Art History: Why study it? And what to do with it? AHA tutor Andy MacKay on his own experience.

During my years as an Art History undergraduate (St Andrews, 1998-2002) I frequently encountered a frustrating level of unawareness amongst friends concerning my future employment prospects. The most annoying question was ‘what can you do with an Art History degree?’ and I would furiously list, time and again, all the reasons – aside from the simple pleasure of studying something you love just for the sake of it – why everyone should at some point at least dip their brush into the ever-widening palette that is the history of art.

Burne-Jones, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881-98)

Art History is a unique subject and as a degree will undoubtedly prepare one for life and work unlike any other.  Essentially it is every subject rolled into one. Of course, the chemical analysis of pigment and stone, and the textural interest in surface and brushstroke provide invaluable information about the techniques employed over the centuries by artists, sculptors and architects. This materialist approach provides the traditional structure of an Art History degree – but it is what lies beyond this face-value approach which is most valuable to students. To understand a work of art one must see it within its cultural context and for this reason the study of Art History necessarily requires students to become cultural historians. Understanding the history of art requires a study of politics, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, literature and poetry, design, fashion, chemistry, geometry, physiognomy and astronomy – the list could go on. Art historians are necessarily inter-disciplinarians and for this reason Art History is the broadest education one can receive. Ultimately, Art History is the study of civilisation; the preservation of human history, insight and ‘progress’.

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Statuette (c. 1545)

I have always felt that paintings, sculptures and buildings hold secrets – privileged knowledge and expertise to be sure, but also secret meanings, hopes, desires and fantasies also. Art History is for me the study of meanings and ideologies. The ‘hook’ to draw one into a work of art can be anything which catches the eye or the heart. Once ‘in’, as it were, one can begin to exercise the eye, the heart and the mind. As a student, sitting in a darkened lecture hall or seminar room, the eye begins to re-learn the act of seeing. We live in a world of ever-multiplying images and we are the most visually literate generation to have ever existed on Earth. Yet perversely we often forget how to see – to really look, to really scrutinise the images and spaces which surround us, define us and manipulate us. Looking and seeing are very different actions. Looking is a routine part of everyday visual life; seeing employs not only the eye but also the heart and the mind. Contemplating a work of art is meditative at its best and through this discipline we can experience the primary quality of art – a purely sensual enjoyment of colour, texture, arrangement and form. Thoughtful mediation allows one also to ‘see through’ the work toward deeper meanings not immediately apparent. Here, somewhat ironically, we intellectualise art – a secondary approach often indeed more radical.  Art historians are ultimately critics (in the best sense of that description) for our discipline requires an alert eye, a sympathetic heart and a subtle mind. Without these three qualities, the Holy Trinity of Art History if you like, one is blind to the path of human history.

De Chirico, Hector and Andromache (1917)

Studying Art History gives one the time and space to consider that most perennial of questions: ‘what is art?’ Such a question is rather like asking ‘what is it to be a human?’ – it is almost, joyfully, unanswerable. I offer as a general assertion that the classification ‘art’ simply denotes a creative endeavour; the motivation of all people across centuries and cultures to comprehend life, the act of living, and of course death itself. Although the outcomes are often strikingly different, the desire to explore, create, question and assert is universal. We collectively confront the void, generation after generation. Answers to the questions of life and art may never be forthcoming but the asking is vital; the struggle defines us.

A love of culture in its ‘highest’ capitalised form as well as its ‘lowest’ and most ribald brings to living in the contemporary world an unparalleled clarity. Art historians are some of the most dynamic people I know: intellectuals as well as entrepreneurs. With the quietude to ‘see’, the insight to think and the requirement to act, an Art History graduate can expect much from life. As regards the verifiable outcomes of an Art History degree, they are myriad.

