The wrath of a dying patriarch, the chilling screams of a mother in panic, and the revelations wrought by siblings with very different upbringings. The Ithaca Axis is a promenade performance taking place in the heart of Bristol’s city centre.

The Ithaca Axis

Based loosely upon The Odyssey and echoing Hamlet at times, The Ithaca Axis is an immersive and interactive theatrical performance which takes place in various locations in Bristol. Congregating in the city centre, the audience is divided into four groups who then embark upon their own journeys, occasionally encountering each other.

Odysseus, ruler of Ithaca (now modern day Bristol) has at last returned from his epic travels. In his absence his wife Penelope has been ruling, cleaning up the streets and creating order in what was once a chaotic place to live. Their decadent son Telemachus, and his mysterious sister Cassandra are about to make discoveries and reveal truths of their own, and the audience is grounded in the centre of this fascinating family. The reaction to Odysseus’ return is a mixed one: the reasons for which are explored in depth as each journey reaches its climax.

Participatory theatre is a powerful medium, and The Ithaca Axis is utterly consuming. You are among the characters, glimpsing snippets of their everyday lives. You witness the building and breaking of relationships. You laugh with them, cry with them. At times you may end up running through the streets of Bristol, pretending to be pigeons with them. You want desperately to rush to their aid when danger looms; you are one of them.

The Ithaca Axis deconstructs the boundary between stage and stalls, between actor and audience, and provides an engulfing experience which will leave you feeling charged with emotion. Voyeuristic at times, the performance is wholly immersive and allows you to forget yourself. You construct a rapport with your peers: actors and audience alike. It will also encourage you to visit parts of Bristol you have never seen before: caves, churches, and cobbled streets. This site-specific performance not only envelopes you within its cast, but within the city itself.

It pulls you in, and claws away at your very core. When the show is over, there is a terrible feeling of loss: the figurative curtain is drawn, the actors have departed, the applause has ended. Yet simultaneously there is an immense feeling of involvement. Having taken part in an incredible journey, we once again return to our normal lives, forever wondering how Ithaca will fare in this new dawn.

The Ithaca Axis is running until Sunday 5th May. Please see here for more details.


Robert Braithwaite Martineau, ‘Kit’s Writing Lesson’, 1852
Oil on Canvas, 52.1 x 70.5 cm
Tate, London

With a bit of clicking around and perusing through various Twitter feeds, I stumbled upon a blog which can only be described as the title of this article suggests.

Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, keeps a blog which is jam-packed full of useful advice and resources for Doctoral and Postdoctoral researchers alike. Her research is primarily concerned with the ever-changing characteristics of education, the processes, the procedures, and the enrichment of students through experiential approaches within the educational environment.

This blog really is a valuable resource to be plundered. Here is a brief summary of my top 3 articles for the current/beginning PhD student:

1. Why it is helpful to read ‘out of your area’

This highlights the importance of inter-textuality, and is particularly relevant in today’s academic climate, where the sheer number of PhD holders has led to an increased value for interdisciplinary research. Thomson carried out her PhD at a university which was not local to her, and so found it difficult to integrate within the academic community in her department. Being based in Bristol and beginning a PhD at the University of York, I will be facing the same problem, so this article was of great interest to me. By joining a reading group at a local university, Thomson was introduced to texts which she would never have considered reading because they did not directly relate to her research topic. However, as she explains in this article, there is much to be gained from broadening the horizon of your reading list. This introduces you to new ideas and thought processes, particularly if a text only makes a passing reference to a topic. From reading outside your area, your deeper knowledge of other topics may bring a whole new understanding to this reference which is only alluded to in the text. Thomson’s example of surveillance is an excellent one.

2. Writing the thesis from day 1 is risky

As someone due to begin a PhD in the next few months, the prospect of writing a 90,000 word thesis is extremely daunting. It makes sense to begin writing as soon as possible, in order to squeeze it all in. Also, as someone who has copied and pasted material from older essays into new ones, I can understand how this method seemingly saves time and allows you to reuse passages you are particularly proud of, which seem relevant to what you are now working on. But as Thomson argues, this is actually a very foolish thing to do when it comes to the thesis. Just as we would not expect a 6 year old’s writing to blend in with an 8 year old’s, the writing of a first year researcher stands out like a sore thumb when pasted into the final draft of a doctoral thesis.

Thomson’s most poignant assertion in this article is that the writing process itself is extremely important for the development of the scholar, and by copying and pasting older material, we run the risk of impeding such valuable development. This isn’t just an issue of writing style, but our ability to reassess our older work and build upon it with our more advanced thought processes, and maintaining a recognisable and authoritative ‘voice’.

It is important to continuously write, and Thomson emphasises the value of writing as a process of development and growth (as well as actually working through everything we learn as we read). What she stresses here is to write, re-think, re-draft, and leave the final thesis to the write-up year.

