Adornment: The Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) 39th Annual Boston University Graduate Symposium in the History of Art & Architecture

by Isabella Dobson

Edo Artist. Head of an Oba (1500s). Brass, 9.3 x 8.6 x 9 in. (23.5 x 21.9 x 22.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979.

Returning to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston for the first time since 2019, the Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) Boston University Graduate Symposium in the History of Art and Architecture brought scholars together under the theme of “Adornment.” Spanning two days, the symposium featured keynote speaker Dr. Jill Burke and seven graduate student panelists, all of whom presented their recent work on embellishment and decoration in the visual realm to an audience of students, faculty, community members, and generous sponsor, Mary L. Cornille.

Ranging from Mesopotamian floral wreaths to Chinese collars, the graduate student panelists synthesized historical context with visual analysis and showed that adornment is not a benign act; instances of adornment speak to the gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and more of both wearers and makers. Due to its potential for assigning and expressing significance, the practice of adornment spans cultures, time periods, and surfaces. Books, buildings, bodies, clothing, cookware, and canvases are all surfaces enriched with adornment in every type of medium. Adornment is unlimited in its manifestations and multi-faceted in its meanings. Reminding the audience of its continued salience, Dr. Jill Burke commented on the role that adornment plays in our modern world where the decorated body is now more visible than ever in the appearances that people carefully construct online through social media.

Moderated by PhD student Kaylee Kelley, the first group of panelists spoke to what adornment meant to communities across space and time. To start the day, the first panelist Raquel Robbins (University of Toronto) put forth her findings on floral adornments found in mass graves and the Tomb of Queen Pu-Abi from third millennium BCE Mesopotamia in her talk “Pretty Little Things: Floral Adornments and their Implications of the Royal Cemetery of Ur.” Revising the meanings assigned to the floral adornments by the cemetery’s original excavator, C. Leonard Woolley, Robbins suggested that the metallic leaves and rosettes attached to combs, pins, and wreaths would have symbolized abundance and perpetual life to their wearers. The second panelist Cortney Berg (City University of New York) presented “Lucas Cranach the Elder and Judith: Powerful Portraits of Tyrannicidal Women in Reformation Germany,” during which she noted the seriality of half-length paintings by Cranach depicting Judith with the head of Holofernes. Berg proposed that these images are portraits of specific women who don the guise of Judith in order to not only show off their wealth and beauty, but also portray themselves as Protestant resistors to tyranny. To conclude the first panel, Angela Crenshaw (Bard Graduate Center) shared her research on painted and embroidered badges worn by nuns in her talk “Agency in Adornment: Escudos de Monjas in New Spain.” She explained how circular escudos, or shields, which adorned the front of a nun’s habit and often depicted the Virgin Mary or other biblical scenes, represented moments of choice and personal identity.

After a brief yet thought-provoking question and answer session with the panelists, Dr. Jill Burke (University of Edinburgh) capped off the first day of the Symposium by giving an exciting preview of her forthcoming book. In How to Be A Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity (expected August 2023), she argues that the jewels, cosmetics, and clothing that women adorned themselves with in the Renaissance were not necessarily indicative of slavish conformity to beauty standards, but could also be tools of expression and empowerment. Burke’s ideas even prompted some audience members to thoughtfully reassess aloud the accessories they had donned for the Symposium.

