Student Experience

Undergraduate Study Trip to Sicily 2017

At the end of June, ten second-year Art Historians embarked on a week’s optional, extra curricular trip to Sicily. The programme was led by myself, Gervase Rosser, and Alessandra Buccheri (who completed her DPhil in Renaissance Art History in Oxford and who now lives in Palermo).

The choice of Sicily (where Alessandra and I have also organised visits in the past) is deliberate: the island teaches an unconventional history of art. The Renaissance grand narrative is still a story of Tuscany, Venice and Rome.  Yet Sicily’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean has made it a nexus of cultures and a crucible of artistic invention across millennia.  Generations of travellers from northern Europe have been drawn there.  The discovery of the Greek underpinning of European culture in the Italian context was, for  Goethe, a revelation. He wrote:

‘Without Sicily, Italy creates no image in the soul: here is the key to everything.’

One of the most evocative sites from this period – which we made the goal of one of our first visits –  is the Greek city of Selinunte, on the southern coast of the island – abandoned since the city was destroyed in the third century BCE.

Selinunte, Oxford Art Historians in the steps of Goethe © Department of History of Art

A wonderful survivor of that Hellenistic culture, found by a fisherman in the sea not far from Selinunte in 1998, is the bronze Dancing Satyr now kept in a little museum at Mazzara del Vallo. The sight of it silenced everyone.  The challenge of capturing its dynamism inspired those of us who could draw, and we all sat and gazed at it for a long time.

Dancing Satyr, bronze, ?4th century BC, Mazzara del Vallo Museum © Department of History of Art

After Selinunte, the vast Roman villa at Piazza Armerina – thought to have been built for the imperial governor of the island – was palpably from a different culture.  There was more than a hint of vulgarity in the sheer scale of the mosaic decoration, and the herculean scenes of hunting.  It is a monument to a variety of pleasures.

Sicily’s gardens and fountains testify to the Arabic presence in the island, dominant for over two centuries. The Normans, who replaced Arabic rule in the twelfth century, retained much of the culture which they found. We found our way to La Zisa, the out-of-town residence to which the Norman court adjourned from Palermo during the heat of the summer – and we also felt refreshed by the water from the restored fountain which flows from the marble and mosaic interior of the building out into the gardens.

We caught there an installation by Ai Wei Wei, with the theme, still highly significant for the Sicilian location, of migration and cultural crossings.

Ai Wei Wei Evelyn EarlAi Wei Wei, Odyssey, installed at ZAC Zisa, Palermo, 2017 © Evelyn Earl

The week was full of artistic high-points, but probably the most sensational moment was the entry to the Norman cathedral of Monreale – with its walls completely covered in mosaics – an extraordinary intensity of colour and light.

Cloister Monreale Cathedral Evelyn EarlTwelfth-century fountain in the cloister of Monreale Cathedral © Evelyn Earl

The combination of Arabic and Byzantine extends into the cloister in a contrasting but complementary idiom – of restful decorative detail of stone and the cooling presence and touch of water.   This architectural sophistication is developed into a further dimension in the Cappella Palatina, the chapel of the royal palace, in Palermo. The ceiling with its secular paintings – the work of Arab craftsmen – is as remarkable as the marble and mosaic work of the building.

We wandered extensively in the city of Palermo, which was our base for the week.  At the Hispano-Sicilian Palazzo Abatellis, now the Regional Museum,  we were particularly struck by the anonymous fresco of the Triumph of Death, originally in the cloister of a late-medieval hospital in the city – an image full of life, and visual evocations of contemporary culture (and its corruptions): hunting, fountains, music-making, and some fabulous hats.

Triumph of Death Palazzo Abatellis Evelyn Earl.jpgStudents debate the Triumph of Death in the Palazzo Abatellis © Evelyn Earl

The inventiveness and vitality of Sicilian art extended across the centuries.  The extraordinarily elaborate stucco work of Giacomo Serpotta (d. 1732) made a huge impression on everyone.

