Though Admiral Lord Nelson may have died over two centuries ago, his legacy can still be revisited in unexpected ways at Yale today.
On Tuesday evening, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art featured British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE for a conversation about the artist’s ongoing exhibition in the YCBA. The discussion took place at the YUAG Auditorium and was between Shonibare and Kobena Mercer, professor of the history of art and African American Studies at Yale.
“Yinka Shonibare MBE” is an exhibition currently on display in the YCBA, focusing on Shonibare’s works related to the life and legacy of Admiral Nelson, an 18th century British flag officer. The installations feature some of Shonibare’s most renowned works such as Nelson’s “Ship in a Bottle” and the “Fake Death Picture” series, which is a miniature version of the sculpture originally commissioned for display in London’s Trafalgar Square.
The showcase also included three of Shonibare’s films and was curated by Martina Droth, deputy director of research and curator of sculpture at the YCBA.
“[Shonibare’s work] places in question the moral state of a man who was lionized for his many naval triumphs on behalf of the British nation, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, but whose code of ethics failed to extend to the woman closest to him in his personal life,” said Amy Meyers, director of the YCBA.
Mercer began the discussion by admiring Shonibare’s body of work addressing the legacy of Admiral Nelson. He asked Shonibare about his distinctive use of African fabrics, specifically in the sculpture of Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.
Shonibare explained that his work is known for using these fabrics. He said that growing up in London and Nigeria, he thought these fabrics were made in West Africa, and that when he saw the exact same fabrics in the Brixton market, he questioned whether they were authentic.
“What does authenticity mean?” Shonibare said. “That’s something difficult for someone of my background. I cannot be authentically African and I can neither be authentically British.”
When Mercer asked how the sculpture was selected for installation at Trafalgar Square, Shonibare recounted the time he was invited to pitch ideas to a panel. Shonibare said he wanted to do a contextually relevant piece, and seeing Nelson’s Column, a sculpture already in Trafalgar Square, he researched the Battle of Trafalgar and learned of its historical representation of the wars between Great Britain and France.
Later in the discussion, Shonibare elaborated on the presence of the boat in a ship, saying that he wishes his work to be playful and serious at the same time. He talked about representing “multicultural London” through his work and relishing the interpretations of viewers, citing how nationalists and antinationalists in Britain thought the sculpture memorialized Nelson and British imperialism in a way that suited their respective ideologies.
Mercer and Shonibare discussed “Nelson’s Jacket” and “Fanny’s Dress” in detail, the latter citing how his research into Nelson led to an unending intrigue into Nelson’s wife, Fanny, and his mistress, Lady Hamilton. Shonibare’s comments about Nelson being “a very, very naughty boy” and the headless mannequins representing his appreciation of the guillotine left the crowds in fits of laughter.
The conversation quickly turned to more serious issues such as race and patriarchal dominance. Shonibare noted how his film “Addio del Passato” is from Fanny’s perspective because he thinks patriarchy has had its fair chance of being represented.
When asked if he views his work as “historically revisionist,” Shonibare said that he likes to be “complicit” in his art and that he disagrees with removing history that makes one uncomfortable.
“The world is often binary and I don’t submit to that. That is complicity for me,” he said to the crowd. “When I went to Buckingham Palace, I liked being there.”
He further discussed specific elements of his work such as the intentional loops in his films, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ stageless and headless representation and the periodical satire in his Fake Death Pictures series.
Referring to one Fake Death Picture titled “The Suicide,” he stressed the importance of not taking oneself too seriously. He also noted that his double parody of Leonardo Alenza’s “Satire of the Romantic Suicide” mocked himself.
“Illuminating Admiral Nelson’s ethical failure in the most poignant of ways, Mr. Shonibare points to the moral turpitude of a culture that would celebrate a man whose personal behavior was so debased,” Meyers said.
In an interview with the News, Droth said the idea of exhibiting Shonibare’s work grew organically during the period of YCBA’s closure, stemming from the museum’s need to explore more works in the 21st century. She said that while the YCBA initially faced challenges incorporating Shonibare’s work into the museum, much of it featured themes prevalent in British art, especially in maritime paintings.
The YCBA screens Shonibare’s films at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and 11 a.m. on Fridays in the Lecture Hall. The exhibition itself will be on view through Dec. 11.
On the corner of Chapel Street and High Street, the familiar vacancy that was the entrance to the Yale Center for British Art has been boarded up. The gray plywood anticipates the 14-month renovation, which began last week, and, more importantly, indicates the temporary loss of one of Yale’s most unique artistic spaces.
Students and administrators alike will miss the YCBA, which houses works by canonical British artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. “I’m probably just going to cry a little,” said Daniel Leibovic ’17, who works at the YCBA as a student tour guide.
He explained that the YCBA provided an important space to think and study and fostered a strong sense of community among the student workers. Leibovic will miss his fellow tour guides, as well as his favorite exhibition, “Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention,” a collection of Victorian statues.
However, despite this cultural vacancy, there are other spaces in New Haven that serve similar artistic purposes. The museum belongs to a long tradition of public art that has strong ties to Yale and a strong presence in the New Haven community. The YUAG, the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Lipstick statue in Morse — all are historic components of the New Haven arts scene.
