History of Art


MA Special Subjects 2024-25

MA History of Art

The programme is delivered through a combination of lectures, seminars, tutorials, as well as gallery and museum visits. Students undertake modules to the value of 180 credits:

  • HART0121 Critical Debates and Methods in History of Art ('MA Core Course'; 30 credits) is taught over 20 weeks with 60+ contact hours. It is assessed by two pieces of written work: an essay of 2000-2500 words, due towards the end of term 1; and a project of 4000-4500 words, due towards the end of term 2.
  • MA Special Subject seminars (2 x 30 credits = 60 credits) are also taught over 20 weeks, beginning in first week of term 1, with 40+ contact hours. These modules are assessed by two essays, each 3000-3500 words in length, due at start of terms 2 and 3. Students take two of these modules from those offered, usually seven per year.
  • You will also write a dissertation of 13,000 words, due in September, as well as presenting on your topic at the MA viva day in June.

Special subjects offered in 2024-25

These focused courses are linked directly to the current research of staff in the department and are subject to change year on year. For prospective students, the below can be used for indicative purposes as a demonstration of the types of courses that could be available. In line with the aims of the programme—to encourage students to engage with the field as a whole—students will normally take one course from Group One and one from Group Two.

Group One

Histories of Ecological Form

Nick Robbins

Studying the entanglements of art and ecology today means thinking in a condition of emergency. Yet such pressures paradoxically require us to think backwards: to understand our precarious condition resulting from a cumulative, extended history. This module explores how art and visual culture have shaped and reshaped understandings of the natural world and the place of human life within it. The class has two main aims. The first is to think about art’s enduring involvement with the environment in a capacious historical and geographical framework, focussing on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world. The second aim is to survey recent literature from art history, literary studies, philosophy and the environmental humanities. This will give us purchase on critical terms for debate: nature, Anthropocene, extraction, justice, and others. Rather than simply examining how art has depicted ‘nature’ or the environment, we will probe how different aspects of ecological thinking (about materials, geographies, and communities) have put pressure on artistic form and process. Visits to museums and galleries in London will form an integral part of the module.

Art and Technology in Nineteenth-Century France

Richard Taws

This course explores the interfaces between art and technology in France during a 'long' nineteenth century, from the decade preceding the French Revolution to the First World War. Drawing on contemporary debates in media theory, history of technology, communication studies and media archaeology, we will examine the ways in which transformations in technology both affected, and were conditioned by, a wide variety of artistic practices in diverse media. Technological change in the production of images and objects will form a central part of the course, focusing especially on the emergence of 'new' media in printmaking, photography, architecture, and film. However, we will also address the more subtle ways in which technological innovation (not to mention stagnation, obsolescence or even regression) outside the field of art had a bearing on the production of art and the discourses that surrounded it. The materiality of technology, and its significance in the context of practices of consumption, communication, industrialisation, war and colonisation, will be central concerns. Challenging deterministic, triumphalist assumptions about the social and historical function of technology in modernity, particular attention will also be paid to those technologies that did not 'succeed'; the techniques and objects that fell by the wayside, or which were perhaps never meant to endure. This course will take a capacious approach to visual production in this period. While we will consider some well-known works by canonical artists, many others will much be less familiar. Objects and images we will encounter range from paintings, architecture, and sculpture to popular prints, photographs, maps, and newspapers; from ceramics and clothing to monuments, museums, infrastructures, and machines; from scientific and technical images to commercial spaces, world’s fairs, and advertising; from panoramas and novel optical devices, phantasmagoria and automata, to subterranean and underwater fantasies, utopian projects, and flying machines. Although the focus of the course will be on metropolitan France, a key topic will be the impact of colonialism across the ‘francosphere’ during this period. Consequently, we will consider too how events and practices in France intersected with those outside its borders, from the Haitian Revolution to the invasion of Algeria.

