Decolonising Art History

This blog post was inspired by an OCA workshop on the subject attended by about 20 OCA students from a range of courses. Having studied History of Art with OCA over three modules I was interested in the topic and the viewpoints that other students would bring.

To consider the concept of decolonising art history I think requires us to separate art history from Art History. I use the term art history very loosely and as a conjunction of history and art meaning that art is considered in its historical context. Whereas I take the term Art History to refer to the theoretical study of the topic at educational institutes, the practice of curating and displaying art in cultural settings such as museums and galleries or the writing of literature on the topic. Art History involves Art Historians looking at art history and forming and promoting their own viewpoints.

A major criticism of Art History as currently practiced is that it is completely Eurocentric. To investigate this, I thought that I would look back at the Art History courses I have studied with OCA. My Level 1 module was titled Understanding Art 1: Western Art so it is not surprising that its stated aim was to give a “broad understanding of the development of visual culture in the west from Ancient Greece to the present day”. While it is understandable that an introductory course might concentrate on art that many students new to the subject might be more familiar with, there was no reference in the course notes or in projects or assignments to any art outside of the Western European/North American tradition. The course pack included the main textbook for the course A World History of Art (Honour & Fleming 2009), which does indeed include chapters concerning art from outside Europe/North America. Although as art from the rest of the world occupies just 7 of the book’s 22 chapters the Eurocentric nature of the book is plain.

One problem with Art History as taught at many institutions is that:

“The most widely-used textbooks still organize the history of art in terms of the well-developed Western canon, with other art traditions presented as holistic, geographically based addenda that reduce the span of entire continents and multiple centuries to single chapters.” (Art history and world art history s.d.)

My second OCA Art History course was History of Art 2: Pathways into Specialism which claimed to allow “a deeper study of art from a broader cultural base”. This course did introduce art from different countries and cultures, but it was only a small proportion of what was mainly looking at art from a Eurocentric perspective.

My level 3 studies have been very different, I have been encouraged to investigate Orientalism and helped to adopt a post-colonial approach to the topic I am researching. Perhaps because of this I am keen to learn more about decolonising Art History.

One of the first exercises in my Level 1 OCA course concerned the Canon – a body of work, in this case works of art, that have traditionally been accepted as ‘great’ art and therefore of particular value. One of the issues with the Canon is that it involves Art Historians making a judgement as to what art is deemed worthy of classification within the Canon, which art gets written about, is included within exhibitions etc. Until now, these have mainly displayed a eurocentric bias to their choices.

The workshop inspired me to research the issue in more detail and I found Decolonizing Art History (Grant & Price 2020) particularly interesting. The editors invited a panel of around 28  “art historians, curators and artists to respond to a series of questions that consider some of the recent calls to ‘decolonize art history’” (ibid:9).

The views of the respondents vary but illustrate the vast scope of the task. The following points are my response made in the light of the comments, and I hope that they illustrate the breadth of the viewpoints received and the scale of the work required to decolonize Art History.

