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September 2013

War and “Place de la Concorde” by Degas

Edgar Degas, "Place de la Concorde," 1875. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Last night, I watched The Rape of Europa PBS documentary about Nazi looting during the World War II era. Near the end of the film, I was surprised to see Edgar Degas’s painting Place de la Concorde (1875, shown above) appear on the screen. This painting apparently resurfaced in 1995 after having been missing for four decades. Place de la Concorde was brought to Russia by Soviet “trophy bridgades” after World War II. These Russians had been sent to Germany to reclaim the stolen art which the Nazis had taken from Russian collections. In addition to reclaiming art which had been taken in the first place, some of these “trophy brigades” retaliated and decided to help themselves to works of art held in German collections. Such is the case with Place de la Concorde, which was taken from the collection of the German collector Otto Gerstenberg. It is likely this shady history contributed to the reason why this painting was held from public view for four decades. Today, the painting is a celebrated work in the Hermitage Collection and was featured in a six-month exhibition which ended at the beginning of this year.

The current context and location of this painting in the Hermitage Museum is interesting to me on several levels. On one hand, the subject matter and of this painting (especially what intentionally is not depicted in this scene) raises some interesting contrasts in relation to the current Russian ownership. Back when Degas painted this scene, only a few years had passed since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the bloody civil war in Paris, the Commune (1871). During that time, the French lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. As a result, a statue by James Pradier that was located in Place de la Concorde, The City of Strasbourg (1836-38, shown below) came to be seen from 1871 onward as a symbol of the lost territory. The statue was draped in black on state occasions and occasionally decorated with wreaths until France regained the region in following World War I.

James Pradier, "The City of Strasbourg," 1836-38. Place de la Concorde, Paris. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Degas, however, chose to not depict The City of Strasbourg in his painting; the statue would have been draped in black to mourn the loss of the territory, therefore serving as a direct reference to the war and destruction which recently took place in France.1 Instead Degas intentionally removed this statue and reference to war with his strategic placement of the striding figure of Baron Lepic. Degas, along with other Impressionists, sought to escape from and ignore the death of the French and Parisians (and the figurative death of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine) by not referencing the recent wars in their Impressionist art.2 In contrast, with the placement of Place de la Concorde in the Hermitage Museum today, it seems as if the Russians are trying to compensate for the death of their people (1.6 to 2 million Soviets died in the Siege of Leningrad during 1941-1944) by keeping this trophy painting that once belonged to a German collector.

Although in the 19th century Degas tried to avoid a direct reference to war, this painting no longer can function in that way. The current context and placement of Place de la Concorde within the Hermitage Museum has created a new meaning for this painting which is intrinsically linked to war. The current museum label at the Hermitage proudly displays that this painting came “from the collection of Otto Gerstenberg.” This painting has changed in its function due to its current context, arguably and ironically opposite to what Degas intended in relation to its subject matter.

In 1997 the Russians created a law which claimed that this painting, along with other “displaced” trophy items that were part of the Russian post-war expedition, are inalienable property of the Russian Federation. The painting is now displayed in the Hermitage with a dark brown frame, which reminds me a little of the dark drapery which would have cloaked the statue that represented the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Although Degas didn’t want to depict the draped Strasbourg statue within his painting, Place de la Concorde itself is now cloaked in a state of mourning, serving as a reminder of the past and the loss of Russian lives.

1 Paul Wood, “The Avant-Garde and the Paris Commune,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 122.

2 Ibid. Paul Wood discusses how “The Commune and the Prussian war silently haunt Impressionist painting in small tics and changes in viewpoint,” which includes the striding figure of Baron Lepic.

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History of the Halo in Art

Pope John VII, mosaic detail, 705-06 CE, Vatican Museums

Last year, in two different classes, I had students ask me about the history of the halo in art. It is an interesting topic to consider, especially since there isn’t a reference to Jesus having a halo in the Bible. I think that the closest reference to a halo in the Bible is a description of Moses being surrounded with a “crown of light” or “rays of light” (from when he came down off of Mt. Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 34:29). Interestingly, St. Jerome’s Vulgate had a translation of this verse as “horns of light,” and you sometimes see depictions of Moses with horns from the Middle Ages and onward. But that’s another story for another post, perhaps.