In many ways, the YCBA’s renovation is an opportunity: Students who have yet to visit museums on campus and in New Haven may choose to finally visit the YCBA upon its reopening. And, alternatively, those in search of another art space will have an incentive to explore during the coming year.
Since 1974, the YCBA has been one of New Haven’s most popular artistic institutions. Paul Mellon ’29, a British art enthusiast, purchased and installed around 95 percent of the pieces displayed today. The vast and impressive collection attracts an equally vast and impressive audience: graduates students, undergraduate students, professors, young artists and many locals.
While the museum is home to the largest collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom, the building itself is also a work of art — it was given the Twenty-five Year award by the American Institute of Architects in 2005.
The principal goal of the renovation is to preserve this work of art: the historic Louis Kahn building that houses the collection. After 10 years of researching the history, design and construction of the building, the project is finally underway. The renovation will include updated fire safety code compliance as well as restorations that better service the public. The lecture hall, for example, will now adhere to American Disability Act standards, and a new seminar room will be built upstairs.
Mark Aronson, chief conservator for the YCBA, is enthusiastic about improvements to the building’s physical accessibility. As an art restorer, however, he is more interested in the accessibility of the artwork itself — he looks forward to working on some of the better known paintings during the renovation. In many ways, his work with individual pieces parallels the restoration process the museum will undergo for the next 14 months.
“We can almost never get our hands on ‘The Allegory of the Tudors’ Succession’” he said, alluding to a Lucas de Heere canvas. “Every third grader knows what it is, so whenever a school group comes, they park in front of Henry VIII.” With the restoration, Aronson and his team will finally get to look at it.
Before the YCBA closed, he was reluctant to deprive students of such historical pieces, which present unique learning opportunities. He sees education as one of the YCBA’s most important services to the community and said that museum staff are very conscious of how viewers will benefit from their displays.
Cassandra Albinson, chief curator of the YCBA’s collection, also emphasized its role as an educational institution.
“I really like portraiture of women, so when I’m working on something I’m always hoping it will be of interest to, say, feminist groups on campus,” she said. She hopes that the new seminar room will bring undergraduate art courses into the building, particularly those courses that involve the collection.
Despite her interest in engaging campus groups, Albinson said she wants the YCBA to be a space where both Yale students and younger schoolchildren can learn about British art. She drew attention to the museum’s location — just off Old Campus — which puts it literally and figuratively on the border between the Yale and New Haven communities. The majority of patrons are not associated with Yale, and, as one of nine public museums in New Haven, the YCBA plays a central role in the city art scene, for students and non-students alike.
While the manifold services provided by the Center would be difficult to replicate, other Yale institutions exercise equal influence over the city’s artistic community. For instance, the YUAG’s presence and influence most closely approximate those of the YCBA, its neighbor.
The YUAG, unlike the YCBA, has pieces from all over the world and all ages of art history. But despite these differing collections, the two institutions occupy similar spaces in the arts scene: Both are free and both place special emphasis on their accessibility to the larger community. Pamela Franks, curator at the YUAG, speaks of many programs that resemble those of the YCBA: lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions and programs for school kids.
Franks believes that the YUAG helps young students learn to think differently. She, too, emphasizes the interactive nature of art education — she believes that students learn “visual literacy” and the ability to think of history in pictures.
However, most importantly, the Gallery broadens schoolchildren’s sense of belonging to the Yale community. Franks encourages high school students to familiarize themselves the YUAG’s resources and hopes that they come to see it as their museum.
“The fact that we’re free and open to the public is the main part of our identity,” she said. “We’re part of Yale, but we’re here for the University as well as for the public.”
In this way, though private donations constitute the majority of the YCBA’s and the YUAG’s collections, both are cornerstones of New Haven’s art scene.
Mauricio Cortes-Ortega ART ’16, thinks that before he shows his own art, he has to perfect his technique — in private. No matter how grand a student’s ambitions, school is the place to develop as an artist, cut off from the surrounding community. Cortes-Ortega is trying to learn what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it, before engaging with art in public.
In other words, though Yale’s two major galleries connect the University to the greater New Haven area, Yale students have a different experience of this relationship. New Haven is rich with artistic opportunities — public studios, galleries, murals and classes — and yet, students don’t always participate in this artistic world.
Téa Beer ’17, an Art major, said time prevented her personally from exploring the local arts scene, but she added that her department didn’t encourage a relationship between art students and New Haven.”
“I don’t think [the Yale Art major tries] to incorporate interaction with the town community in the art major curriculum,” she said. “Art is inherently pretty elitist, to be honest.” She didn’t condone this elitism, however, and she hopes to learn more about the art New Haven has to offer this semester.
In fact, most undergraduates interviewed expressed some interest in the local arts scene. They seemed almost apologetic when explaining that they weren’t familiar with many artists, and, like Beer, cited intentions to get to know the community in the coming semester. Some even would like to work on their own public art installations in New Haven.
