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Tapestries and Social Metaphors

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear the contemporary artist Ann Hamilton give a public lecture. This lecture was absolutely fantastic, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Hamilton’s work is very compelling to me, since her installations and pieces often incorporate textiles or fabrics. These textiles and fabrics, which are comprised of single threads woven or knit together, serve as a beautiful social metaphor for Hamilton (as a combination of the singular “I” and plural “we”). Since listening to this lecture, I’ve been thinking of several ways that tapestries (and even the interconnectedness of the Internet as a “web”) can relate to this social metaphor.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, Park Armory, New York, 2012-2013. Photo by James Ewing.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, Park Armory, New York, 2012-2013. Photo by James Ewing.

The interconnectedness of individuals is especially apparent to me in Ann Hamilton’s installation “the event of a thread” (Park Armory, New York, 5 December 2012 – 6 January 2013). While there are several components to this installation, I’m particularly drawn to the immense white fabric and swings which were set up in part of the space. The fabric inherently serves as a reference to Hamilton’s social metaphor, because it is a textile, but this idea of the interconnectedness of people especially was emphasized through the swings that are attached to the fabric. Each swing was connected to another swing through a system of pulleys. As people swung back and forth, the white tapestry rose and fell to match the rhythm of their movements. As a result, the tapestry served more of a visual image of the connectedness of people rather than of any sort of barrier between them. You can see some videos of this installation HERE and HERE.

I love the idea of a tapestry as something which expresses the connection between people. Since this lecture by Ann Hamilton, I’ve been thinking about ways that other tapestries give visual evidence of social collaboration and interconnectedness. One example which has stuck out to me is the series of tapestries that Raphael designed for the Sistine Chapel. These ten tapestries serve as a unique example of social and geographic connectedness: they were designed as cartoons by Raphael in Italy between 1515-1516, but were woven in Brussels in the workshop of Peter van Aelst between 1516 and 1521. Given that some areas of Europe were disrupted by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation at this time, I think that these tapestries also serve as a unique metaphor of Catholic solidarity between Belgium (which was part of the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries at this time) and the Vatican.

Raphael and PIeter van Alest, "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519. Tapestry in silk and wool, with silver-gilt threads, height 490 cm, width 441 cm. Musei Vaticani, Vatican

Raphael and Pieter van Alest, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519. Tapestry in silk and wool, with silver-gilt threads, height 490 cm, width 441 cm. Musei Vaticani, Vatican. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art

Beyond the woven medium itself, these tapestries also suggest a longing for people to interconnect themselves with the biblical and classical past. I’m particularly intrigued by The Miraculous Draught of Fishes tapestry (shown above), which is decorated with a border that recalls the appearance of relief carvings on classical sarcophagi, but depicts two episodes from the life of Pope Leo X. Additionally, the main scene depicts a biblical event, but includes references contemporary to the Renaissance period. In the back left corner of the tapestry, for example, there is a depiction of Vatican hill with the towers along the wall of Leo XI. Saint Peter’s also is depicted as under construction (a very anachronistic inclusion when one considers how Simon Peter is only just being called as a “fisher of men” in the foreground!).

Raphael and Pieter van Alest, detail of Vatican hill within “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” from the Raphael Tapestry series, c. 1519.

So, the creation and appearance of the Raphael tapestries can relate to the interconnectedness of people, either across geographic boundaries or historical divides. From a reverse perspective, we can also see that the displacement of these tapestries serve as evidence of social rifts. During the Sack of Rome in 1527, troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V looted and pillaged the city, and thousands upon thousands of people were murdered. These tapestries tie into this event, since they were stolen and not returned until the 1550s (although only seven tapestries made their way back). The remaining tapestries were stolen again when French troops entered Rome at the end of the 18th century. It is interesting to me how one of these tapestries was reportedly burned in order for people to try and gain access to the precious material of the silver-gilt threads.1 Therefore, the material which once helped to bind this tapestry together was intentionally destroyed when people metaphorically pulled apart from each other.

