Archive for the ‘My talks’ Category

Mollie Molesworth Updates

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

After a couple of quiet years, things are beginning to happen again with Mollie Molesworth. (Click here for more about Mollie.)

We (meaning my family and I) are beginning to plan for an exhibition of her work in the summer of 2016, which will also give me a welcome excuse to go home. By my reckoning, this will be the first show devoted to Mollie’s work since October 1930, when she exhibited at Walker’s Galleries, New Bond Street, London.

Since I may well end up writing something to go along with this exhibition, I decided to create some other excuses to think about her life and work. These things will, I hope, feed off each other.

So I’ve just written a paper proposal on Mollie for the next SECAC conference, which will be taking place in Pittsburgh this October. I submitted my proposal to a panel that seems tailor-made for Mollie: “Transnational Ambitions: Women Artists in Europe and America, 1865-1945.” It’s hard to predict how people will react to a pitch about an “unknown” artist, so fingers crossed.

And on that topic, kudos goes to the Mississippi University for Women, my university’s neighbouring institution. They approached me early in the semester about contributing to their Diane Legan Howard Art History Lecture Series. I immediately accepted and then we began to bandy possible subjects back and forth. Many of the usual suspects were among the names I mentioned: Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Caillebotte, and Virginia Woolf. But I tossed out Mollie’s name, too, and was very happy that they took the risk and let me talk about her.

Here I am in full lecturing mode. (For more about the talk, click here.)

    Lecturing at the Mississippi University for Women, 16 April 2015

Lecturing at the Mississippi University for Women, 16 April 2015 (photo by Megan Bean)


This must be the first lecture that’s been given in the States about Mollie. I trust it won’t be the last.


Taking the Mickey: Censoring Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen”

Friday, September 26th, 2014

[This post records my contribution to Banned Book Week, which was delivered at MSU’s Mitchell Library as part of a faculty read-out. My thanks to Rachel Cannady for the invitation and for organizing and chairing the session.]

Banned Books Week Read-Out at MSU's Mitchell library

Yours truly at MSU’s Banned Books Week Read-Out  (Grisham Room, Mitchell Memorial Library)

Unlike almost all of my fellow presenters today, I have the luxury of being able to read you the entirety of my story. Ideally we’d have the book between us and we’d turn the pages together. Alas, powerpoint and digital projection will have to do. I’ll show the book double-page by double-page, and a digital “wipe” effect will be our page turn. Even if we’ll miss the reaching out, the touch of the paper, the breath of displaced air, and the gentle crackle of the turn, something of the revelation of the fresh page will, I trust, survive. Hands, mouth, eye… touch, voice, brain—such is the gloriously sensuous world of the picture book. Nobody has created and charted this terrain better than Maurice Sendak.

So without further ado, I give you In the Night Kitchen.

[Dear blog reader, in lieu of my own voice, I can give you something better. Click here to see a video of James Gandolfini reading the story.]


Mickey, dressed and undressed

Yes, I have heard of Mickey. Too often, and especially at this time of year, what I hear involves censorship. What’s all the fuss? There are the usual stories of the book being removed from libraries, and of copies being bought en masse from bookshops, in an attempt to take them out of circulation. (Some people, let it be noted, really need that ECON 101 class.) Mostly, there are tales of a subtler and more insidious form of censorship—an expurgation of the offending detail. For, as a character, Mickey comes fully endowed, endowed (certainly) with fun derring-do, with inventiveness, and also showing moments of testiness, doubt, and swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

But I’ll be blunt: like almost all boys (and naked boys especially) Mickey has a penis. To be sure, it’s a modestly-sized and apparently well-behaved penis, but it’s a penis nonetheless. And though it only appears in about five of the book’s panels, to the censorious mind it may as well be everywhere. In the Night Kitchen has been reduced to a cock-and-balls story. And though Mickey also has a backside, this apparently only bothers a subsection of the offended.

Our subtler censors acknowledge the merits of Sendak’s book in unexpected ways. As we are about to see, they have devoted time and labour to the job of rectifying Sendak’s “lapses” precisely so that the book might stay on the shelves, albeit in an altered and diminished form.