The marked Sicilian taste for rich ornament is evident across all media. The interior of Palermo Cathedral was therefore a surprise, being, at the time of our visit, relatively austere and cold. We reflected, however, on the effect of timing upon the art-historical experience. The patronal feast of Santa Rosalia each July transforms the church and the city into a colossal stage. The festival impressed earlier travellers, including the Englishman Patrick Brydone, whose vivid and sympathetic account in his Tour through Sicily and Malta was published in 1776:

‘The whole of the cathedral, both roof and walls, is entirely covered over with mirror, intermixed with gold and silver paper, and an infinite variety of artificial flowers…Now, form an idea if you can, of one of our great cathedrals dressed out in this manner, and illuminated with twenty thousand wax tapers, and you will have some faint notion of this splendid scene.’

Definitively austere, however, was the former palace of the Spanish Inquisition in Palermo, containing grim cells, which nonetheless miraculously preserve dozens of wall-paintings created by the inmates – a moving trace of human resilience.

Palazzo Lo Steri Maria OHanaPalazzo Lo Steri, Palermo, cells of prisoners of the Inquisition, wall-paintings, 17th-18th century © Maria O’Hana

The long-standing cultural cosmopolitanism of Sicily is reflected also in its culture of food and wine. Patrick Brydone recalled the reputation (well established from ancient Greek times) of the seductive, honey-coloured wine of Agrigento – together with the effects of drinking excessive amounts of it. Primed to avoid such excesses, we appreciated the qualities, and enjoyed scenes such as the following on a nightly basis.

Socialising Evelyn Earl© Evelyn Earl

The culture of eating together was also one of conversation.  Experiencing such an amazingly rich set of cultural encounters and talking about our shared impressions prompted further reflections on the animation of space – and about the relationship between art and friendship (to be continued …).

Group photo.jpg

 


Gervase Rosser is a Professor of the History of Art in the Department of Art History and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. For the BA course Gervase teaches courses on the classical tradition, medieval and Italian Renaissance art, and theoretical approaches to the subject. 

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

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An introduction to Oxford: What really happens at a History of Art Undergraduate Open Day?

Not even the rather dreary forecast of ‘summer’ showers could dissuade or dampen the spirits of some several thousand prospective applicants from visiting Oxford as part of Oxford University’s Undergraduate Open Days in June. The History of Art Department welcomed around 40 to its Lecture Theatre on Wednesday 28th June to find out more about the Undergraduate degree and what Oxford has to offer.

So, why study History of Art and why study it at Oxford? Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art and Head of Department, kicked things off by providing a bit of background. The History of Art undergraduate degree here at Oxford is a young one, with its first cohort of students only graduating in 2007. It is a small department, and a place where everyone knows your name. There is an unmatched degree of personal attention here within the Department in terms of contact hours with tutors, although it’s more about the quality than the quantity. Further, the Department is part of the wider University and therefore has access to an enormous array of resources including libraries, museums, galleries that are arguably unmatched in quality or for their inspiration.

Radcliffe             Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library © Department of History of Art

The content and structure of the course was then expanded upon by Professor Alastair Wright, a member of core academic staff and subject tutor at St John’s College. Students all take the same core courses in the First Year, and work on a research-based extended essay (see here for more information) , all of which require spending a significant amount of time in Oxford’s collections and galleries in front of artworks and objects. In the Second and Third Years, students are able to pick from a variety of optional courses from specialists in the Department and further afield (and not just traditional Western art!), culminating in the writing of their thesis. Previous thesis topics have included Space and Style in Inter-War British Cinema, Tattooing as an artistic medium within Contemporary Art, Exhibiting Encounters within an African Archive, and ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’ and British Visual Culture to name a few.

Professor Geraldine Johnson, another member of core staff and subject tutor at Christ Church, then led a discussion about the application process. It is a competitive programme but it is certainly not impossible to get a place! The application and interview process for the subject is actually relatively straightforward (see here for details on the application process). Much has been written and said about interviews at Oxford, so Professor Johnson took the opportunity to try and dispel some common myths and mysteries and provide some key facts in order to show that they really aren’t all that scary. For example, you won’t be asked to do any bizarre things during an interview, tutors aren’t trying to catch you out by seeing if you can give a ‘correct answer’, rather they want to see how you are able to argue your point and how you respond to questions or prompts. They should be seen more as informal conversations than a test, and you are interviewing the tutors just as much as they are interviewing you!