When asked whether she’s done any public art here, Sam Vernon ART ’15 said she had not, though she has been commissioned to do public installations in the past: Before coming to graduate school, she worked on the Transform Neighborhoods Initiative in Prince Georges’ County, Maryland. Alongside participants from all parts of the neighborhood —the youngest was only three — Vernon painted a mural at a local library.
“It was truly incredible how many kinds of people came together,” she remembered. “I think local governments can and should work to create such dynamic, polyrhythmic environments.” She expressed regret that she hadn’t been able to participate in such collaborative projects in New Haven.
To counter this lack of dialogue between New Haven and Yale artists, Emily Hays ’16 has started the student organization Blue Haven. Hays hopes to create projects similar to the cross-generational cooperation Vernon experienced in Maryland. The group pairs Yale performance artists — slam poets, dancers, singers — with high schoolers who are interested in the same field. The pair then works together to create a new piece together.
“There’s definitely an egalitarian, social justice component — if we’re both creating art together, we’re erasing challenges that we both may have experienced,” she explained.
Though Blue Haven primarily focuses on performance art for the moment, it’s only in its first semester, and Hays intends to incorporate the visual arts in the future.
The collaborative nature of Hays’s project speaks to a new form of interactive public art. While museums such as the YCBA and the YUAG may attract visitors with free admission and student programs, this is a more passive approach. Hays, on the other hand, promotes active involvement, the conscious creation of an even vaster body of New Haven art.
Kwadwo Adae is a local painter with ideas like Hays’ and a studio on the corner of Orange and Chapel. (Orange Street is kind of a hub for art business — almost every other storefront near his apartment is a studio.) Adae believes firmly that art should be accessible to everyone and appreciates the presence of Yale’s museums in the city.
“We are spoiled here because we have resources like the YUAG, which has an enormous collection of art and is free,” he said.
As a public artist, he feels that he has a duty to create equally accessible spaces. He is even upset by the stairwell leading up to his own studio, as it prevents disabled persons from experiencing his art.
This passion for sharing art inspired him to teach, and today, he works in assisted living centers and retirement communities across the county. In other words, his artistic contributions to New Haven extend beyond his personal creations.
He recounted one of his most memorable teaching moments: “There was one woman who used to be an artist and had suffered a stroke. She lost use of her right hand, her painting hand. I was teaching her to draw again with her left hand. To do that, I used my left hand as well. So we struggled together.”
Adae spoke extensively about his students and clearly considers teaching one of the most meaningful aspects of his work. He and other non-student artists seemed sure of their niche in the community, expressing a commitment to active public services: teaching drawing technique, inspiring others to create and providing spaces for artistic appreciation.
His work is not public in the traditional sense; instead of just making art for people, he makes art with people. After all, public art is a changing field: Yale College Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan said, “Public art used to be just art, but outdoors. Now, it’s art that actively engages a broad community of people.”
Both types of artists thrive in New Haven, from those who teach in their studios to those who make outdoor installations.
Jonathan Waters, for instance, does not limit himself to the white walls of a gallery. Most of his creations are geometric abstract sculptures, gray and black stainless steel sheets welded into unique shapes and placed outside. Everything he makes is enormous; no passerby could possibly miss it. That’s why he loves the scale of his work: His pieces aren’t just public, they’re aggressively public.
“I like doing work outside because theoretically, it has a wider audience,” he said. “The casual guy on the street who might not walk into a museum will be able to experience it.”
Adae is also committed to New Haven’s public art. He praises pieces that aren’t in museums or galleries and believes that beautiful objects contribute to a high quality of life. To him, simply seeing something bright on your way to work can make you do your job better.
He is especially proud of an interactive mural he worked on in a mental health clinic. The bus windows are painted with chalk paint, so children in the waiting room are invited to make their mark on the piece.
Still, some New Haven artists are less invested in active audience participation. They would prefer that viewers meditate on the meaning of a work.
Matthew Feiner is multimedia artist and bike shop owner who has participated in City-Wide Open Studios, an initiative to support the visual arts in New Haven. He said his installation was so popular that on the second day of its exhibition, over a thousand people came. There was only standing room in the gallery. Though popularity would indicate success in the art industry, he was not satisfied.
“People just passed right in front of it; they didn’t have time to even see it!” he said.
This is why some prefer to show pieces in private settings: They don’t just want people to see their art. They want people to look at it.
Yet the private New Haven arts scene is not nearly as developed as its public counterpart. While locals and students have access to many free museums, they encounter far fewer private vendors and galleries.
Fred Giampietro, the owner of the new Giampietro Gallery on Chapel Street, considers himself a pioneer. Since opening in early January, Giampietro has tried to develop lasting business relations with Yale and the community; he has exhibited the works of several art graduate students. He dedicates himself finding up-and-comers, and his favorite thing about owning a gallery is discovering new talent.
His belief in these budding artists brought him into the private arts industry, and he thinks that collectors can build relationships with paintings on their walls.
“A lot of time people don’t think about how they can live with art and how that can enrich their lives,” he said.
The idea of living with a painting brings into question the spiritual value of art as well as the financial one. Before consumers can form intimate connections with a painting, they must spend.