  • The term Art History infers a single body of knowledge whereas perhaps we should be referring to Art Histories, which would allow a review of the history of art in any particular culture and also cross-cultural influences. Art Histories would not claim that any one history or culture is superior to any other.
  • Art Histories needs to be radical and to challenge the status quo, in particular the concept of the Canon and the nature of Art History as is currently practiced with its linear progression from Greek/Roman art through to the Renaissance and on to European/North American modernism. The study of Art Histories would diversify to include far greater concentration on works outside of this tradition.
  • Art History is not just an academic discipline but includes curatorial staff and artists themselves. Part of the problem may be the hierarchy found within art – one that prioritises art above craft, that prioritises within art such as a greater recognition for painting over other art forms and still prioritises within painting genres.
  • The influence of the art market on art and artists is huge, continuing to skew priorities within the art world and promoting the eurocentric nature of the market. One only need visit large scale art fairs or read the adverts in art history magazines to appreciate in which direction the market is driving art. Can the art market be influenced to decolonise the Canon?
  • Individual steps in curating, exhibiting, critiquing, or writing about art from a post-colonial view can, incrementally, change the viewpoint. This has already happened, with some success, with a feminist view of art.
  • The curriculum for Art Histories courses needs to change to reflect a much broader view of art and what constitutes art. Educational organisations could look at the courses they offer and consider who they might appeal to. More importantly they could then consider who might this course NOT appeal to and why. Are there groups that would feel alienated from a course of study because the content does not feel relevant to them. Student involvement in devising curricula could help but should not rely on existing cohort of students as the curriculum content may have already, unknowingly, alienated certain groups.
  • A fresh look at how we study art could be productive – perhaps art could be studied by period of history. Many courses will contain study of the Renaissance and simply look at Italian art with possibly consideration of wider European Art of the time. Studying art by period of history could look at the Renaissance alongside Mughal and Ottoman art.
  • Decolonisation cannot be divorced from other aspects of bias within Art History – racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination are interlinked and need to work together to achieve change.
  • Nearly all debates on decolonisation are based around the eurocentric nature of the issue – as this piece has been  up to now – a case of “West dominates East”. But as Professor Watanabe points out in his essay in Decolonizing Art History (Grant & Price 2020:64) other countries have been colonising powers. He gives the example of Japanese colonialism in Asia “an East versus East scenario” and gives examples from Japan’s colonisation of Korea.
  • Statues have been in the news a lot just lately, mainly concerning the subjects past links with the slave trade or racist views. Many believe such statues are emblematic of a continuing colonialist mindset and there are those who promote the removal from public spaces of these statues. The issue though can be more complex. It is widely known that the word ‘racist’ was painted on a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Less well reported was that the same word was painted on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the same location. The statue of Edward Colston was the subject of much debate in Bristol prior to the day it was toppled, equally a petition was raised to remove a statue of Gandhi in Leicester and another to stop Manchester council commissioning a statue to Gandhi, both of which refer to Gandhi’s alleged racist views. But statues can also help in the decolonisation of art, a good example being Michael Rakowitz’s statue The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist which occupied the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square from 2018 to 2020. Rakowitz is an American artist of Iraqi descent and the statue is a recreation Lamassu, a winged that guarded a gate in Nineveh, now in modern-day Iraq, from around 700 BCE until it was destroyed by IS in 2015. I am not saying that all statues should be preserved whatever they represent, as James D’Emilio points out in his essay (Grant & Price 2020:22) such statues have a life span and goes on to state “Monuments with multiple, contested, and nuanced interpretations are best contextualized and used for debate”.

 

I started this piece with a comment about the difference between art history and Art History. It reminds me of a quote from the historian E. H. Carr, the author of What is History (Carr 1961), in which he argues that historical facts are simply those that the historian has chosen to be facts. He urged his students to “study the historian before you begin to study the facts” (Carr 2019). Perhaps students of art history should be advised to study the Art Historian before they begin to study the facts.

I feel privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunity to study Art History with OCA. Certainly the curriculum for the Level 1 and 2 courses could be criticised for its eurocentric nature, but at Level 3 I have been studying Orientalism and looking at art from a post-colonial viewpoint. I think it is a shame that OCA has now dropped its Art History courses, I have certainly learned a lot from them end they have helped to make a considerable change in my photographic practice.

Perhaps OCA can make a big statement and introduce Global Art Histories as modules within its degree pathways!

 

References

Art history and world art history (s.d.) At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/approaches-to-art-history/approaches-art-history/introduction-art-history/a/art-history-and-world-art-history (Accessed 21/03/2021).

Carr, E. H. (1961) What is History?. London: Penguin UK.

Carr, H. (2019) History according to EH Carr. At: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/05/eh-carr-what-is-history-truth-subjectivity-facts (Accessed 20/03/2021).

