Saturday, February 12, 2011

Recap on CAA 2011 in NYC

Last March I had written about the call for papers for the College Art Association's centennial conference, which was held the past few days at the Hilton near Rockefeller Center. It was a crowded conference this year. Case in point: on Wednesday afternoon I was interested in going to the session "The Crisis in Art History," but the room was so packed that people were spilling outside into the hallway. I decided everyone else can worry about the crisis, I had better things to do with my time. Three days later I still don't know what the actual "crisis" is, but I'm sure I'll find out soon enough. I don't want to suggest that the conference wasn't worth attending, because it is always informative, although I minimized my participation this year because I haven't been feeling well and I was working this week. I did have the opportunity to reconnect and network with colleagues from the past, including friends from the Henry Moore Institute who were in the Exhibitors' Hall with a booth promoting the museum and institute as a center for the study of British sculpture. I did go to some excellent panel sessions, although curiously none of them were the ones I first thought about attending back in March. I decided to use the conference more as an opportunity to fill in gaps for areas I was less knowledgeable about, which turned out to be useful. Below are a few highlights that stand out, but not everything I attended. You can see the entire schedule of sessions by clicking here.

The panel session "Sexuality and Gender: Shifting Identities in Early Modern Europe" included a paper by one of my professors, James M. Saslow, entitled Gianantonio Bazzi, Called the Sodomite: Self-Fashioning and the "Gay Gaze" in Art and History. I have heard him speak of Sodoma in the past, but it was refreshing to hear him go into more detail about other aspects of this 16th-century Renaissance artist's life and work. The image above is Sodoma's sensual painting of St. Sebastian, 1525, in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (image: Web Gallery of Art). Caroline Babcock's paper Illustrating the Sex Manual in the Seventeenth Century: Nicolas Venette's "On Conjugal Love" spent a great deal of time discussing graphic representations of the clitoris in anatomical texts of the day, to the point (unfortunately) that I have no idea what her paper actually was about. Diane Wolfthal's paper Beyond the Human: Visualizing the Posthuman in Early Modern Europe drew our attention to the debates on the posthuman (part-man, part-machine) by focusing on representations of the mandrake root as sexualized creatures in Baroque engravings.

The Thursday afternoon panel session "Rococo, Late-Rococo, Post-Rococo: Art, Theory, and Historiography" had one of the best papers: Colin Bailey on A Casualty of Style? Reconsidering Fragonard’s Progress of Love from the Frick Collection. Bailey is a curator at the Frick Collection here in NYC and is an 18th-century French painting specialist. The image here is Love Letters, 1771-72, one of the exquisite four panel paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in that series (image: Frick) that eventually were bought by Henry Clay Frick and installed in his house. He offered a new interpretation of these paintings, suggesting the old story that Madame du Barry rejected them for the Château de Louveciennes in favor of a Neoclassical suite of paintings by Joseph-Marie Vien may in fact be wrong, that the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux may be responsible for their rejection because they no longer fit in with his intended decorative scheme for the music pavilion for which Bailey argues they were intended. Using Photoshop, he integrated the paintings back into archival photos of the room, which offered viewers an opportunity to see the paintings as they may have been intended when first painted.

Finally, the panel session "New Approaches to the Study of Fashion and Costume in Western Art, 1650–1900" offered a few interesting papers that reminded me how closely the history of fashion mirrors the history of art itself. Kathleen Nicholson instructed us not to assume early fashion plates from the period of Louis XIV are always true in her paper When Isn’t Fashion Fashion? Late Seventeenth-Century French Fashion Prints and Dress in Portraiture. Amelia Rauser and Heather Belnap Jensen offered different ways of looking at women's fashion in the Post-Revolutionary period ca. 1800, with the first focusing on idealized beauty and sexuality and the second on motherhood and haute couture. Jennifer W. Olmsted shifted focus to masculinity and portrait painting during the period of the July Monarchy. Unfortunately, I felt like she expressed the obvious, that painters had to come up with alternative ways to depict luxury once men's bourgeois fashion shifted from colorful fabrics to blacks and browns, and ultimately never addressed the issue of masculinity itself, but perhaps it's part of a larger work in which she explains all this in more detail.

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