Christian Ammon is a painter, graduate student and waiter from Trumbull, Connecticut. Though he is very busy, he prioritizes his art, and he is determined to make a career in the field. He expressed discontent that public art dissociates art from its monetary value. He showed recently at New Haven City-Wide Open Studios, an opportunity for which he was grateful, but he had reservations about the program.
“I want to be exposed to different social classes and races, but obviously, I want my art to sell, “ he said. “At Open Studios, there were a lot of lower class people kind of bumming around. I think my art would mainly target the middle- to upper-class people.”
To this end, he said he would advertise for Open Studios in the area surrounding Yale, instead of the outskirts of New Haven. He also feels that, as a graduate student, he can identify most with other young people.
It seems particularly difficult for New Haven artists to navigate the industry, to balance artistic vision with financial need. Ammon is still struggling with this, and though he is young, many older artists also spoke about sacrificing accessibility to large audiences in order to profit from their artwork.
To address these issues, the city’s public art institutions sponsor local artists. The YUAG, as part of its community outreach services, employs artists-in-residence for four-week periods several times a year. The artists do research, work on their projects and work with Yale School of Art students as well as undergraduates.
Right now, the artist in residence is Chris Ellis, who goes by “Daze.” Daze said he is enjoying his residency and feels lucky to have the opportunity to focus only on his artwork and his teaching.
When his residency began, he started a mural in the basement of the YUAG, accessible to museum visitors and students, in the same style as his earlier pieces. The mural has been and will be collaboration: Art students will help him with the design and creation.
And he doesn’t limit his students to marginal contributions. A large crowd scene in the middle of the wall, he explained, was an undergraduate’s idea. Daze considers art to be both an educational tool and a means of self-expression, and he didn’t mention any of the monetary concerns that worried Ammon.
The YUAG artist-in-residence position combines the many aspects of a public arts career. Daze has the financial support of a gallery as he engages with the local community through classes and workshops. And, of course, he’s able to create his own art. While there is certainly an artistic separation between Yale and New Haven, this program is a step towards long term collaboration.
Cahan, in speaking about public art in New Haven, cited “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” — the Morse lipstick statue. In 1970, it was still at Beinecke Plaza, and the red centerpiece wasn’t metal. Instead, it was inflatable — every few days, the tube would deflate and become flaccid. When this happened, the artist, Claes Oldenburg, would send somebody, or come himself, to re-inflate it, and, voilà, the lipstick was again erect.
“The piece was made right after Yale became coeducational,” Cahan said. “Obviously, these were gendered references; the blending of the symbol of femininity with the phallic symbol was a direct reference to coeducation.” She then mentioned the protests following the Black Panther Party trials, and the military tanks lining the streets of New Haven — hence the “caterpillar tracks”.
Several students said that all public art is, inherently, political. One even compared it to various news sources.. Another believed that the artist’s understanding of the political issue at hand is just as important as her technical skill.
By all of these definitions, “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” is an excellent example of “good” public art. It represents a whole host of intersections, intersections between Yale, New Haven and a wider political climate. Today, the Morse lipstick is divorced from much of its significance, but just outside the walls of the YUAG, the YCBA and the residential colleges, a vibrant arts world awaits exploration. In fact, it’s not an art scene; it’s an art web.
Correction: Feb. 6
A previous version of this article incorrectly named public artist Matthew Feiner as Michael Feiner.
Had you ventured into the courtyard of Jonathan Edwards College any time from the 1930s through the 1970s, you might have noticed a still, plaintive figure kneeling somewhere within the environment of grass and concrete and trees. Perhaps you admired the tentative play of sunlight on the black lead in which the sculpture is cast, or attempted to decipher the time told from the bronze sundial which the figure supports on its head. Maybe you whiled away lazy days studying, or lazy nights murmuring with friends under the starless sky, in its company. You might even have, with the sort of youthful irreverence present in every generation, etched your name among the graffiti marring the figure’s strained back.
It is with a decidedly different — a more constructive — kind of irreverence, I would say, that this unnamed garden statue of an African-born slave has been placed at the center of one of the rooms now occupied by “Figures of Empire,” an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art that runs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 14. At first glance, the premise of the exhibition seems straightforward enough: It aims to explore, through a diverse array of portraits drawn predominantly from the museum’s collections, the impact of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade on 18th-century Britain.
However, the core attitude of the exhibition is to look at many of these works in ways that run counter to their creators’ original intentions — hence, the aforementioned “irreverence.” It is rich with examples of dignified portraits and conversation pieces featuring wealthy white members of British society, but our real focus is turned to those figures in the background, servants and slaves of African descent who have been consciously included as subordinate figures but whom the exhibition challenges us to examine as subjects in their own right. This is a project in reconstructing the historical and personal identities of such individuals through artistic analysis, even if efforts to locate them in official or family records have largely proven to be in vain.
