UofT Art Historian Has Useful Perspective on Photography in the Post-Truth Era
Monday, February 27, 2017
An art historian, Bear is interested in the sociology of knowledge, in particular, how people in different historical periods become convinced that what they are looking at is real.
Bear’s passion is how works of photography are received, rather than how they are produced. His first book, Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subject, recently won the prestigious 2016 Historians of British Art book award for a post-1800 subject.
“I’m interested in the skills people develop or have imposed upon them to make sense of visual representations,” said Bear, an associate professor in the Department of History of Art in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “In the past three months terms like fake news and alternative facts have become common. This new vocabulary makes us aware that these questions are important and are relevant to what makes a citizen informed about his or her place in the world.”
Photos don’t tell us much; supplementary information is key
For example, during President Trump’s inauguration, questions arose about the size of the crowd in attendance and photos were used to support the conclusions. Unsurprisingly, Bear received a number of emails as events unfolded.
“In our culture, visual representation and its relation to evidence, proof and the truth may be difficult to sort out,” he said. “Photographs themselves don’t tell us very much; supplementary information is key. The idea that there is smoking gun proof from a photo is problematic.”
Given the timeliness of this subject, this year’s Historians of British Art book award was all the more appropriate.
People have expectations for photographs to be an impartial reflection of the real world
“I had no idea that I was being considered at all,” Bear said. “It’s a nice surprise. The main benefit is recognition. It will allow my book to reach a wider audience and I hope it will open doors for research.”
The book, which grew out of his doctoral research, explores “why people are compelled to believe certain kinds of images and not others. Photography seemed like a good place to start, because people have heightened expectations for photographs to be an impartial reflection of the real world, and we know that’s not true.”
Bear took a trip back in time to the beginnings of photography as a medium to compare what sense people make of photos compared to older, more traditional media such as painting.
Historical paintings created before photography provided a public record of battles and events
He is currently exploring historical paintings created before photography was invented and how they provided a public record of battles and other historical events.
“In the first quarter of the 19th century, historical paintings go from being the most important genre of painting to almost invisible,” Bear said. “Eventually, objects used in battle or live testimony from that battle seemed more immediate to viewers than paintings of them. My hypothesis is that they became less important because they don’t give viewers the same proximity to the past that other kinds of evidence do.”
Bear didn’t set out to become an art historian. Growing up outside New York City, he had access to an abundance of museums and loved the art he experienced. As he earned his bachelor’s degree in literature, Bear realized that his essays focused largely on the visual elements in the stories. He began incorporating art history courses into his curriculum and moved on to study art history at the graduate level at Columbia University.
“By then, I had some sense that I was interested in modern art,” Bear said. “19th century art provided me with a way of thinking about the origins of technological and social movements that seemed to offer a way to get sense of our own culture and moment.”
This story was originally published on the University of Toronto Arts & Science News Site (Feb. 24, 2017)
Article by: Elaine Smith
The Class of ’51
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
L to R: Charles Comfort, John Golding, and Stephen Vickers.
Shirley (Tyte) Beatty, Class of ’51, sent along this photograph of Charles Comfort, John Golding, and Stephen Vickers. Students of that era in what was then called the Department of Art and Archaeology were taught by such eminent figures as the distinguished medievalists Peter Brieger and Stephen Vickers, and the major Canadian artist and Director of the National Gallery, Charles Comfort (a founding faculty member of the Department). Shirley Beatty remembers going to Comfort’s class every Saturday morning for a full year to the army reserve barracks on the east side of St. George Street at Bloor, where students painted in different genres (portrait, still life) to learn about actual historical techniques of art-making (including egg tempera and fresco). The Fine Art studio courses, like courses in philosophy, history, and modern languages, were part of the core art history and archaeology program.
