Cats in the middle ages

Cats in the middle ages: what medieval manuscripts teach us about our ancestors’ pets

Cat king, Germany, circa 1450. Scheibler’sches Wappenbuch – BSB Cod.icon. 312c
Madeleine S. Killacky, Bangor University

Cats had a bad reputation in the middle ages. Their presumed links with paganism and witchcraft meant they were often treated with suspicion. But despite their association with the supernatural, medieval manuscripts showcase surprisingly playful images of our furry friends.

From these (often very funny) portrayals, we can learn a lot about medieval attitudes towards cats – not least that they were a central fixture of daily medieval life.

In the middle ages, men and women were often identified by the animals they kept. Pet monkeys, for example, were considered exotic and a sign that the owner was wealthy, because they had been imported from distant lands. Pets became part of the personal identity of the nobility. Keeping an animal that was lavished with attention, affection and high-quality food in return for no functional purpose – other than companionship – signified high status.

It was not unusual for high-status men and women in the middle ages to have their portrait completed in the company of a pet, most commonly cats and dogs, to signify their elevated status.

A painting of Jesus and his disciples, gathered round a table on the right. On the left, in a corridor outside of the dinner, a cat and dog are shown.
Last Supper (1320), by Pietro Lorenzetti. Web Gallery of Art

It is commonplace to see images of cats in iconography of feasts and other domestic spaces, which appears to reflect their status as a pet in the medieval household.

In Pietro Lorenzetti’s Last Supper (above), a cat sits by the fire while a small dog licks a plate of leftovers on the ground. The cat and dog play no narrative role in the scene, but instead signal to the viewer that this is a domestic space.

Similarly, in the miniature of a Dutch Book of Hours (a common type of prayer book in the middle ages that marked the divisions of the day with specific prayers), a man and woman feature in a cosy household scene while a well looked-after cat gazes on from the bottom left-hand corner. Again, the cat is not the centre of the image nor the focus of the composition, but it is accepted in this medieval domestic space.

a man and woman feature in a cosy household scene whilst a well-looked after cat gazes on from the bottom left-hand corner.
1500 Book of Hours known as the ‘London Rothschild Hours’ or the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’. Illustrated by Gerard Horenbout. London British Library. Manuscript 35313, folio. 1 verso. C, Author provided

Just like today, medieval families gave their cats names. A 13th-century cat in Beaulieu Abbey, for example, was called “Mite” according to the green ink lettering that appears above a doodle of said cat in the margins of a medieval manuscript.

Royal treatment

Cats were well cared for in the medieval household. In the early 13th century, there is mention in the accounts for the manor at Cuxham (Oxfordshire) of cheese being bought for a cat, which suggests that they were not left to fend for themselves.

A painting of a young woman in a yellow dress, her hair wrapped in fabric and a pearl choker round her neck, holding a tabby kitten to her chest in a pose of affection.
Bacchiacca (circa 1525), by the Italian painter Antonio d'Ubertino Verdi. Christie’s

In fact, the 14th-century queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria, spent excessive amounts of money on accessories for her pets. In 1387, she commissioned a collar embroidered with pearls and fastened by a gold buckle for her pet squirrel. In 1406, bright green cloth was bought to make a special cover for her cat.

Cats were also common companions for scholars, and eulogies about cats were not uncommon in the 16th century. In one poem, a cat is described as a scholar’s light and dearest companion. Eulogies such as this suggest a strong emotional attachment to pet cats, and show how cats not only cheered up their masters but provided welcome distractions from the hard mental craft of reading and writing.

Cats in the cloisters

Cats are found in abundance as a status symbol in medieval religious spaces. There are lots of medieval manuscripts that feature, for example, illuminations (small images) of nuns with cats, and cats frequently appear as doodles in the margins of Books of Hours.

Rouen bibliotheque municipale ms 3028 fol. 63r
St Matthew and his cat, Bruges, c. 1500. [Rouen bibliotheque municipale. Manuscript 3028, Folio 63r], Author provided

But there is also much criticism about the keeping of cats in medieval sermon literature. The 14th-century English preacher John Bromyard considered them useless and overfed accessories of the rich that benefited while the poor went hungry.

Doodle showing a nun spinning thread, as her pet cat plays with the spindle.
Detail of a miniature of a nun spinning thread, as her pet cat plays with the spindle; from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe manuscript 17, folio 34r

Cats are also recorded as being associated with the devil. Their stealth and cunning when hunting for mice was admired – but this did not always translate into qualities desirable for companionship. These associations led to the killing of some cats, which had detrimental effects during the Black Death and other middle age plagues, when more cats may have reduced flea-infested rat populations.

