Accessing Art History at Oxford

What would it be like to study art history at university? This is a difficult question for most students at school and their teachers to answer: the subject is not taught at most schools, and if it has been heard of at all, this tends to have been in contexts which are quite misleading. The History of Art Department at Oxford continues to be active in encouraging interest in a university subject which offers a training in core skills for employment in the modern world: the means to understand and to critique images of every kind.

This year the Department ran a variety of programmes providing insight into art history and the BA course in Oxford. The first of these was under the banner of the Oxford Pathways series, in which Year 12 pupils are invited to spend a day in Oxford and to experience taster sessions in two academic subjects. They are also mentored for the day by a current undergraduate. A dozen participants came to a session on art history run by Gervase Rosser, who got the group talking with a short series of diverse images. The themes of political art and idealised feminine beauty generated animated debate, and led to expressed interest in the subject among participants who had signed up without quite knowing what they were in for.

The UNIQ programme for History of Art, which has been run for nine years, has the joint aims of inspiring interest in the subject, of encouraging aspiration to study at university level, and of introducing students at lower-sixth-form level to the academic and wider cultural environment of Oxford. Fourteen participants, arriving from all parts of the United Kingdom, stayed for a week in Worcester College, where they were mentored and befriended by two undergraduate ambassadors, Evelyn and Ani, both students of History of Art.

DSC_1129_crop.jpg © Department of History of Art

The academic programme, led by Gervase, mimicked in concentrated form one of the core elements of the first-year BA programme, which involves choosing an object or building in Oxford, about which the undergraduate – with the supervision of a curator – writes an extended essay. In groups of two or three, the UNIQ participants were allocated an object in the Pitt Rivers Museum or in the Ashmolean Museum, and in the course of the week they studied it in the Bodleian Library, participated in a tutorial on the subject, and finally gave a presentation to the group as a whole. The quality of these final presentations was tremendously good. As the student ambassadors generously admitted, they were of undergraduate standard. But this was on the fourth day: at the outset, everyone was a little daunted.

Participants came with diverse experience and expectations. One had never visited a museum before. Even for those who had done so, the initial encounter with the Pitt Rivers was eye-opening. The astonishing richness and strangeness of that global ethnographic collection, still in its nineteenth-century display cases, never fails to amaze the first-time visitor.

Later in the week the group extended its exploration of Oxford galleries by visiting an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, the permanent collection of Old Master paintings in the Christ Church Picture Gallery, and the newly opened gallery housing the Pembroke College Undergraduate Collection of twentieth-century British paintings. Gervase also took them to the Divinity School, the architectural heart of the late medieval University.

Divinity_School_Evelyn_Earl_2018© Evelyn Earl

Criss-crossing the city on foot over the course of the week, participants had the chance to compare the architectural styles of the diverse colleges which offer places in History of Art, from the medieval core of Worcester and the Tudor great hall of Christ Church, to the seventeenth-century buildings of Wadham and St John’s, to more modern structures at St Peter’s and the Scandinavian Modernist design of St Catherine’s. There were jokes about the epic distances covered by the group – and some good times just sitting in college gardens with sandwich lunches and the opportunity to chat.

To judge from some of the comments volunteered by participants as they left at the end of the week, the UNIQ programme had been worthwhile:

I was so nervous to come, but I had the most amazing experience and you all made me fall in love with History of Art.

You are the loveliest people I’ve ever met! Definitely made my first academic experience of history of art very interesting and engaging.

I will remember this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you for being the loveliest, most understanding and down-to-earth ambassadors and tutors.

In addition to the UNIQ Summer School this year History of Art took part in two other initiatives designed to broaden and diversify the pool of applicants to Oxford. The first was a contribution to the Humanities strand of the UNIQ Spring weekend, again open to Year 12 students, and was run jointly with colleagues in History. Craig Clunas took the fourteen students who had expressed an interest in these areas to the Ashmolean.