The next day’s panel, moderated by PhD student Shannon Bewley, featured four graduate students whose talks considered bodily adornment and its connections to colonial projects, global trade, ethnic identity, and respectability politics. Starting the day with her talk “Coral and the Kingly Body: The Peabody’s Coral Apron and the Benin Kingdom,” panelist Morgan Snoap (Boston University) examined what it means for objects to be removed from their original contexts, especially those meant to be worn on the body. She concluded that the coral apron in the Peabody Museum’s collection loses the power and sanctity derived from adorning the king’s body when it languishes, unworn, in the collection at Harvard University. The following panelist Katy Rosenthal (Bryn Mawr College) recentered Chinese makers and Parsi wearers of the jhabla tunic in her talk “Figures in The Clouds: Necklines on Chinese Embroideries for the Parsi Community in 19th Century India,” arguing that the “cloud collars” embroidered on these tunics acted as everyday reminders of the actors involved in contemporary global trade. Rachel Sweeney (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) was the third panelist to take the podium for her talk titled “Performing ‘Irishness’: The Tara Brooch, Celtic Revival Brooches, and Ethnic Nationalism.” Through her research on the Tara Brooch’s design and its reproductions during the 19th century English Celtic Revival period, Sweeney demonstrated how the English used the original and its copies to establish the ancient Tara Brooch as an item symbolizing a shared lineage between the two nations—and reinforcing English rule in the process. To wrap up day two, Sybil F. Joslyn (Boston University) gave the last talk “Fighting for Prestige: Nineteenth-Century Ceremonial Fire Dress and the Performance of Respectability,” in which she introduced a number of early nineteenth-century painted hats worn by firemen during ceremonial events. Sybil argued that firemen wore these hats, which sported fire company names such as “Hope,” “Good Intent,” and “Vigilant,” to elevate their prestige in a society that had characterized them as raucous, violent, and callous. Presentations concluded with another question and answer session for the day two presenters and were followed by a round of applause for all of the panelists.

Covering an array of embellished artworks and material objects, the breadth of research, thoughtful questions, and camaraderie of the Symposium were a wonderful way to mark the return to an in-person event. This engaging program of Art Historical scholarship would not have been possible without the coordinators, PhD students Hannah Jew and Rachel Kline, as well as all the graduate student volunteers, faculty liaison and department administrative assistance, and the generous support of Mary L. Cornille. If the scholarship of our brilliant panelists is any indication, the theme of adornment will continue to be critically studied as an important visual and material intervention in the field of Art and Architectural History.


Isabella Dobson is a PhD student in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University interested in the ways that eroticism, desire, and sensuality operate in paintings and prints of the female body from the Early Modern period.

“Philip Guston Now”

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
May 1–September 11, 2022
by Ateret Sultan-Reisler

Philip Guston. If This Be Not I (1945). Oil on canvas. 42 1/4 x 55 1/4 in. (107.3 x 140.3 cm). Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Kende Sale Fund, 1945. © The Estate of Philip Guston.

Philip Guston (1913–1980) responded to events witnessed in person and print through painting. Guston’s The Tormentors (1947–1948), an enigmatic rectangle of cadmium red and ink black overlaid with thin organic forms, requires further interpretation. The title hints at the artist’s explained reaction to seeing a Life Magazine article documenting the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity in 1946.1 Yet, this was not the first time Guston experienced the racist organization; a son of Jewish immigrants, the artist witnessed KKK marches growing up in Los Angeles. Curators and scholars generally analyze Guston’s oeuvre in the context of his personal anecdotes and broader art movements.2 However, his largest retrospective in two decades, MFA Boston’s Philip Guston Now grounds the artist’s personal experience and practice within a historical framework.3 Deciphering Guston’s reflections on harsh antisemitism and racism necessitates analysis of the chilling news reports he consumed. The retrospective tangibly brings a turbulent American political, racial, and militaristic climate to the fore: Philip Guston Now considers the artist’s work in dialogue with period news media and asks viewers to consider the artist’s work not only as personal meditation but as response to national and global oppression.

In a collapsed chronological order, the galleries show Guston’s early figuration, move to abstraction, and ultimate return to figuration. The first gallery spotlights Guston’s If this Be Not I, a demonstration of Guston’s earliest impulse to respond to worldwide issues. In the painting, masked and crowned children stage a performance on a street littered with newspaper and debris (fig. 1).4 The second gallery brings on the primarily sequential exhibition. In Guston’s early work, Madonna and Christ child embrace and nudes pose in celestial, Surrealist-inspired settings. The curators cite these paintings as aesthetically inspired by Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico.5 However, soon after, news of World War II brought forth issues demanding critical response. While teaching at Washington University, St. Louis in 1945, Guston first learned of the atrocities of World War II. Lest We Forget, a 1945 exhibition of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.’s photographs of liberated concentration camps, inspired Guston to depict the suffering he witnessed in a series of highly inscrutable paintings.6 Juxtaposing these works with visual testaments to the victims of Nazi violence urges viewers to consider how Guston’s work speaks to atrocities observed from afar.

