New Voices: November 2003
Cambridge University, 15 November 2003
The second New Voices one-day conference was held at Cambridge University on 15 November. The aim of the New Voices series – there are two meetings held each year – is to provide a forum for students to present current research. The atmosphere at these conferences is a happy mixture of intellectual excitement and friendliness. And all for £5!
The papers reflected the broad spectrum of art history scholarship, ranging across the centuries, from El Greco to Tracy Emin. One of the purposes of the New Voices series is to encourage productive debate and discussion in a supportive environment. The Cambridge event was, by that criterion, a definite success. In fact, so many questions were asked that each presentation would have run over time had not the chairperson intervened.
The keynote speaker, Dr Aya Soika (of the University of Cambridge Department of the History of Art) set the tone for the day with her evident passion for art history. Dr Soika’s review of her own career highlighted the diversity of activities undertaken by art historians. In her case this included teaching, research, writing for catalogues and journals, and participation in the establishment of the New Hall Art Collection (in which all the art is produced by women).
Manya Pagiavla, a third-year postgraduate student reading for a PhD at the University of Essex, presented a paper on El Greco’s theory of art, entitled ‘Domenicus Scepticus’. The title is a play on words, conveying the fact that El Greco was an intellectual as well as an artist, Domenicus being the Latin spelling of his real first name, Domenicos, while Scepticus means thinker. Basing her research on the artist’s annotations (which were written in Italian, Spanish, Greek, and – occasionally – a language which combined all three) in books from his library, Manya traced the changes in El Greco’s thought throughout his career, noting particularly the growing religiosity of his thoughts and paintings after his move to Catholic Spain from an Italy in which sixteenth-century intellectuals, following the rediscovery of classic texts from Ancient Greece, were developing the humanist philosophy which was to dominate Western thought for the next four centuries.
Marta Weiss, a PhD candidate in the Department of Art and Archaelogy at Princeton University, has been living in Britain for the past year, researching her thesis, entitled “British Staged Photography and the Victorian Album 1858-1875”. Her paper, “Lewis Carroll’s Holiday Snaps: Reading the Henry Holiday Album”, explored Charles Dodgson’s (i.e. Lewis Carroll’s) photographic practice through the medium of an album of 24 photographs taken during a week-long holiday. In some photographs the sitters appear in costume, in others, in their everyday clothes. Marta examined the mixture of both fantasy and realism, and the visual and the literary (for Dodgson captioned each image with a quotation from literature). Marta also argued that Dodgson did not regard himself as the sole author of the photographs; for him, photography was a collaborative practice, and he worked with both the sitters and Henry Holiday in the construction of the images.
The third paper took the audience into yet another century, and yet another artistic practice. Outi Remes, a third-year research student at the University of Reading, is investigating confessional art as practiced by contemporary British artists. Outi’s paper, entitled “Tracy Emin and an abortion experience in contemporary British Art”, asked, among much else, why the subject of abortion is almost entirely absent from the visual arts. Emin, characteristically, has taken this aspect of her (and many other women’s - Outi revealed that at least a third of British women have an abortion by the age of 45) life experience and presented it in a highly personal manner in a number of works in recent years. The controversy surrounding the artist has led to some confused, therefore not very helpful, readings. Thus, Outi’s considered, reflective analysis was an intelligent addition to the growing field of ‘Emin Studies’.
Valerie Spanswick, an MA student at the University of York, brought us back to painting, with a close reading of Laurence Alma-Tadema’s “The Picture Gallery”, painted in 1874. The artist painted two similar pictures with this title; Valerie’s paper, entitled “In The Picture Gallery: The art, artist and agent in Alma-Tadema’s The Picture Gallery”, focussed on the second one, commissioned, significantly, by Ernest Gambart, Alma-Tadema’s agent. Gambart is the central figure in the work, and the painter’s relationship with his dealer and other ‘actors’ (i.e. other people and other works of art) in the picture, was explored by Valerie. The result was a fascinating insight into the Victorian art world.
The conference concluded with a plenary session with the (deliberately) broad title, “Current Research Issues/Problems”. Subjects raised during this lively session included tips on how to get published and advice on identifying important, but perhaps not obvious, journals in a particular field.
At the end of the day many of the delegates visited, either individually or in small groups, some of Cambridge’s many attractions for art historians, including Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum.
In conclusion, thanks are due not only to the speakers for their absorbing presentations but also our host, the University of Cambridge Department of the History of Art, the SMG’s Cambridge contact, Jackie Harmon, who, after playing such a major role in making the event happen, was unfortunately unable to attend, and the hard-working, enthusiastic SMG representatives.