Detail of Helios from a red-figure vase, 5th century BC, British Museum

I thought I’d write down a bit about the early sources for the halo, in case I have more students ask the same question in the future. The halo may have come from several different sources, including classical culture. For example, the Greek god Helios is depicted with rays emanating from his head. There also are a few depictions of Apollo with halos. A Roman floor mosaic in Tunisia which has one such depiction. I’ve also heard discussions about how laurel wreaths (used to crown victors in classical societies) could be related to the halo.

In addition to classical sources, the sun disk found in Egyptian crowns may have been an early manifestation of a halo-like form.  There also are similar forms related to the halo (like the nimbus or aureola) found in non-Western art, too. Some think that the halo form traveled from West to East, ending up in Ghandara and influencing depictions of the Buddha (see one example from the Tokyo National Museum from the 1st-2nd centuries CE).1

Detail of vault mosaic in the Mausoleum M (Mausoleum of the Julii), from the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica. Mid-3rd century CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Christians adopted the round halo from their contemporaries, using the circular shape to connote perfection, divinity, and holiness. I know of one early image, a ceiling mosaic from the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s (see above), which may depict Christ or Sol Invictus (the later sun god of the Roman empire). This image pre-dates the 4th century, and could be a very early example of the halo in a Christian context. After this point, halos were used for Christ and the Lamb of God, angels, the Virgin, and eventually saints.2

Some variants of the halo:

  • The mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole) usually is used for depictions of Christ and the Virgin. However, the earliest representation of a mandorla appears around an Old Testament figure, specifically one of the three angels who visit Abraham (in a 5th century scene at Santa Maria Maggiore).3 The mandorla continues to become more abstract and angularly defined in later art.
  • The cruciform halo is usually used for members the Trinity, especially Christ. This form of halo includes a cross within or extending beyond the circular area of the halo. An early example of the cruciform halo is found in the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes mosaic of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (c. 504). In Orthodox and Byzantine tradition, the cruciform also include the letters Ο Ν, which translate to mean “The Being” or “I Am,” serving as a testament to Christ’s divinity (see more information HERE).
  • The square halo was sometimes used to indicate that a person is still living when the work of art is created. From what I can tell, the earliest example of a square halo dates from about the early 8th century. The square, as an imperfect shape that represents the Earth, is used to draw a contrast with the perfect circle used for divine figures. (For an example, see mosaic of Pope John VII at the beginning of this post. Other examples of square halos are found at Santa Prassede in Rome, found in a mosaic of Pope Paschal I (c. 820) and a mosaic which includes a woman specified as “Theodora, Bishop”).
  • The trianglular halo is sometimes used to symbolize the Trinity (example: Antoniazzo Romano, detail of God the Father, from the Altarpiece of the Confraternity of the Annunciation, c. 1489-90, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome).
  • The hexagonal halo has been used in conjunction with allegorical figures (example: Alesso di Andrea, Hope, 1347. Pistoia Cathedral, Pistoia).
  • Dotted halos sometimes appear in Crusader art; they are considered one of the stylistic characteristics of this type of art (example: Saint Sergios with Female Donor icon, c. 1250s).4 The dotted halo also appears in other artistic traditions, too, including Ottonian art (example: Christ and the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee from the Hitda Codex, c. 1025-50).
  • The star halo sometimes appears in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. This type of halo refers to the to the description of the Virgin being crowned with twelve stars (Revelation 12:1). Several depictions of the Immaculate Conception appear in Counter-Reformation art, including Velasquez’s The Immaculate Conception c. 1619 and Francesco Pacheco’s Immaculate Conception with Miguel Cid, c. 1621 (Seville Cathedral).

Jan Van Eyck, detail of Virgin from the Ghent altarpiece, 1432

With the rise of realism in Renaissance art, the halo began to decrease (in terms of size and frequency of use). Giotto seems to have struggled with how to depict groups of figures with halos, while still giving a sense of three dimensional space, as seen in his Madonna and Child altarpiece. Masaccio tried to angle his halos to appear a little more realistic in three-dimensional space, as seen in his “Tribute Money” fresco in the Brancacci Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci only subly suggests a thin halo in many of his paintings, like Virgin of the Rocks at the National Gallery in London. In some Renaissance art, sometimes the halo was subtly incorporated into a scene, like the a firescreen (Follower of Robert Campin, Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen) or an architectural device (Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper). I like how Jan Van Eyck created thrones in the Ghent altarpiece with backs that give the suggestion of halos (see above). Beyond the Renaissance, some artists continued to suggest halos without creating a traditional halo, as seen in the drapery behind Christ in Coypel’s The Resurrection of Christ (1700).