Figure 2. Installation view. Philip Guston Now. Museum of Fine Arts/Boston, 2022. All artwork © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Figure 3. Installation view. Philip Guston Now. Museum of Fine Arts/Boston, 2022. All artwork © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Next, the exhibition features Guston’s brief period of abstraction followed by his racially charged work. Following Guston’s vivid action paintings conjuring the New York School, renderings of everyday domestic objects are scattered quirkily across a wall (fig. 2). However, Guston’s next body of work reacted to the unrest of the Civil Rights Era—a period in which Black activists brought racial oppression and white supremacy to the political forefront. Sparked by the tumult, Guston spoke to these issues through road-tripping, smoking, and bumbling Ku Klux Klan figures (fig. 3). Considering the sensitivity of this imagery, the more challenging paintings can be viewed in a semi-enclosed vestibule (fig. 4). Critiqued at the 1970 Marlborough Gallery show for their lack of skill, Guston’s efforts to address pervading white guilt and racial oppression were overlooked.7 At the MFA, klansmen painted in bright white and pink were paired with films of police violence against Vietnam War and Civil Rights activists.8 Framing his works with media footage encourages viewers to reflect and question the ways Guston’s works critically responded to racial and political turbulence of his era.

Figure 4. Installation view. Philip Guston Now. Museum of Fine Arts/Boston, 2022. All artwork © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The final galleries frame Guston’s late paintings as responses to a buildup of memories and invite visitor response. Some of the gallery space is devoted to personal meditations in which Guston grappled with losing his wife, Musa. Another section features Guston’s work whilst a teacher at Boston University when protests for desegregation erupted on campus.9 The response station, a place for visitors to hang written responses on a wall with wooden pegs, underscores the heaviness of the content and urges visitors to forge meaningful connections between Guston’s work and period events. So easily could Guston have become numb to the constant ebb and flow of injustice in the news cycle. However, the exhibition’s grounding of shocking media pushes the argument that Guston fought against bigotry as a mundane feature of life. The exhibition urges viewers to reckon with how Guston’s method of bearing witness resonates with injustices broadcasted today.


Ateret Sultan-Reisler is the John Wilmerding Intern in American Art at National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. She is working on a major retrospective of Elizabeth Catlett (2024–25). Ateret holds an MA in History of Art & Architecture from Boston University and a BA in Art History and Psychology from University of Maryland.



1. As a winner of the Carnegie Institute prize for painting, Guston was featured in the back of a 1946 Life Magazine issue. It is possible that The Tormentors (1947–1948) was in reaction to the article: “Ku Klux Klan Tries a Comeback,” Life, May 27, 1946.

2. For the preceding Guston retrospective consult Michael Auping and Ashton Dore, Philip Guston Retrospective (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2003).

3. The MFA Boston curatorial team included Megan Bernard, Ethan W. Lasser, Kate Nesin, and Terence Washington.

4. In an earlier published version of this essay, the image The Porch (1945) was included instead of If This Be Not I (1945). It was amended for accuracy on May 14, 2023.

5. For further Guston scholarship, see the exhibition catalog, Harry Cooper, Mark Godfrey, Alison de Lima Greene, Kate Nesin, Philip Guston Now (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2020).

6. The photographs were taken from Joseph Pulitzer Jr.’s “A Report to the American People,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1945. These visual testaments of victims to Nazi-orchestrated concentration camps can be viewed in the exhibition by lifting a fabric case covering. Guston explained that viewing imagery of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust led him to create highly obscured paintings.

7. Guston’s Klansmen continue to cause controversy today. The multi-venue exhibition was originally slated to open in 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic and a reckoning with racial violence in the U.S. The curators at MFA Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; MFA Houston; and Tate Modern, London took time to bolster their interpretation framework for challenging subject matter and reconsidered the installation design for the Klansmen pictures to enhance viewer sensitivity.

8. Media footage includes that from the Democratic National Convention, August 26–29, 1968; Vietnam War, footage from late 1960s–early 1970s; Kent State shooting, May 4, 1970; Richard Nixon, U.S. President, 1960–1974. This footage was captured or is owned by Onyx Media, Nexstar WGN, Chicago, ABC News, NBC News, Hearst Newsreel, Christopher Jensen, ITN, and Encyclopedia Britannica Films.

9. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibition text.

The Clown at Midnight: Coulrophobia, Counterculture, and the Decadent Pierrot Mask

by Samuel Love

Writing Pyrotechnic Insanitarium (1999), an apocalyptic account of twentieth-century Western culture, Mark Dery was sure of one thing: “all the world hates a clown.”1 In Dery’s eyes, the clown persistently haunted the waning century, resulting in the appearance of the term “coulrophobia”—an uncontrollable fear of clowns in popular discourse. The association between clowns and fear was so strong that Robert Bloch, author of 1959 cult classic Psycho, stated “the essence of true horror” was reified in “the clown, at midnight.”2 This fear, Dery argued, resulted from “the duplicity implied by the frozen grins and false gaiety of clowns…[Their] transparent artificiality constantly directs our attention to what’s behind the mask.”3 In other words, what provoked this visceral reaction was an uncanny failure of authenticity.

Dery could have observed the same phenomenon a century earlier. Beginning in the 1880s, the figure of Pierrot, the white-faced clown of the commedia dell’ arte, proliferated in the cultural imaginary of European modernism. This renewed interest paralleled the emergence of what would now be considered early coulrophobic reactions.4 Pierrot became a totem for the artists and writers who were, often self-consciously, considered to be “Decadents”—representatives of a French (or more generally, Western European) artistic movement characterized by its hedonism, pessimism, and provocative defiance of social and moral convention—precisely because of the destabilizing force of the clown’s artifice.

Figure 1. Jean-Antoine Watteau. Pierrot (Gilles) (1718–1719). Oil on canvas. 72.6 x 58.9 in. (184.4 x 149.6 cm). Louvre, Paris. Public domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This allegiance between artist and clown has typically been viewed with suspicion in modernist scholarship. Benjamin Buchloh’s seminal 1981 polemic “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression” evinced a form of conceptual coulrophobia in attacking specifically the utilization of commedia imagery as “enforced regression…the clown functions as a social archetype of the artist as an essentially powerless, docile, entertaining figure.”5 But in Decadent circles and those they influenced, Pierrot recurs for the opposite reasons. For example, the French graphic artist Jules Chéret (1836–1932) spoke for his generation in valorizing the Pierrot costume’s “mysteriousness…which disquiets the spectator with [its] expressionless white face….the hermetic curtain behind which one will try to see the man.”6 This essay explores how the uncanny inauthenticity of the Pierrot mask has been harnessed from nineteenth-century Decadents to their progenies in the “pyrotechnic insanitarium” of the twentieth, the aesthetes of glam rock who Dery acknowledged as the rightful heirs to Decadent art, to articulate a radical disidentification with contemporary social and moral conventions.7

The history of the Decadent Pierrot has been extensively elucidated in extant scholarship.8 Nascent in touring Italian pantomimes of the sixteenth century, the figure of a naïve Pierrot typically falls in love with the wholesome Columbine, who rejects him for the rougher, bolder Harlequin. Resultantly, Pierrot came to stand for a generalized sense of marginalization in Romantic circles in the nineteenth century. Pierrot emerged in the performances of Joseph Grimaldi (1778–1837) in London and Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796–1846) in Paris, two actors whose tragic personal lives were popularly thought to underpin their interpretations of the suffering clown.9 The same circles appreciated the work of the French Rococo master Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), whose isolated, mysterious Pierrot in Gilles dovetailed with their theatrical tastes (fig. 1). Although art historian Judy Sund has disproven that Watteau’s Pierrots were melancholy ciphers for the artist’s outsider status, this Romantic fiction perhaps took deep root because of pervasive associations between clowns and outsiders.10 Dery traces the origins of clowns to the disabled, impoverished, or otherwise non-normative performers of antiquity, establishing what he terms the “clown/freak connection” and the concretization of the clown as “abnormal or nonhuman Other.”11

The model of the clown inherited by late nineteenth-century Decadents was steeped in the language of suffering, rejection, and abnegation. It is precisely in this milieu that Pierrot’s alienation, rather than divested of meaning through repetition, as Buchloh suggests, was reinvigorated by the extent to which these attributes were embraced to épater la bourgeoisie. The association between the clown and marginal, transgressive identities inevitably led to the assumption that what was uncannily concealed by the inscrutable mask was a source of danger; as evidenced in Chéret’s enthusiasm for Pierrot, this was duly exploited by Decadent artists.

