2019 Slade Lectures: Islam and Image: Beyond Aniconism and Iconoclasm

By Alex Solovyev and Michael Moore-Jones, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2019


In March 2001 the Taliban government of Afghanistan destroyed the two monumental Buddhas carved into a cliff in the Bamiyan province of central Afghanistan. Less than a year later, Professor Finbarr Barry Flood, Professor of Humanities at NYU, wrote an article for Art Bulletin responding to the widespread public perception of Islamic iconoclasm that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas engendered. He wrote in that article, in 2002:

To many commentators, the obliteration of the Buddhas seemed to hark back to a bygone age, reinforcing the widespread notion that Islamic culture is implacably hostile to anthropomorphic art. Even those who pointed to outbursts of image destruction in medieval and early modern Europe saw these as stages on the road to Western modernity; the persistence of the practice in the Islamic world seemed to offer implicit proof of an essential fixation on figuration fundamentally at odds with that modernity.

 

Fig 1 BuddhasBamiyan Buddhas, 6th century, before and after destruction, © AP/AFP

Eighteen years after that episode, Professor Flood delivered his Slade Lectures in which he returned to these questions, critiquing the commonly held paradigms of so-called “Islamic iconoclasm”. He asked, in the first lecture, whether Islam has an “image problem”—a double entendre suggesting both the difficulties of the Islamic world’s theory of images, and the response that Islam’s seeming anti-modernity generates in the “West”. Over the next eight weeks his Slade Lectures examined in detail the Islamic world’s theory of images, and then moved outwards to ask some of the largest questions of art history: how questions of iconoclasm and iconophilia affect our understanding of Enlightenment epistemologies; how an Islamic theory of the image could be described; and what the role of Modernity and modern museums are in the response to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and Islamic art as a whole. These were lectures that focussed in immense detail on textual and visual sources, but brought these back in the end to the largest questions that art history as a discipline should attempt to answer.

Fig 2 Ibrahim (002)Ibrahim destroying the idols of his people, Al-Althar al-Baqiyya, NW Iran, early 14th century (EUL MS 161)

Take, for instance, the image frequently used by Professor Flood to demonstrate the paradoxes within “Islamic iconoclasm”. In an early 14th century manuscript from north-western Iran there is an image of “Ibrahim destroying the idols of his people”. It depicts, clearly enough, Ibrahim destroying images—but from here, all kinds of paradoxes and complexities stem. On the surface, the image seems to depict an iconoclastic act, an act of image destruction, in the same vein as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Yet clearly, since this is itself an image of image destruction, the underlying theory of an image cannot be so simplistically or nakedly iconoclastic. Even iconoclasts need images—in wanting to destroy them, they only make more apparent their power.

The complex relationship between image creation and image destruction was highlighted in Professor Flood’s fifth lecture of the series, entitled “Grammars of Defacement: Censors and Redemption.” Starting with the assertion that a geographically, ideologically, and historically varied set of beliefs dictated whether certain figural images were defaced or not, Professor Flood sought to ask an even more difficult, often impossible, question: when were figural images in manuscripts and on other objects defaced? Most frequently, it is, indeed, impossible to ascertain at what point in an object’s history it was defaced or altered. In other instances, some conclusions are more accessible, as with, for example, the case of an illuminated manuscript page representing the portrait of a steward c. 1530. At the moment of its creation, this image and its subject were deemed acceptable to represent. At some point after its production, the face of the steward was removed by scraping after the steward had fallen out of political favour. Such an alteration demonstrates both the socio-political importance of figural imagery and the changing history of the art object as it faces alteration over time. Citing Stephen Greenblatt, Professor Flood posited the history of art objects as temporal rather than static, as a history in motion rather than one concentrated in the moment of creation.

Fig 3 StewardPortrait of a steward, detached folio, c. 1530, British Museum. © Alex Solovyev.