Because of these associations, many thought that cats had no place in the sacred spaces of religious orders. There do not seem to have been any formal rules, however, stating that members of religious communities were not allowed to keep cats – and the constant criticism of the practice perhaps suggests that pet cats were common.

Doodle in the corner of a page of a medieval manuscript shows a cat on its hind legs, dressed as a nun
A cat cosplaying as a nun. State Library Victoria, 096 R66HF, folio 99r, Author provided

Even if they were not always considered as socially acceptable in religious communities, cats were still clearly well looked after. This is evident in the playful images we see of them in monasteries.

For the most part, cats were quite at home in the medieval household. And as their playful depiction in many medieval manuscripts and artwork makes clear, our medieval ancestors’ relationships with these animals were not too different from our own.The Conversation

Madeleine S. Killacky, PhD Candidate, Medieval Literature, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Art in Focus | Glenn Ligon's Condition Report | Tate

Listen to John Hughes, Visitor Engagement Assistant at Tate Liverpool, share his personal response to the work ‘Condition Report’ by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon. About the artwork, John says: "Lately, I’ve had some unexpected conversations. They start out as guided tours – where I do all the talking – but then something happens. People start to chat amongst themselves. That’s often the case with ‘Condition Report’ by Glenn Ligon. When talked about, this work provokes further reaction and discussion. The work is based on signs carried by Black sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis in 1968. Ligon shows twice the workers’ slogan ‘I AM A MAN’ along with some scribbly handwritten notes. Art and history, then, according to Ligon, are subject to changing conditions. Art and history are far from static or fixed. Art and history can be re-thought as time goes by. Thanks to Ligon, I’m conducting my guided tours in a new way. His artwork is allowing me to start open discussions on a range of related issues and this work is teaching me to listen. It’s teaching me to be like the artwork itself, open to change and open to various, unexpected reactions." This film has been created as part of the Terra Foundation For American Art Series: New Perspectives. Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Ask the Artist | Questions for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye | Tate

Artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye responds to questions from visitors to her 2022 exhibition at Tate Britain. How does she know when an artwork is finished? What music does she listen to while painting? And has her Ghanaian heritage influenced her work? Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a British artist and writer acclaimed for her enigmatic portraits of fictitious people. Both familiar and mysterious, they invite viewers to project their own interpretations, and raise important questions of identity and representation. See her exhibition at Tate Britain 24 November 2022 – 26 February 2023 https://ift.tt/q1a3M85 Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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The Muppet Christmas Carol turns 30: how the film became a cult classic

“Cult” is often indiscriminately applied to film and television. In Cult Movies (1981), film critic Danny Peary argued that it should be reserved for “special films which for one reason or another have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed”.

Subsequent academic and popular debates suggest it is a malleable label. But notwithstanding its elasticity, not all films can claim cult status. Despite their era, genre or industry, cult films stand out because audiences have a special, lasting connection with them that goes above and beyond normal patterns of consumption.

One such example is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which turned 30 in 2022.

The ritualistic rewatching of certain films during the holidays, combined with the strong sense of nostalgia (both historical and personal) that circulates during the festive season, fosters a lasting connection between movie and viewer that can elevate films to cult status.

The special combination of a treasured story and beloved characters from a much-loved and much-missed creator makes for particularly heady nostalgia in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

It’s a nostalgia that continues to lure audiences long after an initially disappointing box office performance, released in a period still under the shadow of Jim Henson’s untimely death.

A surprisingly faithful adaptation

Among the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Muppet Christmas Carol is unique. Not least because it casts Gonzo, the unclassifiable “whatever” as Dickens and Rizzo the Rat (playing himself) as his grounded, wisecracking sidekick.

It draws on yearnings for snowy Victorian Christmases and expertly balances humour, dread and sentimentality.

As Kermit himself tells us in a behind the scenes interview for Entertainment Tonight, the team tried to stay faithful to the original. The only difference, he argues, is that “there’s lots of frogs and pigs and chickens and rats playing the main parts. I think Charles would have liked it that way.”

In the tradition of Jim Henson productions (including The Muppet Show but also big screen outings The Dark Crystal, 1982, and Labyrinth, 1986) the set is brought to life by a menagerie of colourful creatures and anthropomorphised plant life.

Kermit is ‘interviewed’ about The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Popular Muppet characters bring their own special nostalgia for physical puppetry techniques in an age of digital technologies. They also call back to memories of traditional family entertainment. Fozzy Bear, Miss Piggy, Animal, the Swedish Chef, and Statler and Waldorf (perfectly cast as Marley and Marley, Scrooge’s dead partners) all make an appearance.