Figure 2. Jules Chéret. Frontispiece for Pierrot Sceptique (1881). Lithograph. In Léon Hennique and J-.K. Huysmans, Pierrot Sceptique (E Rouyvere: Paris, 1881). Courtesy of Internet Archive. Digitizing sponsor University of Toronto.

It was Chéret who provided illustrations for Pierrot Sceptique, a “pantomime” co-authored by the arch-Decadent J. K. Huysmans, in which Pierrot’s white blouse is symbolically replaced by black evening dress. Huysman’s Pierrot, no longer merely a sufferer, is a murderer and an arsonist in his own right.12 Chéret’s illustrations belie the interest in coulrophobia that Pierrot’s painted face could trigger. The discrepancy between the clown’s sadism and his fixed, atavistic, curiously apelike grin engenders this reaction (fig. 2). In canvases which have since largely disappeared into private collections, Chéret frequently depicted Pierrot as an airborne wraith menacingly toying with the chorus girls of the newly founded playhouse Moulin Rouge, its windmill a symbol of both the glamor and danger of fin-de-siecle Montmartre.

Figure 3. Adolphe Willette. Parce Domine (1884). Oil on canvas. Musée de Montmartre, Paris. 78.3 x 153.5 in. (198.9 x 389.9 cm). Public domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 4. Adolphe Willette. Pierrot Meutrier (Pierrot the Murderer) (1885–1895). Lithograph. 10.9 x 7.4 in. (27.7 x 18.8 cm). National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Creative Commons. Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland.

Indeed, the Moulin Rouge was itself designed by Adolphe Willette, who was known to sign his works as “Pierrot.” Willette also painted a mural for the nearby nightclub La Chat Noir that anticipates Mark Dery’s “pyrotechnic insanitarium” in its apocalyptic vision. Titled Parce Domine (fig. 3), a Pierrot attired in the same fashion as Chéret’s leads a bacchic procession of naked women, wolves, wraiths, and clowns down from the windmills of Montmartre and into a rapidly disintegrating landscape; the head of Willette’s procession brandishes a smoking pistol before him. Such atavistically violent Pierrots also permeate Willette’s minor works, evinced in drawings such as the brutish Pierrot the Murderer (fig. 4).

Figure 5. Gustav-Adolf Mossa. Pierrot of the Minute (1906). Oil on canvas. 31.5 x 25.6 in. (80 x 65 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret, Nice. Fair use. Courtesy of WikiArt.

The theme of Pierrot as a threatening, violent force was reprised in the twentieth century by the likes of Gustav-Adolf Mossa and Leo Rauth. Mossa’s Pierrot of the Minute (fig. 5) (1908), indicating the influence of Huysmans and Chéret, features Pierrot brandishing a bloodied knife while clad in the immaculate garb of an eighteenth-century nobleman. Rauth’s subject of the monstrous and ironically named A Welcome Guest (1912), armed only with a bouquet of roses and a twisted grimace, seems to stream with blood from the illusionistic tumult of red ribbon clutched at his throat (fig. 6). Such creatures belong to the ranks of what journalist Benjamin Radford terms “bad clowns… vigilante antiheroes of the id”: inscrutable, inhuman beings whose painted faces at once conceal and suggest a sadistic moral void beneath.13

Figure 6. Leo Rauth. Ein gern gesehener Gast (The Welcome Guest) (1912). Lithograph. University of Illinois, Illinois. Public domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, not all Pierrots became monsters; some simply embraced the artificiality of their pose, constituting the clown’s conceptual affront to authenticity as opposed to the visceral affront provided by his uncanny appearance. The decadent poet Arthur Symons understood Pierrot as “condemned to be always in public….he must remember to be fantastic if he would not be merely ridiculous….And so he becomes exquisitely false.”14 This is precisely the inauthenticity that enraged Buchloh in clownish iconographies, translated into psychological terms by Martin Green and John Swan who argue that “to feel oneself to be a commedia character gives one a sense of self that is hard to combine with…marriage and parenthood.”15 It is perhaps fitting that Arthur Symons was writing of his friend Aubrey Beardsley, who “was…this Pierrot” in Symons’s eyes, and whose tuberculosis meant that he would not live past twenty-five.16 Renowned for his exuberant dandyism, Beardsley was known to have quipped that “even my lungs are affected” in reference to his fatal ailment.17