In the final two lectures of the Slade series, the Islamic “image problem” collided with the problems of Modernity and modernism in the nineteenth century through to the present day. Though many of the same questions and debates about the representation of figural images persisted from medieval Islam to the modern period, Professor Flood argued against the reductive label of the “transhistorical” that had been applied by the West to the Islamic “image problem” as recently as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. In the Western perception of Islam, past and present, acts of “Islamic iconoclasm” were understood as de-historicized incidents, all guided by the same, anti-modern impulses. In contrast, Professor Flood laid out what he characterized as a diverse and nuanced spectrum of responses and motivations that guided alterations and other iconoclastic acts. In the modern era, a comprehension of these nuances is essential to understand the role of iconoclastic acts in the anti-colonial landscape, specifically to understand the place of monumental statuary in Cairo, Algiers, and Istanbul in the nineteenth century. Professor Flood asks us to witness a nuanced legal, religious, and ideological debate around these statues, far removed from the reductive dichotomy of the secular and modern West contrasting with the religious and traditional East.

The same questions which Professor Flood addressed in his 2002 articles and with which he began his first Slade lecture were returned to in his eighth and final lecture, intriguingly entitled, “Beyond Enlightenment? Towards a Conclusion.” Bringing the series full circle, he returned to consider the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, an event that was recorded and widely shared on YouTube. The complexities and paradoxes of iconoclasm, aniconism, iconism, defacement, and alteration that are present in so many other Islamic manuscripts, statuary, and objects are visible too in the contemporary medium of video. Indeed, to focus on the act of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, Finbarr Barry Flood argued, is to ignore the centuries of iconophilia the Buddhas were subjects of. An image that proudly depicts the destruction of images, whether in a 14th century manuscript or twenty first century YouTube, is somewhere between iconoclasm and iconophilia and is clearly more than aniconism. As Professor Flood summed up in his final lecture, “There are no straightforward acts of iconoclasm.”

Fig 4 Flood© Alex Solovyev


For information about future History of Art lectures see the Events page.

Advertisements

T.J Clark ‘Aesop, Velazquez and War’

By William Brown and Charlotte Yunhui Xu, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2019


On October 24th, the eminent art historian Professor Emeritus T.J. Clark (Berkeley) delivered a research seminar to a packed audience on “Aesop, Velázquez, and War” based on his research for an upcoming book. The seminar was hosted by the Oxford History of Art Department as a part of a larger series of weekly guest lectures delivered throughout Michaelmas term by scholars including Griselda Pollock, Dennis Geronimus, and others on a wide variety of art historical themes.

Clark began his talk by introducing the idea of the capacity of great paintings to transmit meaning and knowledge ineffably—a phenomenon also characteristic of facial expressions, and exquisitely exemplified in the portraiture of Velázquez. Clark presented a side-by-side comparison of a pair of portraits painted in the late 1630s by Velázquez which were hung as a part of the décor of King Philip IV’s hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada. He addressed several similarities between the two paintings including the singularity of the sitter and the identical size of the two works of art at 6’ tall and 3’ wide, which, along with a record of commission dating from the latter half of the 17th century, implies that they were commissioned and conceived together.

Valazquez_Aesop_Mars‘Aesop’ and ‘Mars’, Diego Velázquez, c. 1638, Museo del Prado, Madrid

The haunting expression of Aesop and the “shadow of coolness over Mars’ guise” both provoke a host of further questions; ranging from an interest in how their countenances would have been perceived by the court society of Baroque Habsburg Spain, to Velázquez’s inveterate use of this arresting gaze – “which does not quite puncture the illusion” but sustains an ambiguous partial detachment – a look which Clark claims is “tied to courtliness” as well as to a state of permanent war.

Rather than wading into the nuances of the portrait of Aesop at this early stage in the lecture, Clark turned to the sense of suspension and loss in Mars’ facial expression. In order to provide a contextual parallel, Clark introduced an additional painting produced for the Torre de la Parada of another of Velázquez’s ‘court warriors’, the portrait known as Don Juan of Austria, which Clark described as a “lugubrious parody of a court hero”. In a humorous reversal, Velázquez has painted a court jester dressed as a general with discarded armor strewn about him assuming the identity of the admiral of the Holy Alliance fleet at the greatly symbolic Battle of Lepanto.

In response to the painting, Clark raises several insightful questions relating to the quality of a look: “Is Velázquez representing him pretending buffoonery well?” “Does this playacting Don Juan of Austria know his script?”. Clark points out that Aesop, Mars, and Don Juan do not necessarily share the same look, but their expressions possess certain family resemblances, all demonstrating a sense of distance, as well as an intersection with illusion.