3. How not to fail the PhD

The value of this article is obvious from its title. In all honesty I had not even considered the prospect of failing my PhD. Not because I deem myself to be successful in everything, but more because I just hadn’t considered the possibility that it was something that could be failed. Naive, perhaps. Thomson does emphasise the fact that it is very difficult to fail, (failure rate is about 3-5%), but it is still important to consider the DOs and DON’Ts of writing a thesis. Thomson’s article provides two valuable lists to refer to. Certainly they would be very useful checklists to refer to throughout the writing process and final redrafting.

What Thomson ultimately arrives at is an encouraging point: yes, it is possible to fail a PhD, but the criteria for passing is very achievable.


Thomson’s blog covers many areas, not just the process of doing a PhD. This is just more relevant to my own position. I couldn’t stress highly enough how valuable a resource this blog is, whether you’re in the middle of a PhD or whether the ‘Big Book’ is done and dusted.


(Fig. 1) Burne-Jones, 'The Beguiling of Merlin', 1877 Oil on Canvas, 186 x 111 cm Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

(Fig. 1) Burne-Jones, ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, 1877
Oil on Canvas, 186 x 111 cm
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin of 1877 (Fig. 1) depicts a scene from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in which Vivien, the lady of the lake lulls the sorcerer into a deep sleep, enveloping him within the trunk of a Hawthorn tree. The figure of Merlin is slumped, horizontal and helpless, whilst the statuesque figure of Vivien looms over him, casting a strong vertical through the rather claustrophobic composition. With the painting standing almost two metres tall, her monumentality is heightened and the impact of her authority is rendered all the more powerful. The way in which his sandaled feet hang vulnerably in mid-air accentuates his lack of control, while Vivien’s feet are rooted to the ground in a strong and stable contrapposto stance.

The painting contains many visual cues that allow us to trace a ‘chain of receptions’, as described by H. R. Jauss.[1] By tracing similarities in style and iconography, we can identify ways in which paintings imitate aspects of their predecessors. This framework allows us not only to explore what an earlier artwork can reveal about a later one, but also vice versa. This method facilitates the construction of a two-way dialogue between art objects regardless of chronology, and allows for a reciprocal interpretation.

Many of this painting’s visual aspects were adapted from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, in which Vivien is frequently described as snake-like:

[Vivien] curved an arm about his neck,

Clung like a snake; and letting her left hand

Droop from his mighty shoulder, as a leaf.[2]


Burne-Jones’ rendering of Vivien’s long, curvilinear body is undeniably serpentine: the diagonal of her elongated neck stretching to the left is mirrored by her right hand and draws the eye downward toward the elbow. From here, the viewer’s gaze is directed in a meandering movement, descending via her slanted hips and the foreshortening of her right thigh, proceeding down past the bent knee and culminating in her sideward step. The joining of her hands to the splayed pages of the spell book creates a shape that is almost cyclical, allowing the eye to once again ascend through her left side and loop back to the beginning, thus constructing a fluid, snake- like movement of the gaze which traverses her entire form.

Furthermore, Tennyson’s declaration that Vivien wears a ‘snake of gold’ in her hair has been incorporated into Burne-Jones’s composition in the form of Vivien’s headpiece.[3] Though dark in colour as opposed to gold, it resembles a group of snakes, coiled and writhing through her hair (Fig. 2). This imagery is undeniably reminiscent of another archetypal femme fatale known for her serpentine locks: Medusa, the Gorgon who could turn men to stone with one look. The expression of Caravaggio’s Medusa of 1596 (Fig. 3) is strikingly different to that of Vivien’s, with the latter being one of quiet determination, and the former being in the throes of a scream. Despite these differences, however, there are notable similarities present in these two images, for example the snakes forming Medusa’s hair are comparable with Vivien’s headpiece. In both colour and form, the long, thin, writhing creatures recoiling at the moment of Medusa’s death could arguably have been removed from her scalp and let loose in Vivien’s long, dark locks of hair.

Studying the two images side by side, one cannot help but question what each reveals about the other. Undoubtedly Vivien’s headpiece likens her to the deadly Gorgon, who was cursed by her own beauty. Perhaps Vivien was also cursed in this way: she was unable to prevent Merlin from falling in love with her beauty, which ultimately led to his demise. Alternatively, it might also be noted that Vivien’s headpiece is rigid and static, whilst Medusa’s snakes violently thrash about her severed head, embracing their own deadly fate. Could it be that Vivien has succumbed to Medusa’s power and has turned to stone herself? Perhaps her own power lies within her ability to trick Merlin and subsequently her control over the situation, as opposed to Medusa’s curse, of which she has no command. Still, this comparison certainly adds a Medusan quality to Vivien’s icy glare.

* * *

This piece has been adapted from a larger project undertaken during my MA at the University of Bristol. This postscript gives a brief summary of other material covered:


The rendering of Vivien’s feet echo the feet of Botticelli’s Venus (Figs. 4 & 5). By connecting the two figures – femme fatale and goddess of love – I questioned whether this juxtaposition taints the latter or elevates the former.


