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History of Art UNIQ Summer School 2016

By Nathan Stazicker, BA History of Art Graduate 2016


During the long vacation Oxford is overtaken by tourists and summer school students, forming endless queues outside the Ashmolean and every college connected with Harry Potter. The students who attended the History of Art UNIQ summer school in the first week of July were just as keen to take in the city’s tourist hotspots but also spent their time in Oxford’s libraries preparing for tutorials. Accompanied by two current student mentors – myself and Issy – the 14 potential applicants had a packed week which, at times, felt like it was packing 8 week’s worth of stuff into just 7 days!

That’s not a criticism though, for the whole point of the UNIQ programme (which runs over 4 weeks every July) is to give sixth form students an insight into life at Oxford University, both social and academic. Sleeping and eating in colleges (for free!) – Wadham and St John’s this year – also provides a valuable experience of student life. The great value of UNIQ is that it shows students from state schools and areas of little progression to higher education that Oxford (and university in general) can be right for them. As a former participant of the programme back in 2012, it was a particular pleasure to take on the role of academic mentor this year and help to inspire the next generation of Oxford students.

As the sixth formers’ trains pulled into Oxford on a sunny Saturday afternoon they had little idea of what Oxford could offer them, who they would be spending the week with, or, indeed, what art history is. After seven days immersed in the History of Art Department however, this was far from the case! After an intense day of admissions preparation on the Sunday the students, Issy and I threw ourselves into exploring what Oxford has to offer art historians. Led by Prof. Craig Clunas we visited the Weston Library where we compared 16th century visual representation in the Sheldon tapestry map and Aztec scrolls before heading off for tours of St Catz and Wadham with Prof. Gervase Rosser. And Monday still had more to offer with an introduction to the Pitt Rivers Museum and an evening of sports in University Parks (although some of the art historians took the opportunity to sketch rather than run around!).

During the rest of the week we had amazing tours of the Ashmolean with curators – where we also viewed modern Chinese artworks not usually on display, handled medieval manuscripts and Renaissance books in St John’s College library, visited the Christ Church Picture Gallery and climbed up to the lantern of Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre! The aim of these visits was to introduce the students to some of Oxford’s collections, leading to a mini research project in the style of the first year object essay. Each group of students was given an object to research, ranging from an Ancient Egyptian scarab beetle to Uccello’s famous painting ‘The Hunt in the Forest’. Over the course of the week these objects were researched using books in the Sackler and Balfour libraries, which led to tutorials with members of the Department and a final presentation at the end of the week. This was a great morning, with each group speaking for 20 minutes and sharing what they had learned, teaching the rest of us a lot along the way!

Aside from the academic programme we enjoyed a comedy night and quiz night and a fabulous alumni dinner at Christ Church. Here we were joined by Ros Holmes, a Junior Research Fellow in the History of Art, and Louise Stewart, Cross Collections Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, both former students of the Department. With a Q&A session and a three course dinner there was plenty of time to chat and the students enjoyed both the fancy food and the chance to learn about opportunities after university.

On Friday afternoon the UNIQ students ‘graduated’ in the Sheldonian and received books courtesy of Oxford University Press before we headed off to the farewell BBQ. Everyone needed a rest after such an action-packed week but there was unanimous agreement at how enjoyable UNIQ had been. As they headed back home to embark on Year 13, there were more than a few who had their sights firmly set on a History of Art degree from Oxford. Thanks must be given to the students who made the week so enjoyable with their dedication, and to the hard work of all the Department and museum staff who gave up their valuable time, especially to Prof. Clunas who dedicated his week to UNIQ.


Nathan was awarded the History of Art Gibbs Prize 2016 for achieving the highest examination marks in his cohort. He also received the Good Citizen Prize for making the greatest contribution to the life of the Department during his course, over and beyond his academic work.

More information about Oxford’s UNIQ summer schools can be found here.