John Golding, “E.C.M. SD.” 1976. Oil on canvas. 182.88 x 152.4 cm. Gift by bequest of Murray Davis, (UC 4T8), 1998. Collection of University College, University of Toronto
Beatty’s cohort in the Class of ’51 included a young student from Mexico, John Golding (1929–2012). Golding was a notable graduate of the Department of Art and Archaeoloy, who went on to become both as an eminent artist, teaching painting at the Royal College of Art, and a major art historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art. His book Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907–1914 (1959) is a richly considered standard study, republished in numerous revised editions. Golding co-curated the landmark exhibitions Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, at the Tate Gallery in 1994; and Matisse/Picasso, in 2002–03, at the London Tate Modern, the Grand Palais in Paris, and MoMA New York. His book Paths to the Absolute (2000), Golding’s consideration of the meanings of twentieth century abstraction, won the prestigious Mitchell prize in 2002.
In 2014 Shirley Beatty, who had a career in film production and editing for the United Church of Canada, generously endowed the William R. and Shirley Beatty Undergraduate Scholarships for students in History of Art with the highest level of financial need. This is to ensure students would be able to have access to the fulfilling experience of studying art and art history in our department that she had had, regardless of their financial circumstances. The gift is also meant to send a larger message about the importance of the study of art and the humanities, and the way they enrich life, no matter what the career. “Hopefully, with a little bit of help from this scholarship they will have less of a financial burden. Perhaps they’ll be able to enjoy the university experience more fully, as I did, and focus more on fulfilling their dreams instead of just dreaming them.”
Two graduates of the Class of ’51, Sybil Salvin Rampen (L) and Shirley (Tyte) Beatty (R) at the Joshua Creek Heritage Art Centre.
Another member of the Class of ’51, Sybil Salvin Rampen is an artist and educator. Following her BA in the University of Toronto in Art and Archaeology she pursued studies in Paris and London, and attained an Art Specialist designation from the Ontario College of Education. She is the founder of the Joshua Creek Heritage Art Centre near Oakville, where she teaches art and mentors emerging artists. http://www.joshuacreekarts.com/sybil-rampen/ Set in beautiful gardens, it is a cultural facility promoting creative projects, local heritage, community, outreach, accessibility, and ecology through workshops, films, musical events, and lectures. As a contribution to the history of the department, Sybil Rampen gave her beautiful (illustrated) undergraduate notes taken in Peter Brieger’s classes to the Department of Art library.
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Architectural Historian Revels In The Fourth Dimension Of Buildings – Sound
Friday, October 14, 2016
Joseph Clarke is fascinated by buildings. He loves the way they look and the ways they are designed to serve different functions.
But he mostly loves the way they sound.
An assistant professor in the Department of History of Art at the Faculty of Arts & Science who joined U of T this fall, Clarke studies relationships between architectural form, technology, and the acoustics of structures from the 18th century to the present. Trained as an architect and a historian, he is particularly interested in evolving models of how we experience the spaces in which we find ourselves. His current book, Reverberation and the Idea of Acoustic Space, explores how acoustic research has influenced European architecture since the eighteenth century.
He spoke with Arts & Science News to share what we might learn about buildings if we stopped to listen to them.
You are an architect and a historian. How do the two fit together in your work, particularly with regards to the acoustics of buildings?
My current research is on the history of acoustics and the idea of acoustic space in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, when architects were struggling to understand how sound behaves in large theatres and opera houses and, in the process, wrestling with fundamental questions about the visual and auditory perception of space.
Architects and architectural historians are typically taught to focus on the visible characteristics of buildings. But sound can affect the occupants of a building on an especially visceral level. If you spend an hour in a room with no echo or reflections of sound, you may have so much difficulty orienting yourself in the space that you’ll experience dizziness, nausea, and even hallucinations!
“Good acoustics” is not a universal criterion. The way people perceive the sound of space has shifted dramatically over time. It can also be a political issue, especially in public spaces, where it often determines whose voices can be heard and by whom. Plato is said to have limited the size of his republic to the number of people who could listen to an orator without amplification. During the French Revolution, there were designs for amplification devices to broadcast the voices of political speakers to an audience of thousands. So the spatial behaviour of sound is not just a technical problem to be solved, but an important issue for cultural history as well.
So, is it also possible to design spaces to control which voices are heard?
Absolutely, there have been many efforts to design the physical environment to enhance or suppress particular sounds or voices. Europeans started applying acoustic theory to the design of space in a systematic way in the 17th century—a palace with speaking tubes embedded in the walls so a king could give orders to his servants in distant rooms, or a dungeon where unsuspecting prisoners could be detained together that would carry the sounds of their conversations to the ears of listening guards—things like that.
