Art Historians in Focus: Dr. Shona Kallestrup

By Stephanie Hammer

Dr. Shona Kallestrup is an Associate Lecture of Art History at the University of St. Andrews, specialising in central and Eastern European and Scandinavian art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In her PhD dissertation, she wrote about art in Romania at the turn of the twentieth century.

Marie, Queen of Romania, by George Charles Beresford, 1905, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Marie, Queen of Romania, by George Charles Beresford, 1905, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

SH: How did you become interested in Art History?

SK: When I did Higher Art at school, there was a tiny 50-mark Art History component, and I was completely captivated by it. I spent more time on that section than I did on the whole rest of the exam. When I left school, I spent a summer working in a restaurant, and then went interrailing for a month to visit all the wonderful places I’d learned about in Art History. So that’s what drew me in.

SH: Had you considered another career path before choosing Art History?

SK: I have done TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) in France, Romania, and Hungary. I’ve also worked as a French teacher, but nothing compared to Art History, so I kept coming back to it.

George Sterian, Cover Design for the first issue of the magazine  Architectura  (Architecture), 1906

George Sterian, Cover Design for the first issue of the magazine Architectura (Architecture), 1906

SH: You’ve travelled to do research. Could you tell me a little bit about your fieldwork in Romania?

SK: Yes, that was a very exciting time, because I was doing my PhD research in Romania after the 1989 Revolution, when the country itself was thinking, ‘How do we re-orientate ourselves?’ I was essentially trying to find things that had been forgotten, or hidden away, or dismissed because they weren’t ideologically acceptable. It took a lot of time to find basic information. I didn’t have the internet, and a lot of my research was the meticulous searching of documents, looking for dates, looking for evidence.

SH: How did you find out about these objects?

SK: Well, first of all, there was a big lacuna in the available literature on Central and Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. I couldn’t understand why nobody had written about Romania until I got there, and realised there was either no information available, or the existing information was very ideologically skewed. The turn of the century was considered by the communists to be a time of bourgeois capitalist production of art, so much of what I was interested in was written out of the history books.

But while I was in Romania – actually, I taught English there in the summers as an undergrad – I kept coming across things that I thought were hugely exciting, but could never find any information on.

Gustav Klimt, Decoration for the theatre in Castle Peles, Sinai, 1884

Gustav Klimt, Decoration for the theatre in Castle Peles, Sinai, 1884

SH: Like works of art and buildings?

SK: Yes, buildings, works of art. Finally, when I began to get inside the royal palaces in particular, and realised what a fabulous wealth of material there was, then my job became an attempt to construct a kind of basic narrative. I wasn’t building on anybody else’s work, because there wasn’t any work. So a lot of my research was knocking on doors, making friends, just trying to get access to collections and archives themselves. In the libraries there were whole sections that had been forbidden under the former regime, and so many of the things I was finally allowed to see had big labels on them saying ‘interzis’ (forbidden), which always gave a little thrill.

Much of the design I looked at had been commissioned by the royal family. I was particularly interested in Marie, the British Queen of Romania (1875-1938), the daughter of the Duke of Edinburgh. She was very artistic and very artistically aware, and invited some of the leading international designers of the time to come to Romania to decorate her palaces. She was also a fairly prolific writer, and collaborated with illustrators like Edmund Dulac and Mabel Lucie Attwell.

I found the evidence of works by Baillie Scott, the British Arts and Crafts architect, as well as by key Art Nouveau designers like Alphonse Mucha and Émile Gallé. But one of my most exciting moments, in the early years of my research, was coming across a body of work by the artists’ company of Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst and Franz Matsch that had been pretty much overlooked by scholarship simply because people in the West couldn’t get access to it, and scholars in Romania hadn’t been allowed to talk about it in any meaningful way.

SH: Do you have any advice for Art History students who are worried about finding their way after graduation?

SK: I would say, trumpet your strengths, forget your weaknesses, seize every opportunity, and just believe in yourself. You are very well-qualified and Art History gives you excellent transferable skills.

SH: What are some things students can do before graduation to prepare themselves for a career afterwards?

SK: Make the most of all the extra-curricular opportunities at St. Andrews. Get involved in societies, show initiative, have a chance at leadership. Make the most of your holidays if you can: do an internship, or work experience, or try and find interesting paid work if you can, showing that beyond your degree, you’ve demonstrated initiative and wider interests.