With a slight rotation we see Merlin’s hand bears an uncanny resemblance to the hand of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Figs 6 & 7). What happens when birth and death – both the beginning and the end – are juxtaposed in such a fashion? Adam raises his lofty, muscular arm outward and embodies an air of youth and vitality. In contrast Merlin is slumped and admitting defeat, with his finger pointing downward, emphasising his mortal decline.


Harking back to Botticelli’s Venus, the theme of water is prominent. The folds of Vivien’s gown, dynamic yet revealing a static form beneath, appear to flow like waves around the contours of her body. This is largely evocative of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum, particularly the three female figures on the West pediment (Figs. 8 & 9). Differing claims to their identities alter the reading of this two-way dialogue.

[1] H. R. Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: 1982), 20

[2] A. L. Tennyson, ‘Merlin and Vivien’ in Idylls of the King (London: 1859), 105

[3] Ibid., 140

Saturday 13th April, 2013

Session 15: Shut Your Eyes! Iconophobia in the Modern Era

Sarah Lippert

Edward Burne-Jones’ Mysterious Dormancy

Liana De Girolami Cheney

Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Rose Bower’, 1880
Oil on Canvas
The Farringdon Collection Trust, Oxfordshire

At the AAH Conference 2012 there was a session I attended which addressed the relationship between fear and art, and I sat in on many of the presentations, which I found to be utterly fascinating. As a result I began to explore the idea of art as a dangerous vehicle, which led me to read Plato’s Republic and ultimately become interested in the myth of Medusa, and the dangers of looking. This is a topic I covered in my MA dissertation and one which – while I’m not carrying it through to PhD level – I remain very interested in and plan to expand upon one day.

As you may be able to imagine, the title of this session greatly interested me, and being a Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast I looked forward to Cheney’s paper very much. I have to be honest in saying that while it was enjoyable and addressed a series of paintings I had not yet given much attention to, it did not live up to my expectations. Rather than delving into the idea of Iconophobia, Cheney took the phrase ‘Shut Your Eyes’ literally, and delivered an examination of Burne-Jones’ Sleeping Beauty cycles. Her interest lies in the actual depiction of sleep, and the lack of knowledge on the viewer’s part as to what is happening in the mind of the depicted sleeper.

Cheney’s insights into Burne-Jones’ series were interesting and enjoyable to listen to, and she clearly has a passion for the artist. I feel that her paper had the potential to really probe into the anxieties we feel when faced with images of death and reminders of our own mortality. The question was raised by a fellow member of the audience:

“Do you think that these images of sleeping groups could also be likened to the Victorian practice of photographing the dead?”

I thought this was an excellent question, and certainly one I’d considered myself. While we can view Burne-Jones’ paintings as depictions of the tale of Sleeping Beauty, and while we can appreciate their aesthetic appeal, it felt as though Cheney was restricting herself in her own reading of the series. She very much wanted to focus on the depiction of sleep, however the discussion didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. As Colin Cruise so justly observed:

“Cheney introduced the tools for interpretation but failed to interpret the work.”

Cruise makes an appropriate point; Cheney’s paper was more of a history of the series of paintings and its influences, rather than a theoretical discussion of how these images may instil a sense of fear or Iconophobia within the viewer. For Cheney there was no interaction between these paintings and their viewers. I feel that she slightly touched upon the link between sleep and death, magic, and the metaphysical, but didn’t quite explore it to its full potential.

Incarnations of Medusa in the 19th Century

Sarah Lippert

Aubrey Beardsley, ‘J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan’, 1893
Design for The Climax from Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’
Line block print
V&A, London

I don’t want to give the impression that I was disappointed throughout this session, but perhaps it is a valuable lesson to learn: do not go to a conference paper with preconceptions as to what material it may cover, as you may be very wrong.

The title of Lippert’s paper – quite literally – promised an examination of the materialisation of Medusa in nineteenth-century art. As you read above, this is a topic which is of huge interest to me, and I went along feeling extremely saddened that I hadn’t submitted a paper which, I felt, would have greatly complimented Lippert’s.

However, upon beginning her presentation, Lippert announced that in preparation for the day, she had altered the content of her paper so as to not actually discuss the depiction of Medusa herself, but to explore the ideology of Medusa in relation to the art work.

I can’t deny that as an ideology in itself it was fascinating, and I still feel that my paper could have complimented it extremely well. But from my personal point of view I was somewhat disappointed that the content had changed. That, I guess, does come with the territory. As academics we have a great attention to detail, we are perfectionists and we are researchers, and we cannot help but continuously discover new material we wish to explore in our own work. It should be expected that many papers fluctuate between the submission deadline and delivery on the day.

As it turned out, Lippert offered me an entirely new way of thinking about Mesusa as a concept. While my own work focused on the dangers of looking – whether our gaze upon Medusa, or her gaze upon us – Lippert delivered a Darwinian view of the ‘Medusa effect’ of Aestheticism and Decadence upon  the nineteenth-century British public.