Kandinsky, Composition IV (1911)

The obvious and most well-trodden career paths will take you to auction houses and commercial galleries; here the questions of attribution and authenticity prevail, the ‘facts’ of art providing the necessary ‘figures’ as it were. Several art historian friends have gone into Law – their forensic minds well suited to the minutiae of rhetoric and balanced judgement. Journalism and publishing too attract the Art History graduate as an area in which the intellect must be creatively channelled into easily digestible products for mass consumption. Advertising and branding is in many ways the natural terrain of the art historian in that creative responsibilities require an intimate knowledge of visual signs, symbols and signifiers. Postgraduate study is generally required for curatorial careers where graduates become ‘interpreters’ of complex ideas for the general public – a role similar indeed to that of the teacher.

Dix, Sylvia von Harden (1926)

The heritage and preservation industries are naturally run by a large body of Art History graduates too; the gatekeepers of our collective memory. An international career in restoration would reward those art historians who value painstaking attention of detail and technique. Or there are research roles in documentary television and radio. Therefore, as few would question for example, the validity of the English Literature degree, more should recognise the very real quantifiable value, in life as well as work, of studying Art History.

Creation of a Portrait by Anna Fothergill

Portraits are something we are faced with (pun intended) everyday. Cameras have made it possible for everyone to capture their likeness and as I studied the relationship between photography and portraits, I discovered there is actually a lot more to creating an image of a person than its physical accuracy. So one rainy afternoon my flat mates were hood winked into the first of many photography projects. The idea: Write one word on a piece of paper that describes something they want to be MORE of, e.g decisive, generous, and daring. Here are the resulting images, with slightly edited text:


It was truly fascinating to see what people came up with. Some took longer than others, some answers were surprising, but by doing this, I looked at the way, when a portrait is taken, the subject wants to be shown in a particular light. From this, I as the artist am in a unique position of power, to decide whether or not they get to be shown in that way. I chose whether or not their individuality gets taken away. By placing many portraits of different people together, the only way to keep that individuality is by the word they have chosen and displayed. An interesting tension between physical accuracy and inner character arises when the subject is asked to describe themselves.

However, so to add to this idea, I wanted to take away the subject’s exact likeness. In this way, it is a portrait, as they have that word. What I quickly realised was that again tension was created when I drew in the faces rather than leave the photographic likeness:


While the subject still has recognisable features, there is now a disconcerting element to the portraits. A side point is that interestingly enough, the words people choose where, for each individual, perfect words as to how I as their friend saw them, and yet they are claiming they want to have more of that quality. This introduces ideas of how one views one self and how they actually are perceived by the outer world. A third party had no other indication other than the word on the piece of paper about the character of this person, and from that, they assume it is true. Our minds find it hard to believe what the camera depicts as anything other than truth. I as the photographer know whether or not my subjects are the characteristics they chose to display. This was a very interesting project and I encourage you to think about these aspects next time you are taking candid snapshots.

Thank you to all my flat mates who partook in this!

Here are some of the out-takes from this shoot:


You can read more from Anna here

Everyday Art: ceramics and mosaics on the Southbank, by AHA alum Catriona Grant

My sister recently moved to into her second year student house on the Southbank in London. When my mum and I went to help her move in we wandered back towards the Embankment via Black Prince Road. For anyone who hasn’t walked along this way, underneath a railway bridge are a series of mosaics depicting Prince Edward III, the street’s namesake. Along the other side are ceramic plaques inspired by Doulton Pottery.

Black Prince Road
Detail of a ground floor window frame

Doulton Pottery was established in Lambeth in 1815. Today the building on Black Prince Road is used for offices, although the firm’s name can just be read, high above the corner entrance. The firm’s former base stands out on this quiet street thanks to its ornate earthenware details, such as the delicate sheaths of corn, encased in blue leaves that form segments of a columnar frame to the ground floor windows. Above the doorway is a humble scene of potters at work, surrounded by bands of moulded motifs like those found above arched church doorways of the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Cast your eyes higher and you’ll see a looming corner turret, consisting of elaborate bands of embellishment, that radiate out like petals.