UNIQbyIanWallman-8691 (1).jpg© Ian Wallman

Getting the students to think about the ways in which a museum frames the past, and the questions we ask about it, Craig started in the ‘West Meets East’ Orientation Gallery, asking students to pick an object in pairs, think up a question about it to share with the whole group, and then together consider the question, ‘Are objects evidence?’.

In the afternoon the group met for a class in the History of Art Department, on the theme of ‘Global Encounters’; this was run jointly with Alexander Morrison of the History Faculty, a specialist on the Russian empire in Central Asia. Alexander took the class through a range of documents giving the differing perspectives of participants in a seventeenth-century treaty between the Tsars and the Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty, which set the boundaries between these two Eurasian superpowers for centuries. Craig then took up the theme of ‘Encounters’ by encouraging the class to discuss images produced for the Qing emperors by the Italian artists who worked for them in the eighteenth century. Both these sessions got students to focus on how it might be possible to write a global history that doesn’t assume Europe as its natural centre.

The_Qianlong_Emperor_in_Ceremonial_Armour_on_Horseback.jpgGiuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor on Horseback. Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum

Craig touched on some of these same themes when he had a chance to run one of the academic sessions for the Sutton Trust Teacher Summer School this July, on ‘Art, History, Art History’. Although there are important initiatives to get art history teaching into state schools (Art History in Schools being one), and make qualifications in it available to state school pupils, realistically it is the chance to explain the subject to teachers in other subjects which is going to make a difference. But it would be foolish to try and tell a group of classroom-hardened teachers stuff that does not connect with their working experience. So it was great to welcome fifteen teachers from history, politics, geography, psychology and a range of other subjects to hear Craig discuss with them the ways in which thinking about a broad range of visual culture can appeal to pupils who might be put off by too narrow a definition of ‘art history’.

Using two paintings which raise the theme of ‘viewing’ as a historical practice (one from nineteenth-century France, one from Ming China), Craig tried to show how critical skills join with historical information to make interpretation possible. He also learned that the new A-level Geography syllabus requires students to consider the representation of place and space in art – one teacher present talked about taking a class to The Lowry in Manchester as a way of thinking about representations of the urban environment. Another way to get young people engaged is always good to hear about.

Both these activities were highly worthwhile, but the opportunity in particular to show teachers, who may go on influencing students’ application choices for decades, that Oxford is there for all who can benefit from it, and that art history is as challenging and rigorous, was a special privilege, and one the Department looks forward to taking up again in future years. We remain committed to using every avenue open to us, doing as much as we can to widen access to Oxford University as a whole and to broadening interest in the discipline of art history.


For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.

To attend our next Open Day on Friday 14th September 2018 please see the Department’s Open Days and Access Events page for details on how to book a place. 

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A Year in the Life of the Terra Visiting Professor

By Miguel de Baca, Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art, 2017-18

The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford enable a respected scholar of American art to spend a year in Oxford teaching and carrying out their own personal research. It is also an opportunity to make connections throughout the University and the wider academic community.


The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorship in American Art at Oxford has been a wonderfully enriching experience and a milestone in my professional life. Oxford is uniquely influential within higher education, and I feel privileged to have come to know it as a teacher and a colleague within the History of Art Department.

My Masters’ course, “Transnational Memory in American Art History,” taught over the 16 weeks of Michaelmas and Hilary terms, was an exciting opportunity. I teach a similar course at my home institution, but without the transnational focus, so I retooled the syllabus to allow for new conversations to emerge. Fortunately, the composition of the seminar, which included students from Britain, America, France, Australia, and Israel, ensured that we would enjoy a diverse dialogue over the course. These students were a joy to work with, bringing energy and life to historical and theoretical texts from week to week. Interestingly, I have noticed that, in any class, the first readings are the ones that stick with students and come up again and again in their papers. Some of our first texts in “Transnational Memory” included seminal works in the fields of memory studies and American studies, and it was instructive to me to observe students relate them in rich and unexpected ways to a range of artists and artworks within and beyond the United States.

