Museums

Writing a first year extended essay, ‘Mavungu: Provenance and Aesthetic Appropriation’

By Michael Kurtz, Second Year Undergraduate BA History of Art

Michael won the Reaktion Book Prize for the best First Year Undergraduate extended essay on an ‘image, object or building in Oxford’. Here he writes on his research and gives an insight in to how he approached the essay.


In the first year of the Oxford History of Art undergraduate degree, students write an extended essay about any one object, image or building in the city. Given Oxford’s outstanding architectural and museological history, this assignment is not as narrow as it might seem and choosing a topic can be daunting. I knew I wanted to explore the areas of crossover and tension between the western tradition and non-western culture and so focused in on the Pitt Rivers Museum – as a unique collection loaded with the legacies of cross-cultural and often colonial interaction (read its history here).

PRM000017126Kongo peoples, Mavungu, late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was immediately drawn to ‘Mavungu’, a wooden figure with its mouth wide open and pierced with hundreds of metal shards, stood at the back of a case labelled ‘West African Sculpture’. It was the instant aesthetic appeal that the object had for me, as a western beholder, that was intriguing. In essence, it was this first interaction, the sense I had of simultaneous beauty and otherness, understanding and novelty, that I wanted to analyse and explain. That primordial meeting between viewer and artwork defines the nature of the research as it sets in motion the kinds of questions that one is curious to answer – in order to contextualise, explain or at least discuss this response.

The figure, I learnt, was a material manifestation of a hunter spirit (nkondi in Kongolese), designed in the late nineteenth century to ward off the growing Portuguese colonial forces on the trading waterways of the Kongo. It is thought (but interpretations are vague and vary considerably) that a nganga (or priest) would have been paid to incite the spirit against specific individuals or groups by implanting nails into its body. As such, the figure is more a functional than aesthetic object and, unlike most western ‘artworks’, did not have one moment of creation or one creator but was subject to a ritual process of material accumulation.

Figure 2Kongo peoples, Mavungu (detail), late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was able to explain the uncanny familiarity of Mavungu quite quickly as the Kongo kingdom had a long history of close interaction with Catholic missionaries from Portugal, and so its culture and cosmology was intertwined with Biblical art and tradition. The nailed masculine figure is a visual type that is surely affixed on the retina of every European art-lover. However, there were also assumptions I made that I had to reconsider and criticise. For instance, I first read the figure as an image of intense pain – with a face that recalled Edvard Munch’s Scream and a body pierced with metal shards – but the nails were in fact symbolic of the suffering the spirit would inflict on its victims and the mouth was open wide in order to hold manioc, a root poisonous to people who had failed to keep to promises confirmed by the spirit. I had thus westernised the figure’s features, forced them to conform to my European way of seeing and failed to understand the practical role within a ritual process that Mavungu had fulfilled.

Figure 3Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, © National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

It was these misunderstandings and re-interpretations that became the focus of my study; my essay was structured as a biography of Mavungu’s reception in order to trace and analyse the changing ways the figure was seen across its history. My own initial experience of the object became just one in a series of encounters that I could research, the most prominent of which being that of Mary Kingsley, the Victorian traveller who owned Mavungu before it was given to the Pitt Rivers in 1900. She kept the figure as the centrepiece of her hall in London and showed it off to guests as proof of her adventures and evidence that we should save ‘pure’ and ‘wild’ African culture from colonial influence. She thus betrays her ignorance of the role of Catholic missionaries and colonial forces in the formation of the figure.

Around the same time, the English establishment was using objects like Mavungu to reinforce an idea of ‘Africa’ in the European public consciousness as barbaric, uncivilised and therefore deserving of imperial domination. Its 1901 museum label reductively described its involvement in ‘gruesome practices’ and thought it blood-smeared, an ironic mistake given that its lips were painted red once it was in England in order to generate a stereotyped, barbaric appearance. These examples from my research demonstrate my overall argument that a piece of material culture can been used as an ideological tool and is drastically changed both physically and conceptually depending on its contextual function and beholder’s mindset.