Michael Caine, no stranger to cult by way of Get Carter (1972), is serious and gruff as Scrooge, seemingly oblivious to the Muppet mayhem around him.

Director Brian Henson has said that Caine only agreed to take the role if he could play it like he was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Why is The Muppet Christmas Carol so enduring?

In celebrating the 30th anniversary, many fans point to their personal connections to the film. They talk about poignant family viewing experiences and the film’s cross generational appeal.

Jim Henson has long hair and a bushy beard. He wears 1970s attire, including an orange tie and cream blazer jacket.
Jim Henson, creator The Muppets. Library of Congress

Adding to its cult status, the film even has a “lost” song – a ballad called When Love Is Gone that was cut from the theatrical release on the recommendation of then Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. It has been restored for the anniversary streaming on Disney+.

There are also opportunities to experience Miles Goodman’s score performed live with screenings of the film in cinemas across the UK. Brian Henson has suggested that the enthusiasm for the film in the UK home entertainment market has helped to establish its lasting legacy.

The enduring popularity of the film also demonstrates a continuing affection for Jim Henson that has been especially pronounced in the UK.

It’s a bond enhanced by his personal and professional ties to the capital via The London Creature Shop (his special effects house and puppet workshop) which operated in the city between 1979 and 2005. Marking his significance, an English Heritage Blue Plaque was erected in 2021 at his former Hampstead home.

The Muppets perform It Feels Like Christmas.

Drawing upon several critical perspectives on seasonal cult classics, fan studies scholar Renee Middlemost concluded that something peculiar happens when we embrace our favourite Christmas movies.

“By suspending one’s typical tastes and critiques,” she argues, “cynicism can be transcended in favour of ritual and social bonding. In this way, the ritual bonding over these films functions as an extension of the season itself.”

Or, as put more simply in lyrics from The Muppet Christmas Carol itself: “Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas.”The Conversation

Andrea Wright, Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning Development, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


A walk through Istanbul with artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan – 'What this ground remembers' | Tate

Artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan takes us on a tour of Istanbul, the city where she lives and works. Ever since a child, walking has been a way for her to better understand this complex city, which she describes as a "living organism". In this film, we join Büyüktaşçıyan on her daily commute from the island of Heybeliada. Arriving in the city, she explores the old district of Fatih, encountering and observing paper collectors and carpet sellers, Byzantine churches converted into Ottoman mosques. In a visit to her studio, we see how the constant layering of histories, communities and acts of resistance in Istanbul – and in other cities like Toronto and Lahore – inspires her artwork, which ranges from forests of coiled carpets to stop-motion animation and drawing. Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Rutland Roman villa

Rutland Roman villa: how we found one of the most significant mosaics discovered in the UK

Archaeology students and ULAS staff from University of Leicester carefully clean the fully exposed Trojan War mosaic. © ULAS, Author provided

The discovery of a previously unknown Roman villa in rural Rutland during the 2020 lockdown was one of the archaeological stories of the year.

Villas are emblematic features of the Roman countryside, and many are known across Britain. But this new discovery is unique. It has what could be considered the most significant Roman mosaic discovery in the past century at its heart.

The mosaic was originally partly exposed by the landowners, who were investigating in the field after discovering pottery and tile fragments. A year later I led a team of archaeologists and students from the University of Leicester in fully exposing the mosaic floor.

This summer we returned as part of a joint excavation with Historic England.

The villa was protected as a scheduled monument by Historic England in 2021 (meaning it’s preserved for future generations to study when new techniques are developed that may assist further research), so these were to be the last excavations at the villa for the foreseeable future. We had plenty of questions.

What did the team discover?

The mosaic forms the floor of a triclinium (dining room) at the northern end of what appears to be a main villa building from the third or fourth century AD.

Here, residents would have wined and dined guests, providing luxurious entertainment while showing off their wealth, affinity with Roman lifestyles – and perhaps in this case – their understanding of classical Greek literature.

An aerial view of the excavation shows the outline of the former buildings in a parched, brown field.
The excavation of the dining room (triclinium) on the left and an adjacent building seen from the air. © Historic England, Author provided

The mosaic tells a grim tale of revenge from towards the end of the Trojan war, famously described in Homer’s Iliad.

Over three panels it depicts the duel between the Greek hero Achilles and Prince Hector of Troy and the unsavoury outcome of Achilles’s victory.

The mosaic is an incredible find. It is the only representation of the Trojan war from Roman Britain, and tells the story in an unusual “comic strip” style.

Dr Jane Masséglia, from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, tells the story behind the mosaic.

The value of this new villa lies not only with the mosaic, however, but in its completeness and the fantastic preservation of the archaeology. A geophysical survey of the field revealed an entire complex of buildings.

