Uses and Misuses of Premodernity: the afterlives of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Art

Donna Haraway writes that “the open future rests on a new past.” This panel investigates which new pasts (very broadly defined as ancient up to the nineteenth century,) our future rests on and their implications. Far from being confined to specific date ranges ‘the ancient,’ ‘the medieval,’ and ‘the early modern’ remain omnipresent across their complex historical afterlives including within each other and modern through contemporary visual culture. Some uses of pre-nineteenth century visual culture find liberatory potential in the past, others the contours of white supremacy. In the music video for Montero by Lil Nas X, Elan Justice Pavlinich finds a medievalism “informed by Black Theology and queer activism” (2023), while Jonathan Hsy’s Antiracist Medievalisms (2021) traces this interest to revivals of medievalism(s) in the nineteenth century. Other uses are better qualified as misuses with severe consequences such as fascist investments in premodern art. Papers in this session contend with the politics of periodization within art history: the ways ‘ancient,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘early modern,’ and ‘premodern’ have been utilized conceptually in the afterlives of specific cultures’ artworks and within imperialist narratives of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization.’ These terms are contested and by no means fixed.

Session Convenors:

Jess Bailey, UCL

Baylee Woodley, UCL


Millie Horton-Insch, UCL/University of Dublin, Ireland

The Mediation of Early Medieval Textiles: Repeated Modes of Reproduction and the Nazi Ahnenerbe Project

My research begins with the premise that the continued importance of textiles and their makers (described most frequently in contemporaneous written sources as ‘English women’) throughout the eleventh century in Britain has been obscured by the historic distinctions drawn between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Romanesque’ art historical styles. I seek to outline how art historical study of early medieval textiles therefore has the capacity to disrupt some the entrenched taxonomies most frequently applied to early medieval Insular art – ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Romanesque’, ‘Winchester’, ‘English’. Taxonomies which have historiographical origins in ethno-racial essentialism. In this paper I would examine how reproductions of early medieval textiles have mediated their reception to uphold the continued application of these ethno-racial art historical categories and their ‘imagined communities’. In particular, I will reference the archival material recently donated to the Museé de la Tapisserie de Bayeux by the children of Herbert Jeschke, the artist hired by the Nazi-commissioned Ahnenerbe project, to produce a drawn facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry and the concurrent production of a photographic study of the Tapestry in the years 1941-43. I will argue that reproductions of textiles have continued to use the same methods as the Ahnenerbe project and have, to various extents, continually located textiles within taxonomies that have been used to racialise early medieval art. I would frame this research within broader studies of photography in art history, including contemporary studies which examine how changing environmental conditions are inadequately reproduced by photography, thereby engaging with phenomenological methodologies, acknowledging the different.

Ed Krčma, University of East Anglia, UK

Andrea Büttner’s Pre-Modern Address

This paper focuses upon the woodcuts of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972). Büttner’s work has long been informed by a developed critical awareness of pre-modern European art and culture, and especially that pertaining to both the long history of monasticism and to the visual depiction of poverty. Büttner’s recent woodcuts situate her concerns within a complex historical perspective, exploring subjects of shame, labour and poverty by drawing upon models derived from the history of Franciscanism, from early modern depictions of beggars (the 16th century Liber Vagatorum and Rembrandt’s etchings, for example), and from aspects of the more recent history of German modernism and its complex relationship to Nazi ideology. By way of a close engagement with two major series of woodcuts, the Beggars (2015-16) and Harvesters (2021), this paper will explore Büttner’s complex engagement with historical models that are themselves understood as sites of sedimented tensions and contradictions. Such historical awareness, this paper will argue, affords Büttner’s work a reflexive depth that enables her compelling negotiation of the problem of how art might address pressing social and political questions without being subsumed under their weight.

Thomas George Elliott, University of Sussex, UK

Queering Christ: Liberatory Uses of Early-Modern Religious Art in the Photography of Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin

This paper will examine the use of early-modern references in the work of Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin, primarily her religious work from the exhibitions Ecce Homo (1999) and ID: Trans (2017). By quoting the iconography of early-modern religious art, Ohlson Wallin reveals the potentiality of the past as a queer resource, addressing contemporary concerns about suffering and embodiment, queerness and redemption. Her images, often camp and witty, interrogate the artistic canon and encourage a liberatory, transgressive understanding of the queerness found in traditional representations of Christ– a male body “feminised”, that invites the gaze and encourages the viewer’s desire. And by placing queer and trans bodies at the centre of her work, she is able to sacralise the experience of the sexual “other” and to disturb the Biblical underpinnings of modern constructions of gender. Joining the work of religious studies scholar Anthony M. Petro (2015), this paper seeks to complicate the linear narrative of “culture wars” which positions Christianity and homosexuality as always and intrinsically oppositional. One result of the culture wars framing is the claiming of the past by the supposedly “traditional” right and the occlusion or negation of the transgressive and queer elements of historical culture, art, and religion. By ‘touching’ together the present with the early modern period in her work (Dinshaw: 1999), Ohlson Wallin encourages us to see the past queerly, and by doing so, challenges homophobic uses of Christianity in the present, her tight iconographic references working in her photography to ‘ultimately authorize the changes to the story’ (Schwarzler: 2016).