Left: Professor Geraldine Johnson at Christ Church Picture Gallery. Right: Professor Alastair Wright at the Ashmolean Museum © Department of History of Art

Students then had the chance to sit down with some of our current BA students and chat over coffee, tea, and biscuits (fun fact, the quintessential Bourbon biscuit is always a firm favourite amongst Open Day attendees). This provided the perfect opportunity for prospective applicants to find out more about what Oxford and the course is really like from a current student’s perspective; what was the application process like, are the interviews scary, which is the best college to pick (hint, it’s no easier or harder to get into a particular college), what clubs or societies are there to join – there are around 400 clubs and societies to choose from.

Next up, students were invited to take part in a ‘taster class’ led by Professor Craig Clunas, providing prospective applicants with an idea of what to expect from classes here in the History of Art Department. Not only did it provide an opportunity to explore the subject further by discussing images of artworks, it also allowed attendees from all over the country (and indeed from further afield as we welcomed individuals from Malaysia, Ireland, and Mexico) to get to know one another.

What would the study of art history be without actually looking at artworks themselves and Oxford really can boast of some truly fantastic museums and galleries. This time, one half of the students were whisked away to the Ashmolean Museum to look at Chinese paintings and 19th-century art with Professors Craig Clunas and Alastair Wright, and the other group accompanied Professor Geraldine Johnson to explore the treasures contained within Christ Church Picture Gallery. The Gallery comprises a superb collection of 14th-18th Century Italian art, including around 300 paintings, from the likes of Annibale Carracci, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Filippino Lippi. In previous years, prospective applicants have been given tours of exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford and Pembroke College’s collections of 20th Century British art.

CC_Ashmolean_Open Day_2017Professor Craig Clunas with students in the Ashmolean Museum © Department of History of Art

These short but action-packed gallery visits marked the conclusion of the History of Art Open Day, but students were encouraged to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring all that Oxford has to offer, including familiarising themselves with the various colleges that make up the collegiate University. There are currently 7 colleges that offer the Undergraduate History of Art degree; Christ Church, St Catherine’s, St John’s, St Peter’s, Wadham, Worcester, and Harris Manchester (for mature applicants of 21 years of age and over).

If any of the above has sparked an interest in the subject and you would like to find out more, there are still a small number of places available for our next Undergraduate Open Day on Friday 15th September 2017. Booking in advance is required, so email admin@hoa.ox.ac.uk to book your place! More general information about Oxford University’s Open Days can be found here.


Clare Charlesworth, Academic Assistant for History of Art, is responsible for answering any queries sent to the above email address, for organising the Department’s Undergraduate Open Days and is also, perhaps most importantly, the official Bourbon biscuit provider for the Department.

Dot to Dot: Drawing Your Own Career Path in the Art World

By Ruth Millington, MSt History of Art Graduate 2011


Following the Art History Careers Seminar, held on 25th January 2017, here are some top tips for students interested in pursuing a career in the art world from professionals in the field.

student-in-gallery

© Andy Sedg, via Visualhunt.com 

Tom Ryley, Communications and Digital Officer, Old Royal Naval College

  • Develop your digital skills: Be aware that many arts jobs, including marketing, require excellent digital skills. In his role, Tom uses social media statistics, Google Analytics and Google AdWords to connect with audiences online and increase engagement with the museum’s programme of events and exhibitions.
  • Join student societies: Whilst you are still at university you can lead on projects and campaigns run by societies, which will develop employability skills, such as marketing and communications.

Dina Akhmadeeva, Assistant Curator, Collections International Art at Tate Modern

  • Think internationally: If you are interested in curating, you can apply for curatorial traineeships around the world. Dina took up placements in the USA and the Netherlands before starting to work at Tate Modern.
  • Write: Pitch ideas for articles to editors at magazines and websites to get your writing featured and build up an authentic profile, which employers will take seriously.