New discoveries

One of the ancillary buildings appears to have initially been a timber barn but was converted to stone sometime in the third or fourth century AD.

At this time, while the eastern end continued to be used for agricultural and small-scale industrial activity, the western end was converted for residential use. The remains of several partition walls and successive layers of floor suggest it was repeatedly renovated.

An aerial photograph shows the boundaries of the excavation area amid expansive rural fields.
An aerial overview of the villa field showing all of the excavation areas examined in the summer of 2022, with the aisled building in the foreground. © Historic England, Author provided

This reflects evidence from other excavated Roman villas, and provides a good indication of the lifespan and continuing development of this type of building.

On the southern side, the team also found remains of a bath suite. A series of three rooms – hot (caldarium), medium (tepidarium), and cold (frigidarium) incorporated underfloor heating and a water tank which may have been used for collecting rainwater.

Further excavation also took place around the dining room that held the mosaic. Evidence was found for an earlier boundary ditch, provisionally dated to the second or third century AD, built during an earlier iteration of the villa. The ditch lay beneath the mosaic and had caused slumping of the floor over time. Perhaps this led to the room eventually going out of use.

Investigation of the corridors on either side of the triclinium found a collapsed patterned mosaic on the western side and a preserved mosaic in the eastern corridor, which showed a complex kaleidoscope design.

A man in the foreground and woman to the back of the shot bend down with buckets to excavate parts of the mosaic.
Figures emerge from the past as a scene from the Trojan War mosaic is uncovered. © Historic England

The key discovery was that the dining room was a later addition to the building. Examination of the wall relationships indicated a major refurbishment in the third or fourth century to incorporate the triclinium and Trojan war mosaic.

For now, it’s unclear why this major work took place. It may be that the villa had reached sufficient wealth to afford such a luxury installation. Alternatively, the owners may have desired to reaffirm their connections to Roman culture and its classical background.

Whatever the reason, it seems that the grand mosaic only featured fleetingly in the life of the villa. A fireplace installed in one corner of the room and large areas of scorching across the mosaic indicate that the space was repurposed for more workaday activities, before the building finally fell into disrepair.

Now that the excavations are complete, the trenches have been back-filled and the field will return to pasture. Attention will now focus on the detail of the artefacts and environmental information gathered to try to piece the story of this fantastic archaeological site back together.

Archaeology students observe Dr. David Neal, expert on mosaics, as he draws a scaled plan of the Trojan War mosaic.
Archaeology students observe Dr David Neal, expert on mosaics, as he draws a scaled plan of the Trojan War mosaic. © Historic England, Author provided

We know that Roman villas like this were at the centre of large farming estates. While the buildings may have now been put to rest, we hope to widen the search into the surrounding landscape to understand the bigger picture of what was happening in this part of the Roman countryside.

This will allow us to develop the links we have created with the local archaeological community so we can involve them in discovering further ties to their local heritage.The Conversation

John S Thomas, Deputy Director of Archaeological Services, University of Leicester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Cecilia Vicuña – 'Your Rage is Your Gold' | Tate

Cecilia Vicuña is a Chilean poet and artist. Since the late 1960s she has created poems, paintings, sculpture, and film to explore and create alternative systems of knowledge that respect the Indigenous traditions that are a part of her heritage, while finding new ways to form connections with others. In this film, she talks about her exploration of the quipu, an ancient South American recording and communication system made from knotted threads. As well as the collaboration within her work and our collective responsibility to change destructiveness, injustices and harm. See Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu at Tate Modern 11 October 2022 – 16 April 2023 https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/cecilia-vicuña Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl Thumbnail image: Beach Ritual, 2017 performance, documenta 14, Athens, Greece. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London. Photo: Mathias Völzke

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Everything Else Has Failed! Don't You Think It's Time For Love? by Sharon Hayes | Tate

Watch an in-depth visual description of this work by multimedia artist Sharon Hayes. Five loudspeakers stand facing five posters, reciting letters to unnamed lovers. The letters are highly emotional and intimate fraught with despair desire and longing. She speaks about her sense of helplessness during the unfolding invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the trauma and dislocation of living in a moment of war as a U.S. citizen and feeling dislocated from her daily life. The letters do not specify the sexuality of the writer or their lover. For the performances, however, Hayes has said that she ‘butched myself up even more than usual because I didn’t want the love to be read as heteronormative.’ This audio description was written and recorded by Chris Timms, Retail Assistant at Tate. This film has been created as part of the Terra Foundation For American Art Series: New Perspectives. Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Ashanti Harris is a visual artist, teacher, and researcher working with dance, performance and installation. In this film she speaks to us about exploring ideas through movement, engaging with culture through creativity, and trying to define dance of the African and Caribbean diaspora. The music in the film was created by Gillian Katungi (PAIX) in response to Ashanti’s work. ART & is a new series of films from the National Galleries of Scotland – using contemporary art to explore wider social, political, and cultural themes. Created in collaboration with artists, these films will examine the connections between contemporary art and the world it’s made in. Ashanti’s website: https://ift.tt/3JWEYsC Gillian’s website: https://ift.tt/MzYcOqp Facebook: https://ift.tt/2iH7U8b Twitter: https://twitter.com/NatGalleriesSco Instagram: https://ift.tt/tlgD2Zm Website: https://ift.tt/xDIHesF