So let the wild fashion rumpus begin!


Mickey number 1 is wearing the very latest in cobalt-blue swimming trunks—useful for the child who insists on swimming in milk.

78662While this little Mickey’s fetching briefs nicely complement his unruly shock of black hair.

7093296881_29003e966b_oOur third Mickey is trying to “make it work” with a white-out diaper, complete with fastener.

10706318_10204982208498863_1311719033_nAnd our final Mickey has donned a sloppily constructed and semi-transparent paper slip, which—truth be told—seems only to encourage us to look further. As Sendak himself has noted, sometimes such “quaint quickie briefs are downright kinky.” Case in point!

(An aside: even google managed to fudge Mickey’s nudity in a otherwise charming animated doodle they made in honour of Sendak. We see Mickey jumping from the plane and into the bottle, where he disappears into the opaque milk, never to emerge again. Given the long history of discomfort with Mickey’s nudity, this appears to be a case of bottling out.)

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that however fine these unknown artists are, not one of them improves upon Sendak’s art.I rather wish that they had invested in a copy of the “Coloring Book” version of In the Night Kitchen, where they could have embellished Sendak’s art ad infinitum.

Instead, these additions stick out and are not all-of-a-piece with the rest of Sendak’s exquisitely colored world. This repeats the self-defeating logic of censorship, which tends to draw our attention to the censored object, rather than away from it. Mark Twain comments on this phenomenon in A Tramp Abroad­, while considering the statues of Rome and Florence. “These works,” he notes “…. stood in innocent nakedness for ages [but] are all fig-leaved now…. Nobody noticed their nakedness before, perhaps; nobody can help noticing it now, the fig-leaf makes it so conspicuous.”

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo's David, V&A Museum, 1857

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David, V&A Museum,  circa 1857

Stephen Colbert put his finger on these matters (aesthetic integration, censorship, attention) during an interview with Sendak. Playing the role of outraged moralist, Colbert produced a copy of In The Night Kitchen that had had all the offending parts cut out in neat circle…. only to be collected in a zip-lock bag.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

As the Encyclopedia of Censorship summarizes the matter, the chief charges leveled against In the Night Kitchen are that the book desensitizes “children to nudity.” “… If nudity is acceptable in a kindergarten children’s story,” worries a concerned source, “how can I teach my children that Playboy is unacceptable?” One thing leads quickly to another and, before you can say “slippery slope,” we find claims like this: “children are taught their private parts are private. This book is contrary to this teaching.”

It is inconvenient for these critics that the structure of the narrative underlines the fact that Mickey is usually dressed and, indeed, that this is the normal state of affairs. His nudity accompanies his free-floating journey into the dream world of the night kitchen, where the usual rules are suspended. Concealing Mickey’s nudity both dilutes dream logic, where nudity often plays an important role, and interferes with an important and delightful sequence in the story: Mickey’s progression from blue pajamas, to nudity, to a sticky romper suit of partly cooked batter, to this suit’s milky disintegration and a return to nudity, to the security of a blanket, before finally ending up back in those same blue pajamas.

Mickey's Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Mickey’s Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Big Mickey and the breeches

To an art historian, all these unwarranted and ham-fisted interventions bring to mind a story about the biggest Mickey of them all: Michelangelo. Famously, soon after the artist’s death, his Last Judgment was subject to an aggressive cover-up campaign; draperies were painted over the genitals and backsides of many figures.Daniele da Volterra, the artist responsible for many of these additions promptly acquired the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-maker”).

Figures from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

Figures from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

But the potential problem had been recognized three decades earlier, when Michelangelo was still painting the work. Giorgio Vasari tells the story:

When Michelangelo had completed about three quarters of the work, Pope Paul went to see it, and Messer Biagio da Cesena, the master of the ceremonies, was with him, and when he was asked what he thought of it, he answered that he thought it not right to have so many naked figures in the Pope’s chapel. This displeased Michelangelo, and to revenge himself…. he painted him [Cesena] in the character of Minos with a great serpent twisted round his legs.


