History of Art


MA special subjects

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 2019-2020

These focused courses are linked directly to the current research of staff in the department, and change regularly. Approximately seven are offered each year, in a range of periods.

The courses listed below are running in 2019-20. You can also access a PDF of reccomended readings for all special subjects on this page.

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 which produce current discursive frameworks in order to reconfigure the critical 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 not only from conventional art historical and art critical writing but also from literary and other theoretical sources. The course investigates the possibility of understanding the artwork itself as a work of theory. Testing the limits of art historical approaches that assume the primacy 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 not normally 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 Latin America, especially Brazil. The course is structured on the basis of a series of in depth case studies, focusing on contemporary art and its recent histories. Rather than privilege the more familiar critics, the course aims to foreground artists writings and take them seriously as writing models before going onto consider larger critical and theoretical frameworks.

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 an 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.


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 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.

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.

Modern Medieval

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 course 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, New World 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? How might the modern/medieval encounter become a vehicle for rethinking conceptions of time and history?

The module will include visits to various sites in and around London, including trips to Strawberry Hill house, the William Morris gallery and Sir John Soane's Museum, and a study day in Oxford. Funding permitting, there will also be a field trip to Barcelona.


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. 

Time, Media, Revolution: Art and Politics in France, 1789-1871

Richard Taws

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a succession of revolutions that dramatically altered the political and visual landscape of France. This course will pay particular attention to the French Revolution that began in 1789, as well as subsequent revolutionary episodes in 1830 and 1848. Tracing the intersections between art and politics in this period of radical change, we will conclude with the events and tragic aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871. Equally, the course will examine how intervals of reaction and retrenchment that punctuated these revolutions, such as the Napoleonic Empire and the Restoration, were also crucial to the conditions under which art might be made and understood. Paying particular attention to tensions between academic, industrial, and ‘popular’ art production, we will ask what it takes for art to be ‘revolutionary’, consider how visual culture was implicated in important questions of gender and class, examine the drawn-out legacies of the French revolutionary tradition, and track the reverberations of issues that emerged in the nineteenth century in more recent events and debates. Transforming concepts of historical time, and introducing new theoretical models for understanding the fraught category of ‘modernity’, this period marked too a revolution in the functions and forms of diverse media. Wholesale destructions and reconstructions of urban space made the vestiges of the past visible in politically loaded ways, while the emergence of new visual technologies, and their co-existence alongside earlier forms of registering images, drew attention to the role of time in the media of representation.

This course will take a deliberately capacious approach to visual production in this period, and will address a wide variety of different objects and images. Some of these are well-known works by canonical artists, while many others will much be less familiar. Objects and images we will encounter range from paintings, architecture, and sculpture, to popular prints, photographs, and newspapers; from ceramics and clothing to monuments, cemeteries, and museums; from panoramas and novel optical devices to propagandistic public festivals and iconoclastic rituals; from scientific and technical images to commercial spaces and advertising. 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 in France intersected with those outside its borders, from the Haitian Revolution to the invasion of Algeria. Visits to collections will be a component of the course. It will coincide in 2019-2020 with an exhibition at UCL Art Museum of prints made during the French revolutionary Terror, and it is expected that students will play a role in associated events.

Previously Offered Subjects


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

Alison Wright

The course investigates the multiple ways that the experience of looking, of vision and understanding were informed in the Renaissance by material concerns and the effects of how materiality was staged in the visual field. Focussing on a wide range of artworks, sites and sacred objects (in paint, stone, metal and glass), 'seeing through' is interpreted in relation to artistic practice, theories of vision, reception and systems of knowledge and belief. While the course primarily addresses the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century in Europe, especially Italy, we 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, especially the idea of its transcendence, and the understanding of works in multiple media as both historically situated and surviving into the present. So 'transformation' will refer to those changes of state staged in and through media 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 can come into view?

