34. HISTORYVILLE

This week you started teaching your annual Art History course based in London’s museums and galleries. While contemporary art is your aim, your career and the focus of your teaching, History and Art History have long been rich worlds of fascination and inspiring resources for you.

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In this 21st century world it is easy to start believing that all you need to be an artist lies within your laptop or other mobile device, and that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world you can conduct a viable practice. That is certainly true to a certain extent, however, at this time every year you are always reminded of the immense privilege of living and working in London, the payback for that massive rent you meet monthly by working and living in a way that never seems to offer any respite from toil and stress.

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Yes, the city is full of treasures, ill-gotten in many cases for sure, but wondrous nevertheless. From the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery, through its Africa section and on to the Parthenon Galleries you are able to lead your students through a stunning cornucopia which, no matter how generations attempt to organize it, seems to persist in generating increasing complexity.

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But the very heart, soul and secret of art sometimes seems to be within your grasp as you observe 2,500 year old hand-carved objects celebrating a cult of beauty, then the elegant curves of a huge pot used to preserve the rice on which a subsistence family’s lives will depend. But ultimately you remain involved in a mystery at best, and, as a teacher, remain someone who sews questions and uncertainties in your modest audience rather than giving them any clear diagram of the past. Thankfully, they understand and appreciate that it is also the task of their generation to keep asking questions, and raising answers only as speculations and hypotheses.

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Your first week of lectures and visits revolves around the 18th century’s obsession with collecting and taxonomy but also draws in Romantics, radicals, revolutionaries and reform. You consider the way in which J.L David, as ‘First Painter’ of France managed to weave in and out of the various power-shifts of the French Revolution without being executed and became, for a while, Napoleon’s much-valued propagandist. Hence, even the most powerful politicians rely in some way on the relatively powerless artist.

by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, exhibited 1840

Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery tell the stories of Royal scandal, scientific invention, road and railway building, vaccinations, astronomy, the writing of The Rights of Man, and of Woman, The Reform Act and the abolition of slavery, alongside poets like Keats, Wordsworth, John Clare, Shelley and Mary Shelley, who wrote ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ as an enduring metaphor of her age and perhaps of modernity in general.

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History may seem a long way from contemporary art, from your laptop, smartphone and internet, and yet it invariably relativises and renders arbitrary all of today’s anxieties, challenges and crises, and it does this best when we are in the presence of History’s real artifacts which draw us into their own ‘contemporaneity’, the moment in which they were the excited productions of their day, year, decade, century, products of a culture, most of which – bar these preserved objects – has been swept away by time. The strangeness of these relics, no matter how beautifully displayed, thus leave us with odd and unrepresentative bits and pieces of a History which is always a falling and a crashing down, and that, like Humpty Dumpty, can never be put together again. And so, history’s fragments allow us to continually attempt to match up its remaining pieces, and to draw new connections between one object and another, an ultimately imaginative and creative pursuit invariably informed by our own time and its own urgent need for orientation.

The young students, all agog, here in London, for the first time, for a few weeks, and from all over the world, see very differently all these things and places that you have seen so many times before, and they ask surprising new questions which open up vast fields of enquiry. A Chinese girl scrutinises a series of white marble busts and generates an enthusiastic conversation about how eyes should be depicted. The students then find themselves staring at one another’s eyes, while talking, laughing, frowning and thinking.

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