All of these thoughts about tapestries and social metaphors have caused me to think also about the Internet as a tapestry which binds people together. My friend, the late Hasan Niyazi, was the best “weaver” of people via the Internet that I have met thus far. As an art history blogger with a particular passion for Raphael, Hasan sought to not only share his research and ideas regarding art, but also to connect the online art historical community together. His untimely death has caused an absence which is still keenly felt among art history bloggers. I think that we are still seeking for ways to make sure that we keep Hasan’s tapestry together. This post about social metaphors and Raphael’s tapestries is dedicated to Hasan’s memory, especially in light of Raphael’s birthday earlier this week (April 6th).

1 There are several different accounts that report when some of these missing tapestries could have been burned. Passavant suggests that one specific tapestry was burned in near the end of the 18th century (incorrectly written in the text as 1789 instead of the 1798 French invasion of Rome). See Johann David Passavant, “Raphael of Urbino and His Father Giovanni Santi,” p. 298, available online HERE).

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“Why Art History?” Then and Now

Almost two years ago, my friend Hasan from Three Pipe Problem asked me if I could contribute a post to his blog, as part of a series titled “Why Art History?” Hasan was interested in collecting the stories that led people to art and art history, as well as art history blogging. He encouraged contributors to write about their personal experiences with works of art, and how people initially became encouraged to “find out more” about artistic objects through research. I would like to repost below what I originally contributed to Hasan’s site in February 2013. This repost is in honor of Hasan and the enthusiasm he had for art history, since died last year on October 28th. I’ve also included an addendum at the very end of the post, which are some thoughts that have been accumulating in my mind over the past year, since Hasan’s passing.

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As I sit and think about the question of “Why art history?” for myself, I’ve realized that there are two different paths that encouraged me to “find out more” about the works of art which appealed to me. I first was drawn to the intellectual aspects of art, particularly Northern Renaissance art, while only later finding myself drawn to actual aesthetics and the experiential nature of viewing art.

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434

Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434

When I first began to study art history as a teenager in high school, I was immediately drawn to the cerebral aspects of art. I relished the concept of “disguised symbolism” in Northern Renaissance painting, especially found in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, shown above) and the Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1427-32) by the workshop of Robert Campin. With what precision answers could be produced about the symbolism of these everyday objects! Lilies symbolize purity! A dog means fidelity! Pieces of fruit mean fecundity! I devoured the succinct answers that were provided in my heavy survey textbooks. I considered these answers to be universal truths, not realizing at the time that Panofsky was the iconographic chef de partie who systematically shuttled out answers for me to consume.

Perhaps, since I was a somewhat naïve and inexperienced teenager, the precision and readiness for such answers appealed to my limited knowledge of the world. I felt like everything had an answer in art history, just like I assumed that life would also produce answers with precision and exactitude. It was not until a few years later, as I began to realize the complexities of life as a young adult, that I realized how iconographic meanings could be very complex and difficult.

My cerebral interest in art continued for several years after high school. I started college as a music major and took a few art history classes on the side. Even though I found works of art to be beautiful, I think that the aesthetics of art were always ancillary to my interest in facts and information. I primarily sought knowledge back then, instead of experience. If I looked for beautiful and attractive things, I probably didn’t look much farther than the apartments of boys that were located near my college apartment.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-24. Marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-24. Marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome

However, my opinion about art changed a year or two after I switched my major to art history. The most definitive moment, when I began to truly realize the aesthetic and experiential power of art, happened when I was a junior in college. I traveled to Europe on a study abroad that was designed for art history majors. It was on this study abroad, specifically when I visited the Borghese Gallery in Rome with a few friends, that I realized how viewing art could be an emotional experience. There, when viewing Bernini’s David (1623-24, shown above) I was brought almost to the point of tears. I recorded this note in my course journal afterward:

May 10, 2003

Bernini’s “David”: WOW. I’m speechless. The direct, concentrated stare is very poignant and dramatic. His body is twisted up and tense. It is so realistic. I can’t believe it is marble. It’s absolutely beautiful. I thought I was going to cry at first and then I was filled with a lot of joy and passion…almost to the point of being giddy. It was definitely an odd sensation to experience so many emotions at the same time.