Just as it is, I think, the initial interaction one has with the artwork that shapes the aims of an academic inquiry, the method of choosing an object is eventually mirrored in the final essay. From a general area of potential interest I found my object and then through this specific point I re-explored, with much more specific purpose, the broader themes that brought me to the figure in the first place. The original, vague conceptual notions and presumptions that bring you to an object, image or building are re-evaluated by your engagement with that art historical evidence. As both the approach and subject of my essay, this extended negotiation with the complexities of the way we think about and look at objects through time is surely the value of the exercise.

4eabfc7d7f3f7aabf3229c36772a1d76Renée Stout, Fetish No. 2, 1988, © Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

In order to provide an alternative and current perspective, I concluded my essay by discussing a contemporary artist, Renée Stout, who in her 1988 work Fetish No. 2 manipulates the form of a Kongolese hunter spirit and adapts it to her current situation as a black woman artist in urban America. By making her figure first a nude and secondly a self-portrait, she engages in the western tradition as well as the Kongolese and adapts both to meet her own needs. She inserts herself into the fraught history of reception of African art that I explored but re-appropriates the artistic form as a radical act against western appropriation. Yet Stout also admits that her sculpture is in no way engaged with the ritual function of Kongolese spirit figures and so it symbolically reflects the journey that Mavungu has made, from liturgical furniture to aesthetic artefact, trapped behind glass in twenty-first-century Oxford.

The inclusion of this last, contemporary artistic point-of-view was the suggestion of my supervisor, and former Senior Curator of the Pitt Rivers, Jeremy Coote. During several meetings over the course of the year, he provided relevant reading lists along with crucial theoretical insights that helped to shape the methodological framework of the essay. In my experience, the supervisory relationship was the most rewarding aspect of the process as it fostered a sense of productive collaboration and mutual academic interest that I found immensely exciting. The three-way dialogue – between object, supervisor and student – inevitably leads to interesting and unexpected results and has been hugely important in forming my ideas, and the way I want to write, about visual culture.


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

For information about funding and prizes available to current and prospective students in the Department of History of Art please see the funding page.

Advertisements

Collaborative work during your DPhil: My time at Empires of Faith

By Stefanie Lenk, current research student in the History of Art Department


Doing a doctorate in a research project is still fairly rare in the humanities at Oxford. The idea polarizes people. Being part of a research project helps connect students to others with similar interests quickly. Getting feedback on your work, a fresh eye on an old problem, or simply a little bit of moral support, are some of the perks that come with project work. If your project is functional, that is. If it isn’t, a research project soon can become exhausting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Empires of Faith team

Empires of Faith, my research project, has taught me a lesson. I know now for sure that collaborative work during your PhD can be done successfully, for everyone involved. And I know how much impact it can have on you as a researcher, in ways that you couldn’t imagine at the outset. The key to making it work, I think, is the goodwill of each to be part of a group. For me, this meant putting my energy into group projects, besides my daily DPhil work, and being open to my colleagues’ ideas and suggestions, which often led to research avenues I had not originally contemplated.

I embarked on this journey four years ago, together with most of my DPhil and Postdoc colleagues, simply by responding to a call for applications. EoF is a collaboration between Oxford University and the British Museum, so we also have a BM curator on board, and of course the head of the project, Jas’ Elsner, professor of classics at Oxford. This makes for a jolly team of ten. We all work on religious art in late antiquity (c. 200-800 AD), but from different religious and geographical vantage points. From day 1, we immersed ourselves in the art and material culture of the early Islamic empire, the Sasanian empire, the Kushan empire, and the Roman empire – the latter tackled through Roman religions, the British Isles, East and West Rome. Only a fraction of my colleagues are trained as art historians. The others have backgrounds in history, classics, archaeology and the social sciences.

