Portraiture and Power
Portraiture is a fascinating and enduring genre in the history of art. Following the prized place of the portrait in ancient Rome, it remained a dormant cultural form for centuries, before re-emerging as a dynamic artistic, social, cultural, political, economic and religious force in the visual culture of early modern Europe (1500-1800). It is for this reason that the period from the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance in the fourteenth century to the Age of Revolutions in the eighteenth century is commonly referred to as ‘the great age of the portrait’.
Despite the gradual democratisation of European portraits towards the end of the early modern period, the genre played a practical role for and was intimately associated with the lifestyles and reputations of the most powerful members of society from popes to princes. The early modern portrait was an elite site of public and private agency as well as an inherently political, non-verbal, communicative instrument of power. This course focuses on the embodiment of power in early modern portraiture in relation to class, gender, beauty, sexuality and race. It examines the complex web between artists, sitters and viewers of portraits and their making, meaning and reception in past and present historical contexts through a lens that offers a systematic and comprehensive survey of the variety of formats, materials and techniques, iconography, representation, reception, performative functions, and psychological nuances visible in early modern portraits. The fundamental aim of the course is to examine the way portraits acted as modes of persuasion and dissemination (in both words and pictures) in the early modern world. This year (2011), for the first time, this course will utilise the virtual London site and use Second Life™ within the curriculum.
Virtual London has been chosen in order to:
- Replicate the art gallery or museum space in an interpretative context,
- Encourage interactive engagement and cooperative learning between students,
- Provide virtual access to the European Art collection at the Art Gallery of South Australia which is currently in storage and would not otherwise be available,
- Display, at Somerset House in The Strand, the portraits to be studied.
This course aims to introduce students to the principal methods of analysis that are employed in the discipline of art history. It enables students to build a working knowledge of specialised art historical terminology, to analyse, ask questions and make informed and independent conclusions on the significance and power of early modern art and visual culture. It aims to develop specialist art historical skills in interpreting portraits as an effective form of visual evidence for understanding societies and cultures in the past and present historical contexts and gain practical experience in researching and writing as an art historian. The use of the Virtual London site in Second Life™ assists in these aims, helps to develop creative independent and collaborative problem solving skills and provides a unique opportunity for ‘work’ as a quasi curator in a cooperative virtual learning environment.
Early assessment tasks in this course are designed to encourage students to activate their avatar and acclimatise themselves in Second Life™ and The Strand as soon as possible, as well as to facilitate and gradually develop their basic skills. The first two assignments, a reflective journal entry and a collaborative tutorial activity involving visual analysis, encourage an informal use of Second Life™ for interactive discussion between all members of the course. This visual analysis is then submitted as a minor essay and groups are also required to write a brief, joint 'extended label' for the portrait they have analysed to be added to the display in Somerset House.
The final piece of assessment is a research essay. In the past students have traditionally attached illustrations to their essays, however, this year students are required to devise a mini-portrait display in Second Life™. This display must be relevant to the content of their research essay and needs to include note cards providing information about the portraits. Consequently, students in this course not only study the art history content focused on early modern portraiture but also have the unique opportunity to create visual displays and exhibition spaces.