Thursday, November 4, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 3.5

I am so glad I like to walk, and that there are 17 stairs in the flat, because I would have gained 10 pounds by now from all the cake I’ve been eating. As CC recently pointed out to me one windy afternoon, as we were about to gorge on our 3rd piece of cake in a 4-hour period, “This is England! We do tea and cakes!” Curiously, this is exactly how I was raised. We had tea and cakes as a dessert after every meal, plus as a snack mid-morning, midday, and before going to bed. Basically we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner around tea and cakes. If you’re wondering why none of us were ever grossly obese, it’s because we were completely neurotic living in panic mode all the time, such that our metabolism burned the calories away. My family can attest to this. So the English tea-and-cakes syndrome definitely is in my blood, and in celebration I thought I would share this picture I took the other day whilst I enjoyed a spot of tea in the Victorian Tiled Hall Cafe at the Leeds Art Gallery. That’s a pot of Earl Grey and a lovely chocolate cupcake made by Cupcakes in the City. It was a delightful midday break that reinvigorated me to go on with my research.

Speaking of research, it occurred to me that it might be worth writing a little about what I’m actually doing on a daily basis during my fellowship. As bklynbiblio readers know, my dissertation project is John Gibson (1790-1866), a British sculptor who was born in Wales, grew up in Liverpool, and made his way to Rome in 1817, where he studied under the master sculptor Antonio Canova and proceeded himself to become one of the great Neoclassical artists of the 19th century. At one time he represented the latest thing in contemporary art. Of course, since then, with the onset of modernism, abstraction, and conceptual art, people have forgotten all about him. The last book published on him was an edition of his memoirs in 1911. Thus, one part of my project is to research his life and work so as to help us better understand why he is important and relevant to the history of art today. Much of his sculpture is quite beautiful and it was very well received while he was alive.

The work you see here, for instance, is an engraving published in the Art-Journal after a lifesize sculpture that he exhibited at the 1848 Royal Academy exhibition. The subject is Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, stepping onto the earth to spread morning dew on the grass. The way she touches down with a single foot is a tour de force in marble carving, a stylistic attribute I’ve since discovered that Gibson excelled at in a number of works. This touch gave his statues a sense of vitality, presence, and temporality, which people highly admired at the time.

But while I have been doing things like turning the pages of the Art-Journal from the mid-1800s, I also have been exploring books and journal articles to support my ideas about Gibson, his colleagues and critics, and the cultural historical events of his day. Examples of this include polychrome sculpture, homoerotic subjectivity, patronage, Realism, and so on. I also am looking at his work in museums. Tomorrow, for instance, I’m going to Lincoln to see 3 of his sculptures at the Usher Art Gallery. Pictures and digital images can never replace the experience of seeing art objects in person, and with 3D objects like freestanding sculpture, which you must walk around to truly appreciate, it is important for me to visit collections throughout the UK to do this. A close examination of the sculptures also is important because it was common in the 19th century to make variants for different patrons. What becomes an interesting challenge is to distinguish in the same subjects the details that sculptors changed, which could have great significance depending on the individual patron’s interests and desires. I also have been meeting with other art historians, which is always beneficial, as it gives you the opportunity to discuss ideas and gain some feedback. Networking is important is every field, but in an economically-challenged discipline like art history, networking is absolutely essential. You never know where it may lead.

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