Reanimating the Past: Embodied knowledge as art-historical method

Juliet Bellow, American University,

Meredith Martin, New York University,

This session will explore how embodied knowledge can open up new avenues of art-historical inquiry by offering unique insights into the past. In recent years, this interest in the body as a research method and a pedagogical tool has led to a wide range of new practices, among them staging dance performances in museums; re-enacting historical events or postures; and learning about artists’ processes by remaking lost pigments or other materials. We aim to discuss what is to be gained from these efforts – how embodied knowledge might expand our understanding of art history as a discipline. Conversely, what does art history have to teach us about the experience and the history of embodiment?

The papers in this panel cover a variety of chronological periods, geographical areas, cultural traditions and media, and several directly incorporate embodied practices. Presenters will focus on artworks with an embodied dimension, or those for which bodies and movement reanimate still objects (through tactics such as tableaux vivants). Papers also relate embodied knowledge to congruent or contiguous methodologies, such as material culture studies, that seek to understand and awaken the haptic or affective dimensions of artworks. Ultimately, we are interested in ways that embodied practices in the present can add new layers of meaning to historical images, objects and texts or, by employing new movement vocabularies, can reveal aspects of artworks that have been hitherto hidden or latent.

Speakers & Abstracts

‘A Ballet is a Painting’: Researching ballet masters’ drawings by means of line and gesture

Pauline Chevalier (Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), Paris)

In his Letters on Dance (1760), Noverre describes the rise of the ballet d’action with a clear model in mind: paintings. Archives from opera houses show an increasing use of drawings by ballet masters for that period. These drawings constitute a formidable field for a shared methodological experimentation between art historians, dancers and dance researchers, giving gesture a central role in the construction of knowledge.

With this in mind, and as part of a research programme on dance notation at the INHA, we held several research workshops in the reserves of the Paris Opera (on the A.J.J. Deshayes collection). The principle of visualisation adopted by ballet masters invited us to think about the opposite path and consider the process from drawing to gesture. The bodies represented are either deeply anchored in the ground (solid supports, no intermediate times, no weight transfer), or floating in space in impossible postures. An archaeology of the gesture and a ‘research in action’ become essential to understanding both the iconographic sources of such practices (Renaissance sculptures and neo-classical paintings) and the choreographic stakes at the dawn of Romanticism, an aesthetic and technical turning point in the history of bodies and dance.

Through the description and analysis of these workshops, I propose to focus on the quest for a common vocabulary and the construction of a shared matrix for reading and interpreting forms, also staging a virtual dialogue between scholars in both dance and art history, from Bernard Berenson and Henri Focillon to Michel Bernard, who all shared a common desire to make the body an instrument of historical knowledge.

‘Animated Affects’: An essay on applying 17th-century gesticulation to dance reconstruction

Anastasia Zolotukhina (Higher School of Economics, Moscow)

The understanding of a remote historical period is impossible without embodied practices – this axiom was well known to the Renaissance and Baroque re-enactors of ancient rhetoric and theatre. Thus, an important role in the 15th–16th centuries was given to studying and restoring ancient gesticulation (which is evident through figurative art and special treatises of the period). In my paper, I will focus on 17th-century gesticulation: what was the aim of imitating ancient gesticulation then and what can be drawn from it nowadays? I will give an example of a possible work with an object of Baroque art – a dance notation – through embodied practice and knowledge.

1) Practising historical gestures and postures (a brief survey of possible sources will be given) can tell much about the physical and psychological peculiarities of 17th-century people, and the aesthetics and poetics of the period. I will provide the results of my research on some gestures and their significance on different levels, from general rules of body movement to the Baroque doctrine of affects.

2) This gesticulation practice can be applied to historical dancing. Consequently, we can understand the substance of Baroque dance much better and can fill it with semantic meaning without violating the rules of the époque. A presentation of a reconstructed dance of the 17th century with particular emphasis on gesticulation and the significance of bodily movements will be given.