Vasari omits to mention exactly what the snake is doing to Minos-slash-Cesena: you can see for yourself that the punishment fits the crime. And though I certainly wouldn’t want to consign Mickey’s censors to hell, let alone subject them to this particular torment, I wish I could have magically shown them Michelangelo’s figure just before they set about “correcting” Sendak’s work.

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind!

Published in 1970, two years before I was born, I somehow missed In the Night Kitchen as a child. Mickey caught up with me much later, when I was spending an inordinate amount of time reading to my own kids. This, I discovered, is one of the pleasures of parenting: you suddenly have permission to revisit your favorite childhood books, as well as hunting down newer books or new-to-you books. Children will insist on having the same books read to them again and again. So, from the adult reader’s point of view, there’s a simple test of quality: a good children’s book is one that hasn’t driven you mad after, say, three dozen readings.

Sendak’s book passes this test with flying colours, and I want to mention just a few of the reasons why I love this book, and indicate some of the ways it has stimulated me aesthetically and intellectually. To do so is, in part, a way of resisting the impulse to censor, which insists on a partial reading of the book at the expense of all other responses.

milk in the batter

For starters, take Sendak’s language, which is simply fun to read, especially out loud. With its alliteration, rhymes, and rhythms, there’s a musicality to his words, as though they are aspiring to song or to jazz. Reveling in its own riffs, the book’s plot seems to emerge out of verbal playfulness: Mick and Milk, Mickey and milky, Mickey’s way and the milky way, Mickey the milkman, and even—perhaps—the idea of slipping a Mickey (to add something that really shouldn’t be there).

img011 - Copy

The story is also an elegant homage to Winsor McCay, one of the founding figures of modern comics, and particularly to MacCay’s greatest creation, Little Nemo. Both Nemo and Mickey are boys whose dream adventures begin and end in bed. Sendak uses the visual language McCay helped to invent and adapts it to the picture book format.

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Consider, for example, the brilliance with which Sendak handles the motif of rising and falling objects. As Mickey emerges out of bed, he tumbles from one double page to the next. At the same time we immediately understand that, as we are turning the first few pages, we are also falling between three floors—a descent only completed when our battered hero is dispatched into the “Mickey Oven.”

The rest of the book spins an intricate web of further ups and downs.Mickey jumps down into bread dough while the moon ascends, and his yeasty plane rises up as the moon descends.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Then—playing the cockerel—he heralds the rising sun and slides down the milk bottle. But where does he land up as he escapes through the floor of the Night Kitchen? Back at the top of his bedroom—a space that by all accounts should be some three stories above him.The ending of the book continues the motion established in the first few pages, and if we combine the opening and closing sequences, as though turning them into a single page from a  comic book, we get a clear sense of the beautifully paradoxical world that Sendak has created.

In the Night Kitchen: Three double pages as a single page.

Three double pages turned into one page.

The night kitchen is below Mickey and above him; he is in the night kitchen and the night kitchen is in him. As an object set into motion, Mickey finally comes to rest. Sendak, as they say in gymnastics, helps him stick his landing.img036 - Copy (539x640)Through his beautiful handling of word and image—where each has its own appeal, and one adds to the other—Sendak creates something wonderful and catalytic. To paraphrase William Blake:

There is an art of words
And an art of picturing
And there is an art of arts
In which these two arts sing.

In the Night Kitchen is both a book about a dream and the stuff that dreams are made of.



When I agreed to give this talk, I decided to check up on the Mickey in our own library—just to see how he was faring. There’s good news and bad news. The good is that no Mickey has been tampered with; the bad is that there is no copy of the book in the MSU library system, excepting a copy in the Meridian campus. So since, like morning cake, we need more of Mickey not less of him, I would like to finish today by donating a copy of In the Night Kitchen to the library.


MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library, and the inside cover of my In the Night Kitchen gift (now accessioned)

But if anyone meddles with this Mickey…. well I won’t hesitate to summon Michelangelo and beg him to go and mess with their dreams.


