Anne Rudloff Stanton loves romance. She loves the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it smells—but only when it’s found in the margins of 14th-century books. The professor of Art History and Archaeology describes one example—a small drawing of a man leaving a woman—and she leans forward as if she were talking about a mutual friend of ours. “There’s this long sequence of the story of Moses, who, as you may not know, was married before he married Zipporah,” she begins. “He first married the daughter of the king of Ethiopia.”
Alex Barker wears several different hats in MU’s Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology. One of these hats involves his research and fieldwork on the European Bronze Age and the ancient American southeast. The other involves the directorship of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Standing at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, most of Barker’s field research has in recent years dealt with a single broad question: how social complexity grows out of egalitarian societies. His fieldwork in North America and the Old World follows this transition over different periods and regions.
Another of Johnstone’s research interests is the depiction of disability in art and popular culture. Here, Johnstone shows us a slide presentation that he uses to raise awareness of the perception of disability throughout history.
Art history, studying the artifacts of the past, provides context for all the history we learn, Stanton says. She believes that art history is the core discipline of the humanities because it touches on all of the other aspects of life: language, culture, science, and math.
Stanton studied studio art as an undergraduate, but she has always been driven by narratives. A turning point for her occurred a couple of years after graduating with a BFA in painting. While she was sitting in on an art history class and viewing the slides, she began to imagine going back to school to study medieval art.
The Queen Mary Psalter is a book of psalms made in the early 14th century, most likely for a medieval queen, although it is now named after the book’s later owner, the queen some refer to as “Bloody Mary.” For art history professor Anne Rudloff Stanton, these miniscule images in the margins of this book provide insight into the medieval mind.
The decorations in the first capital letter of each page, as well as those in the margins, tell a story, although this narrative is separate from the words on the page. Such images were more personal and, in Stanton’s opinion, more interesting. “I think it was the pictures that really were intended to pull Queen Isabella through those prayers,” Stanton says. In this way, these tiny images can inform historians about the relationship between vision and prayer.
Stanton teaches a variety of courses in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, among them period surveys of art that begin with the ancient world. One of her most interesting courses is called “The Art of the Book,” in which students learn to view the book as an artifact unto itself and culminates with their learning to make their own books at the end of the semester.
Stanton has also researched Isabella of France, a powerful queen who forced her husband to abdicate his throne in favor of their son. Because the boy was too young to assume the kingship, she ruled in his place for about three years. Stanton is learning much about Isabella by looking at her things, specifically the narrative art in the margins of her books.
One of the stories in the margins of Queen Isabella’s book of psalms is an unknown side-tale about Moses. Before he wedded Zipporah and performed the acts for which he is now famous, Moses had married the daughter of the king of Ethiopia. The story that plays out in the tiny marginal images is both tragic and romantic. “I see these as being specifically aimed at a young, actually an adolescent female viewer to keep her turning the pages,” Stanton says.
One of the paintings Barker was pleasantly surprised to find in the museum’s collection is a self-portrait by the Romanian surrealist Victor Brauner. Dating from 1923, the painting reflects the period immediately before the artist moved fully into surrealism as a means of representation. “It is a remarkable portrait,” explains Barker, “because it is the last time he paints himself with both eyes.” In his subsequent work, that is, the artist always paints himself with one eye missing—whether there is a gaping wound, an automaton of some kind, or his eyes placed on his hands. In 1938, Brauner was in a bar fight, during which his eye was poked out—the very eye he had been painting himself without for a decade and a half. Barker says, “Surrealism holds it up as an example of sort of a premonitory knowledge that this was going to happen, proof that time is not linear to the unconscious mind.”
Barker refers to a certain tension between curators, who have all this ‘stuff’ they want to communicate, and exhibit designers, who want to keep the exhibit as clean and simple as possible. “Ultimately, we want people looking at the art, not at the labels,” he indicates; but the Museum still wants to educate. In that spirit, the museum is experimenting with technology to showcase the art and the significance of art to everyone by creating MP3-based audio tours of the museum that can then be played on any personal audio device, including iPods, notebook computers, and even cell phones. Barker hopes this will allow greater flexibility for visitors, whom he imagines selecting a tour and walking through the galleries at their leisure while looking at the art and listening to the audio information, “instead of looking back and forth between the label and the art.”
Barker has worked in several kinds of museums—natural history museums and anthropology museums. “No one feels uncomfortable going into a natural history museum without knowing about bird taxonomy or going into an anthropology museum without knowing the latest details about the origins of humans,” he says. “But a lot of people are uncomfortable coming to an art museum if they don’t know a lot about art, and that is not a good thing.” Fortunately, the Museum of Art and Archaeology combines art with classical archaeology, offering a view of the changes of art over a very long period of time. Barker has been trying to make people more comfortable with the idea of coming into the museum and having their own experience with art—engaging authentic objects, whether from antiquity or from more recent periods, on their own terms.