Nostalgia is a funny old thing. My relationship with Cambridge was always an ambiguous one, but my goodness, I'd forgotten how beautiful it is. Especially King's. Especially that ceiling....
It was a whole hearted privilege last week to be back at a symposium celebrating the career of The Godfather of Art History, my old professor Jean Michel Massing, who has a lot to answer for in terms of encouraging me to follow my interest in all things African.
Here's an example of a year-old gem of a lecture:
The symposium showcased big inspiration from a few of his former PhD students, who paid tribute with the following papers.
Special thanks to Temi Odumosu for introducing me to the work of John Akomfrah (Ghana/UK), Sasha Huber (Haiti/Switzerland/Finland), and Kerry James Marshall (USA). Also Imma Ramos for the sneak peak into the enlightened redevelopment of Gallery 33 'Representing South Asia at the British Museum' and finally Aya Soika for putting into post-colonial context my early memories playing in reconstructed Micronesian houses in Berlin's Dahlem Museum.
Learning from the Americas: Gropius and Breuer in the New World.
The fascination of the European architectural avant-gardes with the United States as a brave new world has been a mainstay of the historiography of modernism for generations. No less well established is the notion of the transfer of the European avant-garde project in architecture to the United States by exiles and emigres from Hitler’s Germany. Yet other geographies begin to emerge if we follow other Bauhäusler. Mapping the networks of Bauhaus influence being laid between Mexico and South America and both Europe and the United States is one of the undone projects for a more complex account of the modern movement in architecture. This talk starts with work, sketching in the robust nexus of the north-south relationships that developed in the immediate post-World II years or better said the nascent Cold War years, between the ex-Bauhaus masters Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, and in particular with the growing number of Latin American architects starting their careers back at home after years of training in the United States. If the war led to the well documented migration of European architects toward the New World, it also changed the patterns of architectural education, practice, form-making, and discourse for Latin Americans in a changing geography of demographics and new lines of influence via air travel.
A New Account of the Leviathan Frontispiece: What does it mean for an image to be a source of knowledge?
In this talk, I pursue an answer to this question by looking closely at etched and engraved representations of philosophy produced in the early stages of the “scientific revolution.” By connecting the celebrated frontispiece of Hobbes's Leviathan to a contemporary Aristotelian broadside, I offer a new, if complex, account of this famous image—one which emphasizes the state as an emerging, rather than existing, entity.
Collecting the Pacific: Contrasting Early Receptions of Polynesian Art in Britain from Joseph Banks to the London Missionary Society, circa 1770-1830.
In early July 1771, the Endeavour returned from Captain James Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Pacific, its hull filled with plants in herbariums and pots, stuffed animals, but also thousands of curious objects. These first South Seas ‘artificial curiosities’ took Britain and the rest of Europe by storm. They formed the talking point of the Enlightenment’s educated elites, but rapidly spread to a wider segment of the population fascinated by the existence of a world entirely new and strange. The works collected on Cook’s three voyages, undertaken between 1768 and 1780 and culminating in the explorer’s tragic death in Hawaii, had a tremendous impact on the establishment of a proto-ethnographic culture of collecting and formed the basis of the great Oceanic Art collections of the British Museum, Cambridge and Oxford, but also of many museums across the rest of Europe. Yet, whilst these first European encounters with the Pacific have grabbed the imagination of generations of armchair explorers since, an understanding of the early reception and interpretation of Polynesian works of art remains, for the most part, beyond our reach. This paper will attempt to shine a light onto the very first collectors of Polynesian art, examining paintings and engravings of collectors depicted with their prized possessions, but also works of Oceanic art themselves, as well as journals, early auction catalogues and museum guides. This paper will argue that the early reception of works of Polynesian art was anything but passive, as the meaning and significance of these very first South Seas objects to reach European shores changed according to their audiences; be they Banks’s exclusive set of Dilettanti friends, the paying public of the Holophusicon, or the London Missionary Society Museum’s evangelical visitors.
The Dutch Print Diaspora: Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) in Mexico and Russia.
This talk will examine two unusual moments in the ‘globalisation’ of the early modern print market: the use of prints by Dutch printmaker, Romeyn de Hooghe, best known for his work for William III, in Spanish colonial Mexico and Petrine Russia. We will consider the boundaries of the market for de Hooghe’s prints and the particular circumstances of transmission and translation in these two cases. In Mexico, broadsheets on current events and historical book illustrations by de Hooghe featured on large-scale luxury objects produced between 1690 and 1700: a twelve-panel folding screen painted for the viceroy of New Spain; and a series of twelve panels known as The Battles of Alessandro Farnese painted in gold with shell inlay. By contrast, hundreds de Hooghe’s prints arrived in Russia with a cache of studio material accompanying his former pupil, Adriaen Schoonebeeck, who was employed in 1698 by Peter the Great to establish a European school of printmaking. Here, aspects of de Hooghe’s Williamite imagery, much of which was produced in the context of the Glorious Revolution, appears in laudatory prints of the tsar produced during a brief efflorescence of etching in this period. Both examples raise problems of context and meaning.
