From Medici art to modern jewellery: Two new staff books

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Second year BA History of Art and Design student, Jess Kellow, reviews a recent book launch that introduced new publications by University of Brighton staff.

In February 2019, the Centre for Design History held a book launch for two newly published works, which was attended by staff, students and visitors. The books that were presented to us were Angelica Groom’s book Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence [Figure 1] and Simon Bliss’s book Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond  [Figure 2]. Refreshments were provided and it was a friendly atmosphere to talk to members of the staff and student body, and a great place to meet wider members of the University of Brighton community. Both authors gave us a fascinating introduction to their books, their inspirations and the challenging but rewarding journeys which led them to the finished products.

Figure 1: Angelica Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence (Brill: Leiden; Boston, 2019)

The Medici family was a powerful Italian family during the Renaissance, who gained political power through banking and commerce. Their immense wealth allowed them to be patrons of the arts and sciences as well as to amass the collection of animals which is the subject of Angelica’s book. Her book covers the Medici family’s period of power between 1532-1737 and looks at their collecting and keeping of animals as well as the use of animals in the art they commissioned.[1] The book begins with an introduction to the themes, case studies and research it covers as well as information on the global collecting of animals so that the reader will understand the climate in which the Medici family created their own menageries. The rest of the book is divided into two parts (which themselves contain separate chapters), the Cultural Uses of Animals at the Medici Court and the Exotic Animals in the Art of the Medici Court. The second part covers many incredible pieces of art that show us scenes such as hunting processions and the gifting of animals. Some of these incredible pieces of art Angelica showed us in her presentation, including Bartolomeo Bimbi’s Three Views of a Chinese Golden Pheasant, 1708. This oil on canvas painting shows three different views of the golden pheasant as well as figure in the background in oriental costume. In it we can see the bird’s beautiful plumage and see the artists attention to detail.[2] Here Angelica tells us of Bartolomeo Bimbi’s (1648-1729) still life paintings and how this approach to painting can be seen in his depictions of animals for Medici family. The detail in the study of the bird and the angles with which it is shown allow the viewer to see an atomically accurate depiction of the bird from all sides. This was important at a time when interest in scientific thinking was high. [3]

Figure 2: Simon Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond (Bloomsbury: London, 2019)

Simon’s book also begins with an introduction to his research and the themes that will be covered, including gender, identity and materiality looked at through jewellery in Europe and America during Modernism. Over five chapters the book covers changing attitudes to jewellery in the 1920s, the marginalization of ornament and the display of jewellery as it addresses how jewellery is often overlooked. In the book the example of the Bauhaus is given, notably chapter 3 and chapter 4, “Modernism and Modernity” and “Representing Jewellery: Photography and Film” respectively. Here the case study of the metal workshop in the Bauhaus is looked at, specifically Self-portrait with jewellery for the metal party, Bauhaus Dessau by Marianne Brandt (1893-1983), which Simon also showed in his presentation.[4] Marianne Brandt was a German designer who became the head of the metal department at the Bauhaus Dessau in 1927.[5] The metal party was one of the Bauhaus’ famous themed parties that was held in the February of 1929.[6] The photo was one in a series of self-portraits she made in the 1920s in which she experimented with the presentation of her own image. In it Brandt can be seen wearing the jewellery she made for the party, including an earring made of metal gears, plexiglass and a bell. The unconventional angle with which the headpiece seems to force Brandt to hold herself in the photo, her short hair and simple clothing seems to reach for a representation of strong and Modern femininity.[7] Simon points out that Brandt never quite reached this aim, failing to promote herself and own her own work in the male-dominated world of the metal workshop.[8]

The event was an enjoyable way to hear about the research that members of our teaching team have conducted and as a student to be inspired for future endeavours. It was organised to be an informal event and a good amount of time was given to the authors’ presentations as well as to audience questions. Both books present an incredible amount of research and were passionately presented to us during the book launch. They are both available at university libraries and beyond.

[1] Angelica Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence (Brill: Leiden; Boston, 2019) 5.

[2] Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence, 237-238.

[3] Groom, Exotic Animals in the Art and Culture of the Medici Court in Florence, 236-237.

[4] Simon Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond (Bloomsbury: London, 2019) 131-132.

[5] “Marianne Brandt,” Art and Artists, The Museum of Modern Art website, [n.d].

[6] Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond, 108.

[7] Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond, 131.

[8] Bliss, Jewellery in the Age of Modernism 1918-1940: Adornment and Beyond, 132.

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