‘Migrants: art, artists, materials and ideas crossing borders’

Marble mosaic flooring at the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery (Charing Cross Road), made by Friulian artisans led by Pietro Mazzioli, c. 1896.

Conference organised by Spike Bucklow, Victoria Sutcliffe and Lucy Wrapson, Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge.

Held at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, 15-16 November 2018

This recent conference had an obvious political dimension as it encouraged the discussion of omnipresent international exchanges in the practice and reception of art as part of a phenomenon that presently troubles and polarizes our societies. In its extreme connotations, the term ‘migrants’ brings to mind images of uprooted individuals facing mortal danger as they try to escape from war, poverty and social injustice. The term also polarizes opinions as it evokes associations as diverse as peaceful self-fulfilment and cosmopolitanism, exciting cultural exchange, and ideas of flexible workforces moving across continents to satisfy the demands of global companies on the one side and fears of imported crime, a drop in living standards, loss of jobs and national identity on the other. 

A number of papers at the conference investigated such issues: Charlotte Bank (Berlin) discussed Syrian artists displaced from their war torn country and the reception of their works in Germany, pointing also to the difficulties these migrants faced once they turned their focus to issues not relating to war and migration. Nineteenth-century patterns of artisan migration from Italy to Britain and other countries were addressed by Javier Grossutti (Udine University) and myself. Javier discussed how migrant makers of marble mosaic floorings brought this technique from their native Friuli to the UK, acting as purveyors of skills and knowledge which eventually were fully assimilated by British companies, while my paper contrasted the perceived social status of makers and venders of plaster casts across Europe and beyond, as to whether they were perceived as ‘figurinai’ or ‘formatori’. Were the former increasingly associated with social migration, poverty and lack of education, the latter were seen as an import of skilled artisanship, closely related to Rome’s role as the capital of neoclassical sculpture production. This positive image went so far that English cast makers were referred to as formatori

A revisionist approach was presented by Felicia Gottmann (Northumbria University) in her paper about Levantine cotton workers brought in the eighteenth century to France by Jean-Claude Flachat. His project to introduce new techniques for his own business ultimately failed, but drawing on extensive archival research and applying new notions of agency and network, Gottmann was able to demonstrate how, as they stayed on in France, these male and female workers had an impact of their own that so far had been overlooked. 

In other papers a combination of human migration and migration of objects and skills was proposed, as for example in Kristin Kausland’s (Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research / Hamilton Kerr) discussion of altarpieces by German artists in Scandinavia, some of which appear to have been imported while others were made by German migrants north of the Baltic. Isabel Wagner, Julia Brandt and Corinna Gramatke (Technische Universität Munich) presented their research on polychrome wooden sculptures in Jesuit settlements in today’s Brazil; here extensive study of archival records demonstrated that artists’ materials and large numbers of Spanish sculptures and paintings had been exported to the Jesuit territories where the exported works impacted on future art production while simultaneously emigre sculptors appear to have spread their knowledge. 

Jessica David and Edward Town’s paper (Yale Center for British Art) on the Dutch sixteenth-century painter Daniel van den Queborn addressed a different phenomenon, as here the painter worked in his own country for warring British patrons. While their movements and those of the works they sent home might hardly be described as migration, the migratory context was given through the work of contemporary Netherlandish artists in Britain that may have provided the appetite for portraits by continental artists. 

Jacob Simon (NPG, London) provided a contribution about the migration of artists’ materials and their traders in the nineteenth century. Jacob traced patterns of trade by London traders and in London over the hundred years between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI. Among the successive factors identified were the initial reliance of London’s traders on Britain’s colonial trading infrastructure and their resulting advantage over traders in other European countries, later on the increasing popularity of France as a place of artists’ training among British artists which resulted in a demand for French products, and finally, the establishment of branches by British companies abroad and by German and French firms in London.   

The political dimensions evoked by the conference’s title came to the fore again in a paper by Valeria Kravchenko (Museum of Ukrainian Paintings) and Katya Belaia (National Trust) on conservation practices and techniques in Ukraine from the Soviet era to the present. Kravchenko evaluated the cultural historical judgments imposed under the Soviet regime which e.g. led to the neglect or deliberate destruction of religious works of art as well as the standards in conservation training introduced in this period, describing the more recent possibility of free migration as an opportunity for conservators in Ukraine to reflect upon their own practices, consolidate and develop them in an international context.

This was a conference that brought together various disciplines and a wide range of topics. Papers related across the established borders of academic disciplines, professions, historical periods and geographic areas, stimulating extensive exchange within sessions and during the breaks. As it is common at events like this, participation was international, but many may have recognised the topic’s particular relevance to our work if not our own existence. Migration may not have been at the core of each and every paper presented at the conference, but over and over again, the contributions and discussions brought to light the deeply international character of art production, art conservation and art historical research. The publication of the papers is expected later this year.      

You may also like...