Thinking Colour

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By Lucy Whelan, with co-organiser Anita Paz. Lucy is a current DPhil student at the History of Art Department.


Reading academic calls for papers, I am often reminded of when the children in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree end up at Dame Slap’s school. The longer the children look at the questions written on the board, the more they realise they are impossible. “If there are a hundred pages in a book, how many books would there be on the shelf?” – Three blackbirds sat on a cherry tree. They ate one hundred and twenty-three of the cherries. How many were left?” – and “Why is a blackboard?”

The impossibility of the questions in calls for papers is – usually – not because they are sheer nonsense, of course, but because every question taken seriously opens a hundred more. Following Heidegger, real thinking is not monolithic, or answer-seeking, but playfully opening ourselves up to an encounter with the groundless and unfamiliar. In art history, asking questions of mute objects can sometimes have a similar effect. And there is no subject of interrogation more seemingly silent (or in excess of language) than colour, traditionally mistrusted as irrational, feminine, and carnal.

When my colleague Anita Paz and I were asked to lead a class for Hanneke Grootenboer’s History of Art and Visual Culture MSt option on Image and Thought last year, we wanted to discuss the different thinking tools or mechanisms that images have or use, and colour seemed like one obvious direction. How do images articulate thought, or even, how do they think, through colour? What is colour’s affective power? Can colour be a device for – or even a form of – thinking, for artist or viewer? These were the questions we wanted to explore, only we couldn’t find much written on them. So we decided to bring together those who have explored these questions, to consider the philosophical relations between colour and thinking. We invited Eric Alliez, David Batchelor, Laure Blanc-Benon, Natasha Eaton, Paul Smith, and Liz Watkins – and to our astonishment, all of them said yes.

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The Thinking Colour Symposium poster

It turns out we weren’t alone in wishing to sound out the silence around colour. In addition to our speakers we had over sixty attendees, many travelling here from Europe, the USA, and even Australia. We were also joined by paper respondents both from Oxford – Hanneke Grootenboer and Justin Coombes (Ruskin School of Art) – and from wider afield, and by yet more speakers following a call for papers. And so we found ourselves on the day of the referendum result, 24th June, in the beautiful Danson Room at Trinity College, with voices from various perspectives and various countries, coming together to explore colour.

In our first panel, Natasha Eaton (History of Art, UCL) and Paul Smith (History of Art, Warwick) thought through the phenomenology of colour in different ways, moving us from Wittgenstein’s ‘grammar’ of colour and colour wheels, to negotiations of the colour white in contemporary Indian art. Responses by Justin Coombes (Oxford) and Susanne Komossa (Architecture, Delft Institute of Technology) were both poetic and playful.

The second panel brought together thinkers who have expanded the ways we approach colour. David Batchelor’s paper was radiant, arguing visually and verbally for colour as a fall, a loss of consciousness, a place, while Eric Alliez (History of Art, Kingston University) looked at the painter Daniel Buren’s ‘colour-thinking’. They were responded to by Judith Mottram (Royal College of Art), who raised the question of the radical power of both colour and form, and Hanneke Grootenboer, who addressed the conceptual state of betweenness that colour inhabits, and its philosophical consequences.

In the third panel, Laure Blanc-Benon (University Paris-Sorbonne) and Liz Watkins (University of Leeds) explored the significance of colour in photography and film, as Laure asked how we would understand photography if colour photography had been invented first, and Liz looked at how colour shaped early non-fiction films made of Antarctic explorations. Both papers explored role of colour in media technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that was furthered by their respondent Regina Lee Blaszczyk (University of Leeds).

A round-table of shorter papers in the late afternoon acted like a kaleidoscope, collecting up our ideas on colour, and holding them up to the light. Tessa Laird from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary filmmaker’s and the power of colour to evoke a bodily unconscious and overspill various boundaries; Claudia Tobin (Royal Drawing School) looked at chromatic language in Virginia Woolf and what it is to inhabit colour; Sophie Knezic also from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary artist James Turrell through Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on colour’s intensity; Rey Conquer (University of Oxford) argued how colour helps us to think through poetic processes; and Elodie Ripoll (Universität Koblenz-Landau / EHESS, Paris) described what she designates as three elementary functions of colour words from a literary perspective. What ensued was a rich discussion of colour from various disciplines and perspectives.