Beginning with the rise of Darwinian science and its shifting of the operation of images in society, Lippert discussed the way in which it validated beauty’s role in natural selection. From this she leapt to its purveying of false values: that the judgement of beauty can be learned. As Cesare Lombroso argued, the human imagination – while being one thing separating us from the apes – also signalled a lack of reason. An unhealthy beauty was seen to disguise the unknown.

Lippert posed the question of what constitutes beauty in relation to evolutionary theory and natural selection, and arrived at the conclusion that visual appearance is deceptive, and not an accurate conveyance of one’s morality (we need only think of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to confirm this).

So from here, Lippert delivered an absorbing discussion of the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Eventually my disappointment at the lack of attention to Medusa depictions was lifted, as Lippert’s exploration of the Medusan features of Beardsley’s work, and the Medusan effects on the nation in an age of decadence was utterly new to me.

The influence of Modern Icono(homo)phobia in Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art

Siba Aldabbagh

Nazif Topçuoğlu, ‘Triptych’, 2009
C Print, 180 x 120 cm each
Green Art Gallery, Dubai

Aldabbagh’s paper focused on the prohibition of homoerotic depictions in the contemporary art and film of the Arab world and Turkey. She considered two case studies: Nadine Labaki’s feature film, Caramel, and Nazif Topçuoğlu’s photographic series, Triptych (pictured above).

Caramel: this film follows the love lives of a group of Lebanese women who are all facing trying times, whether it’s an affair with a married man, sex before marriage, or, for one character, being a lesbian in a society of prohibition. Aldabbagh delicately examined the way in which Labaki hinted at the character Rima’s sexuality without overtly alluding to it. Instead it is introduced through subtle changes in music when she comes into contact with a particular patron of the salon in which she works, the slight alterations in their breathing while she gently washes the woman’s hair. She is not identified by who she is attracted to, but rather who she isn’t (e.g. Aldabbagh shared with us a scene in which the group of women were commenting on a cute police officer, and when Rima expressed a disinterest in him, she was met with a unsurprised ‘of course you’re not, you don’t think anyone is cute’ response). In other words, she is identified by her lack of sexuality, as opposed to her homosexuality.

I felt Aldabbagh’s reading of the film was insightful but also that perhaps she had overlooked several aspects which were glaringly obvious, whilst aggrandising less obvious and less workable theories. For example, when discussing the salon hair-washing scene, Aldabbagh spent a considerable amount of time discussing Freud’s psychoanalytical interpretation of water as a sensual motif, which was interesting in itself but difficult to reconcile with a twenty-first century moving picture. At the same time, despite examining the film within an overtly ‘Arab’ context, Aldabbagh completely overlooked the religious prohibitions placed upon a woman’s hair (i.e. its need to be covered) and the age-old association between a woman’s hair and her sensuality. For an unconventionally un-feminine character to be touching another woman’s hair in such a delicate, subtly erotic manner, surely warrants examination.

Triptych: This photographic series provoked much discussion on the panopticon. Aldabbagh’s reading held that the women on the outside of the circle were playing the part of the guards, voyeuristically watching the indecipherable-yet-erotically-charged movements of the group of women in the centre. This reading is understandable but perhaps too easy. A comment was raised from the audience, suggesting a reverse-reading: the women on the outside of the circle could be the prisoners themselves, as in the panopticon, looking at the central tower whilst not being able to see the guards within it. The whole premise of the panopticon was that prisoners knew they were being watched but could not physically see their surveyors; technically at any time the tower could be empty, but the uncertainty ensured that prisoners governed themselves. If we apply this reading to Topçuoğlu’s photographs, we might see a group of prisoners glaring inward toward the central tower, inside which dangerously physical activities are taking place between a group of women (the guards) which they are in fact unaware of. This idea of blindness would provide a fitting comment upon the society in which these works are contextualised: a society which does not recognise same-sex relationships.

Reverse Archaeology and Underwater Sculpture

Marion Endt-Jones

Ellen Gallagher, ‘Watery Ecstatic’, 2006
Gesso, ink, watercolour and cut paper on paper
75.5 x 100 cm
Hauser & Wirth

Endt-Jones’ paper addressed the issues faced with categorising organically shaped objects within the art institution. Specifically, she referred to a shipwreck in which numerous items of Chinese crockery were lost to the sea, only to be later recovered, having obtained coral encrustations.

Endt-Jones raised important issues of classification: how can one categorise an object which to our eyes is sculptural and beautiful, but a combination of man-made (for commercial purposes) and organically formed? To what extent can we call a naturally altered manufactured product “art”? Where do these types of objects fall within the art historical canon? How do you place them within a particular institution? Do they belong in the art gallery or the marine biology centre?

