Q+A with Vanessa Paumen, Curator at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges
Fri. November 18, 2016
In 2010, Vanessa Paumen (B.A. in Art History, 1997; M.A. in Art History, 2002) was hired as a curator and coordinator of the Flemish Research Center for the Arts in the Burgundian Netherlands at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges (Belgium). The Groeningemuseum holds an important collection of art works from the 15th century onwards, with a focus on art related to the city of Bruges. From October 28, 2016 – February 5, 2017, the Groeningemuseum is exhibiting The Art of Law. Three Centuries of Justice Depicted, featuring twenty works of art from the museum’s collections of Musea Brugge supplemented by about a hundred other pieces on loan from galleries and museums from around the world. Paumen has always been fascinated by the artwork of 15th century Flanders, and especially works around depictions of law and justice. In her master’s degree thesis, Judged, Beheaded, Burned: Dieric Bouts' The Justice of Emperor Otto III within the Context of Fifteenth-Century Punitive Practices, she looked at how justice paintings functioned in 15th century Flemish society.
She answered questions by email.
Why were you drawn to the subject of depictions of law and justice in art?
I became interested in this theme because of two particularly fascinating paintings produced in 15th century Flanders: The Justice of Otto III by Dieric Bouts (ca. 1473) and The Judgment of Cambyses by Gerard David (ca. 1498). These large, impressive works were ordered by the aldermen of their respective cities (Louvain and Bruges) as exempla iustitiae paintings for the aldermen's rooms. In those days, the aldermen also functioned as judges and pronounced judgment.
It was during a study-abroad trip with Professor Jeffrey Smith and fellow graduate students that I “discovered” these two works. In addition to the stories that were depicted, I became interested in the ways these large works would have functioned and had an impact on their contemporary viewers.
I wanted to know more about which aspects of the 15th century justice system were embodied in these works and what these art works could tell us about that system and its fundamental beliefs. With the encouragement of Dr. Smith, I embarked on researching the topic for my master’s thesis. It became a fascinating voyage into civic patronage, legal history, 15th century belief systems on judgment and punishment and of course several of the major painters of the time.
Was this exhibition a natural extension of your previous work on the subject or something of a new approach?
My fascination with the subject never abated after my time at The University of Texas at Austin, although I did not actively continue research on the matter until recently for the exhibition at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. When I was hired in 2010, I was thrilled that I had ended up in my career at the very "home" of one of my favorite artworks: Gerard David’s Judgment of Cambyses. Being able to see this work regularly rekindled the desire to delve into the subject matter again, but now from a presentational perspective in the museum. The work—because of its very detailed depiction of a man being flayed alive—stops visitors in their tracks and leaves an impression. While most visitors will remember seeing the painting, it is because of its gruesome nature and not because of its function and context. I wanted to draw attention to that aspect of the work. David didn’t just paint something that is hard to look at, but a work that embodies various aspects of 15th century belief system on justice and judging.
As a result, the idea of a small exhibition focusing on the theme of the Judgment of Cambyses and its popularity during the 16th and 17th centuries ensued. But very quickly as I got reacquainted with the topic, my wish list grew and I proposed a larger exhibition encompassing several works of art created in the context of justice from about 1450 to 1750, the period of the Ancien Régime.
During my initial research in graduate school, I had to consult quite a bit of a legal history in order to get around my topic. However, it was impossible to fully delve into a completely different area of study while doing a relatively small project like a thesis. So this time, for the exhibition, I wanted to make sure that we had both fields well covered. I approached a professor of law and legal history at the Institute for Legal History at the University of Ghent (Belgium) as I knew his research also focused on art works in a legal context. Professor Martyn was immediately enthusiastic to collaborate as an advisor on the exhibition project together with doctoral candidate Stefan Huygebaert, an art historian with a focus on legal iconography. A colleague specialized in museum education and outreach at the Groeningemuseum, Tine Van Poucke, focused on how we would present an exhibition of this type to the museum visitor. Through this close collaboration, we complemented each other by bringing our areas of expertise together. I strongly believe in the strength and added value of interdisciplinary research and projects, and this was a great opportunity to bring two fields together. We wanted the catalogue of the exhibition to reflect this as well so the texts are written by legal as well as art historians.
Can you contextualize the exhibition for me? Can you speak to how it is situated within the mission and programming of the Groeningemuseum?
