‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Oxonian History of Adolphe Braun’s Sistine Chapel Series

By Sofia Garré, (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2018)

This research project was made possible by generous funding awarded by the Edgar Wind Benefactors Committee and the John Fell Fund. It concerned the provenance of a set of photographs by Adolphe Braun of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, housed in the Visual Resources Centre. Also of interest was the possibility of a connection with Professor Edgar Wind, first Professor of History of Art at Oxford, who specialised in the work of Michelangelo.


Last year, like many fellow Master’s students, I was busy writing my dissertation, preparing for exams and sending out job applications. However, when the opportunity to investigate Adolphe Braun’s 1869 photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel came up, I happily embraced the possibility of making the term a little busier. Currently held at the Visual Resources Centre in the Department of History of Art these 125 carbon-print photographs have been digitised and are now available to view online on the Digital Bodleian site.

The prints were initially released in 1869 by the French photographer Adolphe Braun, whose company was among the earliest to make photographs of artworks available to a wider public. In fact, at the time of their release, Braun’s prints constituted the first photographic survey of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, making the images interesting not only from an aesthetic perspective but also from an historiographical one. Given this premise, it is not surprising that the department should want to find out more about the acquisition and subsequent uses of Braun’s series. It is precisely with this intention in mind that I first approached the photographs, though – this time, quite surprisingly – I soon realised that very little information existed on Braun’s series, its acquisition and its movements within the University.

Part of my surprise in this lack of documentation stemmed from a very practical consideration: Braun’s photographs, mounted on boards that are nearly half a metre tall, are hard to miss, particularly as they are housed in six, equally large, book-shaped cases. The cases themselves are covered in red leather bearing the crest of the Earl of Eldon, which provided me with a crucial piece of information on the origin of the series.

0002.jpgAdolphe Braun, View of the Sistine Chapel, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The Eldon family made important contributions to the study of the Italian Renaissance at the University of Oxford. In 1845, the Second Earl of Eldon contributed £4000 towards the acquisition of drawings by Italian masters, and most notably by Michelangelo and Raphael. Twenty-three years later, in 1868, his son donated an additional £1200 to guarantee the maintenance of the drawings and the University’s continuing dedication to the illustration of Italian art.[1] Thus, it seems reasonable that the Eldon fund would have been used by the curators of the University Galleries, founded in 1855 and indicated as recipient of the second donation, to purchase Braun’s photographs.

Placing this reasonable hypothesis on firmer foundations, however, was a less straightforward endeavour than I had foreseen. The prints are unaccounted for in University publications such as the University Calendar, which limits itself to a laconic mention of the donations made by the Earls of Eldon in the issues published between 1855 and 1871.[2] Equally, I have not been able to uncover any definitive reference attesting to the precise moment of the prints’ acquisition. There are no comprehensive accounts of the University acquisitions in the nineteenth century and no extensive list of the artworks purchased using the Eldon Fund currently exists in the Ashmolean Museum or in other University archives.

Only the issue of University Gazette published on the 14th of June 1870 suggests, however vaguely, the presence of Braun’s photographic series, situating it at the north end of the Great Gallery in the University Galleries. There, the document claims, were ‘cases containing prints, with illustrations of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, provided out of the funds placed at the disposal of the curators by the present Lord Eldon.’[3] The reference to the prints was intriguing, but far from unmistakable. The date of the account – June 1870 – struck me as especially problematic: could all the photographs, taken in Rome in 1869, have been printed and placed in personalized cases at such an early date?