IMG_6083History of Art Research Seminar © Department of History of Art

I learned so much pedagogically from the advantages of the Oxford tutorial system. In essence, a tutorial is something like a personalized seminar in which students discuss ideas and essay drafts in a one-on-one (or very small group) setting with the professor—and this comes in addition to classroom-based learning. I come from a strong ‘liberal arts college’ context in the United States, so I am to some extent familiar with this type of teaching. However, the Oxford tutorial is a philosophy that foregrounds each student as an individual with their own capabilities, energies, and strengths. Thus, my approach to teaching the tutorial was less scripted than it might otherwise be; I outlined various suggested topics in advance, but generally allowed students to follow their interests in the space of the tutorial hour.

In addition to spending time in the Department, it was a great pleasure to be a Visiting Fellow of Worcester College. Colleges are the soul of university life at Oxford. You never know who might be sitting next to you at lunch or dinner in the dining hall, or with whom you might strike up a conversation in the Senior Common Room for a postprandial coffee (despite British peer pressure, I still won’t drink tea). I met a wonderful range of scholars from diverse fields, each contributing to the whole picture of collegiality. In this way, I would describe Oxford as a consummately hospitable place, where knowledge is nurtured generously by good conversation, food, and drink.

MdB_with_Terra_President_CEO_Elizabeth_Glassman_GJMiguel de Baca with Terra Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Glassman, Worcester College Main Quad © Department of History of Art

A home base in Europe allowed frequent chances to study artworks and collections I would not have such occasion to see at home. Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and Tate Liverpool all had excellent openings during my time. The Irish Museum of Modern Art had an unusual show on the Aspen 5+6 group, which was packed with really interesting information about Irish, continental, and American connections in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is not to mention the contemporary art fairs I was able to visit—Frieze, the Venice Biennale, and the Berlin Biennale—in order to sharpen my focus on modern curatorial practices as well as American artists’ place within the exponential growth of biennial culture worldwide. I am absolutely confident that these experiences will lead to more engaging and effective teaching of contemporary art to my students back in the United States.

Lastly, as the Terra Professor I was able to share my own research and interests with communities of scholars in the form of many talks and lectures. I tested out a new project on video art with the History of Art Department in the research seminar series, a paper on Washington Color School at the conference In and Out of American Art: Between Provincialism and Transnationalism, 1940-1980 at the University of St. Andrews, an in-depth conversation about the influential curator Walter Hopps with the author Deborah Treisman at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, and a conversation with the inimitable art historian Jo Applin on the multiple expressions of feminism in modernist sculpture at the Terra Foundation campus in Paris. I shared the edited-out portions of my book, Memory Work: Anne Truitt and Sculpture (2015), with an audience at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which was a great occasion to revisit and advance my thinking on an earlier project.

Terra_18_12Terra Foundation Lecture at Worcester College © Department of History of Art

This spring, I delivered the Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art at the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre at Worcester College: four lectures, one per week in May, on different topics under the heading “The Body of a Nation”. I also shared some thoughts on the painter Ed Ruscha at History of Art colleague Craig Clunas’s retirement celebration, and a lecture on 1970s Polaroids at the Maison Française d’Oxford. It was a very full and rewarding agenda, to be sure! Many of these kernels have led to publishing opportunities that will keep me occupied for the months and, indeed, years to come.

The capstone to this wonderful academic work was a study day on video art at LUX, the premier European video and film arts agency, based in London. I assembled an international group of scholars at LUX to discuss the subject of video art and activism, and learned a great deal from our conversation. This collaboration was the first of its kind between Oxford and LUX, which I hope will continue to grow as scholarship on moving image practices of the late 20th and 21st centuries expands both at Oxford and in the field at large. There is so much more to know!

LUX study day.jpgLUX study day © Miguel de Baca

In short, I cannot imagine a more fruitful or rewarding year. Oxford is an institution I can now think of as a home and a habit of mind—a place of collective purpose and shared belief in the real potential for research and knowledge to train future leaders. And my colleagues and students in the History of Art have refreshed my belief in the vitality, even the centrality, of visual culture to a circumspect and well-examined life.


Miguel de Baca was the Terra Visiting Professor of American Art 2017-18. He is the chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Lake Forest College. The 2018-19 Terra Visiting Professor of American Art is John R. Blakinger.