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Veronica Ryan – 'I'm interested in contradiction and paradox' | Turner Prize Nominee 2022 | Tate

Seeds, fruit, vegetable trays, volcanic ash, teabags, dried flowers and cushions. These are just some of the objects that British artist Veronica Ryan uses in her colourful sculptural works, based on organic forms but which allude to complex historical networks of commercial exchange. In this film, Veronica Ryan takes us inside the fabrication studio at Bristol's Spike Island where a lot of her artworks are made. She also takes us shopping down Ridley Road Market in East London, just round the corner from her public sculptures honouring the Windrush Generation. Veronica Ryan is nominated for the Turner Prize 2022. Find out more about the Prize and the exhibition at Tate Liverpool: https://ift.tt/HsF5bAJ Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Sin Wai Kin – 'I want people to exist in my world' | Turner Prize Nominee 2022 | Tate

Explore the universe of artist Sin Wai Kin, populated by a cast of characters who challenge binary ways of thinking. Sin’s practice pivots around the use of speculative fiction within performance, moving image, writing and print, to question the idealised image and the collective gaze. Identifying as mixed race and non-binary, their work creates fantasy narratives, to interrupt normative processes around issues of desire, identification, and objectification. Sin’s use of performance and particularly drag began as a means of deconstructing and challenging misogyny and racism in and outside of the queer community. Sin Wai Kin is nominated for the Turner Prize 2022. Find out more about the Prize and the exhibition at Tate Liverpool: https://ift.tt/qsECAiV Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Enter the labyrinth of artist Lee Mingwei | Tate

Two dancers wearing sarongs with bells on their ankles move slowly across Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. They are brushing grains of rice into patterns. They are creating a winding labyrinth-like path. The dancers are performers in Lee Mingwei's Our Labyrinth, an artwork that brings a sense of ritual into the museum. It was inspired by Lee's experience of visiting ancient temples in Myanmar, where paths leading to temples are swept by volunteers. In this film we meet the artist and introduce his beautiful, participatory works. Lee creates installations exploring issues such as trust, intimacy, and self-awareness. He often takes everyday interactions as his starting point, from eating and sleeping to walking and conversation. Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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At approximately 10.00am on 16 March 2022, the Russian military conducted an airstrike on the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol, killing over 600 innocent civilians who were sheltering in the basement, including several children. The word ‘Children’ (Дети) had been clearly drawn in Russian on the ground outside the theatre building. The destruction of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre has been classed as a war crime by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Amnesty International. Six months on from this atrocity, the Visual Culture Research Center, Kyiv, the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, present the film Mariupolonaise (2022; Dur. 12min) by Scottish artists, Ross Birrell. The moving-image and sound work is based upon recordings of the Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova’s recitals at the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw in 2010. The work is made in response to the emotional impact of Fedorova’s original performance and seeks to explore how the intensity of music and the moving-image might resonate with conditions endured in a time of war, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The film is dedicated to the 600 victims of the Russian airstrike on the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol, an atrocity which was met with shock and condemnation across the world. Ross Birrell, Mariupolonaise (2022) is screened in collaboration with: Visual Culture Research Center, Kyiv Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh Curated by Adam Szymczyk Anna Fedorova is a renowned pianist who was born in Kyiv and now lives in Amsterdam. She has recently performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra at Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera, Warsaw, BBC Proms Albert Hall, London, the 75th Edinburgh International Festival, and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Ross Birrell is Professor and Senior Researcher at The Glasgow School of Art. He has exhibited internationally including at Gwangju Biennale, Kunsthalle Basel, and documenta 14. He is represented by Ellen de Bruijne, Projects, Amsterdam. Links Visual Culture Research Center, Kyiv: http://vcrc.org.ua/en/ Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw: https://artmuseum.pl/en Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam: https://ift.tt/n3IO6Ye Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: https://ift.tt/Wz9BNs7

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Lost painting by Britain’s leading female abstract artist rediscovered

A Modern Masterpiece Uncovered: Wyndham Lewis, Helen Saunders and Praxitella 14 October 2022 – 12 February 2023

Two students at The Courtauld have rediscovered an important lost masterpiece by one of the early 20th century’s most radical female abstract artists, Helen Saunders (1885-1963) hidden beneath a portrait by the modernist artist Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957).

