Review: HASTA & The Art History Society Host Student-Led Research Seminar

By Caroline Corasdaile

This past Wednesday, on April 5th, HASTA Magazine and The Art History Society hosted an entirely student-led Research Seminar highlighting the themes and intersections of Gender, Religion, and Politics. The two organizations invited students from every year and focus to give a short presentation about their topic to share their research with an audience of friends and academic peers. On the day of the seminar, the Saunders Room at 79 North Street was quite full, and not surprisingly (to anyone who’s taken an art history course) full of women. These fresh-faced aspiring art historians presented on a wide range of topics ranging from modern, to medieval, to contemporary art, and everything in between.

The first talk, given by Mercedes Weidmer, illuminated the work of little-known Latvian-American female artist Vija Celmins. Currently age 78, Celmins has created throughout her life a brilliant portfolio of intense photo-realistic paintings and drawings of natural phenomena including ocean surfaces, star fields, and spider webs. Mercedes discussed the nature of this meticulous artist’s work, terming it “distilled intensity”, and examined ways in which Celmins harnesses and manipulates reality through her art and photography. Mercedes rightfully asserted that while not quite a household name, Celmins nonetheless occupies an important place in the tradition of American contemporary and modern art.

Helena Erikstrup presented next, and chose to focus her talk on a single particular painting by Elena Luksch-Makowsky titled, Adolescentia (1903). Helena spoke on this painting through the lens of gender and feminism, and examined aspects in which gender is arranged, posed, and performed, citing Judith Butler’s seminal 1990 book Gender Trouble. She compares and contrasts the central, slightly androgynous, female figure with the contrasting male group crowded behind the girl- one of them catcalling at her. Helena identifies this as a pivotal image, and defined it as a site of contested gender differences. She also examined and discussed the physical display of this painting- a key aspect to this work which was specifically shown alongside other contemporary works that tied into the Pre-Raphaelite movement, striving towards an aesthetic harmony at the turn of the century, Vienna.

Lily Spencer’s talk on sex and gender in the work of the notorious Aubrey Beardsley also focused on similar themes of androgyny and sexual difference. Beardsley who lived a short yet scandalous life from (1872-1898) is known primarily for his Japonaise-style woodcuts, and Lily discussed the concurrent movements of Aestheticism in England and Decadism-Dandyism in France, and the ways in which Beardsley’s work represents and embodies this. She highlighted such prints as The Stomach Dance (1893) and Cul de Lampe (1893) that transformed the erotic biblical dances of Salome into scenes of grotesque and ambiguously gendered figures, that in many ways invert or reverse classic Victorian gendered roles.

Janis Petzinger, our own Editor of HASTA, also contributed some of her research to the seminar on the late medieval religious cradles of female religious orders, and the performance of gender and faith in ecclesiastical settings. A novelty to our modern eyes, these petite cradles were meant to foster an intimate and maternal bond between the religious woman and the Christ child. With these objects women would interact with a figurine of Christ as if it were an actual child. These artifacts are not well-known likely because they are quite rare, and only a very few cradles still exist in collections today. Janis said that these items were brought to her attention and sparked her curiosity on a trip she took with her class Luxury Goods in the Middle Ages to The Burrell Collection in Glasgow last semester. Janis recounted that although kept in houses devoted to religious orders, these were highly decorated and gilded artifacts that mimicked the Gothic architecture so prevalent during this time. Janis did an excellent job explaining these artifacts, and the ways in which they illustrated the intersection of the secular and religious in the lives of women who engaged with them  

The final presentation by Katherine Thorton brought the focus of the seminar to its most recent and contemporary topic. She discussed her research on the art and gentrification of Peckham, a quickly growing neighborhood in south-east London. She focused on the phenomenon of Bold Tendencies, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 that transformed a disused multi-story carpark into a trendy venue for art, music, theatre, literature, as well as the site for a popular bar and café. Recounting the recent history of Peckham area, Katherine discussed the legacy of the !wowow! generation of avant-garde artists and its impact on this neighborhood. While Bold Tendencies boasts wonderful views of the London skyline, and a reputation as a hipster oasis, Katherine brought to attention the problematic nature of this arts project positioned in the heart of a traditionally diverse and lower-income area. However, she reconciled these concerns by her conclusion that more representation of the local community in the Bold Tendencies art installation space could help foster an inclusivity and promote a better relationship between the arts space, those that frequent it, and the residents of vibrant Peckham.

This student-led seminar was an interesting and inspiring chance to hear about the diverse work and research being undertaken by a set of intelligent women from the Art History Department. As the semester comes to a close, it was a nice chance to step outside of one’s own looming deadlines and research, and to remind ourselves of what makes so Art History exciting and fun, and why we fell in love with this field in the first place.