What are your favorite depictions of halos? Why?

1 Sally Fisher, The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired Them (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 92.

2 Ibid.

3 “Mandorla,” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Available online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/361739/mandorla (accessed September 19, 2013).

4 Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “To the Holy Land and Back Again: The Art of the Crusades,” in Art and Visual Culture 1100-1600: Medieval to Renaissance, edited by Kim W. Woods (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 134.

— 16 Comments

Recurring Themes from 2012-2013 Courses

Today, while organizing my desk, I discovered a scrap of paper. At the end of this past academic year in June, after teaching a very full load of ten courses for the whole year (not counting my other responsibilities as an internship advisor!), I sat down and thought about some of the themes which overlapped between my different art history classes. I didn’t consciously plan to have integrated themes; these themes and ideas often organically developed and revealed themselves as the courses progressed. I’m going to transcribe the original note here, so I can remember (and add to) this list of themes. I think these themes are indicative of me and some of my own interests in relation to my discipline, but perhaps they also reveal something about human nature and recurring themes throughout history in a sort of Hegelian way.

Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, dome of Hagia Sophia, 532-537. Istanbul. Photo belongs to author

LIGHT

  • The mystical dome of Hagia Sophia, in which the dome hovers on a “golden chain” of light (to quote the ancient historian Procopius)
  • Abbot Suger and Gothic cathedrals, wherein light embodies the presence of God (in a Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite way)
  • Baroque tenebrism
  • Impressionist studies of light and color

 

SNAKES

  • Ancient snakes and their associations with power and rejuvenation
  • Etruscan demons in tomb wall paintings
  • Eve and her associations with the snake and temptation, due to the account of the Garden of Eden
  • Medieval personifications of female vices which were depicted with snakes or with snake-like imagery
  • More associations with snakes a previous post

    Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century CE. Image courtesy Till Niermann via Wikipedia

PROPAGANDA

  • Looting and defacement of images in the ancient Near East as propagandistic messages of conquest
  • Roman imperial portraits as forms of political propaganda (typified in the Augustus of Prima Porta statue), which often connects rulers with the gods
  • The Justinian mosaics at San Vitale as an example of political propaganda (including the visual connections between the depiction of Justinian on the sanctuary wall and the mosaic of Christ in the apse ceiling).
  • Art used as propaganda for the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the late 16th and 17th centuries
  • Picasso’s Guernica as propaganda to expose and decry the inhumanity caused by the aerial bombing of Guernica on April 26,1937. The bombing performed by General Franco’s German and Italian allies.

 

VIRGINS

  • Athena, as a goddess who chose to remain a virgin. Other Roman goddess-virgins include Diana, Minerva, and Vesta
  • The Virgin Mary

    Edgar Degas, "Place de la Concorde," 1875. Image courtesy Wikipedia

    ESCAPISM

  • The Impressionists as escapists who avoided including direct references to the recent, bloody Commune and Franco-Prussian wars in their paintings. The figure of Baron Lepic, on the right side of Degas’s painting Place de la Concorde (above) conceals an allegorical figure of Alsace. At the time, the figure was draped in black allude to the recent cession of the area to the Germans.
  • Primitivists as escapists from the modern “civilized world,” particularly seen in the art and biography of Gauguin
  • Dada humor can be interpreted as a form of escapism, in order for artists and viewers to find solace from the horrors of World War I.

Vermeer, "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter," c. 1663-64. Photo belongs to the author

EVERYDAY PEOPLE

  • Ancient Greeks depicted in the Panathenaic Festival on the Ionic frieze of the Parthenon
  • Examples of veristic portraits from the Roman Republican period
  • Dutch Baroque genre scenes (as seen in the painting by Vermeer, above)
  • The Realist paintings of Courbet and other later 19th century paintings which capture la vie moderne (a nod to Baudelaire’s essay, “Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne”)

Do you notice any other works of art that could relate to these thematic categories? What are some of the recurring themes which pop up in your various art history courses?