Clark further articulates the look on Aesop’s face as an expression which sees through with disillusion and partial detachment. Through comparing the facial expression of Aesop with that of the rifleman in Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda, Clark underlines the importance of a look to establish the dynamics of spectatorship and to create the general tone of a painting.

Clark turns next to an analysis of the dominant identity of Aesop up to and throughout the Baroque period—the ‘beggar philosopher’ as he was known by cliché. The 1489 edition of his fables were among the most widely read body of literature across at least two centuries in Spain. Moreover, the image of Aesop’s romanticized identity as a lowly beggar who cunningly achieved widespread notoriety undeniably contributed to the up-and-coming picaresque narrative. This unexpected and frequently farcical subversion of class strictures was a frequent target of play in the Habsburg court as exemplified in the aforementioned portrait of Don Juan of Austria among others. Velázquez was certainly drawing upon these conventional narrative techniques to emphasize the emblematic role Aesop had in Baroque Spanish society.

Valazquez_Don_Juan_AustriaThe Buffoon Juan de Austria, Diego Velázquez, c. 1632, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Clark notes that Aesop in the portrait appears physically defective, albeit with greater subtlety than other contemporary likenesses, and indeed Velázquez must have been familiar with Aesop’s physical characteristics so often accentuated to stress a physiological and therefore psychological resemblance between the poet and his cast of animal characters: he was a hunchback, spectacularly deformed, and he may also have been a dwarf. Clark relates this physical deformity with the idea of temperamental deformity in the buffoonery of the portrait of Don Juan of Austria. Ugliness was essential to Velázquez’s creation of Aesop, as ugliness epitomizes the truth of animality, enslavement, and subordination. There is a certain complexity in the gaze of Aesop, as he looks at us with skeptical distance, and an inscrutable facial expression.

Similar concepts apply to the portrait of Mars; as Clark states, Mars possesses something Aesopian. The god of war appears bewildered as if disarmed and made a buffoon just prior to our encounter. He sits on the edge of lunacy. Clark assimilates the concept of buffoonery and war, wittily claiming that war itself is a form of buffoonery. These portraits are painted with imperfections and demonstrate the relentlessness of war in the Spanish empire.

Clark’s approach offered a new perspective to see Velázquez’s portraits of Mars and Aesop. He drew connections between these two seemingly unrelated figures, and reached a conclusion which transcends their particular peculiarities to touch the wider domains of war, social identity, and the buffoonery which governs both. Clark demonstrates the importance of visual analysis in the process of coming to an understanding of a work of art and carrying out research in this discipline. As the author of numerous seminal books in the social history of art, Clark delivered his lecture with a riveting and amusing manner appealing to a diverse audience.


For information about future History of Art lectures see the Events page.

A recording of the lecture can be viewed on the Department’s podcast page.

Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory – a talk by Griselda Pollock

By Giulia Morale and Kathleen Rawlings, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2019

Griselda Pollock (Leeds)  gave the lecture ‘Challenging to Art History: Charlotte Salomon 1917-43 or CS, A Nameless Artist in the Theatre of Memory and War’ for the Oxford History of Art Research Seminar series in October 2018.


Griselda Pollock’s return to Oxford (this is her first talk at the university from which she received her undergraduate degree) was met with great interest. Speaking to a lecture theatre teeming with visitors, the prolific visual theorist and feminist scholar offered far more than a presentation on her new book Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory (2018). Providing an enthralling life of the relatively little-known Jewish-German artist, Pollock transformed the room into a theatre of sorts in itself. Captivated by Pollock’s masterful weaving of life history into art historical analysis into feminist critique, her audience were roused to think about Charlotte Salomon in ways not often afforded to her by art history: not merely as a Holocaust victim who produced art that reflects life in Nazi Germany, but as a commanding and pioneering modern artist in her own right.

