Sunday, June 26, 2011

Gay Pride (and Marriage) 2011

Readers of bklynbiblio may recall my past posts on Gay Pride in 2009 and 2010. I wish I could tell you great things about my adventures this year, but I’ve been sick for 2 weeks with sinus & upper respiratory infections. (We’re talking fever, doctor visits, antibiotics, and burst blood vessels from some violent coughing...not pretty.) So, alas, even though a group of my friends were all celebrating Gay Pride this weekend with parties and dancing, I only felt well enough to join them today for an early dinner in Chelsea. From what I hear, the parade was loads of fun, certainly better than last year’s. Everyone was jubilant, clearly celebrating the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage Act, which the State Senate approved 33 to 29, and which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law at 11:55pm on Friday, June 24, 2011. NY is now the 6th and largest state in which gays and lesbians will be able to marry starting next month. The picture above (photo: Michael Kamber, The New York Times) shows our political leaders and supporters at the parade: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (who undoubtedly will be one of the first to marry her partner next month), and Gov. Cuomo standing with his barely-visible partner Sandra Lee (of Semi-Homemade Cooking fame), who apparently was the major drive behind Cuomo spear-heading the passage of gay marriage into law. This is truly a momentous occasion, because it demonstrates that NY is a state that grants civil rights to all of its citizens. For gays and lesbians, of course, it’s a major milestone when you consider that the gay rights movement began 42 years ago after a raid on The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. After the law was signed by Cuomo, over 1000 people flocked to The Stonewall Inn to celebrate.

In looking back on my 2009 post, I discovered I had written some interesting words that in retrospect now seem prescient. Here’s what I said: “Things take time. Gay marriage and the dismissal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ won’t happen over night, or possibly even in 2009. They are simply too controversial for some people. But they will happen, in due time. You cannot change people’s minds by snapping your fingers, especially when religion is the foundation of their beliefs. And rather than be angered by these attitudes, I believe we should reflect on them and work to bring people around through education.” I cannot help but think that in the past 2 years, a great deal of educating and soul searching has taken place, and a majority of NY politicians realized that passing the gay marriage law into effect was essential.

Readers may be surprised to discover that I actually haven’t been a full supporter of "gay marriage" per se. My issue was never whether gays and lesbians could marry, that was an obvious no brainer. My issue was with "marriage." Its very outdated concept needs to change. Organized religion has monopolized marriage to the point that most people believe marriage is first a spiritual blessing and then a legally binding contract. In fact, just the opposite is true. As far as the state is concerned, people are "married" by the laws of the state in which they reside, not by the laws of God. Think about it. You legally can marry in a courthouse without the spiritual blessing of a religious leader. But you legally cannot marry in a religious ceremony without a license pre-approved by the state.

So, in short, what I’ve argued in the past is that the state needed to take back ownership of "marriage." To me, the best way of doing this was to change the name to a "civil partnership" for everyone, and thus to deny religious leaders their assumed ability to use a religious sanctification as a substitute for the actual civil partnership that would need to take place in a government office. In other words, couples legally should have a civil partnership first, and if they wanted also to have a religious one too, they could do that on their own. Their religious leader should have no legal authority to marry them. My point is that when you remove organized religion from this redefinition of marriage as a civil partnership, there is no legal reason why a state could deny that right to all of its citizens, regardless if the couple was different or same-sex partnered. But let’s face it. To argue all this at the state government level would have been nearly impossible. Coming up with a gay marriage law was just an easier, "straighter" path to take. So of course I have supported it and I am thrilled to live in a state that has passed it into law.