Although I deeply loved Baroque art before this point, I think that this experience in the Borghese Gallery really changed the way that I approached and understood art. I wanted to learn more about Baroque art, but learn more about it from the aspect of the viewer’s experience. How do Baroque works of art interact with their audience? How can three-dimensional sculpture interact with the viewer in ways that aren’t possible for two-dimensional paintings? These questions began to germinate over the next several years; they eventually led me to travel to Brazil in 2007 to analyze the element of viewer participation and experience in Aleijadinho’s sculptural composition of Old Testament prophets (c. 1800-1805, shown below) at the church Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos. I twisted and turned around the paths and staircase that lead up to this church several times, similar to how I revolved around the twisted body of the David a few years before.

Antônio Francisco Lisboa ("O Aleijadinho"), "Prophets," 1800-1805. Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos, Congonhas do Campo, Brazil

Antônio Francisco Lisboa (“O Aleijadinho”), “Prophets,” c. 1800-1805. Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos, Congonhas do Campo, Brazil

My experience at the Borghese Gallery also encouraged me to learn more about ways to describe the different emotions I felt while looking at the David. I wanted to compare my experience with the words written by others, which led me to read books like James Elkins’ book Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. Although I have armed myself with great adjectives and flowery phrases over the years, I still don’t feel like I have mastered the skill of translating emotions into words. Perhaps it is a fruitless endeavor to try and give words to seemingly ineffable emotions, but I like to try. If there is one reason why I like to write about art history, it is because I’m compelled to practice and find better ways to communicate such emotions with only words.

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ADDENDUM: “Why Art History Blogging?”

Since Hasan’s passing, I have had more opportunities to think about art history and why I am compelled to have an art history blog. I started this blog when I was in graduate school, simply to help keep track of some of the ideas I was learning and exploring at the time. I didn’t tell anyone about my blog for several weeks – perhaps months – back then. I felt like my blog was something personal to share, and I didn’t feel like my ideas were developed enough to show to others.

I graduated about the same time that the economy crashed, which left me without a job for over a year. During this time, my art history blog became a way for me to stay connected with art historians and current art historical ideas. I felt like my blog kept my mind sharp. It was during this period that Hasan reached out to me, and we began communicating via email and sharing ideas through our blog posts and comments. Although Hasan and I rarely discussed our personal lives with each other, his friendship meant a lot to me during this dark period of my life which was extremely difficult on many levels. I came to value the friendships associated with blogging as much as the act of blogging itself.

Once I found a job and began to teach, I began to use my blog as a way to save and share educational resources that I wanted to implement in my physical and virtual classroom discussions. At present, I think that this is probably the main way that I use blogging now. Although I do like to write posts to share some recent insights or ideas, more often than not I have my current or future students in mind when I write a post. I still value the friendships that I have within the online art history blogging community too, but I have to admit that this aspect of blogging is also hard for me: I still feel a sense of loss since Hasan has passed away. Over this past year, I have written about half the amount of posts that I wrote in the year leading up to Hasan’s sudden death. (Granted, this past year also has been uniquely busy for me, but that’s beside the point.) I think that somehow knowing that Hasan was out there to read and enthusiastically comment on my posts – even if the posts contained things meant for my students – gave me an impetus to write more frequently back then.

Ben, Frank, Sedef and I met in New York during CAA conference of February 2013. We took this photo for Hasan, since he couldn't join us.

Ben, Frank, Sedef and I met in New York during CAA conference of February 2013. We took this photo for Hasan, since he couldn’t join us.