Early Modern Horror (16th/17th centuries)

Maria Loh

Why study horror?  What can we learn about the past through the confrontation of horror, abjection, and obscenity?  Departing from Nicolas Poussin's Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake in the National Gallery, London, this course proposes a visual history of pathos and metamorphosis anchored around what Noel Carroll defined as 'art-horror' and what Linda Williams referred to as 'the frenzy of the visible'.  Forcing ourselves to look with critical attention at sixteenth- and seventeenth-century representations of horror--works specifically designed to elicit fright, confusion, terror, pity, and/or pain from the spectator--this course will push beyond the staid clichés about the 'Renaissance' and 'Baroque' as periods of extraordinary beauty and order and turn instead to embrace a messier, murkier, experimental, and experiential history of early modern visual culture. The course will be structured around four themes: 1) Special Affects and the Moving Image (which will look at the tension between narration and affect, on the role of gesture and theatricality, and on the staging of the passions); 2) Mal'occhio (which investigates the unsettling animation of icons, portraits, ex votos and other images set into action through ritual and ceremony); 3) Ghost in the Machine (which addresses the authority of the senses and somatic experience, the question of the early modern cyborg or the boundary between anima and machina, and how the pre-medical body was conceptualised); 4) Science Fictions: Posthuman/Premodern (which turns to how images attempted to contain fear, terror, and anxiety in the face of the unknown in a liminal period when 'science' was still looked upon with much suspicion as a form of fiction).

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.

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. Although the focus of the course will be on France, other national and global contexts will be discussed where appropriate.

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.

The Senses and the Rise of Capital

Charles Ford

In this course we shall be looking at/for manifestations of the emergence of 'visualism' and the decline in prestige of other forms of sensory experience in [not only, but especially] middle-class, urban cultures during the long seventeenth-century. We shall look for an emerging 'middle-class sensorium', which can be traced in transformations in the structures of both elite and popular knowledges. In other words we shall be tracing what Donald Lowe has called the 'History of Bourgeois Perception'. We shall read for this in paintings, literature and the procedures of emergent sciences, as well as more archaeological enquiries into the new spaces of daily life [in homes, in new kinds of civic and commercial spaces, in the new spaces of viewing, in the gardens and parks around towns]. We shall also consider general tendencies in historical methodology as regards past bodily experience and historical subjectivity [since Bakhtin, Elias, the Annales historians, Foucault, De Certeau], each of which has been developed within a particular historical and philosophical moment, paying special attention to the recent 'anthropological turn'. (This can be read for in David Howes ed., Empire of the Senses, The Sensual Culture Reader, Oxford/NY, 2005 and Mark M. Smith, Sensory History, Oxford/New York, 2007.)

Photographic Cultures: Photography's Publics & the Production of Politics

Sarah James

It has become fashionable to talk about the 'post-documentary', and to position recent re-inventions of documentary as more sophisticated than the one-dimensional documentary traditions of modernism. Attempting to complicate and historicise such claims, this course will explore photo-exhibitions; photo-essays; photobooks; photo-archives; photographic practices; photo-art; film and video essays in Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States from the early twentieth century to the present day. Taking an expanded conception of photography and documentary throughout this period, we will look at the ways in which photography has been approached as a kind of social laboratory. We will explore how photography has been mobilised to produce different political agencies, publics, identities and collective experiences, and how it has been used pedagogically as a model for social and political behaviour, or as a means of political resistance. Moving from the pre-war avant-garde of the early twentieth century, through the Cold War, to the contemporary photographic art and cultures of the globalised present, we will look at the shifting relations between realism, documentary and humanism in relation to issues of seriality, sequence, sameness and juxtaposition. We will think about the relationship between photography and the masses, and its complex uses in both communist and capitalist cultures. The course will consider the application of montage to critical thought and the emergence of different approaches to realism and documentary. We will explore how different models of socialised and political seeing have been theorised, and examine the ways in which images have been mobilised by writers and philosophers to conceptualise and produce solidarity and political communities.

Contemporary Art and Globalization

T J Demos

This course examines how contemporary art has negotiated globalization, at times finding progressive resources within its developments, at others, contesting its oppressive structures and effects. We will consider ways to theorize globalization-including Marxist analyses, neoliberal positions, post-colonial approaches, and methods of political ecology-and investigate how select models of artistic practice and activism-largely video, photography, installation, new media, and socially engaged practice-parse current developments, raising new options of resistance and inventing new modes of being and belonging in the world. The focus will be on artistic and activist practices from Europe and North America, the Middle East, and North and Central Africa (although other areas, such as Asia, may enter into discussion as well). Overall, the course will consider recent theories of the politics of aesthetics, biopolitics, the state of exception, and bare life in relation to current modes of political governance, human rights discourse, socio-political and economic exclusion, environmental migration, and climate change. 