In my attempt to answer the question, I relied on one of the few scholarly texts engaging directly with Braun’s Sistine Chapel series, Philippe Jarjat’s ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic Album and Visual Identity,’ published in 2011. Jarjat’s discussion is centered on a series of images released in Paris, which resemble those in the collection of the Visual Resources Centre in both size and number. Furthermore, like their Oxonian counterparts, the Parisian prints are housed in book-shaped cases whose spines are covered in red leather (although, it should be noted, the French series only comprises two cases). [4]

Adolphe Braun, Delphic Sibyl and Daniel, box 4,  © Department of History of Art

According to Jarjat, such images would have been available individually and as part of a series from 1870 – a possibility that partly undermined my hypothesis, which located the images in the University Galleries as early as June 1870. However, while navigating the records of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I stumbled upon a catalogue of Braun’s Sistine Chapel photographs dating back to 1869, listing in their present order all the images included in the Oxonian series with the exception of four prints capturing works by Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli and Botticelli.[5] Jarjat’s article does not account for this document, and, in fact, claims that the earliest printed catalogue was released in 1876.[6]

The existence of the 1869 list conferred a renewed credibility onto the possibility that the cases mentioned in the 1870 University Gazette actually included those containing Braun’s prints by indicating that the images themselves may have been available before 1870. The prominence of the Eldon crest on the cases also sustains the hypothesis that the acquisition of Braun’s prints may have shortly followed the 1868 donation made by the Third Earl of Eldon. Assuming that the prints were actually acquired between late 1869 and early 1870, the University of Oxford would have been among the first to acquire Braun’s photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel: a gesture demonstrating the appeal of the images as well as the University’s interest in illustrating the Renaissance through a variety of media.

But how were the prints used between 1869 and their reappearance in the Visual Resources Centre in 2003 remains somewhat of a mystery. Braun’s photographs were moved to the Department of History of Art following the transfer of the Western Art Department Library from the Ashmolean Museum to the Sackler Library in 2001. This relocation was consistent with the different functions of the two institutions, the Visual Resources Centre constituting a more suitable home for the prints than the Sackler, which does not collect images.

However, very little information exists in the University’s records concerning the status of the images prior to the transfer. Considering the interest of Edgar Wind – the first Professor of the History of Art in Oxford – in Michelangelo’s work and his extensive research on the Sistine Chapel, looking for references to Braun’s prints in Wind’s scholarly work, personal and academic correspondence, and slides seemed appropriate. Unfortunately, though, these sources suggest that he may have not been aware of the existence of these images. For example, in 1958, three years after his appointment, Wind complained in a letter to Henry Allen Moe that ‘as for slides and photographs, there were none at all when I arrived.’[7]

0012Adolphe Braun, Ceiling of the Chapel in Four Parts, No. 2, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The same lack of awareness (or interest) pervades other accounts, including the records of the Keeper of Fine Arts of the Ashmolean Museum, published from 1885. Such sources invariably mention the precious drawings and sketches held by the University, but they fail to place emphasis on the didactic and aesthetic value of Braun’s series or later photographic reproductions of artworks, such as those by Alinari and Anderson.

This probably tells us more about the perceived value of photography in nineteenth and early twentieth-century art historical practice than they do about the actual potential of Braun’s images. Indeed, it makes sense that University records and publications would disregard photographs in favour of originals at a time when photographic images were widely treated as ‘mere reproductions.’ By looking at the prints themselves, however, Braun’s ambition that his images be viewed as something more than simple reproductions emerges clearly. Not only do the quality and size of the photographs bear witness to their value: the variety of images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – a curved and therefore uneasy surface to photograph – illustrate the technical skills of the photographers just as eloquently as they capture Michelangelo’s mastery.

Braun’s series is therefore endowed with multiple layers of significance. The early acquisition of the Oxonian set bespeaks the University’s openness to new forms of art historical illustration, while its general neglect in subsequent accounts testifies to the stature of photography among other forms of documentation and artistic practices. Maybe, had my final term in Oxford been a little quieter, I would have also been able to unravel the mystery of the photographs’ use in their 150 year-long sojourn at the University. As of now, though, I can only hope that another student will re-embark on this promising investigation.


Bibliography

Jarjat, Philippe. ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity.’ Art and the Early Photographic Album. Edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Moltedo, Alida. La Sistina Riprodotta: gli Affreschi di Michelangelo dalle Stampe del Cinquecento alle Campagne Fotografiche Anderson Calcografia. Roma: Fratelli Palombi Editori, 1991.