Certainly displaying these objects within an art institution would propose a great challenge to the traditional display of objects. We are so used to browsing artworks and their accompanying wall labels: Artist, Title, Medium, etc. Where do these objects fall within that framework? Could this be classed as a form of institutional critique?

As a naturally formed shape, the object is very much open to interpretation. What Endt-Jones referred to as a ‘Coral Hand’ to me was an anthropomorphism of a naturally formed object. At once we are faced with the natural specimen vs. the Relic.

What was of extreme interest to me personally was Endt-Jones’ comments on the notion of coral as an example (and indeed, icon) of petrification. According to Greek myth, when Perseus laid down Medusa’s severed head by the shore of the sea, her fading powers cast their final spell, causing the surrounding seaweed to turn to stone, forming the coral we know today.

This discussion served as an introduction to Endt-Jones’ current research and upcoming book on the cultural history of coral. For example the association with petrification, violence and death has been known to inspire the wearing of coral as a talisman to ward off the Evil Eye.

Endt-Jones ended her discussion with a glimpse into the works of Ellen Gallagher, whose drawings explore this cultural history, and which adopts the aesthetic qualities of coral. Much in the way that coral itself is formed, Endt-Jones’ paper introduced us to an art form which could itself present history as a crystallisation or sediment.

Gunpowder under the Skin: Tattooing in the Context of Maritime Visual Cultures

Matt Lodder

Otto Griebel, ‘Ship Boilerman’, 1920
Details Unknown

Lodder as a presenter bursts with energy and enthusiasm for his subject, a passion which could be described as contagious. It perfectly complimented the previous paper, not only their shared interest of a maritime context, but also of a form of art which is almost impossible to classify within an art historical framework. Just as coral encrustations are difficult to insert into the conventions of art history, the adornment of one’s own flesh well and truly defies cataloguing.

I would be interested to know if, for Lodder, tattooing is:

  • An extension of the body (i.e. part of the self)
  • An adornment of the body (i.e. solely aesthetic)
  • An intrusion of the body (i.e. a foreign object beneath the skin)

Naturally, placing the art of tattoos within an art historical framework requires aesthetic and iconographic examination, but as a physical form I would have very much liked to hear Lodder’s elaboration on this particular point. His comment that “the medium of the tattoo is less important than the message of the image” was something I found difficult to digest. I cannot separate the two, just as I cannot separate a painting from its mount. For me the artwork is an autonomous object, and its materials form its very foundations. The same goes for tattoo art: the message or image, for me, must be considered in relation to the bearer of it. If it is crucial enough to be permanently displayed upon one’s flesh, surely that body which bears it also carries the depth of this message?

I would like to add here, that I do not mean that the person with the tattoo carries any significance to the image – I do not think biography has any place here – I simply mean a tattoo consists of more than just ink.

Lodder was clear from the outset that he opposes the notion that tattoos ‘are no longer just for sailors’, and asserts that they never were restricted to an isolated group. Certainly the notion of the seafarer who tattoos his body as a demarcation of geographical conquests is interesting, and serves as a predecessor to stamps in a passport. Indeed, it certainly carries notable implications for the self-fashioned myth or identity. However on a much higher plane, Lodder presents tattooing as a contextual, cyclical mode of art making which reproduces images rather than creating unique images of its own. By examining recurring symbols throughout its history, tattoos are presented not only as adornments of the body, but a formation of a language carved into flesh.

Lodder is clearly striving to instil a framework within which tattooing may be considered art historically, and while he admits that these are “difficult histories to recover”, his research is built upon solid foundations and he is sure to enjoy success in this enterprise.

Friday 12th April, 2013

Session 27 – Image, Identity and Institutions: The Male Artist in 19th-Century Britain

Colin Cruise & Amelia Yeates

‘An ill-conditioned and rather rowdy set’: Bohemian formations in mid-19th century London

Colin Cruise

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Self-Portrait’, 1847
Pencil on Paper, 19.6 x 19 cm
National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1867, an article was published in Tomahawk: A Saturday Journal of Satire which chastised the bohemian groupings of artists and writers in London, stating that bohemianism (as a product of French culture), had no place in the city. From previous papers on Legros and Whistler, we are aware that bohemianism were common methods of self-fashioning amongst the literary crowds. Having explored the ways in which these two artists integrated themselves into a foreign society and constructed their own myths, it was now interesting to examine the framework within which they had immersed themselves, particularly in relation to that which was approved of and that which was not.

The article’s author insinuates that the bohemian, or dilettante, embodied the opposite of normative notions of masculinity, and while one would think that it would be beneficial for the artist to conform to the expectations of society – and their potential patrons – Cruise demonstrated several of examples of social groupings which catered to the artist’s need to steer away from such convention. Had we now at last discovered a professional of whom Samuel Smiles would have approved? Indeed, we come to a paradox when we attempt to distinguish between the bohemian’s self-construction in spite of his audience and his attempts to woo them with his eccentricity. For Smiles it was manly to produce, not to strive to earn money, but at what expense does the bohemian become the icon of manliness?