Salomon’s most famous work Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel – a colossal collection of 769 gouache paintings painted between 1940 and 1942 – has been treated by the few who have studied it since its recovery in the 1960s more as a piece of ‘Holocaust art’ and autobiography than as a significant moment in the history of art. But we would be remiss, Pollock showed us, to think of Salomon’s work only as historical testimony. Pollock’s intellectual project is clear: to locate Salomon and her work in the male-dominated canon of modern art history by shining a light on the complexity and innovation of the artist. Without undermining the weight of the political context that bore down on Salomon’s personal life, Pollock endeavoured to cast a light on her life that illuminated her journey into becoming an artist. Drawing Salomon out of the dark shadow cast by the tragedies for which she is best known, Pollock demonstrated the political potential of her kind of art historical practice, restoring to an artist lost to history the recognition that she deserves.

Charlotte Salomon’s tragic life story has historically eclipsed the merit of her work as an artist. Running counter to this, Pollock’s approach to Salomon’s work is built upon an insistence on the art historical significance of Leben? oder Theatre? Providing rich and magnified readings of selected gouache paintings from the cycle in isolation, and focusing on the materiality, the style, and the affect of these pieces, Pollock boldly penetrated the intimidating work, working to build up and reveal to us her vision of Salomon as an artist. Illuminating for her audience the complexity and dramaticity of the work, Pollock unpicked in granular detail the many styles, influences, autobiographical fragments, and feelings that Salomon’s paintings contain and evoke. This was an impressive feat to bear witness to.

Charlotte_Salomon_-_JHM_4351.jpgCharlotte Salomon, 1940-42, gouache from Life? or Theater?, Joods Historisch Museum

The work resists easy categorisation and simple analysis: it is an immense palimpsest of paintings, vignettes, portraits, poems, panoramas. Transparent text overlays, produced after the paintings were completed, add another dimension to the paintings. This layering is bolstered by the layers upon layers of inspirations and influences coming from literature, cinema, opera, classical music, philosophy, the old masters, modernism. Further, the sprawling work’s content – Salomon’s personal narrative history – comprises layers of trauma and memory that weave their way through the paintings: themes of life and death, depression, suicide, suffering, grief, and growth suffuse them. It would take a great amount of expertise and finesse to hold open and adequately attend to these many constituent parts, and Pollock, speaking to her enraptured listeners, demonstrated her mastery by doing precisely that.

As Salomon’s works escalated in intensity, Pollock’s presentation did too. There was a sense as Pollock’s talk began to conclude that we were being led somewhere dramatic, although we were not sure where. The presentation culminated in a disquieting exploration of Salomon’s struggle between life and death. The choice between living and dying is ever present in the artist’s paintings, and a trajectory of suicides in Salomon’s family (her aunt’s, her mother’s, and her grandmother’s) led us to think she will do the same. Ultimately, as Pollock showed us, Salomon chose life: carried by the catharsis produced by painting, Salomon could achieve self-realisation. She could live. But Salomon’s choice came at the expense of another’s life – her grandfather’s. Salomon’s ‘theatre of memory’, unfurling as Pollock spoke, had been building toward a dramatic revelation – a history of sexual abuse in her family at the hands of her grandfather. At this crescendo, Pollock provided us with information garnered from a confessional letter written by Salomon to a lover: torn between killing herself or her abuser, she decided to poison him. But the artist’s bravery collapses under the weight of forces greater than her, and she is, Pollock reveals, found and sent to Auschwitz, to be gassed upon arrival in 1943.

Salomon’s loaded experiences are hidden in Leben? oder Theatre? under layers of text, pseudonyms, anonymous faces, dark tones, references – visible only to those who dare to confront it in its overwhelming enormity.  Turning toward, rather than away from, Salomon’s honest, jarring, and dreamlike ’theatre of memory’, Pollock provided us with a complex profile of an artist whose contribution has for too long been overlooked.


For information about future History of Art lectures see the Events page.

A Year in the Life of a Master’s Student

By Aleksandra Rutkowska, DPhil student

Aleksandra completed the MSt History of Art and Visual Culture in 2018 and shares her experience of the course.