Podcasts of the 2018 Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art are available to listen to.

Further information about the Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford.

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

Visiting and Revisiting Beloved Spaces: The Photographic Reproductions of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Frescoes in the Visual Resources Centre

By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture

This year’s Slade Professor David Ekserdjian kindly offered to hold a workshop for History of Art students in the Department’s Visual Resources Centre. The topic of this event coincided with his Slade Lecture on Michaelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Students had the opportunity to discuss with Professor Ekserdjian the visual historiography of art history since the invention of photography, using examples from the Department’s photographic collections.


The Sistine Chapel, accessed only by a handful of people in its original context, is now open to all visitors who can afford a ticket. Since Michelangelo completed the vault’s decorations in 1512 it has been represented in different mediums, which have enabled this once socially enclosed space to be known to the wider public. Sketches and prints of the chapel initiated this process as early as the Renaissance, but it is only in the late nineteenth century that more reliable and less expensive photographic reproductions grew increasingly popular. In the History of Art Department’s Visual Resources Centre copies from nineteenth century campaigns are held alongside contemporary reproductions.

Professor David Ekserdjian, this year’s Slade Professor at Oxford, explored their historical and documentary importance in a workshop tailored to students. As graduates specialising in Italian Renaissance Art, we felt especially eager to take part. Professor Ekserdjian looked specifically at photographs of Michelangelo’s frescoes, considering how they have been used by scholars and conservators before and after the chapel’s restoration, completed in 1999. Adding an interesting layer to his discussion, he also encouraged us to reflect on changes in accessibility to images and how they have affected the practice and study of the history of art.

DSC_0849_crop.jpg© Department of History of Art

The workshop started off with Adolphe Braun’s large photographic prints of the Sistine Chapel, the first photographic survey of this space ever attempted in 1868. Housed in large leather-bound volumes, these prints are themselves works of art, showing beautiful views of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Although objects of clear aesthetic interest, Braun’s photographs failed to capture some of the details due to their low contrast and wide perspective.

This is no fault of Braun’s studio of photographers but of the technology and aesthetic preferences of the period. The prints are large (37x47cm) because they are contact prints and reflect the size of the glass plates used to take the photographs. Photographic technology at the time relied on the collodion wet plate process, which had a slow exposure time, up to several minutes in low light conditions indoors such as the Sistine Chapel. Photographers had to work quickly to coat, sensitize and expose the plate within a time frame of 15 minutes before the collodion set. It was necessary for a portable darkroom to be employed when working in the field. Considering Braun had large scaffolding constructed in order to photograph the ceiling at height, it becomes clear what a huge feat this first photographic survey of the Sistine Chapel was.

DSC_0846.JPG© Department of History of Art

The Braun photographs are carbon prints which gives them their matte brown tone. Carbon prints can be produced with a variety of colour pigments including reds, browns and cool blues and greys. They are resistant to fading and were commonly used from the 1860s onwards for commercial prints. The matte quality, soft focus and colouring of the photographs give them the look of a painting or drawing. Indeed they are treated as such in their presentation, they are housed in grand portfolio boxes as if they are Renaissance drawings themselves.

As Professor Ekserdjian remarked, Braun’s series, initially released in 1869, constituted a first attempt to replace previously circulating prints and sketches. However, the reach of prints of this size and quality was still relatively limited because of their high cost. The smaller prints distributed by the commercial publishers Alinari and James Anderson later in the nineteenth century, were a partial solution to this problem. At once more affordable these images record more effectively the status of the Chapel before its restoration. Indeed, thanks to their sharper printing, these photographs allow us to see more of the minute features in Michelangelo’s frescoes while, at the same time, showing the extent of their damage.

Reflecting on the documentary quality of these photographs we were made aware of how key aspects of the frescoes, still visible on the ceiling when Braun’s and Alinari and Anderson’s pictures were taken, have either irreversibly disappeared or reappeared in the process of restoration. The lines dividing different sections of the frescoes, easily discernible prior to the conservation intervention, are now impossible to decipher. Similarly, the finishing touches on the frescoes, also known as tracce a secco, were removed during the cleaning of the ceiling.