As modern-day viewers, we already naturally feel — I would hope — some degree of discomfort with paintings like these, and as such it is with relative ease that we can adopt the critical eye that the exhibition asks of us. Because of this, it’s tempting to think of ourselves as temporally, physically and emotionally removed from these pieces; after all, it is by virtue of our distance from them that we can even begin to look at them in the way that we do. This illusion is shattered by specific and notable objects within the exhibition that do well to remind us not only of where we are but also of our connections to this seemingly bygone society. As it turns out, the garden statue is believed to have stood on the estate of our very own founding benefactor Elihu Yale, who made his fortune as a governor of the East India Company in Madras. A huge and rarely exhibited group portrait featuring Elihu Yale himself, accompanied, among others, by a slave boy wearing a collar and padlock around his neck, hangs at the start of the exhibition.
This is only one way in which curators Cyra Levenson, Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer engage the viewers in dialogue with the works on display. As Levenson says, the exhibition itself has “emerged from conversation” surrounding “complicated objects” like the ones described above, and it is a conversation they hope not necessarily to resolve, but rather to sustain and explore with their audience. Complicated objects give way to complicated questions, ranging from what constitutes a portrait (see, for example, the challenging “Bust of a Man,” which stands in the center of the second room) to how identity is constructed.
In order to foster this kind of dialogue among viewers, Levenson, Chadwick and Gamer curate subtle but productive dialogue among the pieces themselves. Within the 18th-century framework of the exhibition is a healthy representation of the ways in which people began to grapple with the moral issues surrounding slavery; in the second room, for example, the painstakingly constructed dignity of the conversation pieces belies the shifts which were beginning to occur during this time, as reflected in the abolitionist pieces on the other side of the room. “Figures of Empire” concludes with examples of Anglo-Africans themselves who used single-figure portraiture to construct their own identities much in the same fashion as their predecessors.
The exhibition encompasses a wide range of objects in negotiating an understanding of these “figures of empire,” and many of these objects can be challenging, even perplexing. In setting out such a variety of representations, however — traditional, alternative, satirical, empowering — “Figures of Empire” allows us to formulate a less restrictive view of a disenfranchised population. And that is something worth talking about.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Elihu Yale made his fortune from the transatlantic slave trade.
In my mind, the images of the British Isles in the ’60s are musical. I envision rock and roll bands with color-coordinated suits, meticulously messy hair and electric guitars descending on London and transforming Western culture. I imagine the Rolling Stones playing at Hyde Park to the youthful masses, and The Who stuttering their way through generational anthems. I do not imagine the barren landscapes of northwestern Ireland or thousands of middle-aged, middle-class families vacationing on the English Channel. The Yale Center for British Art’s new exhibition “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland,” then, came as something of a revelation.
The exhibition combines the black-and-white photographs, produced by hand in darkrooms, of the two American photographers, both of whom worked throughout the British Isles in the 1960s. Caponigro’s landscapes, taken with funding from a Guggenheim Fellowship, focus on the megalithic monuments and cairns that dot the hills of Ulster and Connaught; Davidson, sponsored by The Queen magazine, instead turned his camera on the un-glamorous aspects of middle-class and working-class life. Moving from Caponigro’s works to Davidson’s is to move from the unknowable mysticism of the ancients and the early Christians to stark portraits of mass culture in the waning days of traditionalism, before the great Sixties cultural revolution.
Caponigro’s photographs, essentially, are of stones. Only in a few do humans appear. These stones come as cairns, as churches, as megaliths and tombs. The two photographs of Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal on the far northwestern fringes of Ireland are his most effective. Some of its compelling nature derives from the oddity of the subject — one massive moss-covered stone balances horizontally on top of four others. The near-silhouette against the ubiquitous grey sky makes the points of contact seem unfathomably small. Nothing but desolate hillside and windswept grass surround the dolmen. One cannot help but marvel at the ingenuity of the ancient tribes. That is the effect of most of Caponigro’s photographs — sheer astonishment that peoples so primitive in building techniques constructed monuments that have lasted for five millennia.
Davidson’s works are especially brutal in their undisguised realism. This is Britain — unromantic, bleak and often depressing. From that realism derives the effectiveness of the Davidson half. I find Caponigro’s photographs more beautiful, but I spent far longer with Davidson’s dozen photographs of South Wales coal mining communities. In one, a soot-faced miner stands in the Spartan doorway of his house holding his infant child. In another, a group of five men, their filthy clothes ripped and torn, walk along a dirt path, their mine visible far behind them. In a third — this the most memorable photograph — a miner stands on a treeless hillside, his arms crossed defiantly over his white shirt. Two others, their forms dark and indistinct against the grey sky, stand by a cart in the background. With them are two horses. These are the most poignant photographs in the exhibit; hanging over each of them is the heavy, inescapable burden of history. Partly, this derives from my own knowledge — that Brighton and Blackpool are no longer quite so popular, that the South Wales coal mines all shuttered under Thatcher. It’s like staring straight into the eyes of something about to end after a thousand years and seeing it stare right back. The effect is profoundly haunting and the photographs return far more easily to my mind than does the remainder of Davidson’s half of the exhibit, much of which I found forgettable.