Since then, acoustics has been a central design issue in legislative buildings—and also in concert halls, which are no less political, but in which conflict is redirected artistically. It’s a design issue in academic buildings, too. Auditorium spaces are generally designed to make the lecturer’s words as loud and clear as possible while muffling the voices of everyone else. Some of these cases seem more benign than others, but as a general principle I would argue that acoustical design is always a technique of power.
How will you be teaching these ideas to students at U of T?
I’ll be teaching an introduction to the history of modern architecture and cities next term, which is open to all undergraduates. This course means a lot to me because I believe everybody has a stake in understanding how the physical environment is shaped. The city of Toronto figures prominently in the course, and my goal is to sharpen students’ ability to think about of why our city is the way it is.
My graduate seminar this semester examines how 19th-century architects transformed their field in response to the Industrial Revolution, to accommodate new kinds of buildings and new construction technologies, and also to represent people’s aspirations for industrial modernity.
Why did you choose to come to U of T?
I like being at a big, diverse university. My work has always been interdisciplinary, and the size and breadth of the academic community here offers a lot of opportunities to collaborate.
Toronto is booming, and for an architect, it’s probably one of the most exciting places in North America right now. And I’ve always been interested in Canada more generally. There’s been a longstanding fascination with space, landscape, and sound in modern Canadian culture—you see it in figures like Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould, and the composer R. Murray Schafer, who popularized the word “soundscape.” In a cultural context like this, I hope to have much to contribute.
This story was originally published on the University of Toronto Arts & Science News Site (Oct. 13, 2016)
Article by: Sean Bettam
Reading Revolution: Art and Literacy during China’s Cultural Revolution
Monday, September 12, 2016
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
Reading Revolution: Art and Literacy during China’s Cultural Revolution
20 June – 30 September 2016
The year 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a social and political movement launched in May of 1966 by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, which lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. The Cultural Revolution sought to implement “true” Communist thought and to make dominant Maoist ideology. Taking this milestone as an occasion on which better to understand the Cultural Revolution, the Fisher Library is hosting an exhibition on the relation of this movement to visual art and literacy. Specifically, this exhibition of two hundred and seventeen objects explores the importance of reading during this period, examining how propaganda posters and other artifacts of the Cultural Revolution represented the writings of Chairman Mao, how these posters and artifacts popularized a culture of Mao’s books, and how, in turn, text-heavy propaganda posters, artifacts representing books, and the large-scale printing of books of “Mao Zedong Thought” (Mao Zedong sixiang) created a context for increased literacy.
Highlights include a selection of rare propaganda posters from the seminal phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966–69). From posters illustrating quotations from Chairman Mao to those encouraging the masses to read, these works reveal a distinct aesthetic in this early phase of the Cultural Revolution. In addition, the exhibition showcases contemporaneous books such as The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji, 1951–60) and The Quotations of Chairman Mao (Mao Zhuxi yulu, 1964), as well as translations of Mao’s works in foreign languages. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue also feature artifacts from the Cultural Revolution related to literacy and the practice of reading, including Mao badges, paper cuts, archival photographs, pamphlets, postcards, and children’s toys.
This exhibition is curated by Jenny Purtle, Associate Professor of Chinese and East Asian Art, Department of History of Art/Graduate Department of Art, Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, with assistance from Stephen Qiao of the East Asian Library at the University of Toronto and the Fisher Library’s Liz Ridolfo.
A video narrated by Jenny Purtle and featuring highlights from the collection can be viewed on Fisher Library’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viMgf4Taw6M. There is also an hour-long audio guide that accompanies the exhibition, narrated by the curators. It can streamed or downloaded via SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/fisher-rare-book-library; it is also available as a podcast on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/thomas-fisher-rare-book-library/id1081666924?mt=2.
An online checklist of the exhibition can be accessed at: https://fisher.library.utoronto.ca/Reading%20Revolution%20by%20case. A catalogue of the exhibition is also available for purchase. Catalogue ISBN: 978-0-7727-6119-4 (paperback)