Doing the MSt was as fulfilling as it was tough. The course compressed into nine months a combination of the usual elements of a full-year art history postgraduate programme with learning experiences unique to the vibrant intellectual community of Oxford University. At times it could feel like an ultra-marathon of reading, writing and discussing with no time for more mundane daily tasks, yet it invariably rewarded any hardships with a sense of personal development as a skilled scholar. Most importantly, I simply truly enjoyed every single second of it – and I am more than grateful for the opportunity to continue studying at the department, now as a DPhil.

Teaching

At its core, the MSt course was similar for everyone. Each of us had to take the compulsory module in theories and methods of art history, which consisted of weekly sessions centred on assigned readings. We were usually split into two groups, but sometimes (usually in weeks led by guest lecturers) we would all participate in a single class. One or two students would deliver short presentations detailing the key points of the topic, and then the conversation started. Our critical apparatus was put to the test during handling sessions at the Ashmolean Museum, when we analysed objects from their extensive collections using our ever-expanding repertoire of art historical approaches. In addition, we were encouraged to attend the corresponding undergraduate lectures in order to get yet more solid grounding in the readings.

The second component of the MSt was an elective special option, which we chose accordingly to our research interests. Each option numbered around four or five students (but this could increase up to ten depending on how many students are in a cohort). I had the pleasure to be in Professor Gervase Rosser’s course ‘Gothic: Artistic Originality and the Transmission of Style in Medieval Art’, which far exceeded all of my expectations. Our weekly meetings, during which we shared our thoughts about the problematics of medieval art and its historiography, were followed by equally stimulating coffee breaks and walks through Oxford’s Gothic and neo-Gothic architecture. On a few occasions, we also visited the Ashmolean for behind-the-scenes investigations of medieval artefacts, and went to Merton College and the Weston Library to have a look at some of their most treasured manuscripts.

ExeterExeter College Chapel, 1850s. © Aleksandra Rutkowska

Although these would have more than sufficed to allow us to examine our subject of study hands-on, Gervase did not stop there; he was kind enough to take us on trips further afield. We went to London twice, once in Michaelmas and once in Hilary. On our first visit, we explored the medieval court in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the second one saw us touring Westminster Abbey and the medieval rooms of the British Museum. Yet for me the highlight came in Trinity, when Gervase took us (some of us quite literally, for he drove three of us in his car) to Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, a former country residence of the Rothschild family now owned by the National Trust. We spent an unforgettable day looking at magnificent manuscripts in the Manor’s library with their curator, who also showed us around the palace. When the programme came to an end, we had no words to express our gratitude to Gervase.

Waddesdon.JPGManuscript session at Waddesdon Manor, Trinity 2018

Apart from the two obligatory elements, as MSts we were free to attend other courses and open lectures suited to our needs. As a medievalist, I participated in medieval palaeography in Hilary, and took classes in classical and medieval Latin throughout the year, both of which were provided by the History Faculty. They both proved to be invaluable for my research. I am convinced that no other university would have offered me a similar chance to obtain such skills.

Moreover, we were expected to participate in the academic life of the department and the University by going to departmental research seminars in Michaelmas and the Slade Lectures in Hilary. The main difference between the two is that a different speaker is invited each week for the former, whereas the latter is run by a single guest lecturer. Since my research is mostly about late medieval Castile, in Hilary I also decided to join the newly-established Iberian reading group, run by members and researchers of the History Faculty. I feel I gained a lot from these additional activities.

Assessment

Of course, in the midst of lectures, seminars and museum visits we also had to find enough time to prepare our assessments. For the Theory and Methods course, we were required to submit one short (1,200 to 1,500 words) formative essay in Michaelmas and Hilary in preparation for the seventy-two-hours take-home exam at the end of Trinity. As topics were pre-assigned, I found these less challenging, but at the same time also somehow less immersive, than the two pieces of work (each between 4,000 and 5,000 words) I had to produce for the special option. Gervase was as wonderful a supervisor as he was a tutor and his help in forming and structuring my ideas for these essays was invaluable.

This leads me to what is perhaps the heart of the MSt: the dissertation. Gervase made sure early on that I was devoting enough time to working on my chosen topic, since, while it is not very difficult to write 15,000 words, making them meaningful is another matter altogether. Cardinal Gil de Albornoz and his funerary chapel in Toledo cathedral soon became my inseparable companions, with whom I spent long hours in the libraries every week. My college (Somerville) also supported me in this endeavour by awarding me a research grant, owing to which I was able to go to Toledo in early December to see the monument and examine the pertinent primary sources in the cathedral’s archives. I started writing my tentative ideas soon after, so as not to be overwhelmed by the emptiness of the blank page once the submission deadline started approaching.

