Saturday, March 20, 2010

AHNCA Symposium 2010

One year ago, I blogged about the annual graduate student symposium sponsored by the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art (AHNCA), and in a separate post put up the abstract for my paper (on the Ottoman Turks at the Great Exhibition of 1851). Yesterday, AHNCA sponsored their 7th annual symposium. I was only able to go for the morning panel session; fortunately this was the one on which I knew two of the speakers. All of the papers during the session were quite good.

Nicole Simpson (CUNY Graduate Center) spoke about three-dimensional picture books, one of hundreds of different types of souvenirs that were designed for the opening of the Thames Tunnel in the 1840s. This tunnel, when it was constructed, was one of the great innovations of the industrial revolution. It cut through the Thames River, connecting the north and south banks. It was designed like an arcade so that people would visit and shop and listen to concerts. These picture books were constructed as a way to experience the tunnel effect, with a series of prints all attached to one another and holes put into the front card to allow the viewer to "see" the tunnel. Simpson discussed their role in association with other related visual artifacts of the day, such as stereographic photography, and considered their intended audiences. Following her talk, Elizabeth A. Avery (Ohio State University) spoke on the little-known French Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856), considering how his mixed race heritage influenced his painting style. Avery ultimately concluded that in his self-portraits he was hesitant but willing to show himself with his mixed racial heritage. However, in his narrative paintings, such as the 1841 Biblical subject The Toilette of Esther (image above, from the Louvre), he emphasized Whiteness and sublimated representations of mixed races and Blacks to conform to the European dominant paradigm of idealized beauty.

Isabelle Havet (University of Delaware) gave a fascinating talk on a series of photographs taken of an unknown hermaphrodite around 1860 by the French photographer Nadar (1820-1910). While these pictures can be seen as part of Nadar's general interest in scientific observation of man and nature, Havet argued they can be seen also as a form of artistic photography, and noted that ultimately the viewer of these images got from them what he needed. The photographs themselves were actually quite disturbing to look at, to the point that I and (I suspect) others had to look away. This was not because the photos showed the hermaphrodite's naked body, but because the person was subjected to a level of physical examination that bordered on rape. In two of the photos, she was lying on a table in stirrups, and a doctor forcibly revealed her vagina and penis to the camera while she hid her face in what appeared to be shame. In the question-and-answer session afterwards, some people adamantly disagreed with some of Havet's claims, but I suspect much of this had to do with the fact that these individuals were very uncomfortable with the entire subject. Not everyone has an open mind about alternative sexualities in art. I asked Havet about her thoughts on gender transference in these images, because what struck me was how masculinity and femininity were emphasized and mocked using standardized tropes one finds in academic-style painting of the time (she agreed and said she plans to look into that more).

The last speaker of the morning was Kerry Greaves (CUNY Graduate Center), who spoke about the artists' colony in Skagen, on the northernmost part of Denmark, which started mostly in the 1840s but became an important location for artists late in the 19th century. This was an area I knew nothing about (come on, how many Danish painters can you name?), so it was fascinating to hear her talk because it introduced the audience to new artists and focused on subjects unique to that group. Many of the other papers to be presented that day looked interesting as well, but I didn't stay to hear them. You can see the list by clicking here. The AHNCA symposium is a great opportunity for graduate students to present their work. It gives them a chance to speak in public if they have not done so before, and allows them a chance to get feedback from, and to network with, scholars in the field.

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