Through discussing the formation of several groups such as the Savage Club, which still exists today, Cruise successfully unpacked the anxieties surrounding the artist’s masculinity amongst his peers, and within the wider framework of Victorian society. This paper, once again, was wonderfully suited to the structure of the session. In Legros, we witnessed an artist who refused to conform in order to make himself more attractive to potential buyers of his works, whereas Cruise revealed the individual who refused to conform simply for the sake of it. What he dubs an “ideological meta-narrative” wholly embodies the image of the male artist in the nineteenth century, torn between the “ordinary mortals” and the “valiant, defiant old days”; a form of self-fashioning which goes beyond artistic dress and encompasses a deeper, homosocial need for alliances.

Manly Modes: Artistic dress and the styling of masculine identity

Robyne Erica Calvert

James Abbott McNeill Whistler seated on a Chippendale chair, c.1860

A.K.A. “Floppy but Manly”, as Calvert herself put it.

While Cruise delved into the periodical construction of masculine identity amongst bohemian and artistic circles, Calvert explored the way they chose to dress. This was a perfect way in which to explore the subject thoroughly, and she draws upon Cruise’s earlier work in this area (Cruise, C. ‘Artists’ Clothes: Some Observations on Male Artists and their Clothes in the Nineteenth Century’, The Gendered Object, ed. Pat Kirkham, Manchester University Press, 1996).

Drawing upon the subject of Bohemianism, which she described as “a romanticised poverty of the artist”, Calvert revealed the length to which the male artist in nineteenth-century Britain went in order to fashion himself in a certain way; we were introduced to the notion of the ‘sanctioned bohemian’, driven by the contention that while one cannot teach taste, one can certainly teach style.

At the heart of Calvert’s vast array of images was the ‘papillon’, or ‘floppy tie’ – once you’ve seen it, you’ll see it everywhere. It is notable that at the same time Whistler began to develop his remarkable sense of style, Baudelaire published his renowned essay, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in which he hailed Constantin Guys as a bohemian idol and outcast. It is easy to see why Whistler and Legros set about galvanising the public with their Parisian panache.

It was at this point that it became clear to me that while the tropes of masculinity within Victorian society were coming under scrutiny, the type of masculinity under the magnifying glass was overwhelmingly that of the dandy. Again, I feel a comment on current attitudes towards masculinity and artistic dress would have been fruitful, though Calvert’s examination was utterly fascinating in itself.

Artist, Professional, Gentleman: The Actor’s offstage portrait (1875-95)

Helen M. Walter

Sir Henry Irving, photographed by Samuel Alexander Walker, 1879
Albumen cabinet card, 13.9 x 10.4 cm
National Portrait Gallery, London

Walter’s paper addressed the efforts undertaken by actor-managers such as Sir Henry Irving to raise the acting profession to the status of Fine Art. In order to do so, Walter examined two types of images: photographs of actors in character, and photographs of actors ‘at home’ in everyday (fashionable) dress.

The photograph of the actor in character is one fraught with paradox, as it captures a dynamic art form (theatre) within a static, two-dimensional medium (photography), while also attempting to appear as though it has literally ‘caught’ a moment within the actor’s movement, whilst in reality the image would have been carefully posed and taken over a prolonged period of time. These images are overtly staged, and when placed in contrast with the ‘at home’ or carte de visite imagery of the actor’s offstage portrait, the fallacy of the former becomes glaringly obvious. We are once again reminded of MacDonald’s questioning of the honesty of images.

As Walter successfully argued, we cannot simply compare the two and draw the conclusion that the offstage portrait presents a more ‘natural’ image of the actor. Walters examined the above portrait of Irving in which he looks as though he has casually lifted his head to glance up at us, having been suddenly interrupted whilst deep in thought at his desk. He is dressed fashionably, and his surroundings have been constructed to present him as a learned gentleman. Once again the theme of self-fashioning is prominent.

Walter’s discussion focused on off-stage portraiture as an attempt to promote the actor as a noble artist, and her insights were exceptionally interesting. While the session was centred around the identity of the male artist within nineteenth-century Britain, I feel that as the closing paper, what would have rounded it off perfectly would have been a brief comment on how women in the profession also sought to achieve the same status, and the outcome of their efforts.

Key Note Lecture: Okwui Enwezor

Ben Enwonwu, ‘Storm over Biafra’, 1972
Oil on Canvas
National Museum of Africa

Enwezor’s lecture comprised a discussion of contemporary African art, and its place within the future of Art History. Having spent the entire day delving into questions of masculinity, self-myth-making and the male artist in nineteenth-century Britain, it was refreshing to travel across several continents to consider the works of artists such as Ben Enwonwu and Uche Okeke. As someone who has never studied, nor really looked at the works of African artists before, I found Enwezor’s statement that “Contemporary African art does not exist in a vacuum” to be utterly penetrating.