Rodin and Pain

Natasha Ruiz-Gómez (University of Essex)

The sculpted bodies of Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) manifest physical and emotional pain that elicit in the viewer a fundamental sense of and sensitivity to the suffering of another human being. In some sculptures, the contorted bodies and grimacing faces express a pain that appears convulsive but fleeting, while in others they insinuate something more profound and pervasive. I will argue that Rodin’s oeuvre resists the notion that pain is fundamentally inexpressible and unshareable as posited by Elaine Scarry in her foundational book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985, Oxford University Press).

This paper will also consider the violence Rodin visited upon these bodies – the literal, physical violence in his process of creation that is evident in the works themselves, as well as the narrative violence they often suggest. The words of Rodin’s close friend Alphonse Daudet (1840–97) will help to inform my reading of the sculptures. As he battled the debilitating effects of tertiary syphilis in the mid-1880s, Daudet began writing a poignant memoir entitled In the Land of Pain (La Doulou, published post-humously in 1930). In a passage that could easily describe some of Rodin’s works, he laments, ‘There are days, long days, when the only part of me that’s alive is my pain’.

Ambidextrous Stoss

Ruth Ezra (University of Southern California)

Leo Steinberg writes of Michelangelo’s Medici Madonna (1521–34) that, ‘It has to be danced to be seen’. He implores the viewer to hold the sculpted figure’s pose ‘till the strains of it become an inward intuition’. For Steinberg, the pay-off is an embodied insight into the two-handed action of the Virgin. This paper invokes a Steinberg-ian mode of carnal art history to interpret the handed-ness of certain of Veit Stoss’ carved figures. Drawing from reconstructive experiments in stone- and wood-carving, I relate the at-times exaggerated hyper-dexterity of Stoss’ fictive limbs to the two-handed action of the sculptor himself, struggling to control the blade of his chisel. I take the work of Stoss as a starting point to consider how the sculpted body invites kinaesthetic empathy and re-enactment while also carrying the memory of its maker’s individuated limbs.

Warhol in Safariland

John R. Blakinger (University of Arkansas)

In November 2018, a photograph of migrants fleeing tear gas at the US–Mexico border ricocheted across the internet. The shocking image inspired protests against the Trump administration but also against a more unlikely target: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The artist-activist collective Decolonize This Place stormed the museum in demonstration against the Whitney’s financial ties to Safariland, a manufacturer of tear gas. The CEO of Safariland, Warren Kanders, was also a chairman of the Whitney’s board of trustees. Andy Warhol’s silkscreen canvases, then on view for a major retrospective, suddenly took on new meanings. The artist’s ‘Death in America’ paintings – canonical depictions of upheaval in the 1960s – came to life.

This talk explores these events. It examines the unique aesthetic strategies Decolonize This Place used to awaken Warhol’s paintings. The group’s interventions were emblematic of a new form of symbolic struggle that uses embodied re-enactment to animate art and its history. By mirroring Warhol’s canvases through live performance, and circulating images of their actions online, Decolonize This Place collapsed past and present. They created a temporal and spatial rupture between the turmoil of the 1960s and the turmoil of the Trump era. They used activism to activate art.

This talk draws from a book-length study titled Contest of Images that investigates recent participatory protest spectacles. How are the theatrics of embodied protest changing the history of art? What do these performative interventions reveal about art’s latent meanings and political potential?

‘A Vitalisation in Space’: African American artists reinvent African sculpture at mid-century

Abbe Schriber (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

In the 1940s, the little-known African American painter, educator and folklorist Thelma Johnson Streat began to choreograph performances for the stage. These works employed traditional and folk music from cultures across North and Central America, with gestures that reviewers described as pantomime because of their stiff motions. Though Streat’s restrained moves produced a gestural vocabulary that critics struggled to understand, they point to something more experimental than either modern dance or ‘Negro dance’,in large part because of the sources which she worked from and directly studied, as an amateur ethnographer. While Streat looked to numerous cultures for inspiration, in this paper I examine how African American artists more broadly transposed – and more importantly, attempted to embody and reinvent – the arts of Africa into their works. I look briefly at Streat, but focus the majority of the paper on Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham and Romare Bearden, while contextualising their choreography in the art and visual culture of Cold War-era pan-Africanism and movements for African decolonisation.