Transformations of the Body in Early Modern Cabinets of Display

Rose Marie San Juan

The early modern human body was forged in relation to new forms of display and reproduction. Within cabinets of curiosities, picture galleries, anatomical theatres and atlases presenting journeys to distant lands and to the interior of the body, the human body had to demonstrate its life-like condition of animation and mutability. The duplication of the body, not simply in appearance but in mechanisms of animation and transformation, present an important challenge to established art history methodologies and in this course we will consider how technologies of reproduction can open up new ways of thinking about visual images.

The first part of the course will focus on the reproduction of the body through new forms of painting, particularly the unprecedented European-wide duplication of the pictorial vocabulary of the Italian painter Caravaggio. Recently, the proliferation of ‘Caravaggesque’ images have led to many exhibitions (for example National Gallery’s ‘Beyond Caravaggio’) but the arguments remain limited to ‘influence’ and geographical expansion. We will reconsider this remarkable production of new forms of painting, which departed from religious and mythological traditions and developed pictorial images in relation to materiality (of painting and of the body) and everyday life. The ‘Galleria’ emerged as a new space of display and opened up a changing role for audiences and interpretation.   In the second part of the course we will consider other innovative and controversial forms of bodily duplication: the anatomical model, which in its simulation of human physical matter – with wax and human bone - operated as an automaton, and one that conjoined animation with physical violence; the image of the cannibal, which used the bodily format of ancient sculpture but also incorporated recent ethnographic descriptions of New World people; and the fantastical anthropomorphic bodies that mixed imaginative transformative bodies and natural objects and were displayed in cabinets of curiosities.  These innovative forms of representation, drawing on theories of nature and new technologies, encouraged the rethinking of the body while new forms of display sought to control the instability of the body.

Demarginalizing “Medieval” Africa: Challenges and Perspectives

Jacopo Gnisci

The arts of “medieval” Africa have long been left at the margins of Euro-American art historical discourse. This course sets out to critique this trend by exploring recent debates about the Global Middle Ages and the historiography of East African art. We will explore the region’s entangled material and cultural histories from late antiquity to the early modern period. Interactions with contexts such as Byzantium, South Asia, and the Islamicate world will allow us to reflect on connected histories, the circulation of visual ideas during the Middle Ages, and issues of comparativism. We will tackle transdisciplinary and innovative approaches to the study of “pre-modern” art, and will use artworks and monuments to explore a range of themes including sacred space, pilgrimage, the interfacing between image and text and people of different faiths and cultures, courtly culture, and the representation of holy and unholy bodies. Drawing on this rich and diverse history, in the second term, will enable us to counter those negative characterizations of medieval Africa as an “isolated” and “uncivilized” region which emerged largely as a result and in support of European colonialism, and we will analyse the impact of Eurocentric art histories on the Western understanding of African, and particularly east African, art. 

Keywords: Global Middle Ages; African Art; transculturalism; decolonisation.

Group Two

The World, The Museum, and The Colony

Aparna Kumar

"Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom." – Edward Said. 

As museums have become crucial centres for decolonial protest and activism today, the vital role that they have played in the advent of imperialism and solidifying colonial systems of knowledge and representation has brought into question their validity as spaces of collecting, displaying, and cultural knowledge. Are museums obsolete? Is their past still present? What should their role be in contemporary society? Taking the lead from Edward Said's The World, the Text, and the Critic, this course will re-evaluate the museum's place and capacity for social, political, and cultural criticism. A central imperative of this course will be to probe the museum's historic (and continued) relationships to empire, colony, nation, capital, and (art) history. Discussions will explore the museum's origins in the 17th and 18th centuries, its intimate entanglements with European colonialism by the 19th century, and the crucial role it played in processes of decolonization and postcolonial nation-building in the 20th century, with special emphasis given to museums and collections in Britain and South Asia. As we think about and with museums, this course will also consider what it means for art historians to write about, with, and through institutional spaces and whether museums and exhibitions, as archives of materiality, fragmentation, space, and display, can enable different forms of art writing and criticism with the power to decentre our field.