2Empires of Faith at the Kosmos Summer School 2015 in Berlin © Stefanie Lenk

My own DPhil project looks at pre-Christian imagery and architecture used in 5th and 6th century Christian baptisteries in the Western Mediterranean. Many of the issues that I focus on in my DPhil, like questions of religious identity in late antiquity, what material culture can tell us about religion, how important iconographic readings are for the meaning of art, or how we can compare the evidence of different sites to one another, are also of interest to my colleagues. To some extent, this has to do with the similarity of our research fields. Some topics lend themselves more to some questions than to others. But my suspicion is that most of what interests me today is a product of our continuous conversations and the work we did together.

3Choosing wall colours for Imagining the Divine with our designer Byung Kim and my EoF colleague Rachel Wood © Stefanie Lenk

We started by meeting up militantly for at least three hours a week during term. This was in October 2013. At the time, few of us were truly engaged with any other fields of religious art beyond our own research areas. Most had not worked collaboratively or across disciplines before. Now, four years later, Empires of Faith has curated two exhibitions, Imagining the Divine. Art and the Rise of World Religions, the Ashmolean Museum’s current lead exhibition, and Those Who Follow, a cooperation with contemporary artist Arturo Soto, also currently up in the Classics Centre of the university. Four of my colleagues and I have co-written Images of Mithra, the first volume of a new OUP book series called Visual Conversations, which OUP offered to run, as they liked the first book so much. Moreover, we have written a historiographical volume altogether on how the different ways of art history writing in our respective disciplines developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the exhibition catalogue for Imagining the Divine. To arrive at this point, we gathered much input from fellow researchers on numerous occasions in Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago.

4Public workshop in Those Who Follow at the Ioannou Centre, run together with my EoF colleague Dominic Dalglish © Stefanie Lenk

In our final year, 2017, we opened up Empires of Faith’ research to wider audiences, both in academia and to the general public. My two DPhil colleagues on the programme, Philippa Adrych and Dominic Dalglish, and myself, launched a graduate student workshop series called Talking Religion for ten DPhil students in the humanities. In a series of seminars, held at Wolfson, the Ashmolean and the British Museum, we discussed the question of how to write religious history from objects. The Talking Religion group gives collaborative and interdisciplinary student tours on a regular basis through Imagining the Divine. Currently, we are running weekend workshops for Oxford’s religious communities on Those Who Follow and Imagining the Divine. In Michaelmas term, we held an Empires of Faith academic seminar series, and from 11th to 13th of January 2018 we celebrated our immensely productive time together with the Empires of Faith conference.

5Talking Religion student Hugo Shakeshaft at work in Imagining the Divine © Stefanie Lenk

You might wonder how all of this relates back to my DPhil work. Well, I will be finishing this year, my fifth year as a DPhil student (having deferred last year), and cannot pretend that Empires of Faith expedited the progress I have made on my dissertation in terms of getting the words down on paper. I am not sad about this, though, because I consider my work to have become so much better thanks to my colleagues. I have also been involved in terrific publications, and worked as the lead curator of Imagining the Divine.

Most importantly, however, I have experienced the tremendous benefits collaborative work can bring to academia. None of what we have achieved would have been possible, or even enjoyable, on our own. True, not every PhD student has the luck of participating in a project like Empires of Faith. I don’t think, though, that this is necessary for similar experiences. All it takes is a little leap of faith. Under the pressure of DPhil work, it can easily seem too challenging to dedicate energy to experiments with others. But at least in my experience, it works the other way around: collaborative work gives you more energy than it takes.

6We made it! Imagining the Divine up and running at the Ashmolean museum! © Stefanie Lenk


Stefanie is working on Baptismal Art in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Western Mediterranean (400-800 A.D.)

DPhil is the Oxford term for a PhD. For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.

Imagining the Divine is currently on at the Ashmolean Museum.

For more information about the Empires of Faith project, please see the project page.

Undergraduate Study Trip to Sicily 2017

By Professor Gervase Rosser


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 © Fionn Montell-Boyd

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.

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.

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.

Louvre Candelabrum Lions large

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.

IMG_1243_1244(2)

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.

IMG_1246

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.

CBC_Slade_2017_6

© 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.

DSC_0037_crop

© 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.

Picture1

© 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.