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Ottonian “Baroque” Elements

"Christ and Apostles on the Sea of Galilee" from the Hitda Codex, c. 1025-50 CE. Ms. 1640, folio 117

Over the past week I have been transcribing my handwritten art history notes from my undergraduate years into digital format. I’ve been working on the notes from my class on medieval art, and I’ve been struck that my past professor casually referred to some Ottonian works of art as “baroque” in style. Although the Ottonian period is often referred to as a “renaissance” in terms of a rebirth of artistic production (with classical influence feeding into the Ottonian style from both the Carolingians and Rome itself), I can see what my professor is saying about a few instances in which baroque elements can be found in Ottonian art.

For example, the bow and stern of the ship in “Christ and the Apostles on the Seat of Galilee” from the Hitda Codex (shown above) seem to strain against the border of the manuscript itself, as if pushing forward into the actual space of the viewer.1 The sweeping curves of the ship remind me of the undulating, Borrominesque curves found in 17th century architecture. And the dramatically-windblown sail reminds me of the grandiose “cloth of honor” that is found in many Baroque paintings, such as the Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin from 1606.

"St. Erhard Celebrating the Mass," from the Uta Codex, c. 1020. Image courtesy Wikipedia

My professor also felt like the Ottonian School of Regensburg was the “baroque phase” of Ottonian illumination, largely because the works of art are so visually complex. The Uta Codex is from Regensburg and includes several masterpiece manuscripts, such as “St. Erhard Celebrating the Mass.”2 Visual complexity is typified in the dynamic, decorative canopy which sweeps over the head of St. Erhard. The manuscript is also filled with excessive decoration and detail. Semi-circles seem to bulge out of the sides of the rectangular border of the frame, which adds a dynamic element that arguably could be called baroque.

Detail of Creator introducing Adam and Eve, from the Hildesheim Doors, 1015. Photo via petrus.agricola via Flickr

While thinking about such baroque elements in Ottonian art, I also was reminded of an article by Harvey Stahl, “Eve’s Reach: A Note on the Dramatic Elements in the Hildesheim Doors” (.PDF available online). Stahl discusses how there are dramatic elements and moments of tension in the doors, which help to encourage the viewer to follow the narrative. I think that this element of drama has some parallels with the aesthetic and subject matter of the Baroque period. One such dramatic element found in the panel in which Adam and Eve are introduced. Here, Adam and Eve reach for each other, but are depicted as almost touching. Stahl explores this idea of drama and tension, finding that the doors were influenced by the plays written by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim about a half-century before Bishop Bernward commissioned these doors.3

Although I do not claim that these Ottonian elements had a direct impact on Baroque artists, I do like to think that this might be another slight example of the cyclical nature of art. Perhaps, in some ways, the classical style of the Carolingians led into a few Ottonian dramatic elements and visual distortions that could be seen as departures from the “classical calm,” similar to how the Renaissance style of the 15th and 16th centuries led into the Baroque style of the 17th century.

1 For more images from the Hitda Codex, scroll to the bottom of this website: http://www.oberlin.edu/images/Art310/Art310f.html

2 For more information on this manuscript, see http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/liturgical_objects/liturgical_objects2.html and http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/catholic_historical_review/v088/88.4mayr-harting.html. I especially like that Abbess Uta, the original owner of the manuscript, is depicted in the upper-right corner.

3 Harvey Stahl, “A Note on the Dramatic Elements in the HIldesheim Doors” from Reading Medieval Images by Elizabeth Sears and Thelma K. Thomas, eds. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2002), p. 163, 168, 169.

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Post Alum: After the Bachelor’s Degree

Ozias Leduc, "The Young Student" (also called "The Young Reader"), 1894

This is a bit of an atypical post for my blog, but I think that it is a necessary one to write. As a professor, I sometimes have students asking for advice about getting a job with a degree in art history. These students come to me with varying degrees of preparedness, based on what studies and internships they completed as an undergrad.