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Paul Klee, Signs in Yellow (1937). Public domain via Wikimedia.

My favourite moment from the day, without a doubt, was when an attendee suggested that we had been doing too much thinking colour, and not enough feeling colour. Because it made me realise how actually, by thinking with colour as much as about it, and through some particularly sensitive and sensuous papers, we had managed to do both. Sitting in a dark room overwhelmed by so many phosphorescent slides, we had experienced colour as ‘a kind of bliss’, as Barthes has put it, its jouissance. And, if we follow Heidegger, this too is a kind of thinking. For ‘joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought’. And by not rejecting these mysterious things as those to be ‘kept out of the wings of thought’, we widen the spectrum of thinking and make it polychromatic.

References

Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree (London, 1987)

Martin Heidegger, What is called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York, 1972)


The Thinking Colour Symposium was co-organised by Lucy Whelan and Anita Paz. It was made possible by the AHRC-TORCH graduate fund, and their hosts Trinity College.

Please visit the ‘Past Event’ page for more information and paper abstracts: http://torch.ox.ac.uk/thinking-colour-symposium.

Student Placements: Working in the Ashmolean Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department

By Ella Letort, Second Year BA History of Art Undergraduate


One of the Oxford History of Art Department’s great strengths is the extent to which it makes use of the city’s world-class collections. From the start of our degrees, students are familiarised with the art and objects offered by local museums and galleries. Oxford’s collections remain at the core of the undergraduate programme’s layout, with tutorials frequently held in the University’s Ashmolean Museum, as well as a first year extended essay requiring independent research on an object held within the city. Second year collections placements, organised through the Department, aim to build upon this by offering us the opportunity to see Oxford’s museums and galleries in fresh light through a placement within one of the many available departments.

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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (1591-1666), St Francis kneeling, c. 1615. Charcoal crayon, heightened with white, on buff paper. Reproduced with permission. © Ashmolean Museum Prints and Drawings Department

My placement alongside the Ashmolean Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department, taking place one afternoon per week throughout Hilary and Trinity terms, has fitted comfortably around academic work while being substantial enough to accommodate individual projects. Thus far, my work has largely involved digitally cataloguing etchings and engravings from the School of Fontainebleau – a period in which I had, and have, little expertise. One of the reasons for my application to the Print Room was the appeal of close encounters with works of art; mounted prints and drawings can be handled with gloves, and this encourages up-close observation. My lack of specialist knowledge certainly necessitated careful examination of the prints and written sources at hand. Far from being monotonous, this method of cataloguing has been, for me, an exercise in observation and has given me the chance to work closely with objects I would not have otherwise encountered. Each print presented its own challenges; often the work of art would require further research or, at times, the identification of the artist or subject matter. This enabled me to feel that, although my role within the Print Room was relatively small, I was nonetheless able to make a contribution to the Department.

From the very start of my time working alongside them, the staff have been exceptionally welcoming and helpful. As well as cataloguing, I was given numerous opportunities to view works of art relating to current courses of mine, which reflects the Department’s commitment to fostering greater interest in the arts with as many people as possible. For example, I was able to study John Ruskin’s watercolours – which are part of his Teaching Collections, and are housed in the Ashmolean’s Print Room – alongside the second year ‘Victorian Intellect and Culture’ module. Besides the support it provides to History of Art students, the Print Room’s diverse collection caters to the varied interests of University academics as well as members of the public, both of whom could frequently be found viewing the prints and drawings on offer during my working hours.