Ruth Millington, Arts Internships Officer, University of Birmingham and Freelance Writer

  • Use social media: Many arts organisations post internships and jobs on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. You can also sell yourself and your skills, and engage with employers.
  • Do work experience: Fit work experience around your studies. Within Oxford there are lots of opportunities to volunteer across the seven Oxford University Museums and Collections. In vacations, you can apply for more structured internships schemes, such as placements at auction houses. These experiences allow you to network, develop skills and knowledge, and work out the career you would be best suited to.

Josh Baldwin, Senior Game Designer, Coldwood Interactive

  • Prove your motivation: Research and engage with the industry you’re interested in. This could include blogging, creating visual content, modding (for the games industry) and producing articles. These activities will build up your professional voice and portfolio, and allow you to interact with others in the field.
  • Consider smaller companies: Offer your services (for less than they are worth) to small companies, rather than the big names, as this may give you that first foot in the door. If you are making a speculative application, show real understanding of the work this organisation does and express why you would be the perfect fit for them.
damien-hirst

Limited Edition Print by Damien Hirst, Art Basel Hong Kong 2013 © See-ming Lee, via Visualhunt.com 

Joining the Dots

One important question you can ask yourself, both at the start of and as you progress through your career, is this: what side of the art do you want to be on? Selling? Researching? Making? Finding your place may not be immediate. In fact, each speaker stressed the varied route they had taken after graduation, which often did not make sense until later on. So, if you don’t immediately get a job in an arts organisation after graduating, don’t panic! Employers will value the skills you have developed whilst working in other sectors, and sometimes even prefer this. There is no set career ladder in the art world so be prepared to move around, be creative and play to your strengths.


Ruth Millington, MSt History of Art 2011, www.ruthmillington.co.uk, @ruth_Millington

Dina Akhmadeeva, BA History of Art 2013, MSt History of Art 2014, www.dinaakhmadeeva.com, @DinaAkhmadeeva

Joshua Baldwin, BA Classical Archaeology and Ancient History 2013

Tom Ryley, MSt History of Art 2015

 

Art Beyond the Lecture Theatre: Internships and Opportunities in the Art World

By Nina Foster, BA History of Art Graduate 2016


Studying History of Art at Oxford gave me a fascinating insight into the incredible influence museums and collections have on public interaction with art. Although working in the arts is highly competitive and funded opportunities are rare, Oxford provides the perfect support system for finding exciting internships in all manner of art institutions. I cannot speak highly enough of the wonderful opportunities OUIP (Oxford University Internship Programme) offers for arts and humanities students. Each year OUIP has hundreds of internships around the world and in the UK, all of which are funded or paid. I have been fortunate to complete two OUIP internships and I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in working in the art world to take a look at what they have to offer. The History of Art department also offers the fantastic opportunity of an internship award at Waddesdon Manor; open to any humanities student with a research focus on art.

I hope that this post offers some inspiration and guidance for any current students or graduates hoping to take the first steps towards a career in the arts.

Working Abroad at the State Hermitage Museum

In the summer following my second year at Oxford I undertook a fully funded internship at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with a fellow undergraduate art historian. The internship was part of OUIP and included a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support a six week period in Russia. The application process involved filling out a form and writing a 600 word personal statement. My internship at the Hermitage mainly involved the organisation of the European Day of Languages Festival 2015, which was produced in collaboration with the EU Delegation in Russia. A typical day would involve heading to the office at around 11am (Russian working hours are quite different to the UK!) to work with the rest of the team to devise marketing ideas and strategies for the festival.

marketing

Experimenting with marketing ideas: a collage of the grand staircase at the Hermitage