On Sex and Violence

Mignon Nixon

This is a course about art, sex, and violence. It begins with art produced in response to, or as part of, social and political events from the 1960s to the present in which sexuality and violence--including symbolic and imaginary violence-converge: the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, the American war in Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the gay liberation movement, the abortion rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the AIDS crisis, 'culture wars' of the 1980s and 1990s, the first Gulf War, terrorism and the 'war on terror', and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of equal significance for this special subject are bodies of work that reflect on sex and violence more obliquely, by troubling the conventional split between the psychic and the social in political discourse, for example. The course draws on the literatures of psychoanalysis, feminism, and gender studies, as well as on critical and historical texts. It is structured around case studies and aims to respond to current exhibitions and events.

Among the artists whose work we may consider are: Eleanor Antin, Louise Bourgeois, Valie Export, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mona Hatoum, Jenny Holzer, Mary Kelly, Silvia Kolbowski, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Lawler, Glenn Ligon, Lee Lozano, Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, Yvonne Rainer, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems. Among the critics and theorists whose work we may discuss are: Ariella Azoulay, Leo Bersani, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche, Hal Foster, Chantal Mouffe, Jacqueline Rose, and Slavoj Žižek. Among the classic psychoanalytic texts we may study are works by: Franco Fornari, Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Juliet Mitchell, Hanna Segal, and D.W. Winnicott. Among the classic political texts we may read are works by: Hannah Arendt, Angela Davis, and Virginia Woolf.

American Documentary: Inventions, Reinventions and Afterlives 

Stephanie Schwartz

This seminar considers American documentary and afterlives. It seeks to provide students with an in-depth account of the emergence of documentary in the US in the 1930s and the political and social claims made for documentary by art historians and artists today. The seminar, in turn, has a double focus: to study and understand the moment of American documentary’s ‘invention’ in the 1930s and to think through how and why that invention has (or has not) been 'reinvented', to borrow the term coined by the photographer Allan Sekula in the late 1970s. This is a seminar about the politics of writing a history of a social form. 

Opening with a consideration of the wealth of recent debates about documentary, we will begin by carving out a working definition of a document and documentary. These definitions will frame our study of the diverse range of photographic, filmic and journalistic practices that emerged in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century, including Robert Flaherty’s ethnographies, Lewis Hine’s work for the National Child Labor Committee and the films of The Workers Film and Photo League. With an expanded understanding of documentary and its discourse in place, students will then be asked to focus their attention on a few celebrated books and films produced between 1937 and 1941. Central to our concerns will be the collaborative nature of documentary work—photographers and filmmakers worked with novelists, poets, journalists and sociologists on their productions—as well as the ways in which the work we have come to call documentary circulated—namely, on the page or the screen, in print. In short, we will consider how this work produced and defined its public. Finally, the seminar will close by returning to our initial questions about the ‘reinvention’ of documentary now by thinking through the legacies and afterlives of documentary in the 1960s and 1970s.

Throughout the seminar we will test our understanding of documentary against histories and theories of modernism, the avant-garde, mass media and propaganda. We will also consider the ethical and political debates about documentary and its uses, both past and present. Students will be asked to develop a historical understanding of documentary and to think critically about the ways in which it has been historicised.

This course will focus on recent theoretical and political debates around orientalism/primitivism in the context of post colonial scholarship. It will include consideration of foundational authors and texts (Fanon, Said, Clifford, amongst others) and art historical debates around photography and painting in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The historiography of these debates will be crucial for the intellectual underpinning of the course which will go on to address contemporary practice that foregrounds issues of the body, identity and the historical mapping of locale in the context of art produced in post-Apartheid South Africa. Video, installation, photography, sculpture and painting from this context will be considered in relation to equivalent practices that dramatise these issues in the global context. Questions of power, agency, sexuality and visuality will be central to the course as a whole.

Toil and Trouble: Feminism and Art Now! 