For this exhibition we started from our own rich collections in Bruges, not only the Groeningemuseum, but also the Bruggemuseum, the Brugse Vrije (one of the courthouses) and the Bruges Public Library. We then complemented these works with relevant loans from national and international institutions and collectors. Several of the works are not from public collections so are not easily accessible. Not only are we presenting our own works in a new context, and making connections with similar art works from other collections, several of the works have not been in a museum for decades.
What are some of your favorite or most intriguing pieces on display during this exhibition? Why do they hold this place for you?
It is, of course, fabulous for me to see my favorite work by Gerard David surrounded by other works (paintings, drawings, stained glass, a manuscript illumination and prints) in the exhibition. The panels – which are large and very heavy— have a fixed place in the permanent collection. For this exhibition we were able to move them to a different gallery, in a different scenography and lighting, which places the panels quite literally in a new light. It has been astounding to observe that people who are familiar with the paintings now notice details not seen before.
What do you see as the link between the law or the justice system and visual arts in general, and specifically as depicted within this exhibition?
The visual arts enforced the message and thus the meaning of the justice system, or rather, at that time, the belief system concerning justice and judgment. A good example of this visual codification is the legal writings of Joost De Damhouder.
De Damhouder was a Bruges lawyer who wrote several early treatises on civil and criminal law. (To be entirely correct, he plagiarized another book by a Ghent lawyer and supplemented it with narratives from his own professional experience.) Damhouder’s books were translated in several languages and widespread, they became the foundation for later legal codices. The author insisted on having his books illustrated with woodcut prints. This was of such importance to him that he even delayed the publishing of his book in order to wait for the completion of the illustrations. Even though his texts are very thorough and descriptive, he insisted on having illustrations as they heightened and enforced the message to be conveyed even for a specialized audience. This was true for all the art works in this exhibition in which messages and iconography prevail – a picture speaks more than a thousand words, goes the saying. It must have run very true in the context of the justice system during the late middle ages.
In fact, most of the themes of the works in this exhibition originate in texts. This is especially so for the exempla iustitiae which are drawn from Biblical texts (e.g. Solomon) as well as legends and historical texts (e.g. Zaluecus, Trajan, etc.). The images were meant to have an impact on the aldermen/judges as they hung in plain sight while they performed their tasks.
Another link between the justice system and the visual arts exists in the depiction of Lady Justice with her nowadays well-known attributes the sword, scales and blindfold. This image is ubiquitous even in today’s society. In the exhibition, we focus on her development as iconic image symbolizing justice. We trace her development from the archangel Michael, the virtues and her iconography, which once included elements we no longer associate with justice today. The blindfold, for instance, which today symbolizes impartiality originally held a negative connotation. We show the very first instance where Lady Justice mockingly is blindfolded by a fool in a 1494 wooden engraving by Dürer (from Sebastian Brandt’s Ship of Fools).
What do you take from your time spent at UT? What has had the most impact on your current studies, research, and career?
My first years of graduate school at UT were immensely rewarding in many ways. As an undergraduate student, I had had many interests and also had pursued several majors that made me waiver from one thing to another at times. Then, in graduate school in the art history department, I realized that having a broad spectrum of interests was actually not a negative trait but beneficial to art historical research.
Many of our students hope to one day become curators. How did you achieve this goal?
I am convinced that any personal achievement is always the result of a combination of several values: belief in the type of work you do, persistence when things don’t work out as planned, flexibility and creating a network of people you admire. When then the little bit of luck of being in the right place at the right time comes along and an opportunity presents itself, you are prepared to act on it.
Becoming a curator was actually not my goal during graduate school. My goal then was to end up at a small liberal arts college in the United States teaching art history. I wanted to instill in young adults about to embark on a variety of careers with a profound respect and basic fundamental knowledge of art, heritage, culture and history.
But my path was laid out differently, and I ended up in a museum in Belgium. While I had worked at a contemporary art organization prior to starting graduate school, I learned most of the typical museum fundamentals during my current job. In the beginning I missed teaching. Since then the Flemish research centre for the arts in the Burgundian Netherlands has initiated academic programs that brings teaching into the museum(s). One is an intensive Summer Course, which brings Ph.D.-level students to Belgium for a 10-day submersion into collections, research institutions, etc., all guided by experts. Another caters to master’s-level students who come to the centre in Bruges twice over three days, where we introduce them to our collection of Flemish Primitives and the research field. In that way we hope to instill in them a profound interest in Flemish art of the 15th and 16th centuries. Through these programs, I have a new opportunity now to work with students, to inspire them and be inspired by their research endeavors.