Potters at work
View from below the projecting turret

A number of artists contributed to the ceramics under the bridge, drawing on the themes and patterns traditionally used by the Doulton Pottery. The designs are simple yet dramatic. The use of layered clay creates three dimensionality, and strong colours emphasize, for example, the blue, green and ochre of one foliage design.

One of the ceramic plaques under the railway bridge

The portraits of the Black Prince were created as part of a project called Southbank Mosaics. They commemorate the 14th century royal and military champion in a number of guises, ranging from a representation of a warrior heroically clad in armour, to arresting close ups of the young prince’s face. In the words of the project’s creators, ‘mosaics are a metaphor for London: all the communities, colours, peoples, faiths, tribes and creeds coming together to make a brilliant whole.’ As a medium they are durable, descriptive and diverse, and as such are well suited to adorning an urban underpass.

Edward, the Black Prince
A more intimate portrait

The bona fide cliche of finding artistic gems right under your nose is certainly applicable here. But as part of this maxim, it is also worth remembering to look upwards every now and again; you never know what aesthetic creations might line tunnel walls, or ornament the windows of passing buildings.

(photographs are a collection of my own, or from the Southbank Mosaics website).

An extraordinary piece of paper: Raphael’s ‘Head of an Apostle’, by Lucy Speelman

Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, 'Head of a Young Apostle', Sotheby's London, 5th December 2012, Lot 52 (est. £10-15 million)


It’s a common question to be asked: if you won the lottery, what would you spend the money on?  Imagine – you’ve suddenly got a cool £30 million knocking around.  What would you buy?  A big house, a new car, a holiday?  Or an old bit of paper from half a millennium ago?  It may be hard for some to believe, but someone, somewhere, has in fact just spent £29,721,250 on a piece of 500-year-old paper.  It just happens to have a sketch by Raphael on it.

Three records were set by this sale: the highest price achieved by any Raphael artwork, the second highest price for any Old Master, and the highest price for any work on paper from any period.  This exquisitely drawn sketch is an auxiliary cartoon or study for one of the young apostles in Raphel’s greatest masterpieces, the Transfiguration.  Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici in 1516, the Transfiguration stands at over 4 metres high, powerful and imposing, and was described by Vasari in Lives of the Artists as “most beautiful and most divine”.  Its luminous colours, dynamic composition and almost Baroque-esque use of chiaroscuro make it one of the most striking works of the High Renaissance.

'The Tranfiguration', Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, c.1516-20, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

Gregory Rubinstein, Worldwide Head of Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s, said “If you are lucky, at some point in your career a work like this comes along. A number of the world’s greatest collectors stepped up tonight in recognition of the genius of Raphael and the extraordinary beauty of this drawing with its exceptional provenance.”  The work’s provenance is definitely impressive; it has remained in the Devonshire collection for almost 300 years after being bought by William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire, one of the greatest Old Master drawing collectors of all time.  His acquisitions account for about 90% of the drawings in the Devonshire collection.

'William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire', Sir Godfrey Kneller, c.1710-16, National Portrait Gallery, London

It seems that 4 bidders liked it enough to battle it out for the drawing for 17 intense minutes, driving the total far above the £10-15 million sale estimate before the hammer finally fell.  “Two London-based dealers, Jean-Luc Baroni and Stephen Ongpin, vied for the drawing before it fell to an anonymous telephone bidder, whom many observers are suggesting, with reason, was Russian”.[1]

There is something simplistically beautiful and moving about this sketch.  Its emotion is subtle yet palpable, and the lines are delicate yet definite, and I can say with certainty that I will never see another drawing quite like it.

Sotheby’s catalogue entry:

Raphael video:

Post Sale Report video:

[1] C. Gleadell, ‘Art sales: Buyers hungry for quality’, 11/12/12, The Daily Telegraph

Malmo by Andy Stewart MacKay

Without the aristocratic grandeur of Stockholm, or indeed nearby Copenhagen, Malmö has traditionally been ignored by culture-vultures. But a recent visit has persuaded me this should be reassessed.