Grant, C. and Price, D. (2020) ‘Decolonizing art history’ In: Art history 43 (1) pp.8–66.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art 7th Rev. edn. London: Laurence King Publishing.

New Indian Express (2020) Standoff over removal of Mahatma Gandhi statue in UK city of Leicester. At: https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2020/jun/12/standoff-over-removal-of-mahatma-gandhi-statue-in-uk-city-of-leicester-2155424.html (Accessed 21/03/2021).

Is my work Orientalist?

Is my Body of Work Orientalist? I posed this question at the end of Part 3 of the course when I was writing about the influence of Japanese art on the three artists. Now that I have completed the course (and produced my full body of work) I can, perhaps, give a more reasoned answer to the question.

Is my work Orientalist in the way that paintings of the Orientalist School are, then the answer is no. Is my work of a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1978:11) – I certainly hope not.

Does cultural appropriation classify as Orientalism? If yes, then some of my Body of Work can be seen as Orientalist. As I write in my final essay, cultural appropriation has been happening for centuries and can have positive as well as negative connotations; Millington (2018) notes “many of the world’s most celebrated art movements and objects are the result of it”. Young (2008) sets out five distinct types of cultural appropriation: object, content, style, motif, and subject appropriation.

In my body of work, I have taken the Japanese form of Surimono and adapted it, I have also appropriated the style of Japanese art in my Pesticide series and in some of my Cyanotypes. In terms of cultural appropriation then they are Orientalist. But as I have learned over the course of this module and in researching my essay, this isn’t necessarily problematic. Appropriation can be an appropriate response! To take two examples:

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Guerrilla Girls

Few would quarrel with the classification of Ingres’ Odalisque as an Orientalist painting. “In the mind of an early 19th century French male viewer, the sort of person for whom this image was made, the odalisque would have conjured up not just a harem slave—itself a misconception—but a set of fears and desires linked to the long history of aggression between Christian Europe and Islamic Asia”( Zucker & Harris s.d.). It is a portrayal of another culture painted from the imagination of an artist that had never left Europe. In contrast the appropriation of his work by the Guerrilla Girls makes a strong political statement about the representation of women artists in American museums and galleries. In this case the appropriation of the original work would by regarded as a positive aspect by most people.

So to return to my original question, is my body of work Orientalist? Yes in the same way that Van Gogh, Redon and Boies Hopkins appropriated style and motif from Japanese art. I also share the same respect for Japanese art and culture that was exhibited by those artists.

 

References

Millington, R. (2018) Art History | Cultural appropriation & the art of the steal. At: https://ruthmillington.co.uk/the-art-of-the-steal-cultural-appropriation-art-history/ (Accessed 18/11/2020).

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Young, J. O. (2008) Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Oxford: Blackwell.

Zucker, S. and Harris, B. (s.d.) Painting colonial culture: Ingres’s La Grand Odalisque. At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/enlightenment-revolution/a/ingres-la-grand-odalisque (Accessed 30/05/2021).

Assignment 5 – Review and Analysis

Initially I had a vague idea of what I wanted to study, but it was clear from the first assignments that my research proposal needed significant refinement. I learned that I needed to avoid assuming that influences would be present without supporting evidence. I also needed to find my own voice in the essay rather than relying on quotes from others.

I undertook an extensive literature review over the first three assignments, to undertake this fully I became a member of the National Art Library and obtained a Reader Pass for the British Library. I also discovered the Lisa Sainsbury Library, part of The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, which was an invaluable resource.

I researched Orientalism as well as Japanese art, which I had heard of but did not understand in any detail. I investigated a theoretical framework for the analysis of the work I would be studying. By the end of Assignment three I appreciated that it needed more than just a formal analysis of the different artworks, that contextual influences of the time were equally important.