‘Arise, kill and eat’ - A Biblical Subject-Matter from the Upper Rhine.
Whereas most illustrated New Testaments printed in Reformation-time Europe show images deriving ultimately from early Wittenberg editions, some Basle editions from 1524 introduced a number of new scenes that in the following years migrated downstream the Rhine, reaching eventually Antwerp and even London. Among them is St Peter’s vision of clean and unclean beast that encouraged him to forsake the Jewish dietary laws (Acts 10:11-16). My paper focuses on this episode, which had been extremely rare in art beforehand. It suggests that its sudden prominence was linked to the abolition of rules about fasting in the early Swiss Reformation.
TEMI ODUMOSU Archival Re-Enactments: The Image of the Black inhabited by Three
“If you are a Diasporic subject, the archive acquires a special poignancy for you because it is the space of the memorial. There are very few tangible memorials that say you have been here. So the archive is important because its one of the spaces in which the memorial attests to your existence.“ (John Akomfrah)
Jean Michel has been at the forefront of research mining the European cultural archive for traces of African people, both real and imagined. His recent single-authored volume in the pioneering The Image of the Black in Western Art series reveals once again the importance and veracity of research surveying identity and symbolic communication from the margins. It is a peculiar kind of work in which I have been a dutiful ally, for it continuously offers potential to find new and unexpected artefacts, whilst at the same time revealing the sober realities of unequal intercultural encounters. There is much beauty but also cold prejudice and pain. However, whilst our research evolves and provides alternative perspectives on history, artists of African descent, invested in the politics and poetics of memory, inhabit this archive to re-enact alternative possibilities for silent subjects. Their work is rich and multi-layered: confronting the complexity of an ethnographic gaze, along with its power; questioning art historical hierarchies and traditions; remixing and thus connecting material along the passage from past to present; and ultimately seeking to humanise the once objectified African with the simplicity of breath and an inner emotional life.
This paper will explore the work of artists engaged in archival re-enactment as a space of memorial, relation and of poetry. In particular it will focus on critical projects by three artists from different zones within the ‘Black Atlantic’: John Akomfrah (Ghana/UK), Sasha Huber (Haiti/Switzerland/Finland), and Kerry James Marshall (USA).
All that Glitters: Persian Symbols of Power in Mughal Jewellery.
This paper will investigate how Persian connotations of power and imperial status were adapted and appropriated through the production of Mughal jewellery. It will first look at the affiliations between Persian conceptions of royalty and specific types of jewels, and how they are represented in poetry, literature, and art. It will then be demonstrated how these materials established a gemmological hierarchy in Mughal decorative arts, which was then used to help symbolize the Mughals' own imperial identity and legitimacy of rule. Thus, court patronage of jewellery was governed by these ideals, as was the response towards different types of gems and the overall production of these objects. Although very few examples survive, they nonetheless shed light on the influence of Persian imperialism and its visual manifestations on the greatest Islamic empire of the Indian subcontinent. In addition, this paper will examine imperial portraiture, as well as verbal and visual excerpts from the memoirs of the emperors Akbar (r. 1506-1605), Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (r. 1627-1658). These works provide crucial evidence of Persian associations between royalty and jewels. also reflect the very significance of jewellery to the Mughals, who preserved these objects in their imperial treasury, passed down from generation to generation, and gave on special occasions, from anniversaries of the accession to the throne, to marking successful military campaigns. All of these actions only heighten the relationship between rule and precious and semi-precious stones. Additionally, these works give an idea of how Mughal jewellery was made and worn. To further this paper's argument, other bejewelled items, such as ceremonial daggers, will be briefly analysed. The conclusion will look at the interesting fate of Mughal jewellery, which later ended up in the hands of Persian emperors who used it as symbols of their own power, thus creating a cycle of Persian imperialism and its symbolic representation through gems.
Representing South Asia at the British Museum: The Redevelopment of Gallery 33 (2016-17).