With Medieval Danish origins the city was once famous for its herring-markets and didn’t actually become part of Sweden until the seventeenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century Malmö was home to one of the largest shipbuilding industries in the world, bringing with it a vast increase in the population and some of the finest Victorian architecture you’ll see in the Scania region. After the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, during 1990s the city council invested heavily in regeneration programs – including the incredible Öresund Bridge linking Malmö with its ancient capital Copenhagen, a new university as well as the revived waterfront. Perhaps the most impressive architectural project of recent years is Santiago Calatrava’s ‘Turning Torso’ (2005) apartment building which dominates the Malmö skyline and is the tallest skyscraper in Scandinavia.

Santiago Calatrava’s ‘Turning Torso’ (2005)

Like any city there is the old stuff to see: the beautiful ‘Baltic Gothic’ St Petri Kyrka (St Peter’s Church) begun in 1319 and still standing defiantly in the heart of the city, then there’s the impressive Malmöhus (Malmö Castle) founded in 1434 by Eric of Pomerania and briefly ‘home’ to the Earl of Bothwell, third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Any visit to Malmö must include a visit to the charming wooded Victorian Kallbadhus (the cold baths) at the end of the Ribersborg pier. Here one can sweat it out Swedish-style in one of the several saunas before diving into the icy waters of the Öresund – even when it’s snowing!

In the last few years Malmo has acquired two fantastic modern art spaces – the Konsthall exhibition hall and the Moderna Museet modern art gallery. Tucked away in a beautiful Medieval building, the vivid orange entrance hall of the Modern Museet comes as a jolting shock. Such intensity of colour is continued in the cloakroom area with a brilliant, vibrant yellow. Even some of the gallery walls themselves have, unusually, been accented with a kind of mossy green, and this feels somehow appropriate for the Moderna Museet’s current exhibition: ‘Supersurrealism’. Examining the work of current surrealists alongside those of the inter-war Masters, this exhibition vibrates with fruitful exchanges across half a century. Upstairs has some of the museum’s permanent collection of early surrealist painting, sculpture and photography; downstairs, contemporary takes on the unconscious.

Ernst’s human figure (1931)

Surrealism concerns things, objects, actions, people, places being ‘out of place’ as it were – breaking free of their conventional classifications; re-forming, exposing, confounding, returning. Dali’s Renaissance brushwork leads us unwittingly into uncharted territory which both excites and terrifies; De Chirico’s desolate Italian townscapes and uncanny ‘dummies’ bring to mind the horrors and isolation of childhood; Ernst’s human figure (1931) is a primitive sea monster similar to the watery-hybrids of H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional New England; Magritte’s paintings intellectualise the contingency of language and conception whilst Bourgeois’s tactile sculpture manifests a new kind of language for the expression of trauma. In one of the stairwells one feels somewhat uncomfortable thanks to Magnus Wallin’s uncanny Concrete Decoration (2012) on the ceiling. Biological in colour, texture and shape it is as Wathough, in a brief and illicit moment of honesty, the building is shifting itself to exposing the damaged lining of its own stomach.

Magnus Wallin’s Concrete Decoration (2012)
Carsten Holler’s giant mushrooms (2012)


Once downstairs the animated work of Nathalie Djurberg continues to unnerve; her 2004 film ‘Florentin’ explores the violence of family life, featuring what appear to be a father and two daughters. Happily laughing and fooling around one minute and engaging in sadistic, and perhaps sexualised, violence the next, the family dining room becomes a microcosm of society. Carsten Holler’s now-famous giant mushrooms (2012) turn the tables on us; deliberately returning us to childhood fantasy and confronting us with our collective desire to dominate and discard. One of the last rooms, and indeed the darkest features Magnus Wallin’s black and white holographic film Mission (2009). Here a human skeleton engages in an unknown though nightmarish series of repetitions, through an endless set of maze-like ‘boxes’ (reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s ‘cages’), encountering what looks like a giant tongue and is caressed by it. But of course we can’t be sure.