The students were investigating the painting Praxitella (1921) by Wyndham Lewis, one of the highlights of the collection of Leeds Art Gallery, as part of a research project at The Courtauld’s Department of Conservation in 2019. The painting depicts a portrait of pioneering film critic and curator Iris Barry. Scholars have previously suspected that Lewis painted over an earlier composition, as the surface of the painting has an uneven texture and forms lurking underneath, as well as different colours visible through cracks in the paint layers.

X-rays uncovered an ambitious abstract composition totally different from the style of Lewis’ portrait. The students identified the work underneath as a painting not by Lewis but by his friend and colleague Helen Saunders – a fellow member of the radical, short-lived British Vorticist group who was known to have fallen out with him.

The rediscovered work is thought to be Saunders’ lost painting Atlantic City, which depicts a fragmented modern metropolis, painted around 1915. The former students, Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, made the discovery during a six-month technical analysis of Praxitella where they painstakingly analysed X-rays of the huge canvas, examining the painting’s chemical composition using high-resolution scanning equipment. It was only after they spotted a reproduced image of Atlantic City in Blast, the avant-garde journal of the Vorticist movement, that they identified the artwork beneath Wyndham Lewis’ painting.All of Saunders’ Vorticist paintings were thought to be lost before now. It is hoped the rediscovery of this major work will spark greater interest in her work and the work of other female painters, whose work has historically been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

Why Lewis painted over Atlantic City in 1921 is unknown. He may have been turning his back on Vorticism in favour of a new figurative approach. He may have not been able to afford a new canvas. Or his erasure of one of Saunders’ most important paintings may have been the result of the pair’s estrangement in 1919, which caused emotional distress for Saunders.

“We realised that when we turned the image of Atlantic City upside down, it had striking similarities with the composition seen in our X-rays of Praxitella,” Chipkin said.

“We were just flabbergasted. It’s taken nearly a hundred years to rediscover Atlantic City. We hope our findings will spark more interest in Saunders’ work and the work of other female Vorticist painters, who are overshadowed by male Vorticists, such as Wyndham Lewis. It also gives hope that there are other hidden Vorticist paintings waiting to be found.”

A new display in The Courtauld’s Project Space will present Lewis’ Praxitella alongside the x-ray and partial colour reconstruction of Atlantic City, as well as a range of technical material to tell the story of this remarkable discovery.

To coincide, The Courtauld’s Drawings Gallery will stage the first exhibition in over 25 years of Helen Saunders featuring a major group of 18 of her drawings, generously presented to The Courtauld in 2016 by the artist’s relation Brigid Peppin. Thanks to this gift, The Courtauld holds the largest public collection of the artist’s work.


Why John Byrne is one of Scotland’s greatest artists

A Big Adventure, John Byrne’s retrospective at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, offers a fascinating insight into the breadth of skills of one of Scotland’s best-known creative forces.

During an illustrious career he has traversed a number of cultural genres with success as an artist, playwright and scriptwriter with many stage and TV hits. Over the last 60 years he has built up an impressive catalogue of outstanding creative works that have become part of the Scottish cultural landscape, gaining him international recognition. Now in his eighties, Byrne is still painting and writing plays, his desire to create still burning fiercely.

The exhibition includes portraits of actors and musicians including many self portraits, figurative works, illustrations, cartoons, album covers, films and promotional material. He has worked in all sizes and mediums from thumbnail storyboarding to full gable-end murals on tenement buildings.

As a researcher looking into the lives of contemporary artists in a culturally dynamic Scotland, the show has given me unique insights into the distinctly Scottishness of Byrne’s work, approach and dedication to his craft.

Humble beginnings

Growing up in Ferguslie Park, Paisley, in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, you would expect Byrne’s work to be deeply marked and influenced by that experience. However, there is rarely any sign of darkness or trauma in his artworks; in fact, his art is often joyful, displaying a gentle playfulness.

Byrne struggled to make a living as an artist after leaving Glasgow School of Art in 1963, and after a few years he decided to create an alter-ego called “Patrick”. Under this name he submitted some primitive-style artwork to the Portal Gallery in London which he pretended was painted by his father. It was accepted and exhibited in 1967, kicking off Byrne’s professional artistic career down south.

He progressively developed his writing skills in the 1970s to the point his artistic output declined and he became fully immersed in the world of scriptwriting and theatre. In this transitional period, he worked with both visual images and written dialogue as part of a fascinating creative process where his character ideas were visually illustrated and then allowed to mature and take form, before developing their own authentic voices.