Cadence Kinsey

This MA special subject surveys and analyses engagements between art and feminism since 2008. The module begins by examining the resurgence of interest in the histories of second-wave feminism in the late 2000s - described by the art historian Catherine Grant in terms of ‘fans of feminism’ - before asking what happened in the decade that followed.

Based around a close engagement with the work of a young generation of artists, this module will address some of the most pressing themes and questions that define the field: from the reproduction of labour in the digital economy, to the relationship between art and the environment, to thinking about race and representation. A unique feature of the module is that we will also start to approach the problem of social class in contemporary art, asking how might the visual languages of class manifest and why has social class not been considered as a vector of identity in the discourses of contemporary art in any sustained way?

The chronological scope of the module is framed by the global economic downturn of 2007-2008 and the political and social effects that it gave rise to, including increasing levels of inequality. The development of new networked communication technologies from around this time will also form an important backdrop to the module as a whole, and we will think about technology not only in relation to feminist theory and practice but also consider the construction of models of masculinity and the importance of trans scholarship to theorizing the Web (and vice versa). We will critically engage with some of the new discursive frameworks that have emerged in parallel to these developments in the last decade – including the anthropocene, the posthuman and the so-called new-materialisms – and analyse how these have informed artistic responses to thinking about identity and subjectivity. The course aims to situate these practices historically, and we will consider possible points of connection – and disconnection – with earlier moments such as performance practices of the 1960s and 70s, body art of the 1990s and cyberfeminism.

Visits to relevant galleries and institutions across London will form a common component of the module.

Previously Offered Subjects

The Values of Design in the Italian Renaissance

Alison Wright

By considering the role of design, the course addresses central issues in the production and reception of Italian art of the 15th and earlier 16th century, considering paintings and sculpture as well as new fields of representation such as wood inlay, medals and prints and how they were evaluated in the period. We look at the theory of disegno and the practice and processes of design in Renaissance workshops. We address issues concerning illustration, narrative and allegorical invention and the inscription, dissemination and development of styles, as well as the rôle of design in communication between patron and maker.

The course offers:
- knowledge and understanding of the circumstances of production and contemporary evaluation of art and 'artists' in a period of rapid social and artistic change.
- interpretation of contemporary sources as well as recent critical frameworks
- familiarity with the facture and functions of some of the major monuments of Renaissance art but also types of production overlooked in grand narratives of renaissance art but important to the understanding of the period -- as well as to present day curatorial skill and professional expertise.
- a focus on works to be studied at first hand in London collections from Pisanello to Pontormo.

Portraits and Pathologies

Mechthild Fend

Focussing on eighteenth and nineteenth-century France, this course seeks to explore relations between portraits of people and portraits of diseases. During the period, pathologies - from morbid organs, via skin diseases to mental disorders - started to be visually recorded in a systematic manner. At the same time portraiture was a popular artistic genre, and yet it was variously contested and challenged during the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the advent of modernism. The portrait was quite consistently defined by art theorists of the time as the imitation of an individual head that provides a characteristic resemblance. What this means though was less straight forward than it seems at a time during which the human subject was - in political, social, psychological and even physical terms - subject to intense debate, a debate in which the voice of physicians was as crucial as that of philosophers. We will critically engage with issues of resemblance, faciality, intersubjectivity, sociability and subjection, gender, skin colour, physiognomy, and the divide between the normal and the pathological. Key will be the notion of 'character' as both human individuals and medical disorders were thought to have 'characteristic traits'.

We will engage with portraits (paintings, pastels, busts, prints and drawings) not only as likenesses but also as material objects that were displayed individually or in groups in specific physical spaces, items of commercial exchange and tokens of friendship, or, in the case of with medical images, tools of study and observation that were handled or assembled and combined with texts in illustrated books.

This course takes an interdisciplinary approach and introduces students to current discussions on portraiture, in the medical humanities and to questions of the scientific image. Some classes will be taught in London collections such as the National Gallery and the Wellcome library. The ability to read French will be beneficial but is not a requirement.