Magnus Wallin’s black and white holographic film Mission (2009)

The third largest city in Sweden is ripe to turn its face to world. Malmö is a relatively cheap and deeply multi-cultural place to visit, signs of gentrification are everywhere, there is a small bohemian quarter – as well a wealth of second-hand shops (still yet to be rebranded as ‘vintage boutiques’). It seems Malmö is on course to become the next go-to destination for trendy Shoreditch artists and Kreuzberg filmmakers – meaning that within the decade Malmö will be on all our cultural maps. Go early to avoid the rush.

Berlusconi Sentenced: don’t get your hopes up…..AHA alum Katie Campbell discusses

Recentlythe infamous former Prime Minister of Italy was sentenced to four years jail time a few weeks ago for tax fraud in relation to Mediaset, the broadcasting company in which he holds a majority stake.  The headlines on the online editions of newspapers across the globe must surely have excited joy or at the very least appreciation in the minds of many of the readers.  Berlusconi’s reign as three time Italian Prime Minister has long been ridiculed worldwide; his gaffes are infamous (we all remember his remarks about Obama), he has been the subject of numerous court trials, suspected by some of Mafia links and generally seen to be an ineffective leader of Italy.

Since his resignation in November of last year, Berlusconi has been in the spotlight over the “Ruby Rubacuori” (Ruby the Heart-Stealer) case; where he has been accused of having under-age sex with Karima El-Mahroug at one of his so-called “bunga-bunga” nights.  Both parties deny the accusations and the case is on going.

In comparison a case about tax fraud seems rather less glamorous, yet the sentence given does mark an important turn of events.  It is the first time Berlusconi has been convicted. Despite being accused and brought to court on numerous occasions he has always been cleared or the cases have over-run the judicial court limit.

The ruling has a number of serious implications for the former prime minister: he will not be able to stand for a position of public office for three years (a few days ago he declared that he would not stand for office in next year’s elections), Mediaset has taken a financial hit with share prices falling by 3% and if the conviction stands after two reviews in the courts of appeal then Berlusconi would have to spend time behind bars.

However here in lies the crux of the matter; the appeals could well take years to complete and in reality Berlusconi is unlikely to ever have to serve time.  Secondly if the conviction does hold through the successive appeals Berlusconi would only have to serve one year’s jail time rather than four years due to an amnesty law passed in 2006 to stop prison overcrowding.  Hence the don’t get your hopes up…..

Berlusconi was not present at the sentencing and it’s to be expected that over the coming months he will offer some typical “Berlusconisms” in response; expect a tirade against the judges out to get him, the Communist left destroying capitalist ventures and such like.  Whilst the immediate reaction of joy at the news of the conviction was tempered by the constraints of the Italian legal system, it does mean that we are distinctly unlikely to see him holding office for a fourth time.  Considering his remarkable ability to bounce back from media scandals, this small mercy is to be praised.

‘Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’ With Thanks To Vermeer. By Caz St Quinton