Inhabiting Art: Communes, Colonies, Squatting

Petra Lange-Berndt

This course discusses the architectures, poly-sensual environments and urban structures connected to artists' houses, communes and colonies. We will consider issues of countercultures, community-building, artistic authorship and self-staging: Since the nineteenth century a multitude of projects has been experimenting with forms of collective habitation as well as the subcultural lifestyles associated with hotels and farms, or the activism around squatted properties. By considering related theories of authorship in relation to collectivism, to models of the group, cooperative, network, sect, horde, pack, or swarm - ranging from anarchist, marxist or feminist to postmodern thought - we will criticise and revise romantic notions of artistdom and spaces of art production. We will also investigate in which ways communes and colonies as well as the desire to speak in a collective voice are relevant for artistic practices today.

Technologies of Representation in 18th- and 19th-Century France

Mechthild Fend and Richard Taws

This course explores the interfaces between art, the body, and technology in France from the early eighteenth century to the First World War. Drawing on contemporary theories of the image, and parallel debates in media theory and in the history of science and technology, we will examine the ways in which transformations in technology both affected, and were conditioned by, a wide variety of visual and artistic practices in diverse media.

The first part of the course will draw particular attention to, on the one hand, representations of the body, and, on the other, indexical images; that is, images that rely for their production on a more or less direct contact between the represented and the representation, such as silhouettes, casts or wax moulages, photographs or finger prints. Whether based on traditional or newly developed techniques of reproduction these images had a particular currency as 'true' and 'authentic' during the period in question and were produced and used in relation to various scholarly and scientific practices from physiognomy and anthropology via dermatology to criminology.

The second part of the course will focus 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, industrialization, war and colonization, 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. Although the focus of the course will be on France, other national and global contexts will be discussed where appropriate.

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.

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

Natasha Eaton

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 70s

Hanna Hölling

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 mind set, 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.

American Documentary: Inventions, Reinventions, and Afterlives

Stephanie Schwartz

This course considers American documentary and its afterlives. Offering an in depth study of the emergence of documentary in the US around the rise of the New Deal, it asks students to consider claims being made for documentary work by art historians and contemporary artists. Did documentary rise and fall in a matter of decade? Is the emergence of documentary necessarily aligned with economic and social crisis? Are we currently experiencing the 'return' or 'reinvention' of documentary? 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 been reinvented, repressed and historicized.

Opening with a consideration of the wealth of recent debates about documentary, we will carve out a working definition of a document and/or documentary. This definition will frame the 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-from Robert Flaherty's ethnographies and Lewis Hine's work for the National Child Labor Committee to 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 screen, in print. In short, we will consider how this work produced and defined its or a public. Finally, the seminar will close by returning to our initial questions about the so-called 'reinvention' of documentary now by thinking through the legacies and afterlives of documentary in the 1960s and 1970s.

Throughout the course 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, in short, will be asked to develop a historical understanding of documentary and to think critically about the ways in which it has been historicized.

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

Allison Stielau

The three metals that define achievement in the modern Olympic Games have a long tradition as the material basis of artworks. This course considers the use of gold, silver, and bronze in artistic practice from the late middle ages to the present. We will become familiar with the physical properties of these precious metals; the methods used to extract, purify, shape and transform them; and the trade networks and circulatory systems in which they traveled. Another topic of enquiry will be the changing meanings each metal has held in the realms of religion, politics, fashion, and finance. What explains the hierarchy between gold, silver, and bronze that makes it such an easy signifier for standards of quality in many of our commercial, charitable and even academic institutions (think of a "gold-star rating")? Gold and silver in particular have played a major role in structuring the economy, and specifically the form of currency, in many societies over the centuries. When used in artworks, they thus necessarily raise questions about value and about the relationship between financial and aesthetic worth. The ability of precious metals to be melted and reformed makes their current manifestation ever temporary; thus time and duration of objects and matter will be another significant subject of discussion. 

The majority of case studies will be located in Western Europe, with notable exceptions-for example, the extraction of precious metals by Spanish conquistadors in the New World from indigenous populations with radically different systems of belief, valuation, and measurement. Useful theoretical approaches to the topic come out of anthropology and the texts informing the so-called material turn in art history. Visits to collections and relevant institutions in London-including the Goldsmiths Company Assay Office, the V&A Metalwork galleries, the British Museum department of coins and medals-will be a common component over the year.  


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.


The deadline for 2019-20 applications to the MA is 29 March 2019 at 5pm. While we reserve the right to consider applications received after this date, priority will be given to candidates who apply before this deadline.