The collections placement has deepened my knowledge of how large museums and galleries like the Ashmolean work; in particular how they strengthen the academic and public understanding of art across Oxford. The cataloguing and research skills I’ve taken away from my time in the Prints and Drawings Department have put me in good stead during interviews for summer internships and have lead to future opportunities. The History of Art collections placements not only help undergraduates to engage further with the collections they frequently use, but also offer us a foot up in a competitive career sector with a growing demand for prior experience.


The Ashmolean Museum’s Print Room is home to one of Britain’s finest collections of European graphic arts. Find more information on their holdings, opening hours, and contact details here

John Ruskin’s Teaching Collections have been digitised by the Ashmolean and made available online here.

Delving into Delacroix: An Introduction to the Lee Johnson Archive

By Dr. Fiona Gatty and Emma Walshe

The National Gallery’s current exhibition, ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, has catapulted the nineteenth-century French painter, his influence, and his legacy to the forefront of art conversations everywhere. Here at the History of Art Department, we have been prompted by this to return to and appreciate our very own connection to Delacroix—the Lee Johnson Archive.

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The Lee Johnson Archive, housed in the History of Art Department

Professor Lee Johnson (1924-2006) was a leading scholar on Eugène Delacroix. His extraordinary catalogue raisonné (first published in 1981 with the final supplement emerging in 2002) was, and remains, a monumental contribution to Delacroix studies. Volumes 3 and 4 won the prestigious Mitchell Prize in 1987, awarded in recognition of their outstanding and original impact on the field of visual arts. Johnson also published extensively on Delacroix and French art, and was the editor of Delacroix’s letters from 1817-1863.

On his death in 2006, Johnson’s archive was bequeathed to the History of Art Department here in Oxford. Rescued from the fire that tragically took Johnson’s life, the initial priority was to re-house the collection of his papers in conservation quality archival boxes. In light of Johnson’s continuing posthumous relevance as the primary authority on Delacroix, two of the next most important decisions were, firstly, how the integrity of his system could be maintained and, secondly, how to enable researchers to access and use his archive. After the most flimsy and vulnerable material was protected, the archive team established a basic index of his files which maintained the character of Johnson’s collection, preserving his own themes and classification system. Aims and objectives were then set for the next phase of the archive’s cataloguing: to create a cross-referencing system that would enable the full scope and range of Johnson’s ephemera and thoughts to be easily traced and accessed.1

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Archival boxes keep the collection safe and organised

These files, which now amount to 109 boxes, are accompanied by books from Johnson’s own personal library, many of which are richly annotated. It is the collection of a connoisseur, built over decades, and vast in its scope. The archival boxes are packed to the brim with handwritten memos, ideas, gallery postcards, transcriptions of journal entries, and musings on ownership changes and rejected works. Johnson’s correspondence with other art historians such as Anthony Blunt and Erwin Panofsky provides further insight into the emotionally complex nature of art historical relationships and rivalries within the discipline itself. Photographs of Delacroix’s paintings and preliminary studies are the visual storyboard onto which Johnson’s typewritten discussions with museum curators, auction houses, and art specialists shed light.

Box 81, for example, is full of unexpected materials that Johnson collected as a student during the mid-1950s and is a rich and interesting example of personal archiving, providing insights into Johnson’s mind as he constructed and compiled his catalogue raisonné. Ripped-out notebook pages are labelled “Notes on Delacroix drawings worldwide (in alphabetical order by towns)” and chronicle museum and gallery holdings with painstaking detail. There are postcards of Delacroix paintings and sketches sent to Johnson by his friends from all over the globe. One bundle of material is labelled “photos and postcards of It. [Italian] architecture and painting collected as student”, featuring short potted histories of each piece of art on the verso, composed by Johnson as he contemplated their appearance.

