
Both the Richter show and the Leonardo show continue with additional displays after they appear to have ended. In the case of The National Gallery, Leonardo’s fresco of The Last Supper from the convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, c.1478, is the subject of the additional room (which one finds on the first floor of the main building, entirely separated from the rest of the exhibition). Several drawings from Her Majesty The Queen’s collection set up the viewer for Giampietrino’s contemporary full-scale copy of the work from 1520, on loan from The Royal Academy of Art, London. The awkwardness of the placement of this final room is quickly forgotten, given the power of the works on display. In the case of the Richter exhibition, a final exhibition room appears after exiting through the café and gift shop, and it indeed seems like an afterthought.
Richter has been so successful at absorbing and re-presenting so many different styles that most viewers will find something intriguing on offer at the Tate Modern. Furthermore, viewers should find it easy to step into the artist’s shoes and re-imagine his process. That is, of course, a central source of fascination with Leonardo’s drawings: the opportunity to try and see his mind at work. His finished paintings, of which there are precious few, display his mastery of unsettling illusions, the kinds of illusions that Richter would deliberately deconstruct by painting in a way that is simultaneously photorealistic and painterly. The Richter exhibition is an utterly pleasant experience, with a well-paced presentation and none of the madness surrounding the National Gallery exhibition. The Leonardo show is somewhat of an exercise in patience. Yet the works on display are so rarely viewed in this sort of context, and so fundamentally worth viewing, that one’s patience is indeed greatly rewarded.
An art magazine recently commissioned me to report an article on “global art history,” i.e. Western art historians trying to get the discipline to look outside the West more often. In the end, the magazine and I couldn’t get the article into a form we were both happy with — an indication perhaps of how sticky and controversial a topic this is — so I’m publishing it here in the Newsletter instead:
A Chinese artist in the thirteenth century tasked with decorating a traveling coffer happily borrowed his composition from a Middle Eastern book binding, we learn in the opening minutes of “Art Through Time: A Global View”—the public-television series assembled recently by a hundred leading art historians from MoMA chief curator John Elderfield to Asia Society director Vishakha N. Desai. Artistic borrowing is common; what’s striking is how far “Art Through Time” is willing to stray outside Western art history. In most such surveys, everything is seen through a Western lens—African sculpture matters only insofar as it influenced Picasso, for example.
Globalizing art history is “the most urgent task now facing art historians,” says David Carrier, professor at Case Western Reserve University. “Far and away the most pressing problem facing the discipline is the prospect of world art history,” says James Elkins of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says global art history is now an obsession of his and he believes that its positive influence can already be seen in museums. “The Guggenheim now has a curator of Asian art, there are now more museums looking at Latin American art, going beyond obvious figures like Kahlo. The Rubin Museum just did a show comparing Christian and Buddhist icons. There’s a New York Public Library show bringing together works from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Art history has moved beyond its blatantly Eurocentric, colonialist origins, when all non-Western art was considered “primitive”—if it was considered at all—but scholars say that serious problems remain. They note that Intro to Art History textbooks may now boast chapters on, say, “Monumental Olmec Sculpture” and “The Buddhist Temples of Korea,” but those make little impact alongside the books’ central narratives, which as always celebrate the long march of Western art from the Greek kouros to Jeff Koons. A recently published modern-art textbook scarcely ventured outside the West at all.
Why are so many art historians now concerned with overcoming the field’s Eurocentrism? Partha Mitter, emeritus professor at the University of Sussex, credits globalization: “The world is coming much closer. People like me are traveling all over, living abroad. And with things like Facebook, there’s lots more conversations between parts of the world.” Kitty Zijlmans, a professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands, believes the biggest factor has been the internationalization of the contemporary art world, but also points to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led many to wonder “what words like East and West really mean,” and 9/11, which triggered debates over concepts like “The Islamic World” and “The West.” Mitter also asserts that the wave of decolonization that culminated in America leaving Vietnam inspired a generation of scholars to question “the fact that Western values had been assumed to be universal, global values.” Other people argue that art history simply won’t be complete until it can explain all the world’s art.
Global art history is still very much a work in progress; a unified theory of world art has proved particularly elusive. (Few even agree on the right name for such a project, notes James Elkins.) Potential globalizers lack answers to many basic questions: How is non-Western art to be categorized – by country, by region, by religion? Is there such a thing as “African” art, for example? How do we decide what is worth studying outside the West without inflicting Western bias? What do we make of objects in cultures that lack a concept of art? Is Western art theory – devised to explain Western art – applicable outside the West, and if not, what is?