It was, however, arguably not until the years immediately preceding the publication of Buchloh’s “Figures of Authority” that the pose practiced by Aubrey Beardsley was transformed into a method of transcending the boundaries of conventionality by Decadence’s most flamboyant progeny: glam rock. David Bowie, glam’s most intellectual acolyte, established a manifesto of sorts in stating that music should be “a parody of itself…[it should be] the clown, the Pierrot medium.”18 And in its theatrical inauthenticity it was, although its appropriation of Pierrot asked the opposite question to that of its Decadent forebears. If the likes of Willette associated Pierrot with criminality to attain distance from bourgeois conventionality, glam’s luminaries began from a position of near-criminality and found in the inauthenticity of the mask a provocative rebuke to encroaching bourgeois conventionality.

As Mark Fisher observed, glam “has a special affinity with the English suburbs,” where its luminaries grew up: “its ostentatious anti-conventionality was negatively inspired by [the suburbs’] eccentric conformism.”19 Critiquing its gender politics, Fisher also notes that glam was predominantly the “preserve of male desire,” which unwittingly elucidated the arena of glam’s “ostentatious anti-conventionality”: male sexuality, with homosexuality only decriminalized four years before glam’s explosion in 1971, and glam’s aesthetics embracing a provocative effeminacy and androgyny which flirted with a disruptive queerness.20 It was, again, Bowie who made this clear. Bowie had performed as Pierrot under the tutelage of the mime artist Lindsay Kemp, with whom he had a sexual relationship. Kemp had also promoted the work of Decadent writers to him, making the Pierrot character the first Bowie assumed before raiding the dressing-up box for others throughout the 1970s.21

When this journey of experimentation ended in 1980, it was Bowie in the spectacularly bejeweled Pierrot costume, captured by photographer Brian Duffy in the music video for Ashes to Ashes, who announced the effacing of the singer’s first publicly recognizable character from Space Oddity—“We know Major Tom’s a junky.” Yet, under the mask of Major Tom lay the mask of Pierrot: Bowie’s putting away of childish things did not result in the throwing on of bourgeois normativity. Instead, he remained the outsider incompatible with the values of heteronormative adulthood. Significantly, pop star Steve Strange, who appeared in the Ashes to Ashes video, reprised the role of Pierrot in the early 1980s, as did Klaus Nomi, a backing singer in a televised performance of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.

Journalist Simon Reynolds records that glam “drew attention to itself as a fake” in its quest to “escape from reality into a never-ending fantasy of fame and freakitude.”22 In this, Bowie’s identification of the movement with commedia is obvious. The cultural logic of commedia that Green and Swan observe is echoed by glam’s demand to reject quotidian reality to preserve its dreamworld. Reynolds, however, does not entertain the possibility that many of those who sought this dreamworld had been forbidden entry to its alternative: the suburban world of their childhoods. Evinced in the sexual politics of glam is a rerun of Pierrot’s Decadent identification with the freak. Thus, the failure of authenticity that triggered nineteenth-century coulrophobic reactions to the white visage of Pierrot during the fin-de-siecle was translated into a twentieth-century conceptual failure of authenticity under glam: what unites the two artistic circles is how this failure was reconceptualized as a critical, countercultural strength.


Samuel Love is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of York. His thesis explores the carnivalesque visual culture of interwar British High Society, tracing how its engagements with baroque and Dionysian iconographies constituted a transgressive rejection of sociopolitical norms.



1. Mark Dery, Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (New York: Grove, 2000), 65.

2. See Benjamin Radford, Bad Clowns (New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 2016), 21–22, for this quotation from Robert Bloch.

3. Dery, Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, 74.

4. This thesis is most comprehensively explored in: Martin Green and John Swan, The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia Dell'arte and the Modern Imagination (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993); Andrew McConnell Stott, “Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Dickens, Coulrophobia, and the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 12, no. 4 (2012): 4.