In the end “Two American Photographers” forces us to consider uncomfortable, penetrating questions. Caponigro’s collection presents the monuments of a far-bygone age: These monuments, pagan and Christian alike, essentially consist of no more than stacked stones, yet have lasted for millennia in harsh, unforgiving terrains. Still we have little idea of what exactly all those stones mean, and Caponigro’s portrayal makes them seem even more unknowable. Davidson, meanwhile, presents modern life, but a sense of twilight permeates throughout his work. We are left with a lingering question, conveyed through the sullen eyes of the coal miners and their children: What will remain? Caponigro has shown us what the ancient Irish left behind, but what will remain from our era? It is an uncomfortable question, and Davidson offers little help in answering it — after all, his photographs show the sort of pre-1960s mass culture that has largely failed to survive even the last 50 years. Permanence and ephemerality coexist in this moving exhibit, and the thought that nearly all of what we have built will one day vanish is indeed a frightening one.
If Shakespeare is the English poet of whom we wish we knew more, Alexander Pope is the poet of whom we already know more than enough. Pope, perhaps more than any other poet before or since, was a master of self-promotion, commissioning images of himself, striking literal and social poses and plying the art of ceaseless reinvention.
Ample evidence of this is on display in the Yale Center for British Art’s new exhibition: “Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and The Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” The exhibition presents a number of famous portraits of Pope, as well as some manuscripts culled from the Beinecke and Lewis Walpole Libraries, which provide generous historical context for understanding Pope as a self-fashioned man. Afflicted with tubercular infection at a young age, the poet’s otherwise handsome features were forever marred by a hunchback and unusually short stature. Much like Franklin Roosevelt, Pope had himself portrayed either sitting down or as a bust, thus concealing his physical deformities.
The exhibition presents us with the many faces Pope put on, slowly building up and revising our conception of him as we pass through. Throughout the first part of the exhibition we see iterations of the indolent aristocrat. Jonathan Richardson the Elder paints Pope with tired luminous eyes, a frilly silk chemise and the most dandyish of velvet ensembles. In Jean-Baptiste van Loo’s portrait of Pope, we see the aspirant artist lost in thought. He rests his delicate, sleeved elbow on a leather-bound copy of Homer (in the original Greek, of course); in a niche in the background we see a hazy bronze sculpture of Isaac Newton. Through allusions such as these, Pope associates himself with all the finest minds past and present.
Slowly, subtly, the curators of the exhibition complicate this aristocratic impression. In the eight busts, all done by Roubiliac, at the center of the exhibition, Pope slips into many guises. We first see Pope as he most wishes us to see him — a classicized, marble man, cold and canonical. Then, in terracotta, we see some of his defects — his eyes sink into their sockets; his forehead is creased with consternation and social anxiety. A plaster bust softens these wrinkles, lending Pope smoothness and humanness, while retaining some of the emotional intensity of the terracotta bust. Perhaps the most powerful of the busts is one of the smallest. It shows Pope without grandeur, bare-shouldered and frail, a pitiful innocent body on a pitiful innocent scale.
Pope crafts an at once artificial and extremely seductive literary identity. The seductiveness lies in the malleability and elusiveness of Pope’s identity — just when we think we have reached a fragile, all-too-human and vain man, we are confronted with a classicized laureate, a man of enormous stature and fame. This exhibition captures this range and invites the viewer to layer these various postures, and discard none of them.
Fruitful contrasts in the exhibition allow these competing impressions to sink in. A bust of Pope is placed next to one of another celebrated English author, Laurence Sterne. Sterne’s face is virile, strong and sure; it betrays a heartier humor. Pope by contrast is socially anxious (“he hardly drank tea without a stratagem” once quipped Dr. Johnson). His languorous eyes show a soul that has ground itself finer and finer into delicacy, a sensibility that favors the sparkle of wit, the shimmering couplet and the twinge of love, to the epic grandeur he fakes in Romanized portraits.
The curators of the exhibition have done a remarkable job in tracking the many faces of Pope, both through the presentation and its accoutrements. The explanatory placards are informative but not irritating. This conscientious scholarship gives one the same sense of comfort and pleasure as English scholarship at Yale does. Indeed, the two are not unrelated. The exhibition affords us the pleasure of reading through not only the history of Pope but of Pope criticism at Yale. In a corner, we view notes from seminal scholars like W.K. Wimsatt, whose “The Portraits of Alexander Pope” is the driving force behind the creation of this exhibition. “Fame and Friendship” doesn’t just give us works of art out of context, as so many exhibitions do, but links issues of biography, canonization and artistic patronage to the pieces on display. We see several editions of Pope’s poetry as well as books he owned and annotated, a compendious offering of primary and secondary sources that grounds the exhibition without drowning it in biographical minutiae.
Although, according to my English professor, “Yale was once a tower of eighteenth-century criticism: no more,” we can still take pleasure in perusing the scrupulous Pope scholarship once done here.
Perhaps that is because Pope gives us no easy answers, makes no straight faces or undisguised looks; but to the patient viewer, guided by ingenious curation, the poet might start to reveal himself.
As the blue construction tarps were lifted off of the Yale University Art Gallery this December, across the street the Yale Center for British Art revealed a new face, too. A photo of its 25 student guides laughing with their arms in the air invites pedestrians into the steely building designed by Louis I. Kahn. (The serious one is on their website.)