The play and scriptwriting successes of Writer’s Cramp (1976), Slab Boys (1978) – based on his own experiences working in a carpet factory in the 1950s – Tutti Frutti (1987) and Your Cheating Heart (1990) interrupted a developing artistic career which was sidelined for 20 years. But he continued to produce powerful graphics and illustrative work supporting and promoting his plays and works for television.

A polymath talent

How can this extraordinary talent be summed up? Byrne is a figurative artist whose work is grounded in his exploration of the human experience which can be seen at the centre of both his scripts and his visual artworks.

A John Byrne painting of the actress Tilda Swinton.
Portrait of Tilda Swinton, Byrne’s former partner. John Byrne

In the early 1980s, a group of young painters called the New Glasgow Boys (referencing the influential late-19th century modern painters the Glasgow Boys) also achieved international success as figurative painters, building upon Byrne’s own artistic output exploring the Scottish working-class psyche.

He is an architect and creator of narratives exploring deeply human characters and their complex relationships, capturing specific periods in time from a very Scottish perspective, as in the working-class characters in the Slab Boys and the rough and ready Majestics band in Tutti Frutti.

Even in his portraits, where he wrestles to understand both himself and the personalities who sit for him, we are given insight into a deeply personal journey. His portraiture is often comedic, and full of playfulness and irreverence, particularly when it comes to his own image.

The 40 self-portraits which dominate the show are larger than life, often set within city and seascapes, using a variety of mediums and nearly always showing him holding his trademark roll-up, a curl of smoke hanging in the air. In his earlier works, such as Self-portrait with Red Palette (1975), they can be serious and melancholic, and later on, full of humour where he does not take himself too seriously. But in more recent works, such as Big Selfie (2014), for example, darker traits reveal themselves, as Byrne muses on mortality and his image as the ageing artist.

In Byrne’s portraits, he treats his sitters with varying levels of respect, from the comic and affectionate, to the deeply serious and more reverent. This is expressed in his varied use of media such as flat oil paint, scraperboard, pastel, water colour and prints. To me his Conté crayon drawings of his daughters, Celia Asleep (1973) and Rebecca (2010), resemble the sketches of Leonardo.

The cover of the Beatles Ballads album.
One of Byrne’s many album covers. John Byrne/Parlophone Records.

His love of R'n'B and rock'n'roll, together with his close friendships with musicians and actors drove his early artworks through album cover designs, paintings, portraits and caricatures.

His covers include the Beatles Ballads album as well as work for Gerry Rafferty, Stealer’s Wheel and Billy Connolly, whom Byrne has painted several times. His visit to Los Angeles with the singer Donovan had a significant impact, inspiring watercolour studies such as the gentle Burnt Orange LA (1971), and larger scale paintings of black musicians which were exhibited in Glasgow on his return.

His fascination with black musicians has seeped into his artistic fantasy lands including Messiah (2015), a tryptic of musical figures in a fictional American city. And his ongoing relationship with teddy boy and rockabilly culture is reflected in the quiffed Fegs of Underwood Lane, his most recent and current play. It tells a story of a young skiffle band trying to make it big, and involves the big issues of love, religion, sex and death, written in memory of Gerry Rafferty, a close friend who also grew up in Paisley.

This retrospective highlights the quintessential Scottishness of Byrne’s work, in his resilience, his enduring humour and his focus on the frailty of human experience often lived on the edge of working-class communities. It is a richly rewarding show which underscores John Byrne’s rightful place as one of Scotland’s finest and most prolific artists.The Conversation

Blane Savage, Lecturer in Creative Media Practice and New Media Art, University of the West of Scotland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Story of Paula Rego’s Painting ‘The Dance’ | Tate

Discover the story behind Paula Rego's painting 'The Dance'. We hear from Paintings Conservator, Camille Polkownik about Rego's process and the artist's son shares his experience of posing for the painting. Subscribe for weekly films: http://goo.gl/X1ZnEl

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Spare Rib: 50 years

Spare Rib: 50 years since the groundbreaking feminist magazine first hit the streets – its legacy still inspires women

Retro AD Archives/Alamy

In the summer of 1972, the Women’s Liberation Movement was fighting hard, through rallies and marches, for social, sexual and reproductive liberation. The “second wave” of feminism was at its peak, gaining notoriety after a group threw flour bombs at the Miss World beauty pageant in 1970, highlighting the objectification of women. It hit the news once again in the UK in 1972 when a group of women night cleaners went on strike in London for better working conditions.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone at the time was on board with these women’s claims for equality and the British and American presses often caricatured them as humourless, hairy-legged, bra-burning, unsexed harpies who were set against marriage, families and femininity. To counter the noise of this sort of coverage came the groundbreaking feminist magazine Spare Rib.