O’Brien, Maureen. Image and Enterprise. The Photographs of Adolphe Braun. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Wind, Edgar. The Religious Simbolism of Michelangelo: the Sistine Ceiling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

 

[1] ‘Eldon Fund,’ Council Regulations 25 of 2002, 2. http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/statutes/regulations/councilregs25/Ashmolean%20Museum%20of%20Art%20and%20Archaeology.pdf

[2] In each issue, the Eldon donation is mentioned in the section devoted to the University Galleries. See The Oxford University Calendar, issues from 1855 to 1871.

[3] Henry W. Acland, ‘University Galleries,’ University Gazette Vol.1 No.19 (June 14, 1870), 9.

[4] Philippe Jarjat, ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity,’ Art and the Early Photographic Album, edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

[5] Rome. Palais du Vatican, Chapelle Sixtine. Fresques de Michel-Ange reproduites par Adolphe Braun. Mulhouse: L.L. Bader, 1869.

[6] Ibid, 156

[7] Correspondence between Edgar Wind and Henry Allan Moe, 1st July 1958, MS. Wind 13, Box 1, Folder 1. Edgar Wind Papers, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

 

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Teaching with Objects in Oxford: Krasis and Cabinet

By Dr Sarah Griffin (DPhil History of Art 2018), Research Assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and Junior Teaching Fellow at the Ashmolean Museum.


As art historians, we don’t need to be persuaded of the importance of visual culture to the study of the past. The pedagogical value of interacting with and reading objects and images is central to the ways in which we teach and research. In recent years, other Humanities subjects have become increasingly interested in material culture, moving away from traditional text-based teaching to incorporate more object handling and museum visits, demanding more resources be made for object-based learning.

Since joining the art history department, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two initiatives that encourage and deliver object-based teaching in Oxford: Krasis, a seminar series that uses the Ashmolean’s collections to teach; and Cabinet, a digital tool designed to support this method of teaching. Both speak directly to the experience and interests of art historians and are available for students and staff across the University.

Cabinet: Digital Tools for Object-Based Learning

In 2015, my then doctoral supervisor, Gervase Rosser, introduced me to a project at the Oxford Internet Institute that was in the early stages of design. This new online platform, I was told, would display the significant and diverse collections of Oxford’s museums together to create a digital Cabinet of Curiosities. Although immediately captivated by this idea, I did not yet know that Cabinet would come to play a defining role in my research and in the development of my teaching practice.

Cabinet is an online platform pioneered by Oxford researchers (led by Kathryn Eccles, formerly the University’s Digital Humanities Champion) to facilitate the use of objects and images in teaching. Its ultimate aim is to make Oxford’s collections as accessible for use in learning as text-based resources and so is particularly pertinent to art historical approaches. Cabinet won an OxTalent award for innovation in 2017 and has since been adopted as a University service to support digital object-based teaching.

As a research assistant, my first task was to create an online component to complement Gervase’s ‘Early Renaissance Italy’ course using the Ashmolean’s collections. One of my favourite outcomes was a 3D model of the Embriachi Casket, a fifteenth-century octagonal marriage casket made in Venice, now publicly available online. Cabinet RA Jamie Cameron makes these models through a process called photogrammetry. Photos are taken of every angle of the object and inserted into software (we use AgiSoft Photoscan) that calculates the distance between the photos taken to generate the model. In the Cabinet viewer (pictured below), the model can be turned, toggled and zoomed in upon, allowing the user to digitally handle the object.

Embriachi CasketSource page for the Embriachi Casket, hosted by Cabinet

Although Cabinet is well known for its 3D models, this is just one of many features it has that help the viewer to engage with the source material as closely as possible. As well as annotating the 2D image or 3D model (as seen in the coloured numbers in the casket above), one can present the object with interactive multimedia interpretation, including textual commentaries, links to external websites, and embedded videos and audio.

Another significant feature of the platform is the ability to arrange objects in a carefully curated learning pathway within a Cabinet ‘paper’. Many of our papers that are tailored to a specific undergraduate course currently require a login from Weblearn or Canvas to view, but a selection are freely available on Cabinet’s discovery page.