DSC_0876.JPGLantern slides © Department of History of Art

Looking at the photographs gave Professor Ekserdjian an opportunity to discuss with us how this ambitious restoration altered scholars’ understanding of the cycle by bringing the frescoes’ original colours back to light. In particular, the symbolic value of one of the Chapel’s lunette had to be re-evaluated when its dark tones, which had been interpreted as a metaphor of the obscure ages preceding Christianity in pre-restoration literature, disappeared in the cleaning process, revealing the lunette’s original bright colours.

Colour, an especially striking feature of the Sistine Chapel and a traditionally important category of analysis for art history, was also central to our discussions as a group. As we moved from black and white prints to slides in colour, we were invited to think about the limitations of the photographic medium in capturing and faithfully reproducing shades of colour in the artwork. Precisely because of these inevitable limitations, we were encouraged to be cautious when using photographic reproductions in our academic work. However, Professor Ekserdjian did not fail to place emphasis on the immense contribution that colour photography, and photographic slides in particular, have made to the study of the history of art. The crucial didactic value of this medium was that it finally allowed professors to incorporate images of faraway artworks like the Sistine Chapel into their teaching practice.

DSC_087535mm slides © Department of History of Art

No physical resource, however, has been able to compete with the internet in terms of widening accessibility to artworks’ reproductions. Thus, as the workshop came to an end we touched upon free digital collections of images, undoubtedly the most democratic source available at this stage. We were introduced to a range of key databases, including the Fondazione Zeri online catalogue, which collects 290,000 digital images of Italian art and architecture. Making digital photographs accessible to the general public, these platforms also indirectly transformed slides themselves into aesthetic objects, collected as such in the Visual Resources Centre alongside valuable printed photographs. As a final note, students were encouraged to reflect not only on what is gained but also on what is lost in this change of medium and accessibility. Platforms that provide easily accessible digital photographs should not fully replace the exercise of memory, crucial in allowing art historians to recollect the details of an artwork.

Ultimately, Professor Ekserdjian turned a workshop on photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s frescoes into an opportunity to raise much broader questions around the history of art. Professor Ekserdjian certainly did provide us with an interesting overview of the resources on the Sistine Chapel available in the Department. What is more, he reminded us of the need to constantly question not only our views, but also the availability and reliability of the primary sources we employ.


Sofia and Irene are both MSt History of Art and Visual Culture students and take the MSt Women and Art option with Professor Geraldine Johnson.

To listen again to Professor Ekserdjian’s lecture on Michelangelo watch the podcast.

The Department of History of Art holds several large photography collections, for more information about the Adolphe Braun Sistine Chapel prints and our other photographic material please see the Visual Resources Centre page.

2018 Oxford Slade Lectures ‘From Drawing to Painting in the Italian Renaissance’

By Sofia Garrè and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


In March 2018, people visiting the Ashmolean Museum had the rare opportunity to see a remarkable group of drawings by Michelangelo. This temporary exhibition offered a unique insight into the artist’s draftsmanship while hinting at the role played by drawings in the creation of artworks that are now considered among the most representative of the Italian Renaissance. But the Ashmolean Museum was not alone in raising questions on the wider significance of Renaissance drawings. This year’s Slade Lectures, given by Professor David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester), considered how drawings by some of the most famous Italian artists from the period honed the form and content of their major works. Starting with Michelangelo and ending with the Carracci brothers, Prof Ekserdjian surveyed nearly a century of Italian art, discussing ‘la crème de la crème’ of Renaissance draftsmanship. Each lecture focused on a single pictorial project, endeavouring to reconstruct its evolution through a close examination of the artist’s preparatory drawings.

