Sunday 4 September 2016

Painters' Paintings at the National Gallery; or, working your working space.

The Painters’ Paintings at the National Gallery is not the kind of exhibition I would generally want to pay money to see – too many pictures of people, I thought, too many portraits of the artist and his friends, when my preference is for landscapes and architectural spaces. Being in London for the Bank Holiday Monday, however, I had another look at the exhibition website and thought, hmm, there could be interesting stories about what the artists had thought about the paintings they possessed.

There were, but that’s not what made this the most enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition I have seen in a long time.

The curators were clear about what had inspired this exhibition: a gift from Lucian Freud of Corot’s The Italian Woman, donated to the National Gallery in 2013. From this began an interest in the private collections of artists, and what we can learn from them. This is a question they have explored through eight painters, with Freud, Matisse, Degas, Reynolds, Watts, Leighton, Lawrence, and van Dyck. Each is presented with a self-portrait, and the first two of these, Freud and Matisse, struck me with a follow-up question: what do we wear to work when we work from home?

©Musée Departement Henri Matisse

Both Freud and Matisse wear suits in their self-portraits, Freud with a grey suit with no shirt underneath, Matisse with a brown morning suit. The first was selected, I would guess, for the effect of grey cloth with pink flesh. The second, however, just looks like a suit he would wear in daily life, suggestive of Matisse’s status as a gentleman who wears certain kinds of suits in certain times of day. Both seem an impractical choice – surely you are likely to splatter paint on your clothes as you work – and I don’t know whether they actually wore these suits while they were painting. But what matters, what is more interesting, is that they chose to present themselves as doing so. It makes these suits their ‘work-clothes’, outfits worn especially to indicate one’s status as currently working, different from the clothes worn at home while not-working, or outside, when one’s audience is larger and more societal in nature. For anyone who has worked from home, this is a crucial question – what differentiates the work-you from the home-you when both are at home?

Walking through the rest of the exhibition with this in mind, I noted the prevalence of the painter’s smock – a more practical outfit, clearly, but also one which denotes the artist’s professional identity. The most interesting portrait, however, and one which gave me oodles of delight, was Watts’s Self-Portrait in a Red Robe, where he has dressed up as a Venetian lawyer from the Renaissance. Here is a man who, on deciding how to present himself in his self-portrait, thought that a costume from a different historical and cultural context would be the way to go. I love it, and will from now on aim to stealth-cosplay (as a Young Revolutionary from Les Miserables? As Lix Storm from The Hour? As Arthur from Inception?) at least once a week.

 © Watts Gallery

Another thought which I kept returning to throughout the exhibition was the question of work space. What does it tell us that Freud liked to look at contemplative women in his living room? Degas surrounded himself with paintings by his friends and rivals – what did he get out of looking at them? Suggestions for a new kind of brushwork, ideas for dynamic composition, different ways for capturing the world? My walls tend to be covered in historical landscapes involving water (Canaletto, Gallen-Kallela), with occasional pockets of nineteenth-century train travel – what does that say about me? My computer sits under an early modern Flemish interior and a nineteenth-century painting of an Alhambra courtyard – what kind of a work space do they create?

And this is where the crux of the exhibition lies for me; it’s about work, how we present ourselves physically when we work, what identities we assume when we are ‘at-work’, what kind of a space do we need to do our best work. It’s a question rarely raised beyond particular professional uniforms or health and safety concerns over ergonomic chairs, but it is, I think, worth considering. Who knows what I might produce dressed as Enjolras and staring at Caravaggio’s Bacchus all day long?

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Sicily: Culture, Conquest, and multiculturalism

A few weeks ago I went to see the British Museum exhibition Sicily: Culture and Conquest. My interest in Sicily stems from two things: Diodorus Siculus, a first-century BCE Greek historian from Agyrium in Sicily, has been the main object of my research for many years (he is the primary classical source on Sardanapalus). Secondly, I am a great admirer of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, and in the third season of that show Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter spend several weeks in Palermo, allowing the show to apply its magnificent cinematographic gaze to the Cappella Palatina, and giving me an incurable longing to visit. An exhibition focusing specifically on Greek and Norman Sicily was thus a curiously fortunate combination of all the things I most wanted to see.