Human and Nonhuman in Medieval Art

Robert Mills

'The first subject matter for painting was animal', writes John Berger, but how have art historians responded to this basic insight? This special subject option considers how artists negotiated the human/nonhuman opposition in the Middle Ages. Bringing medieval visual culture into dialogue with contemporary philosophical and theoretical reflections on the animal, we will ask how representations of the nonhuman shaped ideas about ethics, politics, justice, identity and subjectivity in the period. We will seek to contextualise these treatments of nonhuman difference with reference to a wealth of visual material - manuscript illumination, painting, sculpture, stained glass, misericords and tapestry - that works to sustain the category of the human or to call it into question. Can art be a space of resistance to the discourse of the human? What would a 'posthuman' Middle Ages look like? Is it ever possible to look with, rather than through the animal? Are monsters and animals always other?

Topics addressed include anthropomorphism and animal metaphor; metamorphosis; the depiction of humans as (other) animals; animals as moral or religious figures; monstrosity and hybridity; margins and difference; medieval and modern concepts of nature and the natural world; automata and robotics; parchment as medium and the art of flaying; interspecies friendship, affect and desire; the aesthetics and politics of meat; ecocritical perspectives on art.

American Media: Publicity and the Logics of Surveillance

Stephanie Schwartz

'We have become a society of surveillance.' This refrain, once the stuff of fiction and born out on the pages of George Orwell's now prescient 1984, is today a hackneyed fact. We have become a society obsessed with-as well as frightened of and exhilarated by-burgeoning technologies of surveillance. For some, the reiteration of this fact merely contributes to our complacency, to our embrace and internalization of the state's surveillant eye. For others, it is a reminder that we are a society in urgent need of surveillant literacy.

This seminar addresses this need through a historical examination of the emergence of new devices for seeing, looking, counting, filing and recording in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our goal is not-or not simply-to acknowledge the historical precedents for today's 'Big Brother' in earlier photographic and filmic practices. It is to suggest that any investigation of the post-9/11 frenzy with looking and seeing, witnessing and being seen requires a parallel investigation of how we think about, examine, critique and historicize technology. Focusing on a set of key episodes in the history of American media (1880s-1950s), this seminar calls into question what counts as a technology of surveillance. Is it the eye? Is it the lens? Or is it the ways in which the eye and the lens mediate new social spaces and publics? Should we focus on the visual or the ways in which new technologies-from statistics to biometrics, for example-account for and address the limits of looking?

The seminar is divided into four sections, opening with an examination of how we historicize technologies and how those histories have shaped our histories of surveillance. Of particular importance to this conversation will be recent debates about digitalization and the claim that photographic truth is no longer possible. What are the implications of this history for the ways we look at the past? Was truth ever the goal of recording devices and spying eyes? Taking this theoretical ground as our starting point, the class will explore three aspects of American film and photographic production, all of which stress the organization of the American public: 'Engineering Social Space,' 'Bureaucracy' and 'Public and Counter-Publics.' In each section, we will examine historical episodes in photography and film production alongside contemporary artistic and cultural examples of practices geared to frame and reframe debates about surveillance and what counts as public. Key issues for debate will include the differences between state and corporate surveillance as well as between private viewing and public watching, resistances to technologies, the ways in which debates about surveillance frame current studies of labor and technological determinism.

