Thursday, February 14, 2013

CAA 2013 Recap

The annual College Art Association conference is still taking place this week. However, I'm thoroughly engrossed in finishing up my dissertation, so I just went today and heard a number of papers, some quite interesting. (Click here for the recap from Los Angeles last year.) The painting you see here is a portrait of the Countess of Charolais (1695-1758) dressed as a Franciscan friar, painted by the Rococo artist Charles-Joseph Natoire (image: Wikimedia Commons). This was the subject of a paper given by Melissa Percival (Univ Exeter) that I thought made some fascinating points. The Countess was notorious in 18th-century France for her romantic liaisons, but refused to marry, so she was seen as a rebel bucking tradition. This is just one of a number of portraits that depict her wearing a friar's monk, called in French "en Cordelier," referring to the knotted cord associated with the friars. What makes this portrait different from others showing her dressed as a friar is that this one plays out a balance of masculine and feminine traits, as if suggesting her more sexually aggressive sensibilities and anti-traditional attitudes. The knot itself is suggestive of the bonds of sexual union, and the way she holds it suggests a phallic symbol, reinforced by the phallic spoon in the cup of cocoa. These are all Percival's thoughts on the portrait. What made her talk more interesting was that she suggested it would be too easy to assume transgender roles were at play here. Dressing up in costumes was normal for 18th-century French aristocrats, and priest/nun costumes were quite popular. Percival suggests then that we shouldn't leap to conclusions about cross-gender appropriation just because she's dressed as a friar in these numerous paintings; rather, it is this particular painting that is unique of them all, in that it has symbols that say more about her sexual interests, and as such was likely meant for private consumption than public display. In looking up more about the Countess, I couldn't help but chuckle to find out that she was buried in a convent for Carmelite nuns.

Percival's paper was part of an open panel session on French Art, 1715-1789. Judy Sund (Queens/Graduate Center--one of my favorite ex-professors) gave a great paper entitled "The Chinese Elephant: Unpacking an Improbable Pachyderm," in which she explored the image of the white elephant seen in Chinoiserie designs from the late 17th- and early 18th-century. She argued that there was a greater absorption of Siamese/Thai culture than previously understood or thought, in the general misconstruing of what "China" actually meant at that time. Ultimately she argued for the broader sensibility of exoticism as a world of fantastic recreations rather than reality. My colleague David Pullins (Harvard), whom I met in 2011 at the Artist's Studio in Britain workshop (see my blog posts here, here, here, and here), gave a well-researched paper on the 18th-century French printmaker Gabriel Huquier (1695-1772). I didn't hear the other papers on the panel, but it was chaired by Colin Bailey (Frick Collection), whose own paper on Fragonard's Progress of Love series at the Frick I wrote about in the 2011 CAA recap.

My friend and fellow GCer Jennifer Favorite gave a paper entitled "Creative Time in the Age of Bush: The Public Art Institution as Agent of Political Response" in a panel session on Art and "The War on Terror": Ten Years On. The room was packed with people at this panel session, so I really had a difficult time hearing her paper, which I regret, although I don't think I know any of the artists whose works she showed (maybe too contemporary for me!). The other panel session I went to was For and Against Homoeroticism: Artists, Authors, and the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name, which was co-chaired by my friend Jongwoo Jeremy Kim (Univ Louisville) and colleague Christopher Reed (Penn State)--whom you may recall I worked with back in 2010 in Montreal at the British Queer History conference. My colleague and friend Richard Kaye (Hunter/GC) gave a paper on 20th-century interpretations of St. Sebastian imagery, and I really liked what he covered with regard to Frida Kahlo and the idea of how women artists appropriate this male homoerotic icon. Andrew Stephenson (Univ East London) spoke about "beach" culture and gay poses in the paintings of Christopher Wood (in Cornwall) and David Hockney (in southern California). The paper by Michael Yonan (Univ Missouri-Columbia), entitled "Outing Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, or Ernst Kris's Creative Homophobia" was an interesting presentation about a mid-20th-century psychoanalytic art paper about the late 18th-century sculptor's physiognomic busts and how they supposedly represented the sculptor's suppressed homosexuality. Messerschmidt really was an amazing sculptor, as you can tell from the bust you see here (fondly titled Afflicted with Constipation; image: Neue Galerie). The 2010-11 exhibition on him was superb! Yonan's paper was less about Messerschmidt, however, and more about Kris, with Yonan arguing that the art historian, from Vienna, had to prove himself to the Freudians working in post-WWII American academia, so he purposely modeled his scholarship on Sigmund Freud's essay on Leonardo da Vinci, in which Freud psychoanalyzed Leonardo as a latent homosexual. I wish Yonan had gone a little further with all of this, including exploring how it differed from Kris's other writings, but perhaps all will be revealed in a future publication. That's all the papers I heard today, but I also did some socializing and networking, which is really what these conferences are all about.

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