For my first draft of the essay in Assignment four I had narrowed the topic down substantially. I concentrated on three artists (having initially considered writing about four) and selected Van Gogh, Redon and Boies Hopkins who had each produced significant floral images. I chose these three artists as I wanted to consider a range of style, technique and medium. I was also keen to not to have three male artists. Edna Boies Hopkins was an interesting choice, an artist I had not come across before I started my research. The one area I found difficult in the essay was the lack of literature concerning Boies Hopkins compared to Redon and Van Gogh. This made comparison between the three artists more challenging, particularly when considering contextual influences.

From feedback on Assignment four I learned that I was using too many direct quotes, that I needed to paraphrase or use my own words more, and not to leave “dangling quotes” at the ends of paragraphs. Relying less on direct quotes enabled me to write more in my own style and use my creativity more. From the feedback I also learned the importance of introducing sections with a summary of what I will be writing about, of improving the linkages between sections and the need to refer to the theoretical framework throughout.

I am pleased with how my essay has developed over the five assignments. It is much more focused than the original proposal and I have been able to research an area I was particularly interested in. I have learned so much from the research -about Japanese art, I have discovered an artist I had not come across before, and I now know much more about the work of Van Gogh and Redon. With something of a struggle, I have begun to get my head around Orientalism together with cultural appropriation and how they may interact.

The theoretical framework – formal and contextual analysis – also provided a big learning curve. I had undertaken formal analysis on previous Art History courses but using it to the extent that I did in this essay gave a richer understanding of how contextual influences affect an artist’s work – including my own!

Tutor Feedback on Assignment 5

The feedback on the last draft of my essay was mainly good but with one or two aspects still needing further work. This relates to the structure of the essay where the section and numerous subsections on Japonisme, Japanese art and Orientalism strikes as being quite disparate and would benefit from being collapsed into a single coherent section. In addition I need to improve the Introduction and Conclusion of the essay to incorporate more of the findings I have discovered and the complexities involved.

The essay is almost there now, so with a few more adjustments it should be ready for submission for assessment.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this course and have learned so much, not just about Japanese art and Orientalism but the influences playing on the work of well known artists. I had read of contextual analysis in Art History text books, but undertaking it in the depth I have done so in this essay has been a revelation.

It is also fascinating to think that, without this Research essay, my Body of Work would never have developed in the way that it has (indeed would it have developed at all!!)

Tutor Feedback on Assignment 4

I was pleased with the feedback on my fourth assignment, on the positive side the first draft of the essay was good with wide research. I had also picked up cross-cultural points and explored style appropriation.

To improve the essay I need better framing, to keep the theoretical framework in focus throughout the essay, to improve the introduction to each section and the linkages between sections. I also need to work on the conclusion section to emphasise what has been discovered.

These are all valid points that will improve the final essay and ones that I will work on for Assignment 5.

Surimono

In my research for the final essay I came across Surimono (literally ‘printed thing’), which were high quality woodblock prints containing an image and a poem. Often they were produced by poetry groups in the Edo period who commissioned an artist to create an image in response to a poem that had been written (Kazuhiro 2005:181). The poetry was sometimes in Haiku form but more usually in Kyoka (consisting of 5 lines containing 5-7-5-7-7 syllables)  (Yamaguchi s.d.). Poetry is an integral part of Japanese culture and according to Hanaoka (2019) the combination of image and poem is part of a tradition in Japan that combines literature and art.

I was taken with this concept and adopted (appropriated) the idea to collaborate with a published poet on producing a combined image and poem. We have produced 20 so far and are both keen to continue – but it has helped me to understand how the artist were influenced by Japanese art. Once you see something that you would like to use in your own work, it becomes a very powerful driver.

 

 

 

© Poem Anne Osbourn and Photograph Bob Coe

 

References

Hanaoka, K. (2019) Surimono and Poetry. At: https://blogs.ashmolean.org/easternart/2019/03/14/surimono-and-poetry/ (Accessed 18/01/2021).

Kazuhiro, K. (2005) ‘The ‘Surimono Artist’ Hokusai in the Societyof Edo Kyoka Poets’ In: Carpenter, J. (ed.) Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-e Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Late Edo Japan. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing. pp.180–215.