Suggested Summer Reading/Films

  • Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World (London: Chatto & Windus, 1932)
  • George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949)
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1952)
  • Peeping Tom, dir. Michael Powell, 1960
  • The Conversation, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
  • Caché, dir. Michael Haneke, 2005
Cannibalism and the Early Modern Image

Rose Marie San Juan

Cannibalism, a concept invented in early modern Europe and immediately mired in controversy about what it could mean and to whom it pertained, offers an intriguing relation to the visual image. The cannibal was initially ascribed to people in the indecipherable 'New World' but it only became a cultural force with the production of lavish engravings in travel accounts. With the alliance of image and text, the notion of cannibalism was held in tension between the visual imagination and new claims about witnessing and recording nature and history. This course will consider the complex and interdisciplinary debates around cannibalism (from Montaigne's seminal 1580 essay to more recent anthropological and cultural writings - Sahlins, Derrida, de Certeau, Kristeva - and films), especially how the notion of the cannibal came to have unexpected critical possibilities, negotiating new relationships in a changing world, rethinking the boundaries of oneself and others, and questioning the very premises of the European subject. The goal, however, is not to pursue philosophical questioning as an end in itself, but to draw on it to question conventionalized interpretations of the visual image. Cannibalism and the visual image do not just meet in the actual representation of eating of one's own kind. The notion of the cannibal unleashed some of the most innovative and challenging visual images of the 16th and 17th centuries, for example: the invention of the image of 'utopia' in cartography (with new conceptions of space, place, boundary, frontier), the turn to images of embodied experience in new forms of painting (eating, ingestion, digestion, regurgitation, incorporation), a new kind of war image (witness evidence of atrocities in religious wars), ethnographic images of distant lands and people (especially the De Bry albums on the Americas, Africa, Asia), anatomical images of dissection (a site for the observation of European cannibalism), a different kind of mythological painting (Cronos and other transformative myths focused on eating the body). The course seeks to have an experimental approach, and proposes that the theoretical and historical conceptualizations and conflicts around cannibalism can serve to open up new possibilities for the interpretation of the visual image.

Colonialism and Its Legacies in Latin American Art

Emily Floyd

This module explores critical debates in recent art historical scholarship and art criticism in and about Latin America. We will consider colonialism and its reverberations and repercussions into the present day in order to respond to our central question “What is Latin American Art?” The first term will focus primarily on the colonial period, roughly 1524-1824, while the second term looks at the reflections of this period in modern and contemporary art. Topics to be addressed include colonialism and the body, race and representation, debates about hybridity, postcolonial and decolonial theory, and borderlands and globalization.

Vision, Tourism, Imperialism: Art and Travel in the British Empire, 1760-1870  

Anais da Fonseca 

This course traces the negotiations of British art with the image-making of other places through the conflictual artistic practices anticipated and produced by the figure of travel. The expansion of an art market in 18th-century Britain, a parallel investment in pleasure touring (Britain, Europe and beyond), the East India Company's colonization of India and the institutionalized, metropolitan sponsorship of projects of exploration in Polynesia, Melanesia and Tibet generated conflicting visual economies of travel. Located in the historical framework of the Second British Empire, the course will explore the agency of the visual in the construction of other places, peoples and temporalities through an exciting range of media and ideas. This endorses a set of preliminary questions: what might be 'eye-witness precision' or quasi-scientific objectivity, 'authenticity' or an aesthetic of the Exotic? How far did this entanglement of art and travel embody a charged semiotics of nostalgia? Did British/colonial artists create an auratic sense of place whereby objects, peoples and spaces became signs of themselves? And what are the tensions between materiality and visuality enacted by travel? In the later parts of the course we track alternative regimes of travel as figured by the dialectic of tourism and pilgrimage in 19th-century India.