In the long run though, my reasoning more or less falls in line with why the Same-Sex Marriage Act did pass in the State Senate, and why 4 Republicans who previously had voted against this bill now were in favor of it. In the end, these individuals recognized that by denying same-sex partners the right to marry, they were denying NY citizens basic civil rights. Not only is that unconstitutional, it is immoral. The fact that religion was an underlying factor for the 28 Republicans who did not vote for it may seem obvious, but it is clearly demonstrated best not in their votes, but in the fact that only 1 Democrat, Rubén Díaz Sr. of the Bronx, did not vote in favor of the law either. His reason: “God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage, a long time ago.” Poor misguided Díaz. It’s sad really, because this reasoning demonstrates exactly how the closed-mindedness of organized religion can blind some people so badly that they lose sight of their own civic responsibility, to uphold basic human rights for all citizens in their constituency, not just the ones who pray the same way they do. Clearly, they have forgotten that we live in a country that celebrates religious freedom and is based on the division of church and state. One can only hope that they may discover the error of their ways and seek forgiveness from those they have offended. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Artist's Studio in Britain (Pictures!)

I thought I would share a few photos from the seminar last week. My thanks to fellow "seminarian"(?!) Alexandra Courtois for letting me use these digital images she took. The one above is Mark Hallett discussing with us Reynolds's portrait of Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue in Love for Love by William Congreve, 1771. (You'll recognize the back of my head in the lower right.) The image to the right is a collection of some of the 18th- and 19th-century sketchbooks and portfolios we looked at in the study room. Below is a picture of Sarah Turner talking about direct stone carving with Barbara Hepworth's Biolith, 1948-9, as our object of discussion (Alex digitally altered that image a bit). The last image below shows us learning hands-on about pigments in the paintings conservation lab.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Artist's Studio in Britain (Part 3)

The modernist trajectory in art typically positions the artist as a single creative genius who does only original work and works alone without assistants. While certainly there are artists who fit this mode of production (e.g. Van Gogh), by and large the history of art production has been the artist’s studio in which assistants helped make art in the master’s name. This was, in fact, a necessity, especially for sculptors. Few artists could have been as productive as they were without studio assistants. People like to believe that Auguste Rodin made all of his sculptures himself, and photographs of Rodin show him working as such, but in fact he could not carve marble and he used a foundry to make his bronzes. He relied on studio assistants to make all the works one thinks of as "by Rodin." This in no way diminishes the importance of the work in the artist's name, however, for artists frequently had the initial idea (drawing, model, etc.), and then purposely worked in derivatives and copies for the market and for patrons. Once the viewer realizes this, the modernist trajectory of the single artist working alone becomes an anomaly, not the standard of art historical practice.

Sculptors had large studios and numerous assistants, and during the seminar last week we had 3 sessions on sculptural production, led by Martina Droth and Sarah Turner (Lecturer, Univ. York). In the painting you see above by Mary Moser, the sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) is seen wearing the clothes of a gentleman, but modelling in clay a poetic subject based on antiquity (image: YCBA). This picture was painted upon his return from a 10-year sojourn in Rome. He brought back with him Italians who were experts in marble carving and thus established a commercially successful studio in London that specialized in figures after the antique and portrait busts of contemporaries that were purchased and collected like baseball cards (well, expensive baseball cards). In sculptural practice, Nollekens and others would make the clay model. Assistants would then enlarge it and use it to make a plaster mold. A plaster cast then would be made, and from this assistants would transfer the plaster into marble. The sculptor typically did the finishing touches on the finished statue. It may read straight-forward in print, but in fact it was a long, laborious task that one realizes never could have been done by the individual working alone. Direct carving in stone, however, for 20th-century sculptors like Eric Gill and Barbara Hepworth, became a purposeful transition to a modern mode of production, although it is worth noting that even Hepworth had studio assistants later in life, a fact she herself tried to deny in the modernist search for individuality. This is just talking about stone carving. Let's not even get started on bronzes, which are a whole other ball of wax ("lost wax technique" in fact!).

