Talks and Lectures
I give talks on a very wide variety of art historical subjects, ranging from art and identity, psychology and science and women artists to various aspects of Russian art and the decorative arts and design reform. For a list of subjects on which I have lectured recently, please see below. I am very happy to discuss and develop new ideas.
Upcoming Public Talks and Lectures
New public lectures and talks will be posted here in due course
A Selection of Recent and Available Lectures
Icons and the Sacred Art of Russia
Despite the fact that Russian icons are among the most profound and moving works of art, they are still little understood in non-Orthodox contexts. This talk addresses the origins of icon painting, exploring how icons emerged from the glory of the Byzantine world and became a distinctive expression of the Orthodox spirituality of Russia. Unlike the medieval art of the Latin Church, which was often didactic and imaginative, icons were traditional and sacramental - at least until western influence began to bring about change in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nationalistic tendencies in the 19th century corresponded to a revival of traditional icon painting, leading to some highly idiosyncratic manifestations of the 'iconic' in the Communist period. One or three lectures.
The Art of Armenia
Armenia is one of the best kept secrets of the ancient and modern world. It has for centuries stood at the meeting point of great empires - the Persian, Byzantine, Ottoman, Soviet - but, due to its indomitable tenacity of spirit, it has outlived them all. It was the first country in the world to accept Christianity as its state religion (over 1700 years ago) and has retained its unique form of sacred culture. Of all the arts practised over the years - metalwork, tapestry, carving - none was more precious than the art of the illuminated manuscript. Reflecting an exotic mix of influences from East and West, this craft was raised to the highest levels of enchantment and beauty.
Earthly Science in the Renaissance
The Renaissance was not only a time of epoch-making change in the arts. There were also profound changes to what we now think of as aspects of science - thought the word ‘science’ did not exist at the time. This lecture looks at the extraordinary progress made in the study of plants, animals, minerals and anatomy from the 14th to the 17th centuries, placing these developments in their cultural context and relating them to the arts. Leonardo da Vinci was famously interested in all of these subjects but he was the tip of an iceberg.
The Renaissance Art of Perspective
The development of perspective during the Renaissance changed the way we see the world. This aspect of one of the momentous periods in art history is often glossed over because it is seen to be ‘too technical’. However not only does perspective epitomise ‘what the Renaissance is all about’; it is also much more accessible than it first appears. Indeed it tells a fascinating story and, in all its stages of development, plays a key role in some of the most significant works of art from the period.
Passion versus Ideas: Line and Colour in Western Art
This lecture explores the historic notion that subject-matter invites viewers to think about art, whereas colour elicits a more subjective feeling-response to it. In Renaissance Florence, several artists maintained that the most important part of an image was its subject matter (which could be caught in a black-and-white print or drawing) and that colour was merely an ‘enhancement’. The Venetians disagreed; they proposed that the drawing of a picture was just its ‘body’, but that it was colour that gave it a ‘soul’. The debate flared up at the French Royal Academy in the 17th century when advocates of drawing gathered under the flag of Poussin and colourists sided with Rubens. You would think that the debate might come to rest when colour perception was elevated to the level of a science by Newton at the beginning of the 18th century. But it didn’t; it resurfaced at the beginning of the 20th century when the monochrome paintings of Picasso and the Cubists competed with the exuberant colourism of Matisse and the Fauves. This lecture will survey this eye-opening debate.
Pleasure and Sensation in 18th century France
We take it for granted that we are free to enjoy whatever appeals to us. But this hasn’t always been the case. Before the 18th century, many of life’s pleasures had to be justified on account of their moral value. This illustrated talk will explain how it was not until the mid-18th century that it became acceptable to enjoy the pleasures of life for their own sake, in luxury goods and otherwise - sometimes to scandalous effect. It will focus on the golden age of French art and interiors, exploring how new sensibilities among the Parisian nobility required a new style of living, a development that gave rise to some of the most delicious and fanciful pieces of furniture and porcelain ever made.
Women Artists: Emerging at last
Why were there so few women artists before the 20th century? Maybe there were many women artists but they have simply been forgotten or marginalised? In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there were several eminent women artists, each one negotiating the complex possibilities of women in society in a uniquely revealing way. Women often had to work under the cover of male family members or focus on discreet domestic subjects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some women gained a degree of autonomy but they had to fight to protect it. Even the most progressive male artists were ambivalent about the presence of women in what they perceived to be their own domain; and so the women that prevailed were especially courageous intrepid individuals. The 20th century saw a huge increase in the number and status of women artists, though the access to the ‘territory’ of art was still contested, resulting in complex gender politics that continues to this day. One or three lectures.
