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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


For information about future History of Art lectures see the Events page.

Photo Archives VI: The Place of Photography

By Francesca Issatt, Visual Resources Assistant, History of Art Department


Last month on the 20th and 21st April I was lucky enough to attend the sixth Photo Archives conference. It was hosted by Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford), Deborah Schultz (Regent’s University London) and Costanza Caraffa (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz—Max-Planck-Institut). The Photo Archives series has previously explored the photographic memory of art history, hidden archives, the idea of nation and the paradigm of objectivity. This iteration focused on the place of photography, a broad concept which was interpreted diversely.

Photo Archives VI was held in Oxford at Christ Church College. The significance of this location, in the heart of Oxford, was not lost. As Geraldine Johnson commented in her opening remarks Oxford plays an important role in the history of photography. Geraldine talked about William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published, which depicts on its very first plate the Queen’s College in Oxford. Further to this on plate 18 is a photograph of the front entrance to Christ Church itself, known as Tom Tower.

christchurchedit2Christ Church College, from the Visual Resources Centre photo archive, © Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

She continued her example with one of Christ Church’s most famous Fellows, Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll), who some twenty years after Talbot’s publication was photographing Alice Liddell whom he based his Alice in Wonderland novels on. In his own time he was a renowned mathematician but now is most famous for his writing and photographs. Dodgson’s living quarters and homemade photographic studio were only a few doors down from Tom Tower. Therefore as Geraldine clearly put it “we can place photography quite literally in the stony streetscapes and grassy quads of Oxford.”

I think the broad notion of place was best described by the first speaker, Joan Schwartz (Queen’s University, Ontario), who set up a framework for the papers that followed. As she explained, both photographs and archives are places – physical and digital. Photographs can be of place, depicting real places with geographical co-ordinates, or they can be of abstract conceptual places such as home, family, history, war and environment.

Photographs can also be investigated as place and as surrogates for place. As a way to construct and recall place as if the viewer was physically present. Photographs in place, and in particular in archives, is where photographs derive much of their meaning. Such as in an album juxtaposed with other images, organised in a filing cabinet geographically, chronologically or numerically.

Costanza Caraffa, Frederick Bohrer, Joan Schwartz, Katarina Masterova (4)edit© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I hugely enjoyed the first day and heard some great papers. Speakers covered the topics of archival processes, photographic albums and disciplinary structures, with focus on photographic material from artist’s studios, archaeological excavations and science laboratories to name a few places. To round off the day’s stimulating papers the keynote lecture was given by Geoffrey Batchen (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) who spoke about The Placeless Image.

Geoffrey offered examples of placeless images including digital images, which will never have a physical printed manifestation and will always remain on mobile devices and online sites. He said “Photography has slothed off its dependency on a physical substrate and become nothing but image […] photography has become an immaterial medium – or at least it is different materially to our past photographs”.

edit8© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

This is very much a twenty-first century issue but the placeless image has always existed. Another example was of engravings ‘from photographs’ in the nineteenth century. Which he said “free the image from an otherwise static existence. Unfixing it from any medium specificity and any particular place. The image is passed on through a potentially endless chain of transfers from one substrate to the next.”

Geoffrey also talked about the purification of photographs by institutions. For example galleries suppressing complicated origins, for the ease of having a single author, a single date or a single title. Archives find photographs difficult to deal with due to their spatial and temporal migration. As an institution they are traditionally fixated on the storage, cataloguing and study of static objects. Photographs are a challenge to fix in place.

On both days of the conference site visits were offered to some of the places of photography in Oxford. Delegates had the opportunity to visit the Bodleian Library, the Christ Church library and archive, the Griffith Institute, the Museum of the History of Science and the Middle East Centre Archive. As well as our very own Visual Resources Centre! This proved a very successful and appreciated element of the conference, many delegates tweeted their enthusiasm under the hashtag #PhotoArchivesOxford.

© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I was co-host with Deborah Schultz for the site visit to the Visual Resources Centre in the History of Art Department. A selection of material was brought out from the photographic archive and glass lantern slides depicting art and architecture. As well as photograph albums with a mix of commercial and amateur photographs inside. Another highlight was the over-sized Adolphe Braun reproductions of the Sistine Chapel, presented in portfolios designed to look like expensive leather bound books. All of which sparked great discussions about art historical photographic archives, their past use as study resources, their materiality and their relevance to scholarship and teaching today.

The second day of the conference saw speakers address production, reproduction and value as well as forms of materialisation. Specific talks looked at, amongst other topics, the place of photography related to the encounter between sitter and camera, the ‘trash to treasure’ rediscovery of anonymous collections, curatorial practice, and digitisation as a cultural form.

edit9© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

To conclude a thought provoking and intellectually thrilling couple of days Elizabeth Edwards (VARI, London/De Montfort University) gave her closing remarks. Elizabeth spoke on the presence of politics that lurked in all the papers but hadn’t been addressed directly. Such as the political acts of how we create value, how we imagine, how we appropriate, disseminate and control. She remarked that “Where we place photographs matters politically. How places are made photographically matters politically.” This also raised questions about photographs out of place.

All of the papers focused on the work of photographs in specifically defined places – the archive, the laboratory, the archaeological excavation. Elizabeth asked what happens when photographs attempt to stray and wander in to other places. What are the patterns of their wandering? As she put it “photographs out of place is the very nature of the reproductive and digital worlds in which we live. Photographs can no longer be contained within places – they no longer have material resonance.”

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the conference and co-hosting a site visit. It was a great chance to share Oxford’s fantastic photographic collections with delegates. The brilliant papers and the discussions that followed them made us think about how photographs both articulate and occupy space and time. Elizabeth Edwards summed up the subject of the conference perfectly when she said “photographs are the endless nomad.”