As a westerner with an academic background in solely western art, it is too easy for me to look at the works of artists like Okeke and Enwonwu as reflections upon a foreign culture, united by their shared origins. This couldn’t be further from the truth. During Enwezor’s lecture I was struck by the fact that there was so much out there in the world that I have never seen, and probably will never see. Artists completely unknown to me, who may remain unknown to those around me, because the discipline which I dedicate myself to has until recently paid it little attention.

For me, Art History is a hugely important academic subject and it is something I couldn’t imagine living without. But at the same time I feel it may have sewn the seeds of its own destruction, to a certain extent, by formulating a canon which in many ways we still adhere to. My own research interests are strictly grounded in Britain, but I feel that my eyes have been presented with another plane upon which they may feast themselves, and I think this revelation has come to me at a crucial moment, as I am currently planning to go and see a bit of the world for myself.

Friday 12th April, 2013

Session 27 – Image, Identity and Institutions: The Male Artist in 19th-Century Britain

Colin Cruise & Amelia Yeates

‘A slave kept in Leyland’s back parlour’: The male artist in the Victorian marketplace

Amelia Yeates

Frederic Leighton (b/w photo) by Joseph Parkin Mayall (1839-1906)
© Trustees of the Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey
Image courtesy of

While Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti enjoyed the patronage of the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, each expressed his concerns about the conflict of power which accompanies this type of working relationship. Burne-Jones referred to himself as ‘”nothing more than a slave”, while Rossetti compared his profession to that of a whore. Yeates’ paper addressed these concerns, in relation to anxieties surrounding the notion of masculinity in the nineteenth century.

Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help of 1859 declared that the professional artist should be driven by the desire to produce art, rather than by financial gain. This statement suggests that production and labour were the governing factors of an artist’s success, with productivity signalling the fruit of the artist’s labours. Naturally we can associate this need to ‘produce’ with ideals of manliness. Artists were frequently photographed in their studios surrounded by numerous works (see above photo). The image of Leighton in his studio, for me, not only alludes to the manliness associated with labour, but is also suggestive of his potency. The ability to produce implies the ability to reproduce, and I think Yeates’ concern with the artist’s masculinity in relation to productivity may benefit from the consideration of these images as reinforcing a patriarchal masculinity.

Yeates argued that the commodification of art and the self may be considered in gendered terms, and that these anxieties are reflected in the language of artists and art criticism. Her contention that the demands of the art market led to feelings of emasculation or whoredom is wholly convincing, and raises many questions about the extent to which a painting’s monetary value outweighs artistic conviction.

John Brett: A Pre-Raphaelite Imperialist

Christiana Payne

John Brett, ‘Florence from Bellosguardo’, 1863
Oil on Canvas, 60 x 101.3 cm
Tate Britain, London

Payne’s paper relied heavily upon biographical details in order to construct an image of John Brett’s masculinity. I myself question the value of the role of biography, as I feel it has its limits and I prefer to look at the artwork itself. I see the use of anecdotes in conjunction with an artwork as projecting meaning onto it rather than looking at its physical qualities.

I found Payne’s paper to be hugely complimentary to Yeates’, however. The latter introduced a framework in which we see the artist catering to the demands of the market, while the former presented us with an artist who was very conscious of making a living, much to the expense of his allegiances. The sale of Florence from Bellosguardo (pictured above) caused a stir of controversy amongst his companions, after he exhibited it privately, having been rejected from the Royal Academy. Ford Madox Brown labelled him ‘a sneak’, and alluded to this quality as lacking in manliness.

Payne provided us with an interesting insight into the artist’s construction of his own myth: the subject of self-fashioning would be a prominent one in this session, but I felt that we could have benefitted from looking at his works in a bit more detail. Brett’s huge personality was largely entertaining, but it overshadowed his works completely; a testament to the fact that he is arguably one of the lesser known associates of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

While I am not a fan of biography, Payne’s insights into Brett’s anecdotes, comments and self-construction imbue the image of a hilariously stubborn and Right Wing gentleman, greatly increasing the appeal of his landscapes which, for me personally, are not of much interest. Payne’s paper was insightful and enjoyable, and successfully distracted me from my adversity to anecdotes.

A French Englishman: Alphonse Legros and masculine identity construction in Victorian Britain

Melissa Berry

Fantin-Latour, ‘Homage à Delacroix’, 1864
Oil on Canvas, 160 x 250 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Berry’s paper examined the integration of the French artist Legros within Victorian Britain. With his French training and Parisian style, Legros was somewhat a novelty for British patrons. What is interesting is the way in which he not only successfully carved an identity for himself amongst the circles surrounding Whistler, but also remained very much involved with his Parisian commitments. These “translocal tactics”, as Berry puts it, enabled Legros to fashion himself as an exotic individual whilst also pandering to the fancies of patronage.