[Send comments, questions, and cake to]


Roger Fry’s Silence

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Just a quick note to say that one of my articles–‘The rest is silence: the sense of Roger Fry’s endings’–has recently been published. Better still, thanks to the Journal of Art Historiography, it’s available for free, and you can read it here.

Ramsey and Muspratt, Roger Fry, 1932, Bromide Print

Ramsey and Muspratt, Roger Fry, 1932, Bromide Print

Edited by Richard Woodfield, the journal is affiliated with the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute, where I first “converted” to art history. I delivered a version of my paper in New York this February, as part of Jeanne-Marie Musto’s CAA panel To what end? Eschatology in art historiography. Thanks to Jeanne-Marie and Richard for their roles in helping to make my paper, and the other papers from the panel, available to a much larger audience.

It’s great that there are now a number of peer-reviewed art history journals with open access policies. (I hope more follow suit.) Apart from the Journal of Art Historiography, another favourite is Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, which also has reliably good contributors and high quality content.

Solid Objects and the Stuff of Thought

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

It’s nice to see some of my old work becoming available on the internet, especially when there’s no pay wall. So here’s a link to the published “selected papers” from the 14th International conference on Virginia Woolf, which took place in 2004 at the University of London. Look for my contribution–“Woolf, Fry, and the Psycho-Aesthetics of Solidity”–on page 244 of the PDF document.

My paper deals with Ernest Jones’s psychoanalytic theories, collecting, and Woolf’s wonderful short story, Solid Objects. I’ve always been fascinated by Woolf’s friendship with Roger Fry, and there’s a bit of that in this paper, too.

John Ruskin, “How to Draw a Stone”, from
The Elements of Drawing

If nothing else, if you haven’t already, please read Solid Objects.  Here’s my favourite quote from one of my favourite stories:

“Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it.”

For me, this quote gets at the heart of art history–or at least my version of it.

Caillebotte’s Hands

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

I have two Caillebotte related stories to share.

1. Hands

Caillebotte: Details from The Floorscrapers, 1876

The first comes courtesy of one of my students, Charlotte Smith, who made an impressive visual research project for my class Visual Culture in France (1850-1900). Over the years, I’ve noticed that students have had success when they work in three dimensions, but draw from two-dimensional source material (or vice versa). This is exactly how Charlotte approached the project, as her artist statement explains. Here are some excerpts:

I chose to do an artwork based on Gustave Caillebotte’s painting The Floor Scrapers. In this painting there are three shirtless workers refinishing a floor in an apartment. When planning for this sculpture, I knew that I wanted to focus on the workers’ bodies. Because of the years of work, the muscles in their bodies are particular to their work.

Caillebotte: The Floor Scrapers, 1876

I decided to focus on one part of their body. I felt like the hands were the most important. I wanted to sculpt one hand from each worker. I paid specific attention to the placement of the hand, how it held the tool, and what angle the wrist and top plane of the hand created. I could have been more specific using a hand model of my own and recreating the positions in real life, but I wanted my hands to reflect Caillebotte’s research.

Charlotte Smith, The Floor Scrapers' Hands

I chose to use clay with this project. I began with the right hand of the worker on the far left. I cut basic triangle, rectangle, and square forms out of the clay. This allowed me to get the basic gesture of the hand. After I let the clay sit and harden, I was then able to carve knuckle, tendon, and fingernail details. When placing the elements together for the finished piece, I originally planned to display the hands upright as though they were completing the task only without the tools.

Charlotte Smith, The Floor Scrapers' Hands

As I worked on the hands and completed them one by one, I began setting them aside, resting some parts on another so that I would not mess up the fingers. I liked how the hands were then working together to complete my piece. I chose a clay base on a short back pedestal. I cut the clay slabs into strips and placed them beside one another. I was hoping that this, as well as a few clay shavings, would hint back to The Floor Scrapers painting.