Intermedia: Art and Materiality in the 1960s and 1970s

Hanna Holling

This course interrogates the materiality of artworks and artefacts created in the spirit of Fluxus and other avant-garde aesthetic movements of the1960s and 70s. It considers the intermedial approach as a historical framework, critical mindset, and a ground on which to scrutinise the notions of media, matter, materiality, and meaning. In lectures, discussions, and workshops, we will question the validity of traditional distinctions between the media as art categories, tools, and physical carriers. We will criticise the modernist myth of media purity, investigate the obsolete media`s redemptive quality and, finally, attempt to relocate the medium in an ever more pluralistic world of artistic expression. Fluxus objects, events, scores, performances, and ephemera will form the "artifactual" backbone of this course. The apparent permanence of objects and artefacts will be juxtaposed by the transitoriness of events and performances, as well as electronic media, notably television and video that were introduced in the 1960s within and outside the Fluxus circles. Notions of plural and singular arts, artistic and vehicular media, authenticity, uniqueness, and originality, transition, and recursion will be theorized against the backdrop of the material persistence of artworks. Among the artists discussed will be George Brecht, John Cage, Philip Corner, Robert Filliou, Arthur Köpcke, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Shigeko Kubota, George Maciunas, Jackson Mac Low, Shiomi Mieko, Yoko Ono, Ben Patterson, Nam June Paik, Dieter Roth, Takako Saito, Tomas Schmit, Daniel Spoerri, Ben Vautier, and Wolf Vostell.

Politics of the Image: Germany 1890-1945

Frederic Schwartz

For historians, the parameters of this course-from the reign of Wilhelm II to the end of the Second World War-are clear. The historiographical stakes are also high: to what extent does this period represent developments typical of twentieth-century modernity, and to what extent are they specific to one nation? And as art historians know, this is a time in which the visual image becomes radically problematic and problematised. The course will attempt to combine these perspectives, considering this period in the light of the changing nature of the image: its political uses, its economic values, the bodies of knowledge brought to bear in the attempt to understand and manipulate it.

The course will attempt to set up a sort of counterpoint between, on the one hand, the basic protagonists of inherited art-historical narratives (Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Neue Sachlichkeit, etc) and the usual tropes (the rise and fall of the avant-garde, the contrast between figurative and abstract, between tradition and modernity); and, on the other hand, a set of concepts that might help us make a different sense of the image in modernity. We will consider not only art and architecture but also film, advertising and political propaganda. These will be examined in the light of changing definitions of the subject of culture, the pressures producing and eclipsing a public sphere, the legal status of cultural products, the role of crime in culture and danger in vision, and the new networks available for the distribution and circulation of images. At the same time, the course will trace new theories of the image-from the academic history of art to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and beyond that emerged out of the historical experience of this period.

Modern Medieval: Reception, Revival, Replication

Robert Mills

Art history is dominated by the idea that an artwork ‘belongs’ to the time in which it was created. Pursuing deep connections between modern and medieval art forms, this MA Special Subject option presents a challenge to this paradigm. Built around a series of weekly case studies, we examine appropriations of medieval cultural artefacts by a range of post-medieval artists, artisans, architects, filmmakers, collectors and curators. We explore replications of medieval objects and experiences in the modern world and consider such phenomena as Gothic Revival, colonial and postcolonial Gothic, medieval film and pop-culture medievalisms. These cross-temporal encounters are used as a window onto such topics as nostalgia, nationalism, affect, anachronism, appropriation, replication and authenticity. Crucially, we investigate the aesthetics of medievalism in conjunction with its politics. What role does the medieval play in modern geopolitics and identity formation? How might the modern/medieval encounter become a vehicle for rethinking conceptions of time and history?

Seeing Through Materials: Matter, Vision, and Transformation in the Renaissance 

Alison Wright

The course investigates the ways that the experience of looking, changing notions of vision and knowledge were informed in the Renaissance by material concerns and the staging of materiality in the visual field. Focussing on a wide range of artworks, sites and sacred objects (especially using paint, stone, metal and glass), 'seeing through' is interpreted in relation to artistic practice, theories of vision, reception and systems of knowledge and belief. The course primarily addresses the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century in Europe, above all Italy and its trade with the wider world. But we also pay attention to how what is seen, and how it is understood, is transformed by the contemporary encounter. A major objective is to re-connect questions of artistic labour with theoretical speculation, the physical matter of art with art's historical functions, particularly the idea of its transcendence, and the understanding of works in multiple media as both historically situated and surviving beyond the present. So 'transformation' will refer to those changes of state staged in and through materials and images in the period, but also to the changes worked on them over time, including how present day conditions and technologies of vision have changed them. What aspects of both surface and signification have become more opaque even as hidden layers and structures have come into view?