Relating back to Yeates’ paper on the power struggle between artists and patrons, it becomes clear how well this presentation tied in with the overall theme of this session. If we think back to Smiles’ contention that monetary gain should not be the driving factor for the professional artist, and his allusion to manliness in conjunction with productivity, we are once again faced with a male artist who successfully fashioned himself in a way that increased his market value. Throughout the morning it came to be that the ‘masculinity’ of artists such as Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Brett, Whistler and Legros was now being called into question.

Finally, a quick comment on Berry’s presentation as a whole: being new to presenting, I found her to be a very engaging speaker with a visible passion for her subject. She handled criticism extremely well, and I found her defence of Fantin-Latour’s Homage à Delacroix (pictured above) to be extremely convincing.

James McNeill Whistler: An Artist on Artists

Margaret MacDonald

Whistler, ‘Arrangement in Grey, Portrait of the Artist’, 1872
Oil on Canvas, 74.9 x 53.3 cm
Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, Michigan

MacDonald’s paper perfectly complimented Berry’s, and their placement side by side was a perfect choice. Having delved into the work of Legros, it was only fitting to look at his extremely close companion. In contrast to Berry’s approach, MacDonald examined Whistler’s self-fashioned identity primarily through a number of his numerous self-portraits, and photographs of his costume, as opposed to anecdotes.

Now halfway through the session, I felt it would have been interesting to perhaps compare this nineteenth-century notion of manliness – the dandy – to current attitudes towards gender. Naturally this would have constituted an entirely new session to explore in detail, but a comment at least would have been thought provoking.

MacDonald, through examining Whistler’s self-portraiture, raised the question of the honesty of images. Until this point we had considered the ways in which artists created their own myths through anecdotes, interviews, and fashion choices. Now we were examining self-depiction, which was hugely rousing. This question of false realities is an extremely potent one within the discipline of art history as a whole – the entire foundation of the subject has constituted the building of a canon and the implementation of biography in order to contextualise works – but to what extent can we confidently state that we have not been fooled by fancy?

Still to come from this session:

  • ‘An ill-conditioned and rather rowdy set’: Bohemian formations in mid-19th century London – Colin Cruise
  • Manly Modes: Artistic dress and the styling of masculine identity – Robyn Erica Calvert
  • Artist, Professional, Gentleman: The actor’s offstage (1875-95) – Helen Margaret Walter
  • Key Note Lecture: Okwui Enwezor
University of Reading Image courtesy of

University of Reading
Image courtesy of

From 11-13th April 2013, approximately four hundred art historians gathered at the University of Reading for the 39th Annual AAH Conference. Hailing from all over the country as well as abroad, specialists in a vast array of subject areas came together to share their research with fellow scholars.

The Association of Art Historians is a membership organisation for arts and visual culture professionals, which was formed in 1974. Through the organisation of varied events up and down the country, along with providing funding opportunities, resources and networks, and with its own academic journal, Art History, the AAH brings together prolific scholars and budding academics, providing a platform for established specialists, and helping to shape the art historians of the future.

I have so many notes from all three days and I couldn’t possibly share everything in one blog entry, so I will be posting in five parts.

Part I: Thursday 11th April, 2013

Key Note Lecture: Adrian Forty and Maarten Delbeke in Conversation

As someone who is fundamentally used to being ‘talked at’ in lectures, I found the ‘Conversation’ between Forty and Delbeke to have an extremely strange dynamic. In many ways it renders the presentation of knowledge as much more informal and seemingly provides a more ‘relaxing’ environment. Rather than a speaker being completely separate from their audience – on stage, hiding behind a lectern – they now sit amongst them (to a certain extent). This dynamic carried a bit of a ‘chat show’ vibe; in some ways it is odd for us to witness a discussion which, while intended for the audience, is actually directed away from them. It almost felt voyeuristic, akin to eavesdropping.

Forty and Delbeke’s discussion of the past, present and future of Architectural History was enlightening to those of us who had not dabbled in the subject. Both speakers had ended up specialising in architectural history without originally intending to; Forty started out as a historian, whilst Delbeke trained as an architect. It was only fitting that the two, coming from different foundations, cities and generations, converged in discipline and conversed on the subject.

Both raised the issue that architecture, in contrast to art, is continuously undergoing changes, or renovations, and always affected by changing regimes. Forty argued that while paintings are static, buildings are constantly altered to adhere to certain measures. I do not agree with this: I don’t think art is static in the slightest. While comments were made to argue the point that certainly since the 60s art has become more immersive, and that art works are also affected by their location, what of restoration, conservation, vandalism and iconoclasm? I recognise these do not constitute the physical changes to buildings that Forty is referring to, but I do not think the art object should be so readily dismissed as ‘static’.

Forty did raise a point which I wholly agree with, and which I also feel relates to art history: architectural historians are uncomfortable talking about buildings, much in the way that art historians have an aversion to talking about art. We have become too distracted by texts and have a tendency to ignore the object. Forty stressed the importance of “the evidence of the object”, and as he argued that this needs to become a more focal point of architectural history, I would also argue the same for my own discipline.

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