Art History

The Laurence Binyon Prize: Exploring Photographic Art in Tokyo

By Hannah Debson, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture (2019)

The Laurence Binyon Prize

The famous historian of Chinese art Laurence Binyon created a prize open to Oxford students of all disciplines, to encourage students to engage with the arts in other cultures. Specifically the prize enables travel to Asia or another area outside of Europe. This type of academic grant is unusual, given that it requires your topic of interest to be completely independent from any current academic projects, and as such it encourages students to follow passions and interests beyond their studies. There is a competitive application, consisting of a detailed proposed itinerary and statement of purpose, for the prize money of up to £1000 to be put towards an art-focused trip abroad. This prize is a fantastic opportunity and I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in it to apply!

Hopefully this blog will inspire anyone who is considering applying to take the plunge!

Tokyo and Art

As one of Japan’s most vibrant urban centres, Tokyo has steadily developed as a national and international artistic hub. Although I visited a range of museums – from the dynamic installations of the Mori contemporary art museum to the delicacy of ancient Japanese craftsmanship at the Nezu Museum – the focus of my trip lay in photography.

Since the 1970s independent photography galleries began appearing across Japanese cities, spreading and accelerating in Tokyo in the 1990s. Tokyo therefore provided a fascinating entry point from which to investigate the lively and diverse mixture of fine art photographers that have taken inspiration from Japanese and urban culture.

Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

My exploration began, unsurprisingly, at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, a colossal building established in 1995, holding a vast collection of over 35,000 photographic works, both by international and Japanese artists. The exhibition that I visited there was titled ‘Reading Images: The Time of Photography’. This exhibition selected images from within the Museum’s collection which explored the concept of time, either visually, implicitly or through narrative. One entry by Midorikawa Yoichi used long exposure to reveal the flight path of fireflies, creating a somewhat frenetic swirl of white lines dotted across the print. This creates a sense of speed which juxtaposes against the ‘frozen’ nature of a photograph, much in the same way as famous Japanese photographer Hiroshi Hamaya’s 1931 ‘Nightscape of Ginza’.

1Midorikawa Yoichi, ‘Fireflies’ (1957)

Another work that proved particularly powerful in this exhibition was Taguchi Kazuna’s ‘Look how long I’ve grown waiting for you’: a set of four hazy portraits of a woman looking softly out at the viewer. On inspection of the accompanying information you learn that this woman is in fact a fictional creation, built through a lengthy production process. Kazuna first creates a woman’s face from hundreds of magazine images, then she paints the created face before photographing and printing the digital image in a dark room. The result is a soft focused image receding into the shadows, inviting the viewer to question reality, fantasy and provoking a sense of mystery.

2Taguchi Kazuna, ‘Look how long i’ve grown waiting for you’ (2007)

Exploring smaller galleries

Moving beyond the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, I moved onto a host of smaller galleries, of which one of the most interesting was the Photo Gallery International. Nestled in the back streets in Higashi Azabu, this small but well-known gallery was born out of a meeting between American photographer Ansel Adams and Japanese photographer Yasuhiko Sata in the 1970s. Its single exhibition room held a range of works, where the theme of time continued to be important. For example, in Narumi Hiramoto’s print of a metronome, forever suspended by a hand that is either stopping or starting it. In stark contrast, the stoic, graphic nature of Atsuto Shimada’s architectural photography appeared to stand for simplicity and permanence, a sentiment that was front of mind when I visited Mount Fuji a few days later.

Beyond the gallery

As I moved around Tokyo I explored as many facets of its culture as I could, from the maid cafes and manga bookstores of Akihabara to the bustling streets of Shibuya to Edo Castle in central Tokyo. I also experienced an array of traditional Japanese experiences, including a tea ceremony and staying in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) nestled at the base of Mt Fuji.

3The night sky in Shibuya, Tokyo © Hannah Debson

The food became a key part of my experience, and the abundance of seafood began to dominate my culinary experience. Interestingly, it was this element of Japanese culture that may have influenced Michiko Kon’s avant-garde photography. Her fascinating, and somewhat disturbing black and white prints incorporated sea-life interspersed with human or animal segments to create obscure, dark and grotesque multimedia prints. After spending time with her work, she became one of my favourite artists on the trip.

squidMichiko Kon, ‘Squid, Hands and Flowers’ (1991)

Tokyo’s photographic scene proved to be diverse and thoughtful, and certainly deserving of more attention. I look forward to following the careers of some of the photographic artists I discovered on my trip, and to returning to Japan again in the future.

Further information about prizes and funding can be found here.