In 1992 the British Museum renovated its gallery dedicated to South, Southeast and East Asia (Gallery 33). Plans are now underway to dramatically redevelop this gallery with a scheduled opening in November 2017. This paper will focus in particular on the gallery’s current and proposed South Asia displays. The opening will tie in with the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture, a year-long programme to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and UK cultural ties. Since 1992 the emphasis of the gallery’s South Asia display has rested on the religious sculpture of the medieval period (with a focus on Hindu, Buddhist and Jain works). This has limited the representation of South Asia in chronological, material and religious terms. Although partly a response to the strengths of the collection, these limitations were also due to a particular set of restrictions, including the inability to exhibit fragile works in daylight conditions (such as paintings). The plan for the 2017 redevelopment will be to showcase, for the first time, light-sensitive material on a rotating basis. The narrative of the gallery will also change significantly: the approach will be chronological and geographic with an emphasis on cultural history and cross-cultural exchange. This will provide an opportunity to take the gallery right up to the modern and contemporary periods, including displays of the Indo-Islamic cultures of the Sultanates and Mughals as well as displays of colonial encounter, exploring histories of South Asia and Britain. Ending the gallery with a display of 20th and 21st century works will allow the museum to showcase politically motivated works including responses by artists to colonialism and more recent issues. This paper will thus provide a behind-the-scenes insight into the process of shaping this new gallery, and will touch upon emerging concerns and obstacles encountered along the way.
‘Spotlit’ Soldiers: Sixteenth-Century Works-in-Progress or Eighteenth-Century Forgeries?
It was believed that the few images printed in colour in sixteenth-century Europe were rare and exceptional, but new research has identified thousands of previously undescribed colour-printed impressions from the German lands alone. In this vast new corpus, only three are known in proof states. Two are anonymous pendants of Landsknechte (mercenaries), which are undescribed in the literature on colour printmaking. They seem to give unprecedented insights into sixteenth-century workshop methods and the unusual role of the blockcutter in the design of colour prints, but they instead reveal a later collector’s market.
This paper presents the model for one, which refines the iconography and the (intended) attribution of both, and material evidence about their production. Drawing on those iconographical and technical investigations, it demonstrates that these apparently sixteenth-century works-in-progress are instead deceptive, finished artworks created for elite eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century collectors. It concludes by exploring the implications of their production for the reception history of early colour printmaking.
Paradise Lost: The German Colonies in the South Seas through the Eyes of Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde.
The talk explores the short-lived German colonial project in the South Seas and its legacy from the perspective of two Expressionist painters and their wives, Max and Lotte Pechstein and Emil and Ada Nolde. The journeys of both couples, undertaken independently from each other, to New Guinea and the Micronesian Palau Islands in the years 1913/14, were motivated
by the romantic notion of immersing themselves in indigenous culture. In the case of the painters, there was the additional wish to communicate the image of a culture untouched by civilization in their own artistic work. In doing so, they emphasized an in-depth ethnographic understanding and omitted any references to colonial infrastructure or German residents and co-travellers. How did this kind of selective rendering of the South Seas in their artistic work relate to the real experience, as expressed in diary entries, letters and memoirs? And what do their images tell us about their artistic and cultural understanding of the Pacific as well as their own culture? Following their trips the painters presented themselves in written testimonies as well as in visual works as chroniclers of a culture and material culture that must be protected and preserved. Nolde criticized the selling of artifacts to non-German collectors, while Pechstein worried about the introduction of Western building styles and cheap industrial materials. Their defense of cultural heritage corresponds closely to that mounted by contemporary ethnographers and by some German colonial officials. How did it link to their notion of German identity, especially once the National Socialists began to label their works as “degenerate”? The talk explores these questions and presents a current exhibition and book project on Max and Lotte Pechstein’s journey to the South Seas.
William Thomas Trethewey: A New Zealand Sculptor in Britain and Germany, 1936.
A sculptor’s diary is a rare thing in art history. That compiled by the New Zealander William Thomas Trethewey (1892–1956) is a unique document, chronicling his voyage to and sojourn in Britain, as well as visits to Germany, France and Australia, between January and September 1936. In 952 pages – 110,000 words – Trethewey meticulously yet exuberantly covers every stage of his ‘Great OE’ (‘Overseas Experience’ in New Zealand parlance) until the final Sydney-Auckland leg of his voyage. In this paper, I will share with you Trethewey's lively and articulate observations on art, people, politics and travel, highlighting his two-week car trip to Germany on the eve of the Berlin Olympics. An enlarged version of this paper will be published in the next issue of The Sculpture Journal.
Iconography in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Walter Benjamin famously argued that the mechanical reproduction of images would rob works of art of their aura of uniqueness. It is not clear he was right about that – museums still draw reverential crowds – and he failed to notice a different side effect of mechanical reproduction: that iconographic types have taken on an aura of uniqueness. In the past, narratives were traditional, and were recreated and reinterpreted in thousands of image types, each of which appeared in one image token; now they are invented and embodied in one image type, which is in its turn reproduced in thousands of image tokens.