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!

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