The above image of Nollekens, however, also touches upon another topic that we discussed during the seminar: the artist him/herself. There are a surprising number of painters and sculptors who depicted themselves as subjects or were represented by others. Some are shown at work, by direct observation or as an imaginary subject. Other times, however, these artists are shown simply as individuals, leisurely artists whose paintings and sculptures surround them as if to suggest they were geniuses who made art happen without any sense of labor whatsoever. Such is the case for many late Victorian artists such as Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Millais and so on. Chloe Portugeis (PhD Candidate, Yale) gave a session on photographic representations of these artists published in journals such as The Strand and The Magazine of Art, noting in particular the conflation between their studios and palatial homes (e.g. Leighton House, about which I’ve blogged before) and how these men came to be seen as celebrities in their own right.

On Friday, the participants gave brief presentations that related to works in the YCBA collection and/or their dissertation topics. Working in the study room, Esther Chadwick (Yale) spoke about the printmaker’s studio practice, Alexandra Courtois de Viçose (Berkeley) spoke about published editions of Lady Hamilton’s theatrical poses, Roo Gunzi (Courtauld) spoke about artists working outdoors and tied this to her dissertation on the Newlyn artist Stanhope Forbes, and Benedicte Miyamato Pavot (Paris) spoke on 18th-century artists' trade cards which were used to advertise themselves as art instructors. In the galleries, John Cooper (Yale) spoke about a bust of politician Charles James Fox by Nollekens (image: YCBA), Meredith Gamer (Yale) led a discussion on a print after a painting by Johann Zoffany on the members of the Royal Academy in a life class, and Kaylin Weber (Glasgow) talked about a portrait of Benjamin West by Thomas Lawrence. Back in the classroom, PowerPoint presentations were given by Bradley Bailey (Yale) on 19th-century Japanese prints and artists who trained in the West, and by David Pullin (Harvard) on the Stubbs and Wedgwood collaboration, tying this to his dissertation on 18th-century images that repeat in French paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and other media. I presented on John Gibson’s studio in Rome.

We wrapped up the seminar with a visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday and we had a fantastic lunch in the Petrie Court Cafe. Indeed, it is worth noting that even though there was a lot of work during the week, we also had fun down time, including a great dinner hosted by Mark Aronson at his apartment (which, after a number of bottles of wine, somehow became an international hat-wearing had to be there). Everyone seemed satisfied and pleased with the week of activities, and there are now plans to continue the conversation with a workshop next summer in York, England. On a personal note, I have to say that the opportunity to meet new people and reacquaint myself with others, and to learn so much more about British art production during this period, has been an incredible opportunity, and I tip my hat in thanks to the Yale Center for British Art for including me in this seminar.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

DW: A Good Man Goes to War

Was it already 3 months ago that I last wrote about Doctor Who? I must say, so far the first 7 episodes of the 6th season have been a roller coaster ride of an adventure. One realizes now that last season, when Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill were premiering their roles, they were just getting their feet wet. This season they have dived in headfirst and the season really has been great so far. The opening 2-part premiere with aliens all around us and the surprise opener with the Doctor's future death definitely knew how to get enthrall the viewer. But this latest episode, "A Good Man Goes to War," was simply fantastic. Steven Moffat gets major kudos for writing this episode. The Doctor, Rory, and a group of new heroes from the past and future, all of whom owe the Doctor favors, rush to save Amy Pond from the asteroid prison Demon's Run (seriously, ya gotta love this stuff!). You couldn't help but wonder about the backstories behind all of these new characters and their relationship to the Doctor (e.g. we now know how Jack the Ripper died). And then of course there is River Song. It was the plot twists that just made this episode one of the best written so far. I dare not reveal how it ended, but it packed a punch. Now, of course, we have the frustration of having to wait to see what happens next. The show has gone on hiatus and will return "late summer," whenever that will be.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Artist's Studio in Britain (Part 2)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) has been playing a starring role in the seminar this week. Two of our instructors, Mark Hallett and Matthew Hargraves (Associate Curator and Head of Collections Information and Access), are specialists in 18th-century British art, so the world of the first President of the Royal Academy and his colleagues directly relates to a discussion of the artist’s studio in Britain. It has been refreshing for me to hear much of this, since Reynolds is critical to the history of British art, and yet heretofore I’ve had little opportunity to spend this much time looking at his paintings and thinking about his artistic practice. The image you see here is an unfinished portrait of Mrs. Robinson, ca. 1784, from the YCBA collection. I chose this image because it encapsulates much of the discussion that has been taking place the past few days. As a portrait, it exemplifies but one of many of the society sittings that Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, and others all specialized in. Despite the hierarchical insistence on the primacy of history painting, in fact portraiture dominated Royal Academy exhibitions in the 1780s, from as much as 1/3 to 1/2 of all works displayed, as Marcia Pointon has shown in her book Hang the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (1993). Hallett has done further research into Reynolds’s oeuvre, showing that in his portraits of women, nearly 50% of them show them with turned heads, a new approach to portraiture that would have been recognized as innovative by contemporaries. The turned head could suggest something about introspection and absorption, but feminists also could see this as the woman with independent thought, not simply an object of desire. The work here also is useful because it is unfinished and as such shows the sketch Reynolds made and the layering of paints to create what would have been the finished portrait. Why it is unfinished we do not know. It could be because Reynolds disliked his progress, but more likely it is because the sitter changed her mind or stopped paying for the work (which was more common than one would think).