Charlotte Smith, The Floor Scrapers' Hands

2. Writing

Caillebotte: Details of shop signs (1877-80)

And here’s my second piece of Caillebotte news: later this year, I’ll be giving a paper on the artist at SECAC 2012, which is being held in Durham, North Carolina. The paper will deal with issues of legibility and illegibility in the artist’s paintings, and especially in his depictions of shop and business signs. I’ll be talking mostly about three paintings: Interior (1880, top detail, above), The Shop Painters (1877, bottom detail), and Paris. Rainy Day (1877).

Years ago, when I was visiting the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time, I spent a long time staring at Paris. Rainy Day. I eventually noticed something that wasn’t at all obvious from reproductions of the painting. While one of the shop signs in the work is just legible, and identifies the shop as a “PHARMACIE,” another sign in the work cannot be read (see the centre two details, above). We can tell that the marks represent the gold lettering of a sign, but can decipher neither what this lettering spells out, nor what kind of business it is identifying.

For some reason, this intrigued me. Further thoughts followed from this rather modest observation, and now the ideas have accumulated into a paper, and the paper will lead me to Durham. Or rather, since I used to live in the city, back to Durham.


Manet or the Post-Impressionists?

Friday, March 4th, 2011

I’ll be speaking at Sewanee in a couple of weeks time on the subject of Manet or the Post-Impressionists. (No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing between now and then!) The talk is being given in conjunction with an exhibition at Sewanee’s University Art Gallery. It’s called The New English Art Club: Figurative Painting from Britain.

Here’s a brief description of the talk:

We are currently celebrating two notable anniversaries in the history of British art: the centenary of the first Post-Impressionist Show (1910-11) and the 125th year of the founding of the New English Art Club (NEAC) in 1886. This talk looks at the connection between the show and the club, exploring Roger Fry’s groundbreaking show, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, in relationship to the history of the NEAC. A former member of the club, Fry’s increasing disillusionment with the NEAC found an outlet in his activities as a curator. The exhibition, then, was not simply about introducing a new group of artists to a bemused London audience, as it is generally remembered. It was about which French artists might provide the most useful models for contemporary British artists. Manet, in particular, was strongly associated with the NEAC’s aesthetic agenda, and Fry’s curating both acknowledged this primacy and worked to supplant it. He was offering a choice of Manet (and the NEAC) or The Post-Impressionists.

William Orpen’s Homage to Manet includes several members of the club and was first shown at the club’s 1909 exhibition. It’s going to be a crucial image in my talk.

Obscura Knowledge

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Part One: A use for a magnifying glass (neither close looking nor fire starting)

With some gentle encouragement from my college’s Associate Dean, I agreed to take part in a public discussion about David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge. It would be a debate format. On the pro side, a colleague from the School of Architecture would describe the merits of Hockney’s ideas; then I, the art historian, would roll up my sleeves and systematically demolish them.

Such was the initial idea. But since I’d previously only dipped into Hockney’s book, I was a little reluctant to be cast as the spoiler. And upon making my way through the text, I actually found myself feeling fairly sympathetic to Hockney’s enterprise if not–as will become clear in the second part of this post–entirely convinced by his arguments.

Part of this sympathy I attribute to my being a fellow believer in the mesmerizing power of the projected image. (Surely art historians can agree on this: the primitive attraction of the darkened room with, at its center, a strangely magnetic cone of light?) I share Hockney’s fascination with the camera obscura, and can trace the origins of  my interest to the one in Edinburgh’s old town, which I visited in the summer of 1992. It’s the strangest combination of a tawdry tourist spot (holograms anyone?) and, once you’ve climbed the turret and finally entered the camera itself, pure magic. There, projected downwards onto a white disk, is a luminescent slice of Edinburgh. The attendant slowly rotates the periscope of a lens and takes you on a 360-degree tour of the oddly flattened and rounded city.

Camera Obscura, Edinburgh (exterior and interior)

Although I should have expected it, the fact that the image of the city was truly alive came as a genuine surprise. The motion was captivating. Streets and buildings shifted as the light fell around them and then retreated into shadows; twisting wreaths of smoke rose up to the clouds, catching the eye as they ascended; cars and pedestrians flitted back and forth. I felt instantly converted to this relatively simple form of image production, even though I’d grown up surrounded by superficially more impressive technology: television, videos, films, computer games and, yes, holograms.