Rebecca Levitan, Kings College London, UK

Morosini’s Lions: The Adaptation of Ancient Maritime Monuments in Early Modern Venice

Venice’s giant Arsenal complex, in use from the 12th-18th centuries, was the largest pre-modern military Industrial site in Europe and the origin point for the engineering and mass-production of the maritime Republic’s great fleet of warships. Since 1687, the Arsenal’s ceremonial entrance has been guarded by four colossal stone lions, a common motif in city the as a symbol of Venice’s patron, Saint Mark. The diverse sizes, conditions, and poses of these stone lions belies a longer history, however, one that begins more than two millennia and two thousand kilometers away from Early Modern Venice. The lions are all ancient monuments, looted from Greece and the Aegean islands by naval commander Francesco Morosini during the “Great Turkish War” against the Ottoman Empire, and re-installed as symbols of Venetian imperialism. Most of the lions were themselves ancient monuments of ancient Greek naval domination and conflict, guarding the harbors and sanctuaries associated with a different maritime empire – that of classical Athens. For instance, the Arsenal’s colossal 3m lion, carved in the 4th century BCE, once guarded the entrance to Athens’ harbor of Piraeus, itself a site for the production and housing of trireme warships. A runic inscription carved onto the ancient lion by Scandinavian mercenaries working for the Byzantine emperor in the 11th century tells one story of the evolving world of maritime warfare in the Aegean. The oldest lion guarding the Arsenal was carved in the sixth century BCE and dedicated at the Panhellenic sanctuary of Delos in the center of the Cyclades. Retrofitted with a new Renaissance-style head in Venice, the Delian lion provides a window into another chapter of this history. This paper examines the shifting meaning of these ancient lions in their original ancient and secondary contexts, as sentinels and symbols of maritime empires, from the Athenian and Roman, to the Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian.

Ben Pollitt, The Courtauld, UK

Ancient Remains of New Holland: The Classical Elements and the Art of the First Fleet

This paper revisits two contrasting PhD theses. The first, Karl Popitz’s Die Darstellung der vier Elemente in der nierderländischen Graphik von 1565 bis 1630 (Munich, 1965), catalogues a series of Netherlandish depictions of the four classical elements, tracing the evolution of the quartet, from explicit personification, figured as nude divinities drawn from Renaissance schemata, to representations in which the elements are portrayed as genre figures —Air as a falconer, Water as a fisherman, Earth as a hunter, and Fire as a cook—presented in real-life settings. The second thesis, Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Seas 1768–1850 (Sydney, 1960), contends that the art produced by early British explorers and settlers in Australia lends itself increasingly to the service of science, advancing the values of empirical investigation in opposition to the classical representation of the natural world. This paper explores the relationship between these two historiographies. It questions how British artists addressed the residual presence of earlier Dutch voyagers to Australia with reference to the potential resurfacing of the topos of the four elements in their painting of the country’s natural history. To what extent does the image of those colourful ‘parraquates’ produced by the artists of the First Fleet retain the mythic quality of elemental air? In asking such questions, the paper critiques the assertion of any discernible dividing line separating the mythic view of Australia and the empirical one that Smith suggests displaces it, evoking a more slippery world in which myth is enfolded within naturalistic representation.

Anya Samarasinghe, University of Aukland, New Zealand

Iconographies of Settler Colonialism: Victorian Medievalism in Aotearoa New Zealand’s Art Collections

Medieval histories and culture have complex, multifaceted afterlives when channelled through the prism of Victorian art. From the Pre-Raphaelites’ search for simplicity and authenticity in medieval antecedents to aspects of Victorian Academicism fusing the classical with the medieval, the art of the nineteenth century dwells on and shapes both real and imagined medieval pasts. Victorian artworks in Aotearoa New Zealand’s major art collections reflect this interest in medieval literature, history, and visual culture. However, when these artworks are acquired and displayed in Aotearoa New Zealand’s art galleries, a translocation occurs – complicating notions of the medieval past as a part of a shared British history and drawing settler colonies into the wider fabric of mythmaking in the quest for national identity as both independent of and integral to ideas of Great Britain and Britishness. This paper situates medieval-themed Victorian artworks in Aotearoa New Zealand’s art collections within an iconographic programme of settler colonial identity. Paintings such as Glasgerion (c.1897, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū) by George Sheridan Knowles (1836-1931) and The Eve of Peace (1863, Dunedin Public Art Gallery) by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) prominently feature characteristics of Victorian medievalism by evoking connections to idealised histories, stories, and virtues associated with these narratives. These affective and literary themes, when considered in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand’s settler colonial past, offer insights into how Victorian medievalism filters into the discourse of Aotearoa New Zealand as an Antipodean Albion and ‘Britain of the South.’

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