This experience gave me so much insight into all the other kind of work that goes on at a major museum beyond curation. I also had the opportunity to take weekly Russian language classes which really improved my confidence to speak in Russian. Also working at the Hermitage gives you free entrance to loads of arts and cultural institutions in St. Petersburg so it’s a great opportunity to explore Russia on a student budget. The team at the Hermitage was made up of inspiring like-minded young people from all around the world – many of which have become lasting friends. Living and working abroad while still at university is such an amazing opportunity and one that employers always ask me about in interviews. It demonstrates adventurousness, curiosity and adaptability so if you think that sounds like you definitely look at the international opportunities OUIP offers!

narkomfin

Exploring Moscow: Nina and Fania visiting the Narkomfin building

Revitalising Underused Spaces with Ugly Duck

Throughout my third year of studies I became increasingly interested in the use of art to bring communities together and put forward new ideas in public spaces. Not only did this become the focus of my thesis, but I also began looking for opportunities to work in this field. Again I found a brilliant opportunity through OUIP – the chance to do a paid internship with a registered charity called Ugly Duck in London. Ugly Duck’s mission is an unusual but exciting idea – to revitalise underused spaces in overcrowded London. Ugly Duck repurposes empty buildings by opening them up for commercial venue hire for instance for photoshoots or filming. The spaces are also used by emerging artists, directors, activists or dancers through their biannual creative season. As with my Hermitage application I had to fill out a form and write a personal statement, I was also invited for an interview in London. I found this interview quite challenging as the team at Ugly Duck really wanted to know if I had done my research on the position, the organisation and whether I had any bright ideas for their work.

uglyduck

The Ugly Duck Warehouse: one of my colleagues chatting to a potential client

My internship at Ugly Duck ran from July to September and was honestly an eye-opening experience. My role as City Hunt Coordinator focused on the development of Ugly Duck’s public spaces project. City Hunt is a hyper-local heritage game that operates on digital and analogue platforms. My work involved data analysis, securing new business partnerships and sourcing public funding by writing funding applications. Additionally, as Ugly Duck is run by a small team of only three staff I assisted in the day-to-day running of the business by taking bookings, managing the venue and liaising with artists. The breadth and variety of exciting responsibilities Ugly Duck offered me has given me such valuable experience for future employment and has inspired me to focus on a career that uses art for social impact.

Curating and Cataloguing at Waddesdon Manor

Each year there is a remarkable opportunity for an Oxford humanities student (BA, MA, PhD) to undertake a funded internship at Waddesdon Manor – a Rothschild chateau in Buckinghamshire now owned by the National Trust. Waddesdon is a truly unique place and the internship offers a very rare opportunity to assist in curation at an entry-level position. The position includes accommodation in a beautiful cottage in Waddesdon village as well as a bursary. The application process involved writing a statement about why I was interested in the role. I am particularly interested in the contemporary art at Waddesdon so that was the focus of my application. Also you have to submit written references from two tutors which I left until the very last minute so I would definitely recommend getting organised and giving them at least a week to do this! After submitting my application I had an interview in the History of Art department which was actually a really enjoyable experience.

waddesdon

Not a bad office! The very grand approach to Waddesdon Manor

I started the Waddesdon internship in September 2016 and have so far found the experience very rewarding. I mainly work with the wonderful and inspiring senior curator Dr. Juliet Carey on the preparation of exhibition proposals and research projects. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with contemporary artists to help them explore the collection and produce work inspired by it. I have also gained experience of working with the collection management database which is a really essential skill for working in museums. I’ve met so many different people here who all share the same passion for Waddesdon and I have to say I now also share that passion!

diningroom

The incredible collections at Waddesdon include 18th century French decorative arts of the highest quality

My work experience seems only to have scratched the surface of the complexity and diversity of opportunities within the art world. The great thing about working in the arts is that there is no graduate scheme system, rather you have to find opportunities and devise your own career path. This is honestly really exciting and has led me to places I could never have imagined working. So, if I can offer any advice it’s to think broadly and look at opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone – you’ll probably find them through Oxford’s career network!


Nina completed her BA History of Art at the Department in 2016. She is currently  undertaking the Waddesdon Internship organised in collaboration with the History of Art Department.

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.