I was not disappointed; the exhibition was full of historically interesting artefacts as well as beautiful art, and accompanied by large-scale photographs of Sicilian scenery, which did nothing to abate my yearning to travel. It was also thoughtfully curated, and the companion book provided further information on Sicilian history and on what seems to be the focus of the exhibition: multiculturalism. Although Sicily has been colonised by numerous foreign invaders (Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs), the most significant cultural productions seem to have occurred during the Greek (734-241 BCE) and Norman (1061-1266 CE) periods. These were also times when the colonisers chose to incorporate previous local traditions and practices into their own, and brought about a culturally hybrid society.

One remarkable artefact was the tombstone of a woman named Anna, dating to from 1148 and including eulogies in four languages: Judeo-Arabic, Latin, Greek and Arabic. These texts were not simply translations of each other; rather they took the trouble to record the year of her death in the respective cultural traditions – 1148 in Latin, 544 in Arabic, 6657 in Greek (from the creation of the world in 5508 BCE) and 4909 in Judeo-Arabic (from the creation of the world in 3761 BCE). This tells us something about the cultural context in which Anna lived: that she and her family were probably multi-lingual and multi-religious, and that both of these things were something they wanted to highlight, and to share with their community. Theirs was, it suggests, a community in which multiculturalism was a part of social life.

One other thing which gave me great delight at the exhibition was the Sicilian Arabic poetry peppering the exhibition walls, written by local poets after the Norman conquest, and discussing the complicated notions of home after exile. Thus writes Ibn Hamdis, born in Syracuse in 1056 CE, who left the island after the conquest:

Oh my Sicily. In memory
A desperate longing for you and
For the follies of my youth returns. Again I see
The lost happiness and the splendid friends,
Oh Paradise from which I was expelled!
What is the point of recalling your splendour?

It is perhaps a subtle theme throughout the exhibition, but worth keeping in mind when we engage with cultural history, and culturally charged artefacts; to what extent is culture connected to nationalities and nationalisms? Does cultural engagement necessarily vary between ownership and appropriation, or is there a wider range of possibilities – interaction without laying claims?

Thursday 31 March 2016

Oratory and Rhetoric: Skills Training for the Modern Age

Last week I attended a conference on Oratory and Rhetoric: Ancient to Early Modern at University College London. My own research looks at both classical antiquity and its reception in the early modern period, and it was a pleasure to hear papers focused specifically on the transmission and use of ancient materials. In addition to such scholarly joys, however, there was a question which kept rising during the presentations as well as in the discussions afterwards: the potential application of oratory and rhetoric for modern life. What advice would a classical rhetorician, or an early modern one, give about the practical uses of effective language?
This is a topic that interests me, but I would like to approach it a little sideways. Oratory and rhetoric have a long history with many areas of focus, and one which I’ve been researching recently is the idea of rhetoric as praxis, as a practical wisdom which enables us to respond to and manage varied information – factual data, persuasive arguments, the mood of your audience. Rhetoric is, at heart, about manipulating language in order to produce a certain response. This involves figuring out what constitutes effective language, and in the history of rhetoric and oratory we have thousands of years of research into the best way to teach this skill.

Aristotle in the fourth century BCE categorised rhetoric as a practical science, with an aim not just to produce knowledge, but also to induce action. Cicero in the first century BCE positioned rhetoric as the organising principle of all fields of inquiry. Both of these writers had an immense impact on later developments in education, particularly rhetorical skills training – Cicero, for one, was used as the ideal model of good writing for several centuries in the late medieval and early modern periods.