5. Benjamin Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” October 16 (1981): 53.

6. See Robert Storey, Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978) 121, for this quotation by Jules Chéret.

7. For an extended exploration of the evolution of glam, see Mark Dery, All The Young Dudes: Why Glam Rock Matters, Boing Boing, 2013.

8. The authoritative study remains: Storey, Pierrot, 3–93.

9. Stott, “Clowns on the Verge,” 9–11.

10. Judy Sund, “Why so Sad? Watteau's Pierrots,” The Art Bulletin 98, no. 3 (2016): 321–323.

11. Dery, Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, 77, 79.

12. Dery, Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, 119.

13. Radford, Bad Clowns, 4.

14. Arthur Symons, The Art of Aubrey Beardsley (New York: The Modern Library, 1925), 28.

15. Green and Swan, Triumph of Pierrot, xvii.

16. Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, 28.

17. David Colvin, Aubrey Beardsley: A Slave to Beauty (New York: Welcome Rain, 1998), 53.

18. Quoted in Alexander Carpenter, “‘Give a Man a Mask and He’ll Tell the Truth’: Arnold Schoenberg, David Bowie, and the Mask of Pierrot,” Intersections: Canadian Journal of Music 30, no. 2 (2011): 7.

19. Mark Fisher, “For Your Unpleasure,” in Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Winchester: Zero Books, 2017), 178.

20. Fisher, “For Your Unpleasure,” 178.

21. Simon Reynolds, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy: From the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 88.

22. Reynolds, Shock and Awe, 3–5.

Performance and Imitation: Sofonisba Anguissola’s “Self Portrait with Madonna and Child”

by Emma Lazerson

Figure 1. Sofonisba Anguissola. Self-Portrait with Madonna and Child (ca. 1556). Oil on canvas. 25.9 x 23.2 in. (65.7 x 59 cm). Courtesy of Muzeum-Zamek at Łańcut Castle, Łańcut, Poland.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532?–1625) has been lauded as one of the most prolific portrait painters of the early modern period, but her devotional images have been largely understudied. This essay examines her Self-Portrait with Madonna and Child, a painting showcasing both Sofonisba’s style and that of other artists as a form of emulative adaptation: in her visible imitation, Sofonisba fashions herself as a courtier, while also alluding to her fitness for such a position through the embedded devotional image.

The Self-Portrait with Madonna and Child features Sofonisba gazing out at the audience, painting an image of the Madonna and Child, her brush coloring the flesh of Christ (fig. 1). The Madonna is youthful and idealized with her hand gently cupping the back of a nude Christ Child’s head, while the other delicately rests against his cheek, in preparation for a symbolic nuptial kiss. In painting the Madonna, Sofonisba inserts herself into Boccaccio’s history of illustrious women from his Concerning Famous Women (1374).1 In his text, Boccaccio refers to women from all different stations, but he specifically describes three famous classical artists, including Thamyris, painter of the goddess Diana. She was known for her chastity and was often conflated with the Madonna in the early modern period.2 It is likely that Sofonisba would have read Boccaccio’s text and may have identified with Thamyris.3 By painting the Madonna, Sofonisba places herself in dialogue with Thamyris, indicating her own longing for fame, her own desire for recognition as an artist.4 This desire was further exemplified by the fact that she sent such images to powerful courts throughout Europe, including that of Philip II of Spain, her future employer.5 Such images could have functioned as an informal sort of job interview, in which Sofonisba marketed her skills to appeal to the courts.