While I was reading Hockney’s book, and thinking about the appealing simplicity of the camera obscura, I began to play around a little with my own seldom used magnifying glass. Catching the light from my office window, I found I could project a fairly good image onto a piece of white paper. Then one morning I persuaded Megan, my photographer wife, to help me repeat the experiment at the doors of the University’s chapel. (Romantic, I know!) Megan had been with me all those years ago in Edinburgh and together we had subsequently visited seaside camera obscuras in Santa Monica and San Francisco. As Hockney discovered, the bright Californian light is well suited to optical experimentation.

Camera Obscura (and Holograph Gallery!), San Francisco, 1949

Here are a couple of the images Megan shot that morning. One shows the view of the student union from the chapel doors; the other shows the image of the same view projected back onto a sheet of paper using my magnifying glass. As you can see, the projection is fainter, smaller, upside down and laterally reversed.

Part Two: Hockney’s History

I was attracted to the chapel on campus for a couple of reasons. The view was pleasant and the doorway offered the necessary contrast between a dark interior and a bright exterior. But I was also looking for a scene that approximated the subject of one of art history’s great lost works. Around 1415 (the exact date is uncertain), Brunelleschi made two demonstration panels, one of which depicted the baptistery in Florence, as seen from the west doors of the cathedral. Hockney brings the subject up in his book. “Brunelleschi demonstrated perspective”, he writes, “by painting a small panel (half a braccia square). To paint this, he stationed himself just inside (some three braccia inside) the central portal of Santa Maria del Fiore, in short, in a dark room looking out to the light” (286). It’s a view that the photographer Abelardo Morell has replicated using the camera obscura of his “tent camera.”

According to his biographer, Brunelleschi’s demonstration piece used materials with reflective properties (a mirror and polished silver) but, as an aside, Hockney entertains the tantalizing possibility that his knowledge of a “mirror-lens” might also have aided him in his rediscovery of linear perspective. “Did Brunelleschi”, Hockney asks, “devise the rules of perspective to make the picture bigger than those the mirror-lens could produce?”

The central point of Hockney’s book is now well known: using a set-up not unlike the one Megan and I orchestrated at the chapel, it’s not too difficult to “fix” a scene by tracing elements of the image onto the paper. This type of procedure, he proposes, led to the emergence of a new “optical” style of painting in the fifteenth century. Although he seems less excited by it, Hockney occasionally falls back on a weaker version of his argument, which may actually have greater explanatory power. This proposes that, having seen projected images and/or art made using such projections, artists could then represent the world in a more “optical” way. Thus even if an artist didn’t actually use a camera obscura in the production of a particular work, their art could still partake in this broader style. Let’s call these, respectively, the strong and the weak versions of Hockney’s argument.

Hockney is making an argument about artistic change. How can we explain, he asks, the radical change in style that occurred in European art around 1430? He believes that this quantum leap can only be accounted for by the fact that many artists used optical devices (the camera obscura in its various manifestations and in combination with lenses and mirrors). But art history is surely a lot messier than this and at least two other major changes occurred at the same time: the development and use of single-point linear perspective, and the sudden increase in the popularity of the oil medium. Single-point perspective is found in Florentine relief sculpture and frescoes of the 1420s, and although oil painting had been around for a long time, it only became commonplace in Netherlandish painting in the 1420s.

By comparison, the chronology of the camera obscura (in its various manifestations) is much harder to establish, although its basic optical principles were known to Aristotle. But lenses complicate things. The image in a camera obscura can be greatly enhanced using either a concave or a biconvex lens (as in my magnifying glass), and according to Vincent Ilardi, spectacles were invented “in Tuscany between 1280 and 1295”. Convex lenses, that is to say, had been available for many decades before Brunelleschi’s experiments. By comparison, spectacles with concave lenses probably weren’t manufactured in Florence until the “middle of the fifteenth century.” In short, it’s very hard to know (1) what kind of lens-based camera obscuras would have been available to artists, (2) when they would have become available, and (3) what quality of image they might have produced.