The lectures were framed by a preliminary discussion on the history of drawings’ use in the process of art production, demonstrating that such an investigation would hardly be possible in Europe prior to the sixteenth century. For the second lecture focus was turned to some of the sketches and drawings created by Michelangelo for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, examining a number of examples from the Ashmolean’s own collection. This lecture was especially interesting in its reconstruction of Michelangelo’s creative process. In fact, the sketches and letters considered by Prof Ekserdjian encouraged an understanding of the Chapel as the product of a collaboration between the artist and his patrons. This perhaps unsurprising conclusion was nevertheless intriguing in light of Michelangelo’s notorious ambition to be acknowledged as the sole author of his work.

FI photo 1© Department of History of Art

The significance of drawings in the professional relationship among artists and their patrons was not limited to Michelangelo. This is certainly the case for Correggio’s drawings of The Assumption of the Virgin, the fresco decorating the dome of the Cathedral of Parma. The preparatory sheets suggest that the dome had already been sketched by Correggio before he signed the contract, pointing to the crucial role played by drawings themselves in the dynamics of the artist’s recruitment. Parmigianino’s studies for his unfinished Madonna with the Long Neck, the subject of the fifth lecture, were equally informative in highlighting otherwise elusive details in the history of the work’s commission. Reflecting on the quality of the finish of Parmigianino’s preliminary drawings, Prof Ekserdjian compellingly suggested that the artist must have used them to illustrate the project to his patrons.

Despite placing emphasis on the collaborative nature of these artworks, Prof Ekserdjian did not undermine the importance of the individual artist, whose direct engagement was often seen as essential by the patrons themselves. Correggio’s contract for the Assumption of the Virgin, for example, specifies that all the figures included in the fresco had to be made exclusively by the artist. This attests to the perceived superiority of the artist in Renaissance Italy, but it also testifies to the technical difficulty of the project, which required an experienced artist to tackle. Correggio had to conduct extensive studies before assembling the composition of the fresco, which was to include numerous figures viewed from below.

FI photo 6© Department of History of Art

These studies lend themselves particularly well to illustrating how artists in general used sketches to negotiate the difficulty of engaging with curved surfaces, large scale or unusual viewing perspectives. A similar challenge was also faced by Annibale and Agostino Carracci in planning their monumental cycle for the curved ceiling of the Farnese Gallery, The Loves of the Gods. As Prof Ekserdjian argued in his final lecture, the Carracci brothers’ exploratory sketches show that they were well aware of the difficulties of transposing the pictorial composition onto the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Farnese Gallery. To solve the problem, they designed an architectural and sculptural grid framing the pictorial scenes of the fresco that would transpose well onto the curved ceiling.

The fact that artists were facing complex practical challenges is demonstrated not only by their studies on how to transpose drawings onto unusual surfaces, but also by the representational strategies they adopted while completing the drawings themselves. The sheets examined in the lectures often reflect the hierarchy of mediums used by artists in their drawings to distinguish final ideas from exploratory studies. Michelangelo, for example, relied on colour to draw such distinctions, using red chalk for finished works and black pen for initial sketches. Florentine artist Bronzino also adopted a somewhat hierarchical approach to mediums in his studies for the decoration of the private chapel of Duchess Eleonora of Toledo. Looking at the relatively few surviving sketches for this project alongside those made in preparation for other frescoes, Prof Ekserdjian observed that Bronzino used chalk for his finished drawings, while pen was used when the artist was ‘thinking out loud.’

All the aforementioned aspects of Renaissance drawing practices seem to point in a single direction. That is, they all bear eloquent witness to the assiduous studies, often impossible to detect in the final work, that lie at the root of these artworks’ creation. This is perhaps most evident in Raphael’s sketches for the Stanza della Segnatura, examined early in the series. Indeed, Raphael’s frantic drawings, in which numerous poses and combinations are considered by the artist before settling on a final arrangement, betray the amount of work behind his seemingly effortless frescoes. Using drawings as his starting point, Prof Ekserdjian proved that Raphael was so meticulous in his formal investigation that he even sketched the reliefs decorating the architectural setting of the School of Athens. Not unlike Raphael, the lesser known Federico Barocci also completed punctilious preparatory studies for his altarpiece of the Madonna del Popolo, now on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Over one-hundred sheets tracing the gestation of the altarpiece survive, mirroring the artist’s diligence in studying both the poses of the individual figures and the composition’s overall appearance.