One of the ways in which this training was accomplished was by asking students to produce detailed commentaries on ancient texts, involving an analysis of the different parts of speech: the choice of vocabulary, the structure of the argument, the effect created by emotive or rational appeals. These commentaries survive, with varying levels of originality, from the fourth century CE onwards, which means that we can follow the different ways people have understood what constitutes effective language. They also allow us to unpack the cultural logic which underpins their ideas – if Quintilian in the first century CE warns against speaking ‘effeminately’, does he say this for the same reasons that orators in the twenty-first century would?

The ability to analyse the construction of a given text is a skill we teach in English Literature courses; our students are trained to assess style and content as well as historical and political context, and to create elegantly formed and well-knit arguments (ideally!) based on their readings. And although this is a practice generally applied to literary texts, I have in my lecturing days invited my students to perform a rhetorical analysis of an academic article – because how can you write an argument if you don’t know how to read one?

This kind of critical intelligence is the primary outcome of a humanities education, but knowing how to assess arguments has use beyond academia. Being capable of analysing both the intended point of a text and the strategies employed to create that effect is a key part of media literacy – this is something we all need to know in order to judge things like political speeches, or the validity of a blog post, or even the quality of a newspaper article. Moreover, the ability to apply these critical skills into your own writing – deciding the appropriate language and the relevant content for a job application or a professional email – is crucial for modern life.

The historical study of oratory and rhetoric includes a wealth of strategies for teaching these skills, which can, in turn, be applied to modern needs and modern training practices. And if impact in higher education is about delivering transferable skills, here is a vast source of research that is waiting to be tapped. Who would not want to attend a CPD session inspired by Cicero’s rhetorical practice? Or communications workshop based on Quintilian and gendered language?


Aristotle, Rhetoric.

Cicero, De Oratore.

Rita Copeland, Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Maud W. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

Peter Mack, A History of Renaissance Rhetoric, 1380-1620 (Oxford: OUP, 2011).

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria.

Monday 21 March 2016

Delacroix, Sardanapalus, and liking things

Last week I went to see an exhibition on Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art at the National Gallery. It’s an intriguingly curated show – there are clear opportunities to see the influence of other painters on Delacroix as well as the influence of Delacroix on others, but there are also organised explorations around research questions, both conceptual (the development of orientalism) and historical (Delacroix’ reputation in the art world). Which made it a very enjoyable event, and enjoyable precisely as a thought-provoking experience.

The thoughts I had were, naturally, about the Death of Sardanapalus. Sardanapalus, the legendary last king of Assyria and the topic of my research for the past six years, was famous for his crossdressing, bisexuality, and being deft with a spindle. Not that you see any of that in Delacroix’s painting, which is more concerned with the interaction between decadence and death. 

Sardanapalus was also known for losing his kingdom to Arbaces the Mede, and choosing to die on a pyre with all his eunuchs, concubines, and treasures rather than be captured by the enemy. There was considerable interest in antiquity in the exact amount of stuff which Sardanapalus added to his pyre – Athenaeus of Naucratis, one of the main sources on the Sardanapalus legend, lists the number of golden couches and tables (150) as well as talents of gold and silver, and of course purple cloths. Diodorus Siculus, on the other hand, spends only one sentence on it, and Lord Byron’s play Sardanapalus, which inspired Delacroix, depicts a somewhat different scenario. Within the later history of the Sardanapalus legend this is not a scene that has received much attention.

Which raises the question of why Delacroix chose it instead of, say, the dramatic moment of Arbaces discovering Sardanapalus in the midst of his concubines, spinning purple wool. There are, I’m sure, good reasons related to contemporary trends in historical painting, or the personal interests of the painter, but looking at it as a Sardanapalus scholar, it occurs to me to wonder why people choose to engage with this character. What is there in his narrative that makes people want to include him in their art? In my work, I look at how Sardanapalus was used as a rhetorical tool with argumentative power, but apart from his value in logical disputation, does anybody like him? Sardanapalus is very rarely portrayed with anything other than vituperation; he was an exemplar of a man deserving invective for both Aristotle and Cicero, and their later influence has ensured that this attitude was repeated until (at least) the nineteenth century. Byron’s play Sardanapalus was reviewed as correctly representing an ‘effeminate’ character; the thought of not counting this against him doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody.  