“We can’t just assume we can take our hammer to every nail; we need to revise our discipline using new frameworks,” responds Kitty Zijlmans to the latter question. This is lucky, she says. “It gives us another impetus to enrich the field.” Art history typically charts art’s “progress,” in mastering perspective for example, and traces the influence of “centers” such as Renaissance Florence upon “peripheries.” Partha Mitter says we need to “de-center” art history, evaluating each place and time period on its own terms. Such revisionism won’t happen overnight, he says. “We can’t dismantle everything immediately; we don’t want to lose the accomplishments of art history.”
We’ll never be able to write a single history of art, says David Carrier. Histories require causation – “Hokusai painted The Great Wave in Western perspective after seeing Renaissance Dutch prints in a friend’s collection” – but the world’s art traditions have evolved quite separately. Before 1522, the year Magellan circumnavigated the globe, they had virtually no contact at all. “Putting the world in a book,” he says, will require “abandoning the historical survey and developing a conceptual analysis.”
David Summers, a Renaissance-art scholar at the University of Virginia, is taking just such an approach. In his book Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, he tries to invent a more flexible formal language for describing artworks that will enable scholars to find connections across borders. “People now specialize so much, in single works of art even. I want to devise a method for looking at any tradition of art,” he said. He first got this urge thirty years ago, teaching undergraduate courses in Pre-Columbian art, as the only member of his department to know anything about it. He found that the West’s aesthetic categories were “about as insultingly bad as they could be” at explaining these objects. The Aztec sculpture Coatlicue, for example, had long baffled Western writers. In Real Spaces, he proposes the concept of “planar oppositions,” which he believes explains Coatlicue as well as Western works such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Summers’s book was extravagantly praised by some, but others found it unsatisfying. David Carrier doubts that any one person could pull off such a book: “This is a subject that no one is prepared to do all of the dimensions of.” For this reason, Carrier questions whether globalizing art history will ever succeed. How will a committee ever agree on such a politicized and polarizing subject? “There are as many visions of world art history as there are writers.”
There are institutional barriers, too, for example museum hierarchies, Carrier notes. At a lunch with the Yale University Art Gallery’s curators, “They pointed out they’re all in compartments, that there’s no one in charge of looking across compartments, and that anyway thematic shows that cut across are considered too confusing for the layman.” Yet another problem is that far too few graduate students today choose to study older non-Western art. “Eighty percent of incoming students want to do contemporary,” he asserts, without much exaggeration—in the U.S. in 2009, eighty-three PhD students completed dissertations on twentieth-century art, just one on pre-modern Middle Eastern art. Carrier doesn’t blame the students, noting that if you don’t arrive at graduate school already knowing Sanskrit or Persian or Japanese, say, you don’t have much choice.
Global art history’s biggest obstacle may be academe’s requirement that scholars specialize. Specialists are quick to smack down wanderers, as David Summers learned when he published his book. “I didn’t know the degree to which fields rule the history of art until I stamped into so many people’s fields.” James Elkins points out that when he recently published his Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, some Chinese-art scholars refused even to crack it open, because that he hadn’t read the Chinese-language literature in the original.
Elkins doubts we can write a truly global art history until non-Western countries start writing more of their own art history—they currently do very little, as he’s shown. Even then, he says, art history will remain “in its basic structure and institutional habits, permanently Western.” He notes that non-Westerners who take up art history typically imitate Western models and goes further to say, “The very idea of writing an art history of some country or region is Western.” Philippe de Montebello agrees, arguing that Westerners will dominate any future art history because of their power and money. Nor can they overcome their own biases; the idea that they could is sheer political correctness, he says. “One always sees in one’s own terms. MoMA organized a show of contemporary Muslim art. Somebody had to make a selection. Somebody chose these artists and these works according to what they think is good. You can’t tell me those curators have gotten under the skin of the Muslim world. Anyway, who’s to say that the native necessarily has a better sense for where the best works are?”
Such statements don’t endear global art history to its critics who see it as potentially imperialistic. Jill Casid and Aruna D’Souza, who recently organized a conference on “the global turn,” eschew the idea of “seeking a unifying conceptual term or method.” They reject concepts used by globalizers such as “The Islamic World” as artificial and chauvinistic. (Indeed, the very terms Western and non-Western are problematic.) “Art history is seen as a new colonizer,” Zijlmans admits. “It’s true, it’s the flip side of coin. We in art history can be said to sometimes be in service to global tourism, museums, and the market.” De Montebello also says that global art history deserves much of the criticism it’s gotten. “But,” he says, “if you didn’t do it, think of what they would say then.”