This scene of the neighboring galleries reflects their respective images in the Yale community. The YCBA program actively maintains a strong presence among undergraduates, while the YUAG program has been known more by word of mouth.
As the YUAG leaps into its new future as an expanded museum that has received more attention, a light is cast on its often conspicuous student guide program, and its more visible cousin on the same block.
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Although the YCBA guide program is more well-known today, the YUAG program was established first.
The YUAG Gallery Guide Program began in 1998. Fusing the gallery’s missions to engage students with the collection and to educate the community, the Gallery Guide Program focuses on training undergraduates to lead tours of the art gallery for adult groups. The goal is to “teach students how to teach,” YUAG Museum Educator Elizabeth Manekin said, and to respond to the student demand to learn about art by engaging with original works themselves.
YCBA Curator of Education Linda Friedlaender said she admired the YUAG student guide program so much that she started one at the YCBA in 2002.
Their shared origins shed light on their common goal to educate students of all academic backgrounds on art, culture, museum research and presentational skills in a non-classroom setting. Both also wanted the student tours to attract both the Yale and New Haven community to engage with the museums.
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On every Friday afternoon since she’s been at Yale, Hannah Flato ’14 has gone to a class outside her schedule.
The YCBA program is structured like a seminar. The meetings cover everything from the British collection, tour techniques, audience engagement and department visits, depending on the week, Friedlaender said. Each week, all the YCBA guides gather together in the YCBA’s docent room, a small seminar room with a long table. Although Friedlaender has a lesson for every session, she is willing to make everything from art events to Yale news into a “learning conversation,” Flato said.
The YCBA program is “so much more than giving a tour,” Flato said. Each guide engages with the British collection and finds paintings that speak to them, and construct their personalized tours through research and collaboration with curators. Current tours include “Postcards from Paradise: British Paintings of Foreign Places,” “The Painted Cave,” “Artistic Anesthesia” and “Female Strength and Fragility.”
Since 2002, the YCBA program has expanded in size and has hosted more opportunities for the student guides. The Art Club allows student guides to host public events such as gingerbread house-making and T-shirt design twice per semester to engage the community with the gallery. (On Friday, the YCBA will be hosting a high tea where community members can come make T-shirts and drink tea.) After their first year, four to five student guides can participate in Art-in-Focus, which allows them to work closely with curators to put together an original exhibition. The current group is creating an exhibit on St. Ives, a community of artists in England who produced abstract art after World War II, Flato said.
These opportunities have led the YCBA guides to develop more personal relationships and professional mentorship, with Friedlaender able to connect students to internships, Friedlaender said. The YCBA guides can also participate in other YCBA programs, such as “Exploring Artism,” which is a free family program for children on the autism spectrum.
The YUAG program also works as a gateway to other opportunities, such as the Highlights Tour program that teaches guides how to give a comprehensive tour of the whole collection. However, these opportunities are not part of the student guide program itself. Like the YCBA, the YUAG program is also like a class, but specifically focused on the instruction of guides in giving and researching tours. The YUAG requires only first-year trainees to attend meetings, twice per week in the fall and once a week in the spring. Trainees spend one year researching art, engaging with the museum and learning tour techniques, Manekin said. Research includes not only meeting with curators and immersing oneself in the collection, but also writing papers on four artworks on their personalized tours. Current tours include “Back to Basics: Understanding Art through Line, Shape and Color,” “Depicting Infinity,” “Myth-Making” and “Famous Last Words: Modern Art as Philosophical Coda.” After completing the training, the student guides return in their following years to give their unique tours a few times per semester, but do not come to regular meetings as in their first year, Manekin said. Indeed, to build communication between older and younger YUAG guides, the program assigns older mentors to younger mentees and has group events such as field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and pizza parties, Sokoloff said.
The two programs do not engage much with each other, both student guides and Manekin said. Student guides occasionally visit the other gallery for their respective research, Friedlaender said. Twice per year they have semiformals for the student guides and their friends at the galleries, she added.
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The YCBA program has spiked in popularity in the past five years as a result of increased advertising, Friedlaender said. A few years ago, a University-wide mandate asked museums to try involving more students in the Yale galleries, she said. The mandate was the result of years of meetings and committees of the University’s administrators and faculty that culminated in a President’s Office general report on the University. She added that student museum attendance is a nationwide problem at universities.
To respond to the mandate, the YCBA has hosted a booth at the extracurricular bazaar, holds open houses and organizes other public events to recruit undergraduates. This year, the program received 64 applications for six spots, an acceptance rate of 9 percent.
The YCBA program keeps its size to 25 students, as “the guides like it to be a small group in terms of discussion, field trips social events — there’s camaraderie in the smaller size,” Friedlaender said. All the guides meet together to discuss the applications together, and each applicant is interviewed by at least three guides, she said.
The YUAG program is less heavily advertised, YUAG student guides and Manekin said. Word-of-mouth is the primary path of promotion, with student guides sending emails to panlists and telling friends about the program, Manekin said. The program is “competitive enough” and draws enough highly qualified applicants that it does not need to advertise more than it already does, she said. The gallery receives approximately 30–50 applications for 12 spots, a 24–40 percent acceptance rate.
