History of Art recommends

Before beginning your undergraduate History of Art degree programme here at Birmingham you may be wondering if there is anything you could be doing to prepare.

The first year modules will provide a thorough introduction to History of Art, but if you do find that you have some spare time beforehand, here are some recommendations from some of our lecturers and to really get you thinking and to further add to the excited anticipation of your future studies.

Photograph of Dr Gregory Salter

Dr Gregory Salter recommends:

T. Fleischmann's Time Is The Thing A Body Moves Through is a book length essay that reflects on contemporary experiences of gender, sexuality, and community through memoir and the art of the Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. It's in the vein of recent queer writing by people like Maggie Nelson and Ariel Goldberg - writing that thinks actively about how people live with artworks in order to explore identity.

Though it might more accurately be described as a piece of history writing, Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments engages closely with visual culture - particularly photographs - in order to write the histories of black women carving out a way of living in the US in the early twentieth century. Her account, early on, of a photograph of an unnamed black girl that was taken by the North American artist Thomas Eakins is an incredibly moving and instructive reflection on the possibilities and limits of writing history through photography. 

The podcast Bad Gays addresses "evil and complicated queers in history" as a means of complicating queer histories that have often focused on idealising its protagonists and stories. Across the three series so far, there are a significant number of art-related figures - art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory, modern architect and Nazi sympathiser Philip Johnson, and Pop artist Andy Warhol. These episodes are engaging explorations of some of the more complicated figures in art history, reflecting on the wider political and social forces that shape it.

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Photograph of Dr Kate NicholsDr Kate Nichols recommends:

Eunice Lipton’s novel Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and her own Desire (1999) is a personal account of one art historian’s attempts to find out more about the person who modelled for one of the most famous nineteenth-century art works. It is a brilliant example of feminist acts of reclamation in the history of art, and it also gives a sense of the ways in which the discipline of art history was changing in the 1980s.

Sumaya Kassim’s article, ‘The Museum will not be decolonised’, reflects on her experiences as a co-curator at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It poses a series of challenging questions about how museums and art historians might rethink art objects and historical collections to foreground racism and colonialism in their exhibits, a key question in contemporary museum studies.

The Paul Mellon Centre’s series of public lectures Britain, South Asia: Entangled Histories  expands our thinking about what ‘British’ art might be, and traces the interconnections between Britain and South Asia from the eighteenth century to the present day.

The Royal Academy’s series of interviews ‘Objects of Obsession’ features contemporary artists discussing historical art works that have inspired them, including Sonia Boyce on a nineteenth-century portrait of African American actor Ira Aldridge, and Bob and Roberta Smith on a Jacob Epstein portrait in the amazing collections of the New Art Gallery Walsall (15 minutes away from Birmingham by train).

Photograph of Dr Elizabeth LEstrangeDr Elizabeth L’Estrange recommends:

Anne D’Alleva, Methods and Theories of Art History A great book that works through some of the key theories, debates and methodologies that have been used in/influence history of art and which are key concepts in some of our first year modules. It also has questions to consider and applies the concepts to different works of art/artists.

I also think the Public Medievalist blog is a great way to start thinking differently about the middle ages and the social and artistic practices this period involved; also a good way to question what is meant by the middle ages. The site also features lots of guest posts from various academics, and also special themes, like gender and sexuality, game of thrones, etc.

Photograph of Dr Camilla SmithDr Camilla Smith recommends:

James A. van Dyke, Franz Radziwill and the Contradictions of German Art History, 1919–1945. A fascinating account of a modern, German artist and how he maintained his career under the National Socialists, without fully subscribing to their ideas. It debunks the myths regarding modernism and ‘degeneracy’ under the National Socialists, as well as throwing up lots of questions about how artists who remained in Germany tried to survive. In addition, it explores artist legacies –  how artists dealt with the past and the role they played during the 30s.

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Perhaps better known as an artist and master potter, De Waal’s biography is his family history, but traces this through the fascinating history of material objects – namely, Japanese ‘Netsuke’. Netsuke are worn objects and function as toggles on cords, used on a bag or carrying pouches. Many are exquisitely carved into figurines. The Netsuke belonged to the Ephrussi family – a banking family, who were avid collectors of art. They first find their way into Charles Ephrussi’s art collection in late nineteenth-century Paris, along with Manet and Monet etc They end up in fin-de-siècle Vienna, alongside the Secessionists Klimt, Koloman Moser and Carl Moll. De Waal’s work offers a wonderful history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture.  It is also exquisitely written.  It won the Costa Biography Award in 2010. 

Daniel Magilow, Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar GermanyA compelling analysis of the complex uses and abuses of photography in early twentieth century Germany. Magilow analyses a diverse range of sources, from photobooks glorifying the violent potential of modern technology, to the more ‘traditional’ portrait photographs of August Sander. As well as shedding light on how photographs were used in Germany, it usefully unpacks debates regarding photojournalism vis à vis pictorialism.


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Photograph of Dr Francesca BerryDr Francesca Berry recommends:

The Great Women Artists Podcast. Each episode focuses on the career and work of one or more women artists, with an emphasis upon contemporary and 20th-century women artists. Some of the artists you may have heard of and others may be less familiar. It treats art as a global phenomenon and women's experience as artists as necessarily intersectional (thus, also determined by factors such as ethnicity, class and sexual identity). The podcast is the work of art historian and curator Katy Hessel and episodes can entail her discussing an artist's work alone or doing so in conversation with a leading scholar of that artist. It offers an alternative history of art to that associated with the traditional art-historical canon. Well worth a listen!

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cummings. This is a fascinating book, nominated for several prizes, which tells the story of the early years of the author's mother. As a young - recently adopted - girl, the artist's mother was one day snatched from a Suffolk beach and found a few miles away several days later, unharmed. It is the circumstances of this event and of her mother's adoption and ambivalent family life that are uncovered via careful archival research. Remarkably, however, this leading - highly perceptive - art critic weaves into the story detailed analysis of certain key paintings, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560), as metaphors for the author and her mother's complex feelings. It is brilliantly researched and beautifully written. A testament to what one can think and feel when looking carefully at art.