Alumnus Michael Wellen to Become New Curator of International Art at Tate
Mon. October 31, 2016
Michael Wellen (M.A. in Art History, 2005 and Ph.D. in Art History, 2012) has recently been named the new curator of International Art at Tate. Wellen completed his master's and doctorate degrees at The University of Texas in Modern and Contemporary Art with a focus on Latin America. He will be bringing this expertise and focus to his work with Tate.
For more information, read the article announcing his appointment on artnet.
In Memorium: Adam Boley
Thu. October 13, 2016
On Sunday, September 4, 2016, our community suffered the loss of a faculty member and alumnus, Adam Boley (M.F.A. in Studio Art, 2016).
Boley graduated from our M.F.A. program in Studio Art the spring of 2016 and came to the Department of Art and Art History staff in the Fall semester as a lecturer in photography. During his time with the department, Boley assisted artist Ann Hamilton in the execution of her work for the Dell Medical Center, O N E E V E R Y O N E. “I have many very beautiful photographs of Adam from the photography sessions for Dell,” writes Hamilton. “I think they capture—something in him, a lightness and weight, reflectivity, a humor. I watched him work with everyone we photographed, how he put everyone at ease and made the air lighter with his empathy. I will never watch a duck land down in water without thinking of him.”
Boley earned his undergraduate degree in Photography at St. Edwards University in Austin. His work has been in numerous exhibitions, including those at Time Waste Management in Orlando, Florida (2016); The Mom Gallery, Austin; 60 Orange St, Providence, Rhode Island (2015); Locker 95, Austin (2015); and Pump Project Art Complex in Austin (2014).
He was born and raised on a ranch outside of Georgetown, TX, and his work reflects a connection to the landscape and history of the state. “Texas was a central character in his work,” said Department of Art and Art History Chair Jack Risley. “He was able to channel the friction between its historic myth and its suburban present in work that captured both the serenity and violence of the rural landscape.”
Service for Boley took place in early September in Georgetown, TX.
Alumna Iva Kinnaird and Shelby Meier Exhibit in Make Time
Fri. October 7, 2016
Iva Kinnaird (B.F.A. in Studio Art, 2014) is exhibiting new work this October at Texas Woman’s University galleries. The exhibition, Make Time, will be on view October 8 – November 6, 2016.
This exhibition brings together Kinnaird and M.F.A. candidate in Studio Art at the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU Shelby David Meier who are exploring the murkiness of time, particularly the manner in which it can be “made” into a physical record of a set of actions. These actions can be purposeful or wasteful, or purposefully wasteful – embodiments of the manner in which we simultaneously work for, against, or in conjunction with time.
Katherine Bash Debuts New Work at Museum of the Southwest
Tue. October 4, 2016
The Light of Consciousness: Part I, by Katherine E. Bash (M.F.A. in Design, 2004) is a multi-layered installation of photography, and poetry drawn from three years of investigatory travel into different landscapes—both interior and exterior—with a focus on ephemeral phenomena. The exhibition includes 57 unique photographs, a publication Companion Guide and a recording of the accompanying Polylogue (a multi-sourced poetic form). Public programs included a one-time collaborative performance with violinist John Madura, concertmaster of the Midland Symphony Orchestra, on August 20, 2016.
According to co-curator Pujan Gandhi, Bash's installation reminds the viewer that “objective cognitions are also subjective, and that our mind’s eye is constantly revealing, concealing, and again revealing our observed reality.” Gandhi explains that “[e]ach photograph captures a sensory semi-stasis, one that the artist then acts upon with a ‘chance reading’ of a selected text. Image, language, and performance coalesce into a cohesive whole. Her aim: to generate an alternate space to discover ‘new meanings, and new poetries.’”
Katherine E. Bash lives and works in London, UK and Midland, TX. She earned her B.A. in Biology and an M.F.A. in Design at The University of Texas at Austin. In 1998 Bash received a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct a visual anthropology of indigenous rainforest cultures of Ecuador. Bash was an awarded a Ph.D. from the Bartlett School of Architecture at the University College London in 2011 for her dissertation: Spatial Poetics: Heuristics for Experimental Poisesis. Her most recent exhibition, De Speculum Oraculum, was held at the Till Richter Museum in Buggenhagen Germany.