Small Pieces of Advice for MSt History of Art and Visual Culture Students

By Mary Caple, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture (2019)

When I was asked to put together a blog post for this site, I tried to think of what I would have wanted to know going into the History of Art MSt degree. Most of the tips that follow might seem obvious at the outset; these are pieces of advice repeated to postgraduate students all over the country at the start of each academic year. There is so much going on – many student magazines! committees! museums! – that differentiating one from another and figuring out which speaks to you can take months, and by then you’d be a third of the way through your course. What I hope will be useful here are some suggestions for places to seek out support and new experiences particular to Oxford, and to those of you who might have similar interests to my own.

Seek out art history through different disciplines

A lot of your year will be spent thinking about and discussing historiography, but that’s no reason not to look outside the disciplinary box. Stitch together something that resonates with you. Griselda Pollock recently reflected that her own development as an art historian has taken her through science, theology, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and economics, ‘with and through art made across a multitude of situations, perspectives, bodies, minds, agonies, and desires.’ Although it might be difficult to see over the art history department’s horizon (particularly in a short time), seeking out other disciplinary perspectives may give you the inspirational bolt of lightning for a research paper or approach to a dissertation chapter you needed. The internet is full of syllabi to help you make inroads into postcolonial theory, media studies, or whatever it is that might help you think about art in new ways. Keep an eye out for seminar termcards for talks or do as we did, and make a group of keen beans with whom to share and attend events you come across. Find things you like and come at them from all angles – for me, this ranged from the economics of copying 16th century paintings to photographing sculpture to museum rehanging as interpretive strategy.

2019-02-01 12.16.43Visiting Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge on a break from the archives © Mary Caple

2019-02-01 13.46.20Photograph of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s studio by Paul Laib, Kettle’s Yard archives © Mary Caple

Take advantage of opportunities for financial support

While the thought of adding yet another deadline to a tightly-packed year might make you cringe, the university offers lots of opportunities for financial support hidden within plain sight. Most colleges have travel funds offered once a term for archival work, field research, and conferences. The History faculty and History of Art department have small pots of money available as well. Take advantage of it! Students from my cohort went to Germany, Italy, and the U.S. As art history relies so much on images of artworks, it can be easy to underestimate the value of going to see something, taking it in in person, and seeing what else might be available in archives. For my research, archivists at Tate in London and Kettle’s Yard were incredibly useful, helpful contacts, who pointed me towards documents I might not have found in catalogues or online.

Although the Fees, funding and scholarship search usually only includes yearly scholarships, if you’ve missed out on funding you could still be eligible (look for your country of birth, subject, etc), keep them in mind in case you think of returning for a DPhil.

2019-04-13 10.40.04Photos on display at the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives © Mary Caple

IMG_8991Artwork from the Wolfson picture loan scheme in my room © Mary Caple

You don’t have to look far for hands-on experience

Oxford’s colleges have incredible, often underrated art collections. A quick search on Art UK pulls up some of the expected (portraits of bygone Oxford dons) but also incredible sculpture, painting, and more from the 14th century to today. Get in touch with whoever manages the collection and learn from them, these are amazing works you get to live with for only a short time. Some colleges allow students on their arts committee – this is a fantastic opportunity to gain experience mounting exhibitions, contributing to institutional strategy, devising budgets, and collaborating to care for artworks on behalf of a community. At Wolfson I was happy to show the work of the fantastically talented glass artist Jochen Holz, bringing his work to Oxford for the first time.

One of the great things about many student-run publications at Oxford is that many of them only ask for commitment one term at a time. Here you have a chance to build your own skills – sub-editing, design, commissioning pieces as an editor, meet students outside your departmental and college community, and develop adapting voice to purpose in your writing and editing. Isis, the Oxford Review of Books, Cherwell, and the Oxford Student all recruit termly.

The Ashmolean’s Krasis program was a really rewarding experience for me. As a student fellow, I participated in a series of workshops led by DPhils, Junior Research Fellows, and a curator from the museum. Although I spent plenty of time in my course seminars discussing artworks, it was rare to spend two hours in front of something, exploring the effects of that presence. The program has been created specifically for Oxford’s workload-heavy students – as there was very minimal preparation involved for the sessions I felt I could fully enjoy them.

2019-02-10 18.50.49Something to aim for © Mary Caple

IMG_8821Oxford gardens © Mary Caple

Your lungs need fresh air

Make a habit of getting a solid amount of fresh air a few days a week, whether on a walk with friends or your college welfare dog if you are so lucky.  For me, jogging was not only an outlet to combat the stress of deadlines, it also provided a way to explore Oxford more than I did on any given day zig-zagging between libraries and home to bed.

Further information about the MSt History of Art and Visual Culture course can be found here.

‘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.


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.

[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.


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

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