slide53© Ashmolean Museum

The reasons behind artists’ alterations of their original plans were varied, ranging from purely aesthetic and formal motivations to changes endowed with deeper symbolic and political significance. Correggio’s changes to his depiction of the Virgin belong, at least in part, to the latter category. The artist’s studies for the Assumption reveal that the Virgin’s pose, which originally envisioned the Madonna with her legs spread and visible, had to be changed to avoid causing a scandal. Similarly, Raphael’s Poetry in the Parnassus fresco, originally drawn nude, was partially clothed in the fresco to elude the risk of seeming inappropriate to his contemporaries. Drawings thus give us information about how the artist modified his design in order to comply with contemporary norms of decorum regulating artistic representation.

In our opinion, the enormous potential of Prof Ekserdjian’s minute analysis of Renaissance drawings lies precisely in its ability to detect such differences and to hint at their politically and culturally charged nature. His largely formal investigation of the relation among the final piece and the artist’s preparatory sheets constitutes an intriguing counterpart to our own research, which pays greater attention to questions of gender, class and race in connection with Renaissance art. Nevertheless, this year’s Slade Lectures consistently raised points that may be interpreted under the lens of cultural studies. By way of example, the fact that the Carraccis first sketched a female model while developing a male character of the fresco may open up interesting questions related to the politics of gender inversion in art.

All in all, this year’s Slade Lectures offered interesting insights to an audience of students and experts in the field as well as Art History enthusiasts. Prof Ekserdjian can be sure to have passed on to the public very thorough yet accessible information on the making of some of the most iconic artworks of the Italian Renaissance, ultimately furthering our understanding of this complex historical period. He is to be truly congratulated for his fascinating analysis.


Professor David Ekserdjian is the Slade Professor 2017-18 at Oxford. He is Professor of Art and Film History at the University of Leicester. 

Please look out for a follow-up blog by Irene and Sofia on a student workshop held by Professor Ekserdjian in the Department of History of Art.

Writing a first year extended essay, ‘Mavungu: Provenance and Aesthetic Appropriation’

By Michael Kurtz, Second Year Undergraduate BA History of Art

Michael won the Reaktion Book Prize for the best First Year Undergraduate extended essay on an ‘image, object or building in Oxford’. Here he writes on his research and gives an insight in to how he approached the essay.


In the first year of the Oxford History of Art undergraduate degree, students write an extended essay about any one object, image or building in the city. Given Oxford’s outstanding architectural and museological history, this assignment is not as narrow as it might seem and choosing a topic can be daunting. I knew I wanted to explore the areas of crossover and tension between the western tradition and non-western culture and so focused in on the Pitt Rivers Museum – as a unique collection loaded with the legacies of cross-cultural and often colonial interaction (read its history here).

PRM000017126Kongo peoples, Mavungu, late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was immediately drawn to ‘Mavungu’, a wooden figure with its mouth wide open and pierced with hundreds of metal shards, stood at the back of a case labelled ‘West African Sculpture’. It was the instant aesthetic appeal that the object had for me, as a western beholder, that was intriguing. In essence, it was this first interaction, the sense I had of simultaneous beauty and otherness, understanding and novelty, that I wanted to analyse and explain. That primordial meeting between viewer and artwork defines the nature of the research as it sets in motion the kinds of questions that one is curious to answer – in order to contextualise, explain or at least discuss this response.

The figure, I learnt, was a material manifestation of a hunter spirit (nkondi in Kongolese), designed in the late nineteenth century to ward off the growing Portuguese colonial forces on the trading waterways of the Kongo. It is thought (but interpretations are vague and vary considerably) that a nganga (or priest) would have been paid to incite the spirit against specific individuals or groups by implanting nails into its body. As such, the figure is more a functional than aesthetic object and, unlike most western ‘artworks’, did not have one moment of creation or one creator but was subject to a ritual process of material accumulation.