Last month I shared my Chuck Close self portrait from my ‘Good Artists Copy, Bad Artists Steal’ photography project. This month sees me take on a rather more ambitious task as I attempt to steal from one of the most famous portraits of all time, Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl With the Pearl Earring.’
'Girl With a Pearl Earring.'1665, Johannes Vermeer.
The ambiguity of Vermeer’s subject allowed me to interpret her according to my own terms. Her head scarf suggests an infusion of cultures which is something I wanted too play on. I stood in front of the mirror wrapping items of clothing around my head, desperately trying to perfect them. I wanted to steal the shape of the head piece but add an element of exotic pattern in keeping with the ‘otherness’ presence in the costume. I had my flatmate’s mini skirt knotted together with a pillowcase to create this almost turban like head dress.
The girl in vermeer’s painting is famous for her earring. There are so many questions about the huge pearl sat in her ear. I wanted to turn these on their head by replacing the pearl with a chandelier earring, what I thought was most different to a pearl and suited the head piece more. While doing this I began to think what would happen if she wasn’t wearing a pearl? Would there have been books written about her, or queues to visit her? I replaced the earring to encourage the viewer to question what would happen without it. Surely something as small as a pearl earring can’t be attributed to her fame.
'With Thanks to Vermeer'
My biggest challenge was re creating the soft light that Vermeer captures with his glowing paintwork. I had a series of lamps set up on one side of the room so that they could light up one side of my face against the make shift black paper background. To capture this I couldn’t use flash on my camera so I had to stand still enough so that the picture didn’t blur, but then move the slightest amount to get that painterly, almost grainy effect that Vermeer perfected with a brush.
'With Thanks to Vermeer'
'With Thanks to Vermeer'
The meditative look over the shoulder that the subject is so famous for suggests many different things for the viewer. Would they like it as much if she happened to be in another pose? Surely Vermeer tried her out in a few different poses before he decided on this one.
I tried to reinact what these poses could have been to remind the viewer that the subject in this picture is not static like her portrait. The painting is such a famous image we often assume in our minds that this is how she always looked. This one image has become her entire identity. In reality of course this is a posed picture, it is not how she would have naturally been as Vermeer would have instructed her on how to dress and sit for the painting. She has a story. Although it is one that is now forgotten. A story nobody knows, which perhaps is even more exciting for the viewer as we can make one up about her. We are free to interpret her as we like; to make her our own.

HOW TO BE ROMAN: Lucy Chiswell’s top ten substitutes for tourist traps in the eternal city


If you find yourself hunting for an aperitivo in Rome, you are already leaps and bounds ahead of the coach loads of iPhone snapping tourists in the race to becoming Roman. In fact, you are even miles ahead of some of the Roman residents. Something that sticks firmly in my mind is a bus journey I spent listening to a student describing a bar in Florence to her peers that has this ‘really cool thing where you like only spend like eight euros on a drink and then there’s like a whole buffet of like food for free’. Welcome to Italy. This is called aperitivo and it can be found in pretty much every bar in the country. Bless.

Thanks to luciagalant

But the trick to becoming one of the locals is to know where to go, when to go and most importantly, how to go. An aperitivo (more commonly known as an aperitif) is traditionally a drink before dinner which, in Italy, is accompanied by plates of food laid out in the bar area. What I might like to call a ‘forky talky’. It is routine for Italians to go for an aperitivo before making their way to the trattoria for dinner. For us English people however, it doesn’t tend to work like that. Doing things in moderation is what the Italians do well, and the English do badly. So for us aperitivo tends to replace dinner.

Search: combination of delicious food and good cocktails. Result: Fluid.

Disguised behind heavy, wooden, sign-less doors, in daylight the bar is tricky to pick out from Via Governo Vecchio’s endless restaurants and vintage shops. But between the hours of 6pm and 2am, you will find a hip and buzzing bar, full to the brim with trendy Italians gazing into each other’s eyes over passion fruit Mojitos and Moscow Mules. You will be drawn to the low lighting, the minimal music, the psychedelic oil-filled floor tiles and tables and the LED lit stools.

Not to give yourself away, remember to buy your aperitivo ticket as you enter and then choose from the extensive menu of deliciously fresh cocktails (I recommend the two aforementioned and the ‘Fluid’) whilst helping yourself to one, two , three, maybe four plates of Italian scrumptiousness. Aperitivi are traditionally carby and salty to encourage more boozing and thus more spending. But at Fluid, not only do they keep salt to a minimum (something that Freni e Frizioni could learn from – another great but salty aperitivo in Trastevere) but as well as offering pasta, risotto, rice and bread, you also have salads, cheese, vegetables and fruit to choose from.

The delicious food, the exotic cocktails, the fantastic atmosphere and the beautiful people, all make Fluid hands down my number one aperitivo in Roma. Just make sure you get there early to get a table and to be the first to get your hands on their gourmet spread.