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Session 3: ‘Gesture and Affect’

Dr Mark Sheerin (Independent cultural historian)
Gesture Towards Meaning: the Physical Act of Representing Parietal Works

Although parietal works, especially those in caves, remain enigmatic, efforts to understand them have been led by a sense of proprioception, heightened in the underground environment. In darkness, gesture becomes the primary means by which artists engage with palaeolithic murals. This is evidenced by several cases of representation which have brought such environments to light for a wider audience. First, my paper considers the way in which durational habitation of a grotto enters a paradoxical relation to fast gestural drawing in order to produce a 1908 atlas of Altamira. Second, I consider how processes of replicating Lascaux, between 1973 and 2016, have involved artists learning the parietal forms with their bodies and experiencing communion or ‘osmosis’ with their ancestors via imitative brush strokes. Even those documenting palaeolithic caves with a camera have also entered into a gestural relation with their subject. In 1947 photojournalist Ralph Morse can be seen playfully acting out his relation to the cave. In 2011, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, working with director Werner Herzog, describes a methodology which entails being dynamic and physically active in order to film Chauvet in 3D. My paper argues that by means of gesture, archaeologists and supporting artists engage in heroic self fashioning which is inseparable from the meaning of parietal works in caves.

Dr Charlotte de Mille (Associate Lecturer in the History of Art, The
Courtauld Institute)
Sensory Gestures

When Roger Fry, writing in 1909 with a thorough knowledge of Bergson, described the application of paint as a ‘gesture of the artist’s feeling’, he turned aesthetics towards the body, physical sensation and emotional affect as the modes of experience addressed by the arts. Just as the concept of universal vision had been destroyed by scientific knowledge of the individuality of sight, so art was no longer accepted as primarily visual. As Fry steeped himself in the multi-sensory writing and letters of artists Maurice Denis and Paul Cézanne,  Bergson’s investigations of consciousness, memory, intuition and perception functioned as the ground for a radical shift  in the understanding of painting in the UK.  This paper traces a gestural history of art from post-impressionist criticism and reflects on its relevance to today’s multi-sensory art writing.

Professor Alastair Wright (Associate Professor in the History of Art, University of Oxford)
Affectless Gesture

In the early 20th century French art critics worried that aspects of modern painting generally held to be deeply personal and expressive – most notably the brushmark, the physical record of an artist’s signature gesture – were now being insincerely copied by younger artists. Critics feared that this cynical imitation of the work of Monet, Cézanne and others separated the painterly mark from the individuality of the artist and thus emptied the gesture of affect.  This paper will examine these concerns in relation to wider critical and political debates about individualism and republicanism.  It will also explore why the work of Henri Matisse was seen as both participating in but also complicating this hollowing out of gesture’s affective capacity.

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