Painting was labor. Unlike with a digital camera, an image didn’t just magically appear before the viewer. It took numerous sittings, the layering of paints, and time to allow each layer to dry. And yet with the layering of colors and the application of varnish, over time magic did occur. A persona, captured in a mode of idealized beauty or heroic achievement, did appear on the canvas, captured if not for infinity then for at least as long as the canvas would survive. As we also discussed, however, Reynolds was known for experimenting with his paints, and it was not uncommon for his pictures to fade, that he had to repair them in his own day. This problem still exists with some of Reynolds’s pictures and it is up to conservators to figure out ways to slow down if not stop the damage before all color fades completely.

The role of pigments and the formation of color was part of another great session we had on painters’ materials. Tubes of paint as we know them today didn’t exist until the 19th century century, so part of being a painter was mix your own paint colors, a task which frequently fell to young studio assistants. In Reynolds’s case, however, he often mixed his own paints in a conscious attempt not to share his color secrets with anyone. Mark Aronson (Chief Conservator of Paintings) and Jessica David (Postgraduate Research Associate) gave us a fantastic overview of pigments in the paintings conservation lab and we even had an opportunity to blend colors. I confess that the chemistry and other sciences in the making of art is still a mystery to me, but I was comforted by the fact that we had discussions around the notion that even in art history the making of art is something that has passed on to conservators and restorers because most art historians today specialize in the social history of art.

In our discussion of sketchbooks, we had another enjoyable opportunity to work hands-on with a number of 18th- and 19th-century sketchbooks by amateur and professional artist, from Romney’s and Flaxman’s sketchbooks from their travels to Rome, to a naval captain named E. V. Porcher who designed a portfolio of exotic watercolor images of south and east Asia during his time there on assignment ca. 1850. We discussed and practiced using optical devices (camera obscura, the Claude glass, and the camera lucida) in order to understand how they were used by artists to capture the true-to-life landscape and craft it into the picturesque. We also had an engaging talk about painting treatises, in particular Jonathan Richardson’s Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715, reprinted 1725), which was read by every British painter of that century in an attempt to understand why being a painter was important to society and how education and good moral behavior would assist the painter in understanding the psychology of his sitter when painting portraits. There was much discussion about sculpture as well, but I’ll save that for next time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Not too long ago, I had posted about the call for papers for the 2012 College ArtAssociation conference, which will be held in Los Angeles in February 2012. I just received word that my proposal was accepted, so I'll be heading to LA in about 8 months from now. The first time I went there was in 2001 for the annual conference of the Art Libraries Society of North America. I confess I'm not a big fan of the city (how many NYers really are?), but it was fun to see things like Hollywood and a few stars on the Walk of Fame (image above: Brian L's Picasa stream). In any case, it will be good to go back. I proposed a paper for the session "Future Directions in the History of British Art," which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the organization the Historians of British Art by looking forward to innovative modes of art historical inquiry in the field. My paper is tentatively entitled "Reconsidering John Gibson, Remolding British Sculpture," and will show how my research on Gibson offers us new and expansive models for reexamining the study of British sculpture itself. But there's time for all that. For now, it's back to readings for my YCBA seminar on the Artist's Studio in Britain.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Artist’s Studio in Britain (Part 1)