The YUAG and YCBA attract different students. The YUAG assigns work as if it were an academic class, Manekin said. Since sophomores and juniors have stronger time-management skills and clearer personal goals, the YUAG tends to accept older students willing to commit to a training year, she said. Students such as Daniel Roza ’15 saw the requisite research papers as a sign that the YUAG program was “more intense,” and thus found the YCBA program, which requires students to report their research verbally, more approachable for a non-art major. The YCBA’s presence at the extracurricular bazaar makes it more visible to freshmen, Flato said.
The YCBA guides said they see the program as not only an intellectual endeavor, but also a social opportunity. Regular meetings over four years foster a community that lasts throughout a guide’s time at Yale, Kathryn Kaelin ’15 said. Many begin as freshmen, who then evolve over the years together, Roza said.
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The YCBA program has no plans to change, as it has been successful as it stands, Friedlaender said. Although the YUAG has also been successful, its reopening of the extended wings is providing an opportunity for change in the student activity programs. Manekin said the student guides now have a wider range of artwork to choose from for their own tours. With the new resources, the gallery is beginning to brainstorm other programs to involve students, she said.
As the freshly renovated YUAG and the YCBA invigorate their corner of Chapel Street, the student gallery guide program can continue to serve as a way to bring undergraduates and non-Yalies alike to the collections housed in cream-colored stone and matte steel.
It’s an open secret that the Yale Center for British Art doesn’t get as much love or publicity as its better-known sibling, the Yale University Art Gallery. While YUAG draws many with its famous Van Goghs and Louis Kahn’s spare architecture, the YCBA sometimes stands across the street, lonely and half-deserted. The grand reopening of YUAG certainly hasn’t remedied this inequitable state of affairs. But the scruffy, scraggly little brother of the YUAG still has plenty of gems for the museum junkie who goes looking for them. Among these is the YCBA’s most recent exhibit, “Reflections on Constable’s Cloud Studies: Paintings by Mark Leonard.” This exhibition juxtaposes paintings by the revered English landscapist with modern, geometrical interpretations by the living curator, restorer and artist Mark Leonard, who painted this series just last year.
John Constable’s charm is very much like the YCBA’s. He is a painter of warmth and finesse whose understated artwork does not cry out for attention but nevertheless merits it. Although the exhibition focuses largely on Constable’s near-abstract cloud studies, the artist is largely known as a painter of pastoral scenes set in an idyllic English countryside. Landscapes such as “Stratford Mill,” on display in the exhibit, attest to Constable’s love of pastoral scenes, depicting a picturesque rural life. Yet the exhibit highlights Constable’s preoccupation not just with shepherds and scythes, but also with gray, ominous skies. “Extensive Landscape with Grey Clouds,” a canvas which might be better called a cloudscape, features a meager green strip of land overwhelmed by cloudy Suffolk skies and bears the stamp of Constable’s holistic vision of landscape painting.
Enter Mark Leonard, who has the unique opportunity to paint a series of “reflections” on Constable’s work. Unlike Constable’s paintings, these are clearly of an abstract nature, relying heavily on basic geometric shapes. These paintings create an intriguing conversation between a more traditional artist of the past and modern abstract artist. Leonard strikes a tenuous balance between interpretation and independent painting in these works. This balance seems to align perfectly with his career, which consists of curating, restoring artworks and painting, though not necessarily in that order.
Like Leonard’s career, his series is a mélange of interpretation and innovation. On first glance, Leonard’s paintings, such as “Constable Study VII,” seem a far cry from John Constable’s own paintings. Where is the puffiness, the airiness and gloominess of Constable’s clouds? Instead of providing us with reiterations of Constable’s paintings, Leonard tries to extract the marrow — color, shape and composition. Throughout Leonard’s paintings loom lunar circles of gray, pink and yellow. The other unifying feature of his work is a rope of color that runs through each of his paintings. The ropes are a clever invention — the viewer runs his eye along them, and the result is a hypnotizing effect of images that are both shallow and deep. This effect is taken to an even greater extreme in “Constable Study IX,” in which a black and a white circle interlock to create a strange combination of flatness and fullness. It is through this method that Leonard seeks to replicate the infinite complexity of Constable’s finely wrought clouds. Rather than quoting directly from Constable’s profusion of feathery clouds, he reproduces Constable’s depth and near-abstraction through the use of geometrical trompes-d’oeil. Constable’s grayish-pinkish plumes of paint are reduced to the geometrical motifs of circles and ropes. If you squint a little bit at the Constable originals, it seems like there does exist a geometric essence that Leonard has successfully extracted.
This exhibition sheds light on two aspects of Constable’s painting that are often overlooked — their careful composition and shape. Upon seeing these paintings, it’s easy to take the pieces for nothing other than pretty swirls of color. Leonard corrects this misconception by both distilling the essence of Constable’s painting and adding his own voice to the dialogue. Though its sibling across the street has the perks of a makeover, the YCBA has still got it. Through the juxtaposition of the modern and tradition in exhibitions like this one, the YCBA brings its collection to life.