Art History Program Distinguished Scholar Lecture and End of Year Awards

On April 4, the Art History Program hosted its Distinguished Scholar Lecture in Abramson Recital Hall in the Katzen Arts Center. The undergraduate Art History award winners were also announced during the program. Jordan Hillman won the Robert and Susan Pence Award for Outstanding Art History Senior, Thomas Williams was awarded the Art History Faculty Award for Outstanding Art History Senior, and Caroline Marsh was presented with the Maiden Scholarship for Junior Art History Major.

John Ravenal, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, delivered the Distinguished Scholar Lecture to students, faculty, and members of the American University community.

John Ravenal, VMFA

Ravenal’s talk was entitled “Building a 21st Century Collection.” He discussed his method for creating a modern and contemporary collection for VMFA that represents a wide range of cultures, materials, and subjects while still remaining appropriate to the museum’s status as a state institution.

Fred Tomaselli, Woodpecker (2008)

Ravenal highlighted several key works in VMFA’s collection, including Fred Tomaselli’s Woodpecker (2008; above). Woodpecker is an extremely detailed, meticulously produced collaged and painted work. The eye of the woodpecker, for example, is made up of tens of tiny collaged images of eyes, while the feathers consist of hundreds of images of natural forms.

Detail: Ryan McGinness, Art History is Not Linear (2009)

Ravenal concluded with a discussion of Ryan McGinness’ Art History is Not Linear (2009), commissioned by the museum. The work, consisting of sixteen four-by-four foot panels, responds to objects in VMFA’s collection. McGinness studied and sketched selected VMFA works, created “logos” based on the works, and then silkscreened the logos onto the panels in carefully designed arrangements. Ravenal discussed how McGinness’ painting serves as an excellent introduction to the collection and also provides unexpected connections between works in different departments.

VMFA completed an expansion project in 2010 and now boasts a new wing and sculpture garden. Make sure to check out their website and plan a visit. The museum’s current exhibitions include “Making History: 20th Century African American Art,” and “Diana Al-Hadid: Trace of a Fictional Third.”

Thank you to John Ravenal for an engaging lecture, and congratulations to this year’s award recipients!

22nd Annual Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference

The AU Art History program was well-represented at the 22nd Annual Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference on March 31st.  MA students Kari Allegretto, Emily Heap, and Catherine Southwick, and senior art history major Allison Porambo gave presentations.  The art history students were placed in three panels: “Mapping Space, Constructing Identity;” “Histories Transformed: Literature, Art, and Film;” and “Unfinished Revolutions.”

Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy (c. 1920-21)
Gelatin silver photograph

Kari Allegretto and Emily Heap presented in the session “Mapping Space, Constructing Identity,” chaired by Professor Juliet Bellow of the Art History department. In her paper “Readymade Rrose: The Art of the Alter Ego,” Kari argued for a new definition of Marcel Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy. Duchamp was photographed in drag as Rrose Sélavy in the 1920s, and he would later credit her with various artworks. Conventionally, Sélavy is seen as either an alter ego or as Duchamp’s exploration of a hidden sexuality. Instead, Kari proposed that Rrose Sélavy was not an alter ego for Marcel Duchamp as much as ‘she’ was an artistic object, one of Duchamp’s readymades. When Duchamp used his own body as a readymade, he challenged the authority and identity of the artist. Recognizing Sélavy as a readymade begs the question: who had the right to claim authorship? Kari concluded that accepting the actual human body as art acknowledges Duchamp’s readymades as not just challenges to consumerism, but to self-definition and authorship.

Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1470)
Oil on canvas

Emily Heap’s presentation was entitled “The Lost Perspectival Theories of Paolo Uccello,” a portion of her MA thesis. Emily detailed the changes in Uccello’s use of perspective from his 1458-60 version of Saint George and the Dragon and his c. 1470 painting of the same subject. She argued for a more nuanced approach to Uccello’s perspectival theories, one that allows for more innovation than current art historical scholarship suggests.

Hildegard of Bingen, Mother Wisdom, Mother Church from Book of Scivias (1150)

Allison Porambo presented in the session “Histories Transformed: Literature, Art, and Film,” chaired by Professor Erik Dussere of the Literature department. Her paper, entitled “The Sacred and the Feminine: The Manuscript Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen and Herrard of Landsberg,” examined the work of these two 12th century abbess-artists. Allison argued that as the Gregorian Reforms restricted the activities, mobility, and education of nuns, and the growing cult of the Virgin created an increasingly unreachable moral standard for women to attain, these artists articulated a feminine theology through their texts and, more importantly, their illuminations. These manuscript illuminations depicting the Church, the Holy Spirit, and other religious concepts as female created a theology open to female spiritual equality. Allison used iconographical analysis to propose that Hildegard’s and Herrad’s imagery of feminized theological concepts represented a possible alternative to a growing Christian misogyny. Due to the manuscripts’ unique purposes for the abbesses’ monastic houses, this more gender-equal vision of Christian theology was not seen by much of the outside world, and thus did not gain a foothold in Medieval Europe at large.

Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Ball at the Moulin de la Galette (1876)
Oil on canvas

Catherine Southwick spoke in the “Unfinished Revolutions” session, chaired by Professor April Shelford of the History department. She presented a portion of her MA thesis, which examines Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette in the context of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune. Previous scholars have considered post-Commune Impressionist painting as a nearly unified bourgeois urgency to reclaim – pictorially and therefore psychologically – sites important in the Commune, an event that was seen as a working class overthrow of the government. However, Catherine argued that Renoir, as the only Impressionist of working class background yet financially dependent on bourgeois patrons, would have a necessarily more complicated relationship to the Paris Commune. Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, set at a dance hall in the working class neighborhood of the Commune’s first skirmish, is well suited to analyze this relationship. Catherine proposed that the formal and social confusions of Ball at the Moulin de la Galette expose Renoir’s complex relationship to Parisian class structure.

The Mathias Conference provided art history students with a forum in which to present and gain feedback on their research. Further, by presenting in wide-ranging sessions, students discovered unexpected affinities with research in other disciplines. Thanks to the professors who sponsored our research, and to the session chairs who facilitated thought-provoking discussions!

Nichole Rawlings’ Internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

[written by second year M.A. student Nichole Rawlings]

Ever since taking AP Art History my junior year of high school I have been hooked on the discipline.  A class trip to Italy solidified my interest in the field, and I went on to receive a BA in art history from Elon University.  I held an internship at the High Museum of Art during the summer of 2008, and became extremely interested in the possibilities of a museum career.  When I decided to go on to graduate school, my decision rested heavily on the strength of the academic program and its proximity to museums.  American University’s program certainly fit the bill!

After my first year in the MA program here at AU, during the summer of 2011, I had the extraordinary opportunity of interning at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in the Education and Public Programs department.  When I began applying to internship opportunities, I never dreamed that I would work with the Smithsonian Institution!  The mentorship and recommendations that I received from my professors here at AU played a large part in securing such a great internship, and I am incredibly grateful.

Now, you may be asking, “Why African art?”  It’s true that my specialty here at AU is in the Italian Renaissance.  When I was at Elon University, I had the opportunity to work with the school’s incredible African art collection to curate an exhibition entitled “Music and Art as Voice of Africa and the African Diaspora: Rhythm, Movement and Color.”  This experience was extremely important to me in several ways—first, I had the opportunity to work with actual art objects in a professional setting.  Second, I realized there was so much material available for exhibition that I was unaware of—the African objects that I worked with were fascinating, and I loved learning about them.

My exhibition experience at Elon led me to consider a wide range of museums for my summer internship here in Washington—at the National Museum of African Art, for example, I would have the opportunity to continue my education in an area I was unfamiliar with while gaining insight in to the museum profession.  After a rigorous application process and an interview with the Education department I was offered the internship with Education and Public Programs, and could not have been more excited!

While at the NMAfA, I had the opportunity to perform a wide range of tasks and gain invaluable work experience.  Some of my primary responsibilities over the summer were related to researching for future museum programming and providing support for summer events.  While interning at NMAfA I was also able to attend planning meetings with other museum departments and outside Smithsonian staff.  On several occasions I attended these meetings without supervision and represented NMAfA to outside institutions.  This allowed me to see the working dynamic of the entire Smithsonian Institution and to feel like a valuable member of the museum team.

This summer NMAfA hosted one of its largest Education programs, Community Day.  The event served as the capstone to a yearlong partnership with area schools and the program itself is dedicated to raising students’ awareness about Africa and its importance.  (Check out a great video about Community Day 2011). Much of my summer work was related to this program, and I learned valuable lessons related to public programming.  I was responsible for creating a timeline of events for the day, coordinating with performers and vendors, confirming their participation—when the Community Day schedule was implemented the day-of with no problems, I felt incredibly proud and validated.

Overall, my experience at the National Museum of African Art helped me to gain new knowledge about a particular art historical area and to develop my career goals.  This summer I realized that creating programming for visitors is a vital and engaging aspect of museum work, and I was able to experience it first hand.  As I begin considering life-after-graduate-school, I feel sure that my experience at NMAfA will greatly impact the opportunities that I consider.  I hope to earn a position that challenges me to grow intellectually while allowing me the opportunity to encourage the same growth in visitors.

To learn more about the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and its mission, check out their website. NMAfA has a wide range of cultural opportunities constantly open to the public, and they always provide a fun and educational experience!