I’m in New Haven for the week-long seminar "Making Art, Picturing Practice: The Artist’s Studio in Britain, ca. 1700-1900" at the Yale Center for British Art, an event about which I first posted not too long ago. The seminar began informally yesterday with a guided tour of the exhibition Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance on its last day. I’m very glad I had a chance to see this show, and the tour was useful, not as a chronological history of Lawrence’s life and career, but as a close study of a few specific works in which we considered how Lawrence was both innovative and a leader in portrait painting from the 1790s to the 1820s. One of the pictures in the show was the work you see here, his portrait of Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby, which is owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is one of my favorite British paintings in the collection there. Farren was a comedic actress and mistress of the Earl of Derby, whom she married a few years after this portrait was exhibited in 1790 at the Royal Academy. It was Lawrence’s entree into the London portrait painting business and was received well by viewers. Farren appears as if she’s walked onto a stage or garden, and positions her head and body in such a way that she smiles coquettishly and seems to be flirting with the viewer. She is slightly off-balance and asymmetrical, which adds to the charm of the work. The virtuosity of his brush stroke is delightful in his ability to capture the white satin dress, the brown leather glove, and the spot of blue ribbon decorating her fan. I’ve always loved how Lawrence has the dress float to the bottom of the canvas, forcing Farren into the viewer’s space. One of the things we discussed during the tour was that pictures like this were often hung "on the line," resting literally on a railing that ran 8 feet high in the exhibition room at Somerset House, with the top of the frame leaning outward toward the viewer. What this suggests then is that Lawrence quite consciously used features in the painting like the trailing hem of the dress and the white shimmer of fabric to draw attention to his work in a room that would have been overcrowded with hundreds of pictures on display one beside the other. Farren’s presence would have dominated the viewer’s sweeping vista of the works on the wall.

There are about 10 doctoral students participating in the seminar this week. A few are from Yale, but others are from Harvard, Berkeley, the Courtauld, and other institutions, which is giving us all an opportunity to network and learn more about what others are working on with regard to British art. Our primary instructors (I call them that liberally as this is more of a discussion-based seminar than a series of formal presentations) are Martina Droth (Head of Research and Curator of Sculpture, YCBA) and Mark Hallett (Prof., History of Art, Univ. York, England), but we have others giving lectures and leading discussions this week.

Our sessions began today with a consideration of the growth of London and how artists changed neighborhoods from the mid-1700s into the early 1900s as society moved to ever further westward. We also discussed apprenticeship in the studio, how young artists who showed talent were sent to work for masters and learn from them. They would live with the artist in exchange for payment from the family for the apprentice’s training. We also looked closely at a selection of artist training manuals and sketchbooks, showing how apprentices would learn by copying from engravings, then casts, and slowly working up to the living model. The foundation of the Royal Academy school in 1768 offered new opportunities for students to be educated in the basics of draftsmanship, although they still learned the craft of painting in studios. By the mid-19th century, however, this model of pedagogy had evolved with a new emphasis on industrial and graphic design, specifically new state-organized institutional learning centers following the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the mandate to improve British design. We wrapped up the discussion with a consideration of how these new reform movements spread to places throughout the British Empire such as India and impacted local cultures there as well. All in all, the first day has been filled with an incredible amount of information, and having had opportunities to look closely at 18th- and 19th-century books and works of art is always a treat. Topics over the next few days will include sculptural practice and the representation of the artist in the studio, so stay tuned for more...