The Art and Architecture of St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg is surely one of the most beautiful and remarkable cities in the world. Founded over 300 years ago, the city is a testimony to Peter the Great’s astonishing attempt to raise Russia to the level of a European empire in the space of a generation. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the city was enriched with palaces, churches, museums, canals and bridges. This lecture will tell the story of the city, as reflected in its art, ranging from the earliest times, through the age of the great patrons and patronesses, to the nazi siege of Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known from 1924-1991).
The Art and Craft of the Pewterer
Pewter is a little remembered and little appreciated material but it was once at the heart of daily life all over Europe and it has a fascinating story. This talk will explain what pewter is and how it has been worked through the ages. It will describe the history and decorative techniques of the pewter trade, with images showing every step of the manufacturing process, as well as the differences between the various national styles. It will also explore how changing social circumstances led to the decline of the pewter trade – why it fell from favour in the 18th century, and how it managed (only just) to survive in 19th century, partly thanks to the patronage of inns and pubs. (Group members are invited to bring pewter objects that they may have at home for discussion after the lecture!)
The Industrial Revolution and the Decorative Arts
The Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on the decorative arts, bringing commodities that had previously been associated with the nobility within reach of the ever-growing middle class. Radical new inventions enabled an increased quantity of goods to be produced at a reduced cost, while also accelerating the manufacturing process. This led to the development of shops and entrepreneurs which led in turn to completely new attitudes towards life-style and self-fashioning that continue to pervade our everyday lives.
The Art of Genius: Divine Inspiration or Scientific Anomaly?
During the Renaissance, the concept of the individual began to emerge. Among the most visible examples of the new type were artists, who were empowered to develop their own temperament and style. Both Leonardo and Michelangelo were considered to be divinely inspired on account of their sheer inventiveness. Renaissance artists were highly individualised but they were still required to follow guidelines set down by their patrons. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, artists began to produce work that emerged from their imaginations alone. They could be profound, fiery, tragic and melodramatic, if they felt like it. Patrons were increasingly expected to stand back and admire their revelatory ‘genius’. As the discipline of psychology emerged at the end of the 19th century, philosophers began to speculate that artistic inspiration might not be a divine gift after all; it might be a ‘natural anomaly’. Maybe genius could be explained by science? One or three lectures.
Vienna: Two Hundred Years of Psychology and Art
Vienna underwent a unique artistic flourishing at the beginning of the twentieth century. While most of the pioneering artists of the time, working in Paris, Munich and Moscow, were exploring the possibilities of abstract art, Vienna took its own path, resulting in the highly idiosyncratic and expressive works of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. These edgy artists undertook analyses of human nature that paralleled the research of their contemporary, Sigmund Freud, who was developing his system of psychoanalysis, also in the city. But the association of Vienna with the history of psychology goes back far beyond Freud. These three talks will focus on the work of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, placing them in this broader context which has left traces in the city over a 200 year period. One or three lectures.
German Expressionism and the Edge of Art
The years leading up to the First World War (1914-18) were volatile and unpredictable. At the same time, the innovations of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists encouraged young artists to be more free and experimental in their self-expression. In Germany, this combination of circumstances gave rise to explosive movements in art - for instance, Die Brücke (The Bridge) - that reflected the anxiety and excitement of the time while also consolidating feelings of national identity. Artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff created remarkably edgy paintings and prints that still have the power to unnerve and thrill us today.
The Bauhaus was the most innovative and influential school of design in the 20th century, combining avant-garde ideas about abstract art with a thoroughly conscientious approach to social reform and domestic living. Employing some of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, the school combined an interest in nature with a belief in the transformative potential of industrial design that continues to shape art education.
Art of the Russian Avant-Garde
100 years after the Russian Revolution, Russian avant-garde art continues to be as compelling as it ever was. Expressing the dreams and ideals of a new world, artists at the beginning of the 20th century created pictures, designs, objects and buildings for every dimension of life with distinctive passion and power. This talk introduces and discusses their thought and work, and their disenchantment that set in when Soviet repressions began in the 1920s. The key artists include Malevich, Goncharova, Tatlin, Kandinsky and Chagall.