Exploring the visual everywhere

April 28, 2000

Have you missed a conference call? Don't worry, here are the highlights of the recent get-togethers of sociologists, art historians and political scientists.

Art history, says Carol Richardson of Edinburgh University's department of fine art, is the ultimate in interdisciplinary subjects.

"We cover everybody from academics to artists to museum curators. We all come together through the visual. What is the visual? It's everywhere. This isn't a problem of definition for art historians, it's an advantage. We're everywhere."

Richardson is one of the organisers of the recent annual conference of the Association of Art Historians in Edinburgh, which attracted more than 500 delegates from across the world.

The theme of the conference - "Body and Soul: Exploring Objects, Making Myths" - stimulated debate about the physical and the ideal, and about how objects can be the focus not only of craft, but also of power and fantasy.

The visual communicates ideas, Richardson says, therefore art history is investigating a constant dialogue between the past and the present.

"If you're aware of where you're coming from, you have a better idea of where you're going. Scotland has a higher proportion of people than anywhere else in the country involved in the creative industries. Perhaps that's because we're quite defensive as a nation, so we think quite a lot about who we are and where we're coming from."

Richardson is administrator of the Visual Arts Research Institute, Edinburgh, which was launched at the conference. Bringing together Edinburgh and St Andrews universities, Edinburgh College of Art, the National Galleries and National Museums of Scotland, it aims to promote research excellence through partnership.

"It's trying to bring together the different methodologies; theoretical academic research, hands-on, artist-based research and curatorial research; and the science of looking after objects." The three blend naturally into one another, Richardson believes.

She says a particular collection can form the basis of an exhibition, for example, and it will require not only academic expertise but also design skills to produce catalogues and to stage an exhibition.

"Again, we all come together through the visual. You put up a dinosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum, but somebody's got to think about how it looks."

I DON'T KNOW ART, BUT I'LL BUY THAT

The cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow are long-standing rivals. But a former academic curator has uncovered remarkable coincidences in two of their leading shops' bids to attract more custom.

In 1923, Pettigrew and Stephens department store in Glasgow decided to open a lavish menswear department, while Crawfords Bakeries in Edinburgh wanted to expand to include tearooms. Both shops looked to the cities' art schools to make their new premises more attractive.

Jane Lindsey, until recently curator of Glasgow University's Hunterian art gallery, says both decided to commission painted wall panels for their "gender-exclusive refreshment rooms" - a ladies' dining room at Crawfords, and a men's smoking room in the department store.

Crawfords hired Robert Burns, who had just retired as head of painting and drawing at Edinburgh College of Art, while Pettigrew and Stephens appointed Maurice Greiffenhagen, head of painting at Glasgow School of Art. Both artists chose similar themes, goddesses from Greek mythology.

But the effects were radically different. Crawfords, wishing to attract genteel Edinburgh ladies, was furnished in the style of a private drawing room. Its key theme was the worship of women, with one panel depicting the worship of Venus while another portrayed an enthroned Madonna. In other panels, Athene, Aphrodite, Hera and Artemis symbolised the idealised female qualities of strength, love, wisdom and purity.

But in one picture, Lindsay suspects a joke by the Edinburgh head of painting. It features Diana without the goddess's usual attributes of moon and bow and arrow. "This makes me think that the panel does not in fact show Diana but rather a group of maenads, accompanied by Bacchus's leopards, heading up to a bacchanal in the ladies' tea room," she explains.

By contrast, Pettigrew and Stephens was seeking more male customers. "Men were to be attracted by a smoking room that would be akin to a men's club room," Lindsey says. Greiffenhagen's panels were also classical scenes - but titillating ones, with gauzily draped female figures displayed for a male gaze. "Classical themes were used as a way to legitimise semi-nude figures appearing within a public space," Lindsey says. "The accompanying pamphlet underlines this, remarking of the semi-draped topless figures in the picture Harvest, 'Harvesting at all times is hot and thirsty work. The Greeks had one advantage over present-day harvesters - they were suitably clothed for their work'."

Both shops were delighted with the results of their foray into art decoration. "Both (shops) stressed the harmony, grace and refinement of the decorative schemes and their ability to attract the 'best class of customers' to their establishments."

Olga Wojtas

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