At any rate, the camera obscura’s possible impact surely shouldn’t be considered alone, but in combination with these other factors, as well as others we might also mention (regional styles and patronage patterns, for example). The importance of oil painting, in particular, emerges as an oddly underdeveloped theme in Secret Knowledge. Mediums, after all, have their own particular optical qualities, and oil paint is particularly well suited to depicting (and reenacting) light’s complicated interface with the material world. As artists became increasingly aware of the possibilities of oil paint, they would surely have paid more attend to the type of phenomena that might be successfully depicted using it. Consider the kind of eye-catching effects seen in Van Eyck’s work: the glint of jewels and metals, the infinitely subtle way light interacts with skin and fabrics, and even the image lying on the sheen of a mirror’s surface.

Hockney’s visual argument is made primarily through his bravura use of comparisons. For him, these reveal a shift from an earlier “eye-balled” style of painting to a later, more “optical” style. But consider the following table, which is based on the same comparisons (please click on the table for a larger view):

It is particularly noticeable that, whatever other factors might help to explain Hockney’s shift, oil paints are a common denominator behind all the works identified with the new “optical” style.

Finally, I want to consider another type of painting that emerged during the fifteenth century, the self-portrait. Typically, making a self-portrait has involved the use of a relatively simple optical device, the mirror. But it’s hard to grasp how an artist would be able to paint a self-portrait using a camera obscura. How could one pose outside of the camera while also drawing or painting inside of it? The self-portrait therefore seems to provide us with a kind of limit-case, indicating what it was possible to paint without the assistance of a lens or camera obscura. In the Netherlands, where Hockney finds most of his early examples of “optical” painting, and where oil painting first became popular, there are also some early examples of self portraiture. Notably, Van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban (1433)  is often thought to be a self-portrait. But Charles Falco, one of Hockney’s collaborators and interlocutors, writes that “if you agree that the realism of this portrait is the result of a lens, the implication is that this cannot be a self-portrait of van Eyck” (269). Hockney readily agrees with this conclusion. His commitment to the strong version of his argument compels him to do so.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, oil on panel, 1433

So what about a work that is undeniably a self-portrait, like some of the remarkable images made by Albrecht Dürer? His self-portrait of 1500 would, at first glance, seem to fit all the qualities of Hockney’s “optical” style, but there’s little doubt that is was made using a reflected image, not a projected one. A work like this–an oil painting like this–makes me believe that humans can achieve astonishing feats of veristic painting without recourse to any technologies beyond the obvious ones: a mirror, a panel support, brushes, oil paints, and thinner. In the terms of the two versions of Hockney’s argument, Dürer’s self-portrait shows just what an artist can do without using image-projecting technology. It’s as though the weak version of the argument suddenly threatens to swallow up the strong.

Durer, Self-Portrait, 1500, oil on panel

Hockney does make a convincing case that at least some fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists must must have used camera obscuras in order to produce their works. Thanks to Secret Knowledge it will certainly be hard for future art historians to avoid considering this possibility. Now almost ten years old, the book still reads as a welcome wake-up call, a reminder that art historians should be attempting to reconstruct studio practices as thoroughly as possible. We might, so to speak, benefit from dusting off our magnifying glasses every now and then, not just to read texts but in order to make images. And for followers of contemporary art, the book is also fascinating as a self-portrait of Hockney himself–of his energy, ambition, sociability, and occasional impatience. It’s a self-portrait of the artist fixed in an unlikely place, in the camera obscura of his own historical imagination.

Girl Reading

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

A few months ago, I was approached by Beth Batton, a curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA), about the possibility of my giving a talk about a work in their collection: Vanessa Bell’s lithograph of a Girl Reading.

Vanessa Bell, Girl Reading

I immediately accepted the invitation, which came as a very pleasant surprise: pleasant because, though I’ve now lived in Mississippi for seven years and am an employee of the state, I have yet to talk at its museum of art; and a surprise because I had no idea they owned a work by Vanessa Bell, even though I’ve written quite extensively about Bell and her work as a printmaker. Perhaps the curators of the recent show A Room of Their Own: Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections were also unaware of the work. At any rate, it didn’t appear in that excellent exhibition.