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Box 81, which includes material collected by Johnson as a student

The depth of Johnson’s research and the enormity of his archive also reveal the unexpected in Delacroix as well as in Johnson. A series of photographs taken of pages from a Delacroix sketchbook housed in one of the Rijksmuseum’s private collections not only depict detailed anatomical sketches; muscled shoulders, the play of light and shadow on skin, but on others…Delacroix doodles abound! A charming and reassuring insight into Delacroix’s own procrastinations, the awkward star shapes, undirected curled lines, misshapen dots, and bizarre geometric patterns cover several white sheets, the familiar and comforting refuge of anyone who has ever been faced with a blank page, a pencil, and a disturbing lack of ideas.

During the course of the cataloguing and re-organising process, enquiries from museum curators at the National Gallery of Canada, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum and the Wallace Collection (amongst others) demonstrated that Johnson’s archive is still an important resource for those confirming the attribution of potential acquisitions or determining the provenance of items coming up for auction. Some enquiries were spurious attempts by dealers to force an attribution; for others, the archive provided additional evidence to support a major acquisition. One enquiry even gave a fascinating insight into the ongoing debates surrounding the disputed ownership and restitution of looted works of art during World War II. During the course of the archiving process, conversations were also begun with the Musée Delacroix about their ongoing digitisation project of Delacroix’s correspondence.2

These enquiries and the legacy of Johnson demonstrate the turbulent process of authenticating and rejecting works of art, in which Johnson is the ever-present shadow. To a Delacroix expert, the archive provides an invaluable backdrop and paper trail for the creation of a truly impressive catalogue raisonné. The challenge to Johnson’s standing as an authority in the recent Santa Barbara exhibition Delacroix and the Matter of Finish demonstrates the dominance of Johnson’s legacy even ten years after his death, and the extent to which his word became the final answer on any attribution. To a lecturer or student, the archive is a rich example of an eminent art historian’s methodology and connoisseurial expertise, both in his approach to his subject and to his own personal archive.3 To anyone with even the most remote interest in the visual arts, it is a fascinating and wonderfully human body of materials, reflecting a lifelong devotion to scholarship.

Reviewing The National Gallery’s exhibition for The Observer, Laura Cumming suggests that “if ever there were a show worth waiting for it would be an almighty survey of the full strangeness of Delacroix”.4 Exploring the Lee Johnson Archive provides a glimpse of the magnitude of any such endeavour. Looking through it, we begin to comprehend the scale and ambition of Delacroix’s oeuvre, and of the “almighty survey” conducted by Professor Lee Johnson himself. To fully realise the untapped potential of the archive, perhaps the time has now come to consider the second phase of cross-referencing the archive, to reveal the deeper richness of the legacy that the History of Art Department has inherited.


Interested in learning more about the Lee Johnson Archive? Contact us at vrc@hoa.ox.ac.uk.

Dr. Fiona Gatty wrote her doctoral thesis on ideal beauty in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French art and art criticism. During her time spent at Oxford’s History of Art Department, she led the team that re-boxed and indexed the Lee Johnson papers.

Emma Walshe is the Visual Resources Assistant for the History of Art Department. She completed both her Masters in English, 1700-1830 and her undergraduate English Literature degree at Trinity College, Oxford.

The National Gallery’s exhibition, ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, runs until 22 May 2016.


Footnotes

1 At present, whilst a researcher might find some of the information they need relating to a particular work in the relevant file, later notes (those possibly relating to another work, an exhibition, or placed in the ‘to be filed’ box) mean that a complete review of the whole archive is potentially necessary.

2 The database, Correspondances d’Eugène Delacroix, is currently in its trial phase.

3 Eik Kahng, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish (Santa Barbara, California: 2013), pp. 10, 36, and 40.

4 ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’: review for The Observer by Laura Cumming (21 February 2016).

Crowd-sourcing historic images with HEIR – 5 months on

The Historic Environment Image Resource crowd-sourcing project HEIR went online 5 months ago. This post is a round-up of what we have learnt about the image collections, crowdsourcing, and public engagement since then. It is also a post about why it is important to re-introduce forgotten photographs back into the research resource.