Yamaguchi, M. (s.d.) Hokusai’s Printed Illustrated Books. At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/edo-period/a/hokusais-printed-illustrated-books (Accessed 16/01/2021).

Assignment 4 Reflective Commentary

I feel as though I am starting to make progress with the essay now, taking on board my tutors comments from last time I have tried to tighten up on the essay title and reduced the amount of space devoted to the Is Japonisme a form of Orientalism debate. As suggested I have also widened the scope to look at more than a single artwork from each artist – I think this has allowed me to consider how the influence of Japanese art changed over time with each artist.

I think what I have learned most from this part assignment is the importance of the contextual aspects when considering an artist’s work. Many people have analysed Van Gogh’s Sunflowers whether looking at Japanese or Impressionist influences on the composition, brushwork, use of colour etc. What I found most interesting though is that if Van Gogh had not had an idealised vision of Japan and the lives of  Japanese artists, then Sunflowers may never have been painted, certainly not in the way we view it today.

I did struggle at times to complete the work, due to the lockdown the two libraries I used the most (National Art Library and Sainsbury Library of Japanese Art and Culture) have been closed throughout. Access to the British Library and Tate Library was restricted and I was unable to visit. Although many works are now available online in the UCA Library it is very frustrating to find a book you want, only to discover that only a physical copy is available in the UCA Library.

The Tate Library has been helpful offering to scan pages or chapters from books that they hold, and I did use their services for some pages of Wildentein’s Catalogue Raisonee of Odilon Redon’s work. But the problem is you need to know exactly which pages you would like copied, and you don’t always know that if you haven’t been able to quickly scan through the work or look at the index.

Still, with the research I was able to do before lockdown, I believe that I have been able to introduce a good number of references and produce a significant Bibliography.

I have thoroughly enjoyed all I am learning about Japanese Art together with its influence on Van Gogh, Redon and Boies Hopkins. In some ways I think that is an argument for the essay to look at the influence on just one of these artists, there is plenty to write about, but I think my essay benefits from looking at the three artists as you can then compare and contrast the different ways in which they reacted to the influences.

Talking about the influence of Japanese art, in my research I came across Surimono, which were high quality woodblock prints which contained an image and a poem. Often they were produced by poetry groups in the Edo period who commissioned an artist to create an image in response to a poem that had been written. I was taken with this concept and adopted (appropriated) the idea to work with a published poet on combined work of image and poem.

We have produced 14 so far and are both keen to continue – but it has helped me to understand how the artist were influenced by Japanese art. Once you see something that you would like to use in your own work, it becomes a very powerful driver.

© Poem Anne Osbourn and Photograph Bob Coe

 

Curation/Contamination Workshop with Bryan Eccleshall

This was a two part workshop run by OCA tutor Bryan Eccleshall. We were a large group overall, but split into a number of smaller breakout groups for the exercise we undertook.

Bryan introduced the session by talking about curating exhibitions and the contamination (or cross pollination) that can happen when you curate a show and how it may affect your own work. He gave examples of different exhibitions that had been created that each had very different effects, e.g. the Royal Academy summer exhibition where large numbers of works are displayed tightly packed, with little space between them; to surrealist exhibitions such as First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York in 1942 where Michel Duchamp famously  used ‘a mile of string’ to form a spider’s web blocking access to the work.

The concept being that how you view art, how it is displayed and how you work collaborate with others to curate an exhibition can also influence your own art work.

We split into smaller groups of around six students (mine was called the Bourgeois group) and were told to each bring two pieces of work and collaborate to curate an exhibition. It was excellent in that we were from different disciplines and stages of our study. We share our work and decided on a format for the exhibition inspired by Duchamp’s Boite en Valise exhibition which was a suitcase containing 69 miniature reproductions of his own work.

We decided that our exhibition would be a virtual one where our images would appear out of a suitcase. We worked to create links between our images and came up with the idea of the theme of location and dislocation which the works would relate to, our title for our exhibition was Location, Location, Dislocation.