I examine the ways in which these artists understood the haptic, affective and even sonic potential for diasporic solidarity in their visual observations of art produced by people of African descent, even if they were less concerned with this art’s original context and function. This was a broader tendency of many African American artists – Primus, for example, incorporated the angularity of African sculpture into her choreography, while Bearden carefully modelled a relationship to African sculpture built on jazz. This paper will build on my recently published article in ARTS and will flesh out new material for a chapter in my second book project, tentatively titled ‘Archives of Care: Art, Futurity, and Black Feminist Inventory in the Civil Rights Era’.

Embodying Gu: The reproduction of antiquities in High Qing China

Kexin Ma (School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London)

During the Long Eighteenth Century, China, ruled by the High Qing court, witnessed a growing interest in embodying decorative objects, especially those known as guwan (ancient playthings), in a European-inspired illusionistic manner across different pictorial surfaces. Notably, two Yongzheng period handscrolls entitled Guwan tu (Pictures of Ancient Playthings) feature approximately 485 guwan against a blank background, with each object’s bodily features being specified meticulously. The high degree of ‘realism’ achieved in the rendering has triggered a series of examinations on the depicted guwan, leading to an interpretation of the scrolls as pictorial records of identifiable antiquities from the Qing imperial collection. Meanwhile, the deceptive nature of these images has been gradually revealed, as a number of the depicted guwan appear to be contemporary productions, or imitations of antiquities based on earlier pictorial sources.

These two handscrolls lead to a question: what was the significance of bringing antiquities into the present through pictorial or material embodiment in High Qing China? In answering the question, this paper will examine the Guwan tu in conjunction with contemporaneous embodiments of antiquities, while probing into the visual culture and discursive context surrounding guwan. The paper will also investigate how High Qing people interacted with the illusionistic representations of antiquities, which were considered both sources of visual pleasure and registers of cultural energy from the past. Building upon that, the paper will further examine how gu was transformed from a temporal to an aesthetic and politically oriented concept, following the massive (re)production of antiquities at the time.

Stereoscopic Sites: Theories of embodiment and axonometric design, c. 1850

J. English Cook (Institute of Fine Arts, New York University)

First explored as an engineering tool in the early 19th century, isometric drawing provided an alternative to the long-standing western tradition of point perspective. Commonly understood as a type of axonometry, isometry allows for multiple sides of an object to be visible at once, giving engineers the ability to both render buildings with accurate dimensions and visualise their plans, sections and elevations on a single plane. It also, as Yve-Alain Bois suggests, refuses any single point of view, implicating the static viewer in a mobile experience of virtual space.

Common in the increasingly popular panoramas and dioramas of the mid-1800s, this new visual system – which prioritises an immobile spectator virtually transported to a kinetic space – took root in a number of interdisciplinary projects of the day, including the 3D stereoscopic daguerreotypes of Henry Negretti and Joseph Zambra. As the official photographers of Joseph Paxton’s reconstructed Crystal Palace (1854), Negretti and Zambra documented this architectural innovation by mimicking axonometry’s multiple perspectives, combining two visual images into one optical whole. Perceived via an immersive viewfinder, these fluid images display an imaginative interpretation of embodied experience, one that parallels contemporaneous debates over the continued relevance of Cartesian thought. By borrowing from Zeynep Çelik Alexander’s discussion of ‘kinaesthetic knowledge’, this paper argues that these multi-medium projects wrangled with the ramifications of new technologies and material design, providing a physiological tutorial for navigating novel spatial terrains. 3D embodied education, in this sense, intertwined with 19th-century architectural reproduction, countering traditional narratives of early modernism’s flattened formalism and calling into question more recent modes of art-historical study. How might the discipline’s basic building block – visual analysis – be retrofitted to better account for these historical objects of activated, embodied design?





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