Gold, Silver, Bronze: Art, Materiality and Value, c.1400 to the Present

Allison Stielau

This module takes a transhistorical approach to questions of materiality and value relating to the work of art. Particular materials will frame our investigation and discussion. The first term is devoted to metals, especially those considered "precious" in various cultural contexts, namely gold, silver, and bronze. We will become familiar with the physical properties of these metals; the methods used to extract, purify, shape and transform them; the social status of those who historically extracted and worked them; and the trade networks and regulatory regimes through which they travelled and continue to circulate. Another topic of enquiry will be the changing meanings each metal has held in the realms of religion, politics, fashion, and finance, and among different communities. Gold and silver, in particular, have played a significant role in structuring the economy, specifically the form of currency, in many societies over the centuries. When used in artworks, they thus necessarily raise questions about value and the relationship between financial and aesthetic worth. The ability of precious metals to be melted and reformed makes their current manifestation ever-temporary; thus, the time and duration of objects and matter will be another significant subject of discussion. 
The spring term opens a broader spectrum of materials and theoretical responses to the module's organizing terms, making possible fresh opportunities for student research topics. 
While the historical focus of many readings and topics of discussion is trained on the period before 1800, reflecting the tutors' fields of expertise, special effort has been made to place questions of materiality and value in a wider chronological frame. Thus, in addition to addressing metallic purity and currency regulation in Renaissance Italy, we will also discuss the Gold Standard in twentieth-century America and the implications of its abandonment of abstraction in the visual arts. The light effects emphasized in hip-hop's visual culture will be situated within a more extended history of reflective representation. While student research topics must use the broad material lens of each term, they are open concerning medium, historical context, and geographical location. 

Art as Theory: The Writing of Art

Briony Fer

This course sets out to examine the relationship between art and art writing. It aims to equip students with the critical skills to question the terms that produce current discursive frameworks to reconfigure the crucial field of contemporary and recent art history. The course examines a range of theoretical and art critical positions through close textual analysis, including a sustained discussion of ekphrastic models of descriptive writing - drawn from conventional art historical and art critical writing and literary and other theoretical sources. 

The course investigates the possibility of understanding the artwork as a work of theory. Testing the limits of art historical approaches that assume the importance of the historical and geographical circumstances of art's production, the course is designed to open up discussion of the artwork's theoretical and phenomenological demands on us as viewers. Rather than underestimate the theoretical content of art, this course intends to maximise it by making the object of speculation more porous not only to different geographies but also to early modern art, which is not typically considered in the same breath as modernist and post-modernist art. We explore the possibilities of new types of critical writing in relation to a range of work, not only from Europe and the US but also from Latin America, especially Brazil. The course is structured based on in-depth case studies on contemporary art and its recent history. Rather than privileging the more familiar critics, the course aims to foreground artists' writings and take them seriously as writing models before considering larger critical and theoretical frameworks.

Race/Place: Exotic/Erotic

Tamar Garb

This course will focus on recent theoretical and political debates around orientalism/primitivism in the context of post-colonial scholarship. It will include consideration of foundational authors and texts (Fanon, Said, Clifford, amongst others) and art historical debates around photography and painting in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The historiography of these debates will be crucial for the intellectual underpinning of the course, which will address contemporary practice that foregrounds issues of the body, identity and the historical mapping of locale in the context of art produced in post-Apartheid South Africa. Video, installation, photography, sculpture and painting from this context will be considered equivalent practices that dramatise these issues globally. Questions of power, agency, sexuality and visuality will be central to the course.

Places on Special Subject courses are allocated later in the admissions cycle, during the summer, once all offers have been made and accepted. However, it would be helpful if you could suggest briefly in your application statement which of our recent special subject courses you think you would find especially interesting, and why, so that we can get a better sense of you and your commitments.