My preliminary research, in fact, has only turned up one brief mention of the lithograph–it is included (though not reproduced) in Tony Bradshaw’s The Bloomsbury Artists: Prints and Book Design.

And apart from some basic facts about its provenance, MMA’s file devoted to the work is entirely bereft of information.

I’m perhaps most excited about the format of the talk. (If you live in the area, it’s on December 7, 2010.) It’s part of the museum’s Unburied Treasures series, which typically features a program consisting of some live music, a literary reading, and a talk. Each relates to the same object in the museum’s collection.

I’m going to be providing the second and third elements, but Beth asked me if I could think of any appropriate music to accompany the print. One of my suggestions was Philip Glass’s music for The Hours, the film based on Michael Cunningham’s novel. What could be better? The Hours is about more than just the difficulties and rewards of creation; it also treats the transformative power of reading, of a woman reading. (I’ll put to one side my reservations about the film: its depiction of Vanessa Bell, for example.)

So I’m feeling inspired, and a little daunted, by the prospect of having to follow a concert pianist (Lynn Raley) playing this.  (Perhaps we should swap places. Then I, not the pianist, could perform the more modest sounding role of the warm-up act.) And I’m looking forward to finding out more about the work and to sharing my findings in Jackson this December. I should be able to hand Beth something to fatten up that file a little, and I’ll certainly be giving my audience a firm answer to one basic question raised by the print. Just who is this “girl reading”?

Comics to save your life + SECAC 2010

Friday, April 30th, 2010
Daniel Clowes, final panel from "Art School Confidential"

Daniel Clowes, final panel from "Art School Confidential"

I’ve been interested in word & image issues for all of my academic career–basically since being an undergrad at the University of Birmingham (1991-4).  But I’ve only become seriously interested in comics and the graphic novel over the last couple of years.  There’s no really good definition of the Graphic Novel (come to think of it, there’s no really good definition of the novel, either).  I think of it simply as a lengthy or sustained comic strip.  Reading a Daniel Clowes interview yesterday, this section caught my attention.  He’s talking about his new book, Wilson: “I wanted it to feel like it could take a bullet—like you could hold it in front of your chest, and it’s like, the bullet didn’t make it all the way through!”

The Graphic Novel, then, is a comic that might save your life.

I taught my first class on the graphic novel a couple of semesters ago and am looking forward to teaching the same class this autumn.  Make that almost the same–I’ll certainly be changing some of the texts this time round.  This autumn I’ll also be talking about the graphic novel for the first time at a conference.  So this marks a new phase.  Talking about the graphic novel to a group of my academic peers?  It’s going to feel like a bit of a commitment ceremony…

Here’s the abstract that I’ve had accepted for SECAC 2010. The panel is called “Beyond Ka-Blam!  Teaching Comics in College.”

The Pedagogical Circle: Some Educational Themes in Recent Graphic Novels

The clichéd advice to “write what you know” has, in the hands of comic artists, often been reinterpreted to mean “write and draw what you know.”  One thing comic artists know all too well is just what it takes to learn the craft of comics and then attempt to make some kind of living out of it.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many recent comics and graphic novels focus on the theme of the upbringing and education of the sequential artist.  Recent examples include David B’s Epileptic, Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@*!, Jeffrey Brown’s Funny Misshapen Body: A Memoir, and (in a more satirical mode) Daniel Clowes’s “The Truth” and “Art School Confidential” (both from his Twentieth Century Eightball).

My paper will examine this autobiographical impulse, particularly as it relates to the comic artist’s education in the following settings: (1) in the childhood home, where text and image are associated with diversion and play, (2) at art school, where the budding artist encounters something forbidding, something called “Art,” and (3) as a professional, when the successful author reflects on how he came to produce the book that you, dear reader, now hold in your hands.

The final category completes the pedagogical circle.  In writing and drawing what he knows, the artist often takes the opportunity to pass on this knowledge to the next generation of “wannabes.”