I thought I would write a bit of my own experience transitioning to a job. As an undergraduate, I knew that I would like to either go into the museum industry or teach. To be safe, I made sure that I had experience interning at a museum before I graduated. I got an academic internship at my university’s art museum when I was in my senior year. I knew that I would need further education for either career path, so I planned on immediately entering graduate school after finishing my B.A. During the summer before entering graduate school, I found that my university was hiring curatorial assistants for a historical exhibition in one of their buildings. I worked as a curatorial assistant for a few months with this group, and then completed a fellowship at a local art museum during my first year as a graduate student. I also had the opportunity to work as a T.A. and lecturer while I was in graduate school. In terms of academics, I also applied to and spoke at two different art history conferences as a graduate student.

Still, despite this experience, it took me almost a year to land a job after I finished graduate school. I finally found a job after directly contacting art history professors at local universities. Although there wasn’t an immediate teaching position open, I was able to personally introduce myself (and therefore meet some of my future colleagues) after I attended an art history lecture that was open to the public. Soon after, a position opened up and the department contacted me to determine my interest. If there is anything that I would recommend to job seekers in academia, it is to try and build a relationship with the universities and professors who are located in your area. I would attend public lectures, write emails, perhaps meet up, and then afterward keep in contact. And if you are invited to teach for only one school term, make sure that you continue to touch base with your colleagues or the head of the department at that institution.

As for those undergraduate students or graduates with a bachelor’s degree, there are several options of career paths to consider. I’m including some suggestions and links that I found useful when I was looking for a job.

  • If you are still in school, I would recommend that you do all that you can to build up your resumé. Get good grades! Complete an internship or a fellowship! Apply for a research grant! Apply to speak at a conference! Try to publish a paper! Get involved in research that is unusual or highly innovative, to make you stand out among other job seekers. The more that you do while you are in school, the more you will improve your chances of finding work. I imagine that most undergraduate students who land positions in museums are hired because they completed internships at a museum while they were in school or just after they completed school.
  • From personal experience, I would recommend that if you want to go into the museum industry, I would try to land a position at a smaller institution. Smaller museums have smaller staff, which means that there will be more cross-over of responsibilities for staff members. If you want to build up experience in more than one area of the museum (like education, development, or curatorial departments), you can likely do that by working at a small museum.
  • For those who are considering going to graduate school, I would recommend looking at the .pdf file Applying to Graduate School in Art History (A Non-Definitive Guide) by Caravaggista. Keep in mind that most museum and academic positions will require at least a master’s degree. You also don’t need to get a PhD in art history or architectural history, though, if you don’t want to go that route. Remember that graduate school studies include conservation, restoration, library and archival work, curatorial work, etc.
  • Check out the “Career Alternatives for Art Historians” site. Be aware that teaching and museum work are not the only options for art historians. This site contains information about other career paths, as well as recommendations for job postings.
  • Career Center for CAA (College Art Association). These job listings are usually focused in North America. The “advanced search” function lets you filter jobs in relation to your degree level. You will need to have a CAA membership in order to access the full listing, but you can get an idea of the listing (or determine the institution listing the position) from this open site.
  • Association of Art Historians lists jobs available in the UK
  • New York Foundation for the Arts lists jobs across US
  • ArtJobs lists nationwide jobs in US
  • Higher Ed Jobs lists jobs available in various institutions for higher education
  • The American Alliance of Museums lists job openings
  • Follow the job listing sites for specific museums, galleries, auction houses and educational institutions. Even if a position is not listed, it doesn’t hurt to send your resumé or CV to one of the contacts listed on their site. Try to contact the person who is located in the department in which you would like to work.
  • Check to see if your city or municipality has government jobs for people in the arts. For example, the city of Seattle lists job opportunities under the Office of Arts & Culture site.
  • Network! Social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter can be helpful in building contacts and sending out your interest in work.

All this being said, I realize that finding a job with a degree in art history can be very, very difficult. I know from personal experience. I want art history majors to be realistic about the difficulties that they probably will face after graduation, but also encourage them to study something which can enrich their lives. Keep in mind that even if you do end up following a different career path after receiving your bachelor’s degree, it doesn’t mean that your undergraduate education was a waste. The analytical and writing skills that you develop in art history will prove useful in lots of different fields. And remember: Once an art historian, always an art historian! Good luck!

(If anyone has other links or suggestions for students and recent graduates, please leave them in the comments below!)

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.