 

Fig 1 lantern slides

 

Old teaching slide collections are continuing to be under threat of being de-commissioned. Where lack of space, finances, image decay, copyright issues, and the perceived redundancy of old media forms in the digital age are combined, it has often been too difficult for holders to justify their retention. (See, for example, Krivickas, J. and Meyer, E. ‘Future or fate: the slide collection of the Robert Deshon and Karl J. Schlachter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning’, where although only 26% of the images were available digitally in ARTstor, the complete lack of source information about the images led to the decommissioning and de-accession of the entire slide library).

 

Fig 2 discussion and upload HEIRtagger

 

What has been perceived to be an insurmountable problem by some, HEIR has seen as an opportunity: to challenge perceived wisdom, re-assess redundant technology, and find new ways of re-entering a forgotten resource into public and scholarly debate. Only 5 months into crowd-sourcing, it has already turned out that the old lantern slide photographic collections of the Oxford University Department for the History of Art, the Schools of Archaeology, Geography and Plant Science, the Ashmolean Museum and Harris Manchester College were well worth holding on to long after they became ‘redundant’. 131 taggers have tagged over 600 images and generated over 1000 discussions, many of them containing specialist knowledge, research, or identifying unknown locations of our images. Some have even commented on having seen similar images before and chasing up references. And HEIR has not even been promoted publicly yet.

What is more, scanning and combining the images of different Departments, Divisions, Colleges and Museums on one accessible platform – HEIRdams – has enhanced the cross-divisional and multi-disciplinary research potential of the resource.

 

Fig 3 page from HEIR database

 

For departments, the benefits of participating in HEIR are clear: they are able to maximise and capitalise on having this material available in the digital format for the first time. Within the History of Art Department, for example, the immediate benefits of getting involved included exciting re-discoveries, such as some rather lovely hand-coloured slides; interesting exchanges over Twitter; or the inspiration for a piece by one of the students who worked on the project that you can read about on the History of Art and Visual Resources Centre blog.

 

 

Once online, departments are rapidly capitalising on the database in their own ways and thinking laterally: the Ashmolean Museum was delighted to project a tailored sequence of slides as part of the Being Human Festival in November 2015, exposing their ‘old’, ‘redundant’ teaching materials to a brand new engaged audience.

 

Fig 6 Ashmolean exhibition

 

Beyond Oxford, Royal Holloway University of London has initiated a whole new research project ‘Site seeing: Pompeii in 19th and early 20th-century lantern slides’ based on these re-discovered images.

HEIR’s Mobile re-photography App has added an additional layer of interest and engagement with the images, allowing our students, researchers, and the public to explore the old images in their modern setting.

Others have used the app to explore the relationship between image and photographer – see Dina Akhmadeeva being re-photographed as photographer captured in an historic image of Venice.

 

Fig 7 AHistc4d5img169c Venice

 

Fig 8 Dina's rephotography

 

Perhaps the most surprising element of crowd-sourcing for us have been the discussion pages on HEIRtagger. While we envisaged some comments by the public, we had not anticipated the sheer scale of interest generated by the images, the breadth and depth of knowledge we are being presented with, or the amount of time and research taggers are prepared to spend on the images that engage their particular interest. Our ‘crowd’ are our co-researchers, and the next phase of the project will include thinking about how to bring their wide-ranging research into the database in the most useful and accessible way.

 

Fig 9 discussion

 

Finally, we thoroughly enjoyed presenting a paper in collaboration with Victoria Brown from the VRC (Visual Resources Centre) on the project at the DCDC15 conference – the twitter comments after the event suggested that our work has provided food for thought for other institutions with comparable collections.

Old teaching photographic collections offer so many possibilities for research, including the history of disciplines, representations of the past, links between photography and art, and the relationships between art, architecture, tourism and travel. We hope the HEIR project will inspire new research in the History of Art – let us know if you have made use of these rescued images!

 

HEIR is based at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford and directed by Dr Sally Crawford and Dr Katharina Ulmschneider.