I find him interesting because he embodies something that is supposed to be inherently incompatible: a man who wears women’s clothing and enjoys the ‘delights of Aphrodite with men as well as women’, but is also a successful military commander who defeats the rebels in three battles. This apparent contradiction has resulted in a lot of debate, in which various writers attempt to explain, or explain away, the impossibility of these two characteristics being possessed by the same man. Which in turn ends up revealing a lot about the tortuous logic used to prop up normative concepts of gender. This has been the focus of my research for many years, and I’ve enjoyed thinking about it, as you do when you spend a lot of time wrapping your mind around the same question.

But I also find Sardanapalus delightful in his own right. Every narrative which tells his story takes on an editorial stance, usually disapproving, but at the centre of it all is a guy who refuses to be ashamed of his gender practices or his sexual preferences. This for me is the most interesting part about Byron’s play – Sardanapalus’s defence of his philosophy of life, used to counter the accusations of Salemenes, Arbaces, and Myrrha, who all feel that he should not be what he is. It is worth remembering that is the play which Delacroix read, and then ignored; the scene which he painted does not occur in Byron’s play, only in Diodorus.

Which is rather interesting in itself.

Monday 22 February 2016

Umberto Eco: Working at the Interstices

The death of Umberto Eco – novelist, scholar, probably the best-known public intellectual in Europe – last week was a loss to the world. I have been reading and rereading his books for twenty years, both his novels and his academic works, and they have been an endless source of delight; it is a great sadness that we shall have no more. Eco’s writings reflect his remarkable mind, and the idea that everything is interesting, everything is worth exploring. There is a curiosity about the world, combined with a consistently applied seriousness: Eco might talk about Thomas Aquinas or about Italian television, but his consideration of both is equally thoughtful.

For an academic, this can have revolutionary implications – allowing your focus to expand beyond your current project, spending time thinking about something not covered by departmental research parameters. As an independent scholar, this is a pleasure I have been allowing myself more and more. It is a practice which has enriched my research as well as my quality of life.

Last summer I spent many commuter hours reading Eco’s popular non-fiction, and many lunch hours with his online interviews. My favourite is one from the Paris Review, which includes a description of Eco’s work practices:

I always say that I am able to use the interstices. (…)Our lives are full of interstices. This morning you rang, but then you had to wait for the elevator, and several seconds elapsed before you showed up at the door. During those seconds, waiting for you, I was thinking of this new piece I’m writing. I can work in the water closet, in the train. While swimming I produce a lot of things, especially in the sea. Less so in the bathtub, but there too.

It is a simple thought, and not new; that imaginative and intellectual labour can be achieved anywhere, that we need not be chained to our desks to work. Yet what comes across here is less the spread of work to every moment of every day (which for many of us is already ingrained) than the removal of ‘work’ from thinking. A freedom from the pressure of ‘work’ at least, from the anxiety of being productive. What if we were able to look at thinking as an opportunity, a pleasure, rather than a duty?

This pleasure of thinking is what makes Eco such a fascinating historical novelist. It’s not only that he offers detailed and accurate information about the period in question, but that he creates a plot around the crucial debates of the time. His historical context is not something in the background, a question of fashion or architecture or a few local wars, but rather it constitutes the point of the story. By showing us what people were arguing about, Eco enables us to see the cultural framework that underpins those arguments.

In the Name of the Rose we have debates about heresy, but we are made to see them as being about reconciling different political practices as much as about what constitutes religious dogma – and above all, about turning individual preferences to ideology. The question of whether laughter is compatible with Christianity might seem to us a ridiculous dilemma, but Eco’s novel demonstrates how it could constitute a reasonable query, how it works and is supported by the accepted imaginative reality to which logic can be applied. Much as we might debate about whether Han shot first, or what would have happened if Neville Longbottom had been the Chosen One, or whether Steve Rogers will ever find his Bucky. These are arguments that you have in the pub rather than on a podium.