Global art history exposed itself to accusations of imperialism partly because of its popularity among Americans. “In Europe there is very little interest,” notes Partha Mitter. Zijlmans concurs, while noting that things are changing a bit, especially in Germany, the site of the last great attempt to globalize art history, in the late 1800s. Why are American scholars so keen to globalize art history? Many seem to regard it as a form of anti-xenophobic politics. About his book, David Summers says, “There was a hope of saving the world, of turning the history of art into a multicultural conversation.” Not everyone sees global art history this way, though. Asked if such hopes meant anything to him, James Elkins gave a one-word answer: “No!”
I asked Elkins if he thought global art history might at least succeed in producing a satisfactory single-volume history of art—“the world in a book.” To my knowledge, no major scholar has even tried since Ernst Gombrich’s famous Story of Art, published in 1950, and who can blame them, considering all the obstacles? Elkins replied, “I am trying.”
• Jaynie Anderson, ed., Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration, and Convergence: The Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress in the History of Art
• Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg, eds., The Global Art World: Audiences, Markets, and Museums
• David Carrier, A World Art History and Its Objects
• Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Toward a Geography of Art
• James Elkins, ed., Is Art History Global?
• John Onians, ed., Compression vs. Expression: Containing and Explaining the World’s Art
• Mary D. Sheriff, ed., Cultural Contact and the Making of European Art since the Age of Exploration
• David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism
• Philippe Vergne, How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age
• Peter Weibel and Andrea Buddensieg, eds., Contemporary Art and the Museum: A Global Perspective
• Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried Van Damme, eds., World Art Studies
A variety of pluripotentates (not a word, but should be) have changed jobs recently. Among them:
Gary Tinterow is the new director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which has the third largest art-museum endowment in the U.S. The Houston Chronicle welcomed the appointment:
Known as a scholar, Tinterow also has a flair for showmanship. Among the dozens of exhibits he organized are many of the Met’s best-attended shows ever, blockbusters like Degas (1988) and Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge (2006). Last year, his Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art drew an astonishing 700,000 visitors.
Nicolas Bourriaud has been elected to lead the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. The controversial appointment rankled in part because he is a writer/curator rather than an artist, and also because his focus on contemporary art makes some worry he won’t look after the institution’s collections of Old Masters. The Art Media Agency writes (in quirky English):
Even before his nomination Nicolas Bourriaud was in the centre of debates. First of all, he should face a general strike by school instructors should he be elected. This rumour, which was quickly refuted, reflects however the atmosphere of the nomination. Then, after a publication in Journal des Arts, which stated that chairman post had already been reserved for Nicolas Bourriaud by the Minister of Culture, he had to defend himself and send a letter to art historian André Rouillé: “contrary to the fiction published by Journal des Arts, the post of the new director was never engaged to me by the minister who was the first to be surprised. He might have proposed Jean de Loisy but not me. I would like to ask you to change this untruthful statement”
Victoria Coates, who earned an art-history PhD at UPenn and has worked at the Cleveland Museum, is Rick Perry’s chief foreign-policy advisor. I struggle to think of an art historian playing this prominent role in politics since Anthony Blunt. Anyone?
The Noguchi catalogue raisonné begins.
The Rose Art Museum is back.
So is the Musée d’Orsay, as France Today reports:
The aim of the new Orsay is to surprise visitors, to make them reflect, says [director Guy] Cogeval. “We will put the artworks into context with other disciplines: history, literature, music, even philosophy and psychoanalysis. The approach will be broader, looking for similarities, for intersections.” That’s something Cogeval has long done. As a curator, he introduced the idea of interaction with cinema as the basis for Hitchcock et l’Art, an exhibit shown in 2000 in Montreal and later at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It examined the role of Salvador Dalí’s work in the dream sequences in Spellbound. He returned to cinema in Il Etait une Fois Walt Disney; the 2006 exhibit at the Grand Palais in Paris spotlighted stories and legends—the sources of inspiration for the Disney team.
“I’d like to have a major exhibit at the Orsay on the birth of cinema,” he says. “Not so much about its technical invention, but its mental invention, what made artists look forward to the possibility of images in movement. Everyone from Degas to Wagner laid the ground for it to happen.”