For more information about the conference please visit the conference page.

Podcasts of some of the conference papers are available to listen to here.

For further information about the Visual Resources Centre and its collections click here.

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.

Giovanni

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.

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. 

Photo Archives in the History of Art History: Investigating the Collection in the History of Art Department

By Deborah Schultz

If, like me, you work on twentieth century and contemporary art, you may very well never have used the photo archives. When I wrote my DPhil at Oxford, on the Conceptual Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, the room full of boxes of photographs was an un-entered zone for me. Why should I go in there? I thought to myself. I’m modern. What could be in there for me? However, having taught courses on Historiography and the History of Photography for a number of years, I have become fascinated by the methods of art history. I started to wonder if those mysterious boxes were still there and I wanted to take a close look to see what was, in fact, inside them. Fortunately the whole collection was intact. Perhaps my fascination also has something to do with my enjoyment of pulling things off of shelves, rather than looking at screens, and a wish to continue doing so. While recognising that my interest is probably partly aesthetic, I sensed that this would be a rich area to explore. Although, from the outside, box after box looks more or less the same, each contains an intriguing assortment of material.

 

DS_PIC1

 

My project begins by focusing on the Photo Archives, comprising about 600 boxes of reproductions of works of art and architecture. I am interested in the scope of the collection, and how it was used as a core teaching and research resource. To this end I am spending some time simply opening up boxes and looking at what is inside them. I am interested in the range of contents and where they have come from: Were they purchased from photographic agencies, received as part of an exchange with another institution, cut out of auction house catalogues, or taken by private individuals? Was there a particular method behind the selection of contents? Why were certain items collected and not others? To some extent the defining structure of the archive is unclear. Certainly it was set up to provide a visual record of what something looked like at a given time. But were certain criteria followed in its establishment and development? Or did it grow organically, depending on the interests of faculty and researchers in relation to what was available? Quantity is always useful in a photo archive, enabling comparison between works at different times, as we have all learnt from Heinrich Wölfflin. Whereas comparison between two slides projected on a wall or as part of a PowerPoint is valuable, comparison between a larger number of images provides a much broader context to any given work. It also limits the risk of reducing the comparison to clear cut contrasts. In this sense, photo archive methods are more akin to the open networking structures enabled by digital technology, in contrast to those generated by dual slide projectors. The familiar method of comparing and contrasting x and y, may evolve by combining photo archive methods with digital technology into looking at x in relation to y and z as well as a, b, c and so on. Thus, renewed consideration of photo archive methods, combined with new technology may help to overcome the confines of binary oppositions and open up more fluid forms of comparison.

 

ds_pic2

 

One of the most fascinating items in the photo archive is the logbook which records when items were purchased or donated and from where. The logbook begins in 1969 with 36,207 photographs already in the collection. It ends, perhaps surprisingly late, in 1998, with 109,005 items recorded. The highest number of acquisitions came in 1972-3 when 5,841 photographs were added, through purchases, exchanges and donations. The majority came from Western Europe and North America, with occasional additions from Central/Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Australia. Somewhat frustratingly, a column was only added in 1988 to list the subject of the photographs. So the logbook tells us more about where items came from and when they arrived than what they are of. A column for cost was added in April 1970. At first it was ‘approximate’ cost and not every item had a known cost attached to it. The costs were not added up and at first were only listed in the currencies in which they were bought before sterling exchange values were added. The logbook illustrates when Britain went decimal as until March 1971 the amounts were given in pre-decimal currency, and thereafter in decimal currency. As a handwritten document, the logbook is also indicative of changing staff in the department, evidenced by a wide variety of handwriting. Thus the logbook is a valuable document in itself, a mutable and inconsistent document that demonstrates regular changes in the photo archive in relation to the art historical context in which it evolved.

 

DS_PIC3

 

There is a temptation to explore the logbook on an increasingly micro level: Who ordered these photographs? For what purpose? Teaching or research? At the same time, the macro level always frames the contents, setting them in their wider art historical perspective. Recent blogs on this site have noted the links between photography and art history as an academic discipline. With both developing in the second half of the nineteenth century, these links are extensive and complex. As André Malraux wrote in Le museé imaginaire, ever since the mid-nineteenth century ‘art history has been the history of that which can be photographed’. The photograph confirms the existence of something and makes it a potential object of study in an age of mechanical reproduction. Virtual accessibility, through a reproduction, has amplified the value of many works of art. Items that are made widely available and reproduced on, for example, book covers, tend to increase in significance. The viewer assumes, this must be important if it is reproduced on the cover of a book. The photo archives are particularly interesting in both reconfirming established figures in traditional art history (the largest number of boxes are of works by Michelangelo) while, at the same time, providing evidence of lesser known artists, whose names are not as familiar in the public domain. Many photographs originate from private collections and provide evidence of works that are not reproduced elsewhere. While the contents of the photo archives confirm more canons than they challenge, they provide evidence of the overlooked and undervalued too.

 

Some of the most significant research in this area has been led by Dr Costanza Caraffa of the Photothek at the Kunsthistorishes Institut, Florence which launched an ongoing initiative on ‘Photo Archives’ in 2009, resulting in an ongoing series of conferences and publications. My project draws on this valuable material to set the case study in Oxford in relation to comparable photo archives in Florence (at the KHI as well as the Villa I Tatti), the Courtauld Institute (London), the Frick Collection (New York) the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), and elsewhere.

 

Deborah Schultz is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at Regent’s University London and an Academic Visitor in the History of Art Department, University of Oxford.