While I’ve always enjoyed blogging about art history, I have come to treasure the personal interactions that I have made with people across the globe. Even since Hasan’s passing, I have been able to connect and re-connect with various art historians and history bloggers. It is partially because of these interactions that my art history blog has assumed an additional function and purpose this past year: this is a virtual space where I can honor my late friend and celebrate the art history community which he helped to foster. So, similar to how my emotional interaction with Bernini’s David in 2003 helped to inform and influence the way I think about art, I can say that my personal interactions with Hasan and the impact of his death help to inform and influence the way I approach art history blogging today. In some ways, thanks to Hasan, art history blogging has a new emotional weight and purpose for me.

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Guest Post: Teaching Art History with Blogs

Today I have a guest post featured on the new blog Experiments in Art History. I worked with Nancy Ross, the owner of this blog, to produce the “Art History Flashbook” at CAA’s THATCamp last month.

I think Nancy’s new blog will be a great way to approach issues regarding technology and art history teaching. For those of you who are interested in thinking about blogging from a pedagogical standpoint, please check out my post!

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Art History Bloggers as "Les Indépendents"

I’ve been thinking about art history blogging lately, partially because I got to read so many art history posts for this month’s issue of the Art History Carnival. Really, though, I’ve been thinking about blogging ever since reading Alexandra Korey’s interview on Three Pipe Problem. Alex discusses how blogging can be seen as a waste of time and a “not serious” endeavor in the eyes of other academics. I can see how one could have this perspective, especially for those who are in tenure-track positions who feel the pressure to “publish [in print] or perish.” (Although one begs the question: isn’t print perishing?)

As I’ve been mulling over these thoughts, I’ve begun to see some parallels between art history bloggers and the French avant-garde artists of the 19th century. Art history bloggers have decided to showcase their work in a forum different from the traditional publishing method in academia (i.e. print journals or academic textbooks). Really, one could argue that we have set up our own “Salon des Indépendents” online, similar to what 19th century artists did to break away from the artistic salon established by the Academy.

We could even make further parallels between blogging and 19th century art (particularly Impressionism). Since (most) blog posts are very short and succinct in nature, they differ from the fleshed-out topics that are examined in academic print. The physical size of blogging posts can be compared with the canvases that some Impressionists used. For example, Monet was interested in non-standard canvas shapes (such as the square), which were rarely used outside of avant-garde circles.1

The informal writing style of blogs can parallel the choppy, short brushstrokes of Impressionist painters like Monet (see Impression: Sunrise, 1872 above). Maybe that’s why our work seems less appealing to those in academia: blogs seem unfinished and unrefined (perhaps just a mere impression of scholarship?). I also think that an informal writing style could compare with the color schemes found in some Impressionist paintings: lighter, pastel colors could be interpreted as less formal (or weighty) than rich, saturated colors.

We can even draw parallels between plein air painting and blogging in a virtual world. In both instances, the artist/writer needs to be immersed in a specific type of environment.

So, what am I saying? Am I predicting that blogging is going to rise up as an avant-garde movement to overthrow the academic publishing convention? Hardly. I don’t feel like I can be that prophetic. But it is interesting to think about how art history often values the “underdog” movements in retrospect. Even though the Indépendents/Impressionists were mocked at the time, they ended up being an extremely influential and important art movement over the course of history. And I think it’s safe to say that we, as bloggers, are also involved in a really great thing.

1 Anthea Callen, The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique & The Making of Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 21. Available online here.

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Art History Bloggers

I just imported all of my art history posts onto this site today. My previous blog contained a lot of other miscellaneous thoughts and pictures intermixed with my art history posts, and I have debated for a long time whether I should keep the two paradigms separate. Reading this article helped solidify my decision to create a separate art history blog. Although I don’t pretend to be a “great art history blogger” (isn’t that title a great play off of Nochlin’s article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”), I hope that I can make a contribution to art history through blogging. More than anything, this blog is a great way for me to write down my research and thoughts.

Hopefully I will be able to reach my target audience of art historians and art lovers with a blog that specifically focuses on art. It would be really fun to build up a strong community of art historian bloggers.

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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.