I started rereading Baudolino over the weekend; a novel ostensibly about the creation of the Prester John legend. Like all of Eco’s novels, it’s built around an inquiry, in this case how to force Italian cities to stop fighting each other so that Frederick Barbarossa can take a break. But it’s also about how rhetoric can be used as a social strategy, and the temptations of narrative imperatives, and whether reality is constituted or informed by language, and many other things I haven’t yet got to. These are the debates Baudolino is having with his friends, with colleagues and enemies and strangers in the bar. These are, I suspect, debates which I will be having inside my head for a while.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Europe 1600-1815; or, artefacts which make me feel feelings about history

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a new permanent exhibition about European cultural artefacts from 1600 to 1815. I went to see it today, and it was – how shall I put this – fantastic. While my devotion to the British Museum remains sincere and unalterable, there were displays here which made me glow with happiness, and I definitely intend to go again. (And again. Visitors to London, this is where I will be dragging you next.)

It is a large exhibition, with variation in both cultural origin and societal usage. We start with Napoleon in Egypt, move through the French Revolution to home decorations and local fashions throughout Europe (I particularly liked the Norwegian wooden tankards), a brief interlude in a Venetian masquerade (where they have a wii-like game in which you can dance with a harlequin – I would have tried, but there was a group of very enthusiastic old ladies before me. NEXT TIME.), to neo-classicism, literary salons, and Louis XIV, finishing with some lovely Berninis.

There were several pieces I loved. Cutlery with slogans from the French Revolution was a delight, and I made a special point of checking if the gift shop had any modern replicas for sale (they did not). Which is a shame, because  I would have bought them and gleefully used them. But I also appreciated the curation here; it is one thing to know that political events influenced the production of goods, and quite another to have those goods presented in their original context. Not only was there information about when and where they were made, but it was also clear that there were competing production lines for different political affiliations, pro-king and pro-revolution, and that this was a way to demonstrate your views. As well as to manufacture and sell a brand. One thing I would have liked to see was more information about who owned these particular objects. I appreciate that space is limited and that provenance is not always available, but it would have been interesting to know who bought a mug with Louis XVI hugging his family goodbye.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another favourite was an eighteenth-century French tray for salon board games, in which players travel from meeting to friendship and love (or acquaintance, or apathy, or contempt). Last year I attended an evening of French salon games at the Warburg Institute, and this game was one of the options offered (We were also invited to make our own. I don’t remember what I put in mine but I remember enjoying it immensely, which is slightly ominous in retrospect). The whole evening was highly entertaining; we played a memory game involving tragic sighs, attached beauty spots to interesting places, and told romantic stories competitively (I won). The lady who had organised the event mentioned that she was interested in arranging something similar as an evening at the V&A – perhaps she knew they had an original board – but I’ve not heard of any such things happening. It would, I think, be a draw. Certainly I would draw all my friends in.

The last part of the exhibition which I will particularly mention (I have saved some for next time, because there were so many delightful things) is the inclusion of three small rooms: a mirrored room from Lombardy, the cabinet of a Parisian noblewoman from 1778, and an interior with wood panelling and classical motifs. These were gorgeous, and inspired the aforementioned glow, because they showed not only the objects and the decorations, but also how they may have looked in their original context and, moreover, how they would have been used. The mirrored room has a harp; I knew that ladies in the eighteenth century played music, but this showed me where they might have performed, what kind of an instrument they might have used, what they could have looked at while they played. Or, I knew that ladies had closets in which they retired to read and write (Samuel Richardson’s novels are full of ladies with private closets, and are ostensibly mostly written in them), but I hadn’t realised what one such room might look like: a fireplace, a few chairs for receiving visitors, decorated walls so that she would have something pleasant to look at as she read. In both cases, we get a sense of what it would have been like to occupy that space. And that, as an imaginative endeavour, was both fascinating and highly enjoyable.