With witty coverage and incisive features, the magazine echoed the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). The magazine supported campaigns and generally exposed women’s social and cultural experiences of sexism. Spare Rib did all this with captivating journalism and a great sense of humour. The magazine closed in 1993 due to commercial pressures. This year, we celebrate 50 years since its first issue and look back at the legacy it has left behind for feminist media.

A new kind of feminist magazine

The magazine’s founding editors, Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, railed against the sexism and chauvinism of the underground, alternative press, where women were restricted to mundane tasks and excluded from editorial decision-making.

Spare Rib and women’s presses, such as Virago, forged a radically different approach to publishing. Female-led editorial boards enabled open debate of previously taboo subjects such as female orgasm and lesbianism long before these became mainstream concerns. Many feminist magazines operated as collectives and encouraged women to develop publishing skills in the male-dominated profession.

Magazine cover with two women.
The first Spare Rib cover. Angela Phillips, CC BY-NC

In format and content, Spare Rib crossed boundaries between magazines that focused on home, beauty and lifestyle, such as Woman’s Own, and more overtly political, grass-roots movement media, such as Shrew or Red Rag. In this way, it emphasised both the personal and the political sides of the feminist movement.

In its early days, Spare Rib partially emulated conventional women’s magazines by including articles about cookery, handcrafts and DIY – albeit with a feminist twist and a “can-do” attitude. But it was never conventional in its topics and opinion pieces.

Like Cosmopolitan, which launched the same year in the UK, Spare Rib never shied away from bringing women’s sexuality to the fore. But unlike Cosmopolitan, it also directly addressed sexism in Britain. Spare Rib’s “news pages” kept feminists informed and involved with current protests, updates and achievements. Its lively letter pages also encouraged heartfelt reader involvement.

Over two decades, Spare Rib worked relentlessly for social change, investigating and promoting awareness of serious topics concerning women’s mental and physical health. These ranged from women’s diverse sexuality, home life, domestic abuse, equal pay, sexism in the workplace, female genital mutilation and the refuge movement (which provided safe shelter for battered women) and more. Heightened awareness today of these issues owes much to the campaigning work of those second-wave feminist magazines.

The magazine had a complex relationship with consumerism, navigating an uneasy path between needing advertising revenue but rejecting the sexism of the industry at the time. They did this by trying to advertise ethical products only alongside subscription ads and its own-brand products, such as the Spare Rib diary.

But it struggled to sustain itself with diminishing ad sales and subscriptions. Alongside this, distribution problems and arguments over the direction of the magazine led to its demise and eventual closure in 1993.

The difficulties of representing a movement

From as early as 1982, Spare Rib faced criticism that it was too white, middle-class and London-centric. In 1984, a crisis within the editorial collective revealed that many – including women of colour, Jewish women, Irish women, lesbians and more – felt that Spare Rib, alongside much British feminism, didn’t speak for them or address their particular concerns.

Picture of women at a protest, holding a banner.
Spare Rib collective members on a march. Jill Posener, CC BY-NC

While Spare Rib grappled with diverse identity politics, other feminist magazines spoke directly to different groups. Women’s Voice, founded through the Socialist Workers Party, focused on working-class women.

Mukti: Asian Women’s Magazine, was published by the Mukti collective in six languages and funded by London Camden Council. FOWAAD was a national newsletter for women of African and Asian descent. There were also local feminist publications, such as the Leeds Women’s Liberation Newsletter, which highlighted regional feminist concerns around the UK.

Spare Rib itself became much more international in its feminism too. Recent research on women’s activism around Britain has found that regional feminism and Spare Rib were more far-reaching in their perspective than previously thought.

Innovative, informative, contemporary and political, Spare Rib educated and politicised its readers, galvanising and encouraging feminism in Britain. More than this, it gave women a voice and forum to tell their life stories, enabling them to raise awareness of a myriad of issues.

The self-expression and persuasive writing of Spare Rib have their legacy in feminist media today such as the F-Word, feminist websites such as Everyday Sexism, and online blogs like The Vagenda. Because of its standing in feminist history, Spare Rib has become a touchstone for later feminist magazines, and there was even an attempt in 2013 by Guardian journalist Charlotte Raven to revive Spare Rib itself. Sadly this came to nothing, but the legacy of Spare Rib continues to this day.The Conversation

Laurel Forster, Reader in Cultural History, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The Mothership is a garden on the Strait of Gibraltar, and yet much more than that. It's a residence, and a retreat, a dye garden, an ex...