A large part of my role is to help Oxford staff to create and upload their courses onto Cabinet. Seeing how digitised images could be so easily imported using IIIF, I was inspired to create a paper based around my own specialism in medieval science and manuscripts: ‘Corpus: Representing the Body in Medieval Manuscripts‘. Building the paper, I came to realise that the ways in which one can organise visual materials is essentially an extension of art historical methodologies, encouraging the paper’s viewers to compare, contrast and contextualise the images within their distinct visual culture. In ‘Corpus’, I grouped manuscripts illustrations together according to provenance and iconographic similarity, such as these medieval depictions of the zodiac man. You can read more about how I designed ‘Corpus’ to teach students about the history of medicine and medieval manuscripts on the OII blog.

Zodiac ManClassification of medieval images of the ‘Zodiac Man’ by provenance on Cabinet

Krasis: Teaching with the Ashmolean’s Collections

Created by Jim Harris and Samuel Gartland, Krasis brings together eight students (Krasis Scholars) and four DPhil or postdoctoral researchers (Junior Teaching Fellows) in the Ashmolean for four interdisciplinary seminars that utilise the awesome potential of the museum’s diverse collections. Born out of the Ashmolean’s Academic Engagement Programme, it builds on the success and high demand for Eloquent Things, a four-day course that teaches cross-divisional DPhils and ECRs how to teach with objects.

From the Ancient Greek word κρᾶσις – a good mix, compound or union – Krasis does exactly what it says on the tin. The seminars are broadly related by a theme (absence, presence, movement, sound, the body, trust, to name just a few), yet each session is led through the specialism of the junior teaching fellow. Students are encouraged to bring their own rigorous disciplinary interpretation to discuss with others, and together unpack how one object can be read in a multiplicity of ways.

Krasis_2 Krasis_1Krasis teaching with Jim Harris and myself (left) and DPhil student, Helena Guzik, leading a session (right)

Each two to three-hour session is dynamic, including object-handling sessions, gallery presentations, and creative tasks. So far we’ve seen historical plays re-enacted and podcasts recorded in the gallery space, museum tours constructed, ideas for the re-organisation of a display pitched to a (brave) Ashmolean curator, and costumes designed upon objects in the collection. No two seminars are alike, but we do have one ongoing tradition: a cup of tea in the rooftop cafe. The time and caffeine to polish off a task is always welcome, but more crucially it gives scholars the chance to chat with the fellows about life as a graduate researcher.

After three runs of being a teaching fellow, I now co-convene the seminar with Jim, functioning as both an advisor to the teaching fellows and the organiser of the seminar’s digital component.

Krasis on Cabinet: A Teaching Tool and Digital Legacy

That these two initiatives speak directly to one another has not gone unnoticed. From 2019, Krasis has partnered with Cabinet to create an online component of the seminar in the form of a Cabinet paper. Each unit of the paper is designed by a teaching fellow, giving them a space to curate the objects handled and discussed during the session and the ability to create a digital pathway of resources through which the students can further research the seminar topics.

Not only will this send students away with, in Jim’s words, a “bibliography of objects” to consult later, it will soon be made public – showcasing the creativity of the seminars, giving a wider audience access to objects often not on display, and offering a digital portfolio to the teaching fellows.

Krasis on CabinetKrasis on Cabinet – Hilary 2019

Both projects have been challenging. They have demanded that I bring together my experience as an art historian, teacher, researcher of the Middle Ages and digital humanist, and put them into practice. Looking back, I cannot imagine a better way, nor with a more exceptional group of people, that I could have honed these skills for my next post-DPhil step.


How do I get involved?

If you would like to use Cabinet, for research, teaching or another purpose, please contact the Digital Education learning technologists at IT Services for information on how to gain access and create content.

If you’re interested in being a part of Krasis, either as a Scholar or a Junior Teaching Fellow, read more about the application process on the Ashmolean’s Academic Engagement site.

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.

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.


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