In the second week every group presented their exhibition and it was quite remarkable how differently each group had interpreted the theme and curated their own images.

What did I learn from the workshop? Quite a number of things:

  • working with artists from other genres can open your eyes to different ways of doing or seeing things
  • making connections between what seemed initially to be very disparate work
  • how, through discussion, work can be interpreted in different ways
  • seeing how other artists interpret the task set and learn from that
  • quite a few technical aspects, flip books, online gallery software, using padlet to collaborate, , turning powerpoint into a video.

 

Close Reading Workshop with Vicky MacKenzie

This was one of the first online tutorials that OCA have organised since the start of lockdown. It was run by creative writing tutor Vicky MacKenzie. I signed up for the course as I was interested in the topic generally, but as I have been looking at Japanese Surimono (printed sheet containing image and poem) I thought it would be really useful in that respect.

The workshop involved examining two texts: an extract from The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett; and the poem Ironing by Vicki Feaver from her collection The Handless Maiden.

In the first piece we discussed what was happening and who was the narrator – what point of view did they have and could they be considered reliable. If in the third person, perhaps can often be considered reliable. We went on to discuss  about what period the scene was set in and where was it set.

We were given a long list of questions that could be asked when close reading a text. It was emphasised that while we wouldn’t necessarily use them on everything we read, but it would enable us to read more critically and analytically in the future.

We then looked at the poetry and I think this was really useful for my future work. The questions to be asked here were:

  • who is the speaker,
  • what format is used in the poem – (free verse, sonnet, etc),
  • look at stanza breaks – do these affect the rhythm and how
  • how does the line length affect the poem, are they short or long, regular or not, and how does this affect the poem
  • look at the last word on each line, are they significant – a poet often places important words at the end of a line
  • is there a rhyme scheme and what kind of rhythm does the poem have
  • are there sound effects from the words – alliteration, assonance or consonance
  • do you pause in places – if so what causes it and why would the poet have done that

 

It was an excellent workshop and one that will be of great use in my Body of Work as I continue to develop my Surimono type images.

There is a further question I could add to Vick’s list when it comes to a poem and an image, how does each relate to the other?

For example, the following image is one I have worked on with a published poet:

On first reading many people may recognise ‘Queen of the Night’ as a variety of tulip, they may also have heard of it as a character in an opera. When I sent this photo to Anne (the poet I am working with) I also mentioned the Babylonian history of the Queen of the Night (Ereshkigal) and that there was a carved sculpture of this character in the British Museum – I had even written about it on my History of Art 2 course Queen of the Night.

What I find really interesting, and would reward close reading, is how the poem works with the image. The ancient Babylonian story relates how Ereshkigal lured Ishtar into her underworld realm and reduced her powers by requiring her to pass through seven gateways, leaving an item of clothing with the  watchman at each gate. By the seventh gate Ishtar had discarded all her clothes and with them her power.

Tutor Feedback on Assignment 3

I had good feedback on my 3rd Assignment, I need to finalise the research question as I am probably going too deep at the moment into the concepts of Japonisme and Orientalism. Although these are both intrinsic to the work I am doing I shouldn’t spend too much time discussing whether Japonisme is a form of Orientalism – it is – and although there is more to discuss on it, I shouldn’t get too bogged down on that aspect of the essay.

My existing data collection was good but I probably needed to build on it and I could well benefit from looking at several floral images from each artist rather than selecting just one.

It was suggested that  in future I avoid using terms like ‘Orient’ or ‘East’ or ‘West’ which are all constructs and it would be much better to be more specific e.g. ‘Japanese art’ or Dutch art’. I will bear this in mind as I write more and will go through what I have written so far to use more appropriate (and accurate) terms. I did raise the question about using quotes that contain such terms, as a number of the texts were written when such terms were in widespread use. It seems that it is OK to use such quotes, but to be aware of their appropriateness.