Figure 2Kongo peoples, Mavungu (detail), late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was able to explain the uncanny familiarity of Mavungu quite quickly as the Kongo kingdom had a long history of close interaction with Catholic missionaries from Portugal, and so its culture and cosmology was intertwined with Biblical art and tradition. The nailed masculine figure is a visual type that is surely affixed on the retina of every European art-lover. However, there were also assumptions I made that I had to reconsider and criticise. For instance, I first read the figure as an image of intense pain – with a face that recalled Edvard Munch’s Scream and a body pierced with metal shards – but the nails were in fact symbolic of the suffering the spirit would inflict on its victims and the mouth was open wide in order to hold manioc, a root poisonous to people who had failed to keep to promises confirmed by the spirit. I had thus westernised the figure’s features, forced them to conform to my European way of seeing and failed to understand the practical role within a ritual process that Mavungu had fulfilled.

Figure 3Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, © National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

It was these misunderstandings and re-interpretations that became the focus of my study; my essay was structured as a biography of Mavungu’s reception in order to trace and analyse the changing ways the figure was seen across its history. My own initial experience of the object became just one in a series of encounters that I could research, the most prominent of which being that of Mary Kingsley, the Victorian traveller who owned Mavungu before it was given to the Pitt Rivers in 1900. She kept the figure as the centrepiece of her hall in London and showed it off to guests as proof of her adventures and evidence that we should save ‘pure’ and ‘wild’ African culture from colonial influence. She thus betrays her ignorance of the role of Catholic missionaries and colonial forces in the formation of the figure.

Around the same time, the English establishment was using objects like Mavungu to reinforce an idea of ‘Africa’ in the European public consciousness as barbaric, uncivilised and therefore deserving of imperial domination. Its 1901 museum label reductively described its involvement in ‘gruesome practices’ and thought it blood-smeared, an ironic mistake given that its lips were painted red once it was in England in order to generate a stereotyped, barbaric appearance. These examples from my research demonstrate my overall argument that a piece of material culture can been used as an ideological tool and is drastically changed both physically and conceptually depending on its contextual function and beholder’s mindset.

Just as it is, I think, the initial interaction one has with the artwork that shapes the aims of an academic inquiry, the method of choosing an object is eventually mirrored in the final essay. From a general area of potential interest I found my object and then through this specific point I re-explored, with much more specific purpose, the broader themes that brought me to the figure in the first place. The original, vague conceptual notions and presumptions that bring you to an object, image or building are re-evaluated by your engagement with that art historical evidence. As both the approach and subject of my essay, this extended negotiation with the complexities of the way we think about and look at objects through time is surely the value of the exercise.

4eabfc7d7f3f7aabf3229c36772a1d76Renée Stout, Fetish No. 2, 1988, © Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

In order to provide an alternative and current perspective, I concluded my essay by discussing a contemporary artist, Renée Stout, who in her 1988 work Fetish No. 2 manipulates the form of a Kongolese hunter spirit and adapts it to her current situation as a black woman artist in urban America. By making her figure first a nude and secondly a self-portrait, she engages in the western tradition as well as the Kongolese and adapts both to meet her own needs. She inserts herself into the fraught history of reception of African art that I explored but re-appropriates the artistic form as a radical act against western appropriation. Yet Stout also admits that her sculpture is in no way engaged with the ritual function of Kongolese spirit figures and so it symbolically reflects the journey that Mavungu has made, from liturgical furniture to aesthetic artefact, trapped behind glass in twenty-first-century Oxford.

The inclusion of this last, contemporary artistic point-of-view was the suggestion of my supervisor, and former Senior Curator of the Pitt Rivers, Jeremy Coote. During several meetings over the course of the year, he provided relevant reading lists along with crucial theoretical insights that helped to shape the methodological framework of the essay. In my experience, the supervisory relationship was the most rewarding aspect of the process as it fostered a sense of productive collaboration and mutual academic interest that I found immensely exciting. The three-way dialogue – between object, supervisor and student – inevitably leads to interesting and unexpected results and has been hugely important in forming my ideas, and the way I want to write, about visual culture.


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