Art Historians in Oxfordshire

A total of 46 History of Art pupils travelled across the county boundary into Oxfordshire on Wednesday for a study day at the Ashmolean Museum and Blenheim Palace.

The morning was spent in Britain’s oldest museum looking at exhibits in the Cast Room, and at all manner of artefacts from the ancient world to paintings of the Italian Renaissance. There was also an opportunity to see art a world away from such reposeful treasures in the exhibition of work by Jeff Koons, one-time enfant terrible and provocateur of the New York art scene. Appropriately, his collages, pastiches of Rubens and Titian, pneumatic sculptures and installations, divided opinion on questions of artistic agency, craftsmanship, celebrity, the market, commodification, and sensation.

What could be more different from the knowing, arch and playful tone of Koons’ work than the masculine pomp and solemnity of Blenheim? The palace has recently been introduced onto the curriculum, so our visit followed intense classroom teaching on Vanbrugh’s extraordinary architectural performance. We viewed the house from the vantage of its Great Court, and gained a measure of its grandeur, bombast, and scale, all set off beautifully by the June sun playing across its honeyed stone. Inside, we craned our necks to follow the allegorical gymnastics of personifications falling over themselves to praise the Duke of Marlborough in Thornhill’s illusionistic ceilings. Particularly striking was the new national self-confidence expressed on the frescoed walls of the Saloon, where guests of former times would sit down to their repast under the envious gaze of a painted audience of Spaniards, Dutch, Chinese, Persians, and even a Swede. Pupils were encouraged to reflect on the relationship between art, taste, and decorum, and the status of painting and architecture as tools of political and financial power.

Dr Simon McKeown
Head of History of Art

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