Toledo.JPGFunerary Chapel of Cardinal Gil de Albornoz, 1340s-72, Toledo Cathedral. © Aleksandra Rutkowska

Some final words

If I were to offer one single piece of advice to future MSt students, I would say that you should follow your own research interests while remaining open to other topics and perspectives. Also, I am well-aware everyone keeps on repeating that, but do not leave writing up your dissertation until Hilary!


Further information about the Master’s Degree in History of Art and Visual Culture can be found here.

Some Thoughts on the Chair (of Art History)

A valedictory post by Craig Clunas, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art


The Professorship of Art History at Oxford comes attached to a fellowship at Trinity College, but Trinity is a small college and cannot provide accommodation for its professorial fellows, so in the eleven years I have held this role my place of work has been Littlegate House. Certainly not the most beautiful building in the collegiate university, but it is serviceable and practical and the allocation of space to the professor is very generous, with its two sunny rooms far exceeding anything I’ve been given in either of the two other chairs of art history I’ve held in UK universities. I began my working life as a museum curator, when I was expected to be ‘in the office’ as a regular part of my working day, and although timekeeping in the V&A in the 1980s could be a bit relaxed, I’ve still always felt that ‘at work’ and ‘in the office’ were pretty much synonymous; most of my books have been written in space provided by my employers, rather than at home. So as I come to retire from this position I have a definite sense of saying goodbye to an environment where I have spent a sizeable part of the last decade.

The History of Art Department is, by Oxford standards, very new. You can debate when it actually came into being, but certainly the appointment of the first Professor, Edgar Wind, is an important milestone (you can read about that history, and about previous professors here. There are hence only a few reminders around Littlegate House of the Department’s past, including the brass plaque that adorned the first offices in Beaumont Street, and a black leather briefcase which might have belonged to Francis Haskell. But in among the functional furniture supplied by Estate Services there are a couple of pieces which speak of earlier eras, and two of them are the chairs which sit in the Professor’s second room, rather grandly titled a ‘library.’ They are of the design often called a ‘captain’s chair’, with a curving back and arms. And one of these has definitely been ‘my chair’ (it’s in better nick, and has a leather cushion in a pleasing shade of red).

360_CC_office_3_crop© Richard Watts

Furniture (Chinese furniture, admittedly) was a special area of mine in the museum, my second book was on the subject, and I’ve always been appreciative of good woodworking, though these two are nothing special, just ordinary and pleasingly solid chairs. But I shall miss the chair. I like having the extra space because it means that the PC is not always present in any form of human interaction (showing my age there). When I’ve sat in the chair I can see the person I’m talking to unimpeded by a distracting screen. I shall miss it not so much for itself as for the environment and relationships it represents. I’ve sat in it to talk with colleagues, to hear and give good news and bad news, to celebrate and to laugh as well as to listen and sympathise. I’ve interviewed and reviewed and assessed in it. I’ve sat in it to supervise DPhil students and MSt students, savouring that moment when someone realises that they can do this for themselves, when the training wheels come off and the supervisor becomes superfluous. I’ve sat in it to conduct vivas, as the student magically becomes the teacher. I’ve sat in it for hours and hours of undergraduate tutorials, privileged to be there for that lovely moment when the penny drops and someone grasps and enjoys the new knowledge they now command. I’ve marked essays and exams and theses in it. I hope I have sympathised and encouraged and supported in it, as it and students and colleagues have supported me.

Now it is time for it to be someone else’s chair, not ‘my chair’ any more. Time too for a fifth Professor of Art History; not someone just like those who went before, perhaps (we’ve not exactly been a strikingly diverse foursome). But I hope and trust they will take forward the project of an inclusive and imaginative art history at Oxford, through their commitment to the love of learning and teaching in the discipline. The chair is theirs.

Craig Clunas


Further information on Craig Clunas’s ongoing research and publications can be found here.