Slade

2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

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Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.

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Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.

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Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.


Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

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