To aid her self-promotion, she turned to Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528) for a description of how the ideal courtier could represent herself.6 Castiglione’s work features an open dialogue between various members of the Gonzaga Court in Urbino, but early modern readers viewed the text as prescriptive.7 It is this sort of reading that likely informed Sofonisba’s self-portrayal. In her self-presentation, she goes beyond an austere self-fashioning, directly fitting into one of the ways an ideal courtier could dress according to Castiglione. Sofonisba’s expression in her self-portrait is “grave and sober,” as she wears a plain black dress with a high neckline, which respectively aligns with Castiglione’s description of an ideal courtier as she paints with the most “pleasing” color and shows the “sobriety which the Spanish nation so much observes.”8 She signals key characteristics that Castiglione ascribed to the ideal courtier: modesty, reservedness, diligenza, and sprezzatura—an affected appearance of ease. Her clothes are demure and without frills, and her expression is undemonstrative, indicating her modesty and reservedness. Though her expression is impassive, Sofonisba shows her propensity for labor in her partially rotated pose, steady hold on the brush and maulstick, and tense arm muscles. All are signs emblematic of the diligenza she employs in her art and, presumably, in her life. By relying on the prescriptions of Castiglione in her self-fashioning, Sofonisba presents herself as a courtier before ever working at a court, and she demonstrates her ease of assimilation in this performance as a courtier. Furthermore, her art of painting, which Castiglione esteems as a positive characteristic for a courtier, appears to be done with ease, as shown through the two modes and two styles in which she paints fluidly. In her self-portrayal, Sofonisba paints in a manner established for her other self-portraits, while in the easel painting, she employs the manners of Correggio and Parmigianino. This oscillation is also representative of an affected appearance of ease, a point to which I will return. Her self-fashioning reflects the concerns of Castiglione’s court and her own desire to adapt to such a setting.

Figure 2. Correggio. Virgin Adoring the Christ Child (1518–20). Oil on canvas. 31.9 x 30.3 in. (81 x 77 cm). Uffizi Galleries, Florence. Su concessione del Ministero della Cultura. The reproduction or duplication of this image by any means is prohibited.
Figure 3. Correggio. Madonna and Child with an Angel (1522–25). Oil on wood. 27 x 22.2 in. (68.5 x 56.5 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 2023.

Sofonisba portrays herself according to Castiglione’s outline, and the embedded easel painting in the Self-Portrait may further show her ability to assimilate her style to that of other artists, a capability valued in a court painter, which Michael Cole contends Sofonisba aspired to be.9 Assimilation acted as the mechanism by which Sofonisba would be able to become a court artist, as the Spanish sought continuity in their portraits.10 The Madonna and Child is rendered in a style different from the one she uses to portray herself and akin to that of the painters Correggio and Parmigianino. In her early career, Sofonisba would have been exposed to the style of Correggio through her teacher Bernardino Campi, and she may have seen Parmigianino’s work through the large number of prints he disseminated throughout his career.11 Sofonisba’s Madonna resembles the Madonna of Correggio’s Virgin Adoring the Christ Child (fig. 2), borrowing Correggio’s soft portrayal of flesh, rosy cheeks, thick dark hair, and small softened lips. Sofonisba’s Christ Child also adopts Correggio’s blonde, fine curls visible in works such as Madonna and Child with an Angel (fig. 3). This is in contrast to the figures in her early non-devotional genre scenes, such as The Chess Game, in which her sisters are shown in a non-idealized fashion but with a naturalism characteristic of Lombard art.12 Sofonisba’s embedded canvas alludes to Correggio, but her image is not a one-to-one copy of Corregesque style.

Figure 4. Parmigianino. Madonna of the Long Neck (1534–35). Oil on wood. 85.2 x 52.2 in. (216.5 x 132.5 cm). Uffizi Galleries, Florence. Su concessione del Ministero della Cultura. The reproduction or duplication of this image by any means is prohibited.
Figure 5. Parmigianino. Mystic Marriage of St. Margaret (1529). Oil on canvas. 29.9 x 23.5 in. (75.9 x 59.7 cm). Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna. Su concessione del Ministero della Cultura- Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. The reproduction or duplication of this image by any means is prohibited.

While Correggio’s manner is very soft, Parmigianino’s style is much sharper. The limbs of the Virgin closely parallel the long, sinuous body shape of the Madonna from Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (fig. 4). The Christ Child is similarly composed of Parmigianino-esque features, with a thinner body and a jutting hip: this infant does not echo the pudgy children of Correggio but instead heightens the sexual nature of Parmigianino’s images. The sexualization of the pose of the Child is further carried out through the nuptial kiss shared with his mother. There is no other image in Sofonisba’s oeuvre that is so sexualized. The chosen subject matter, a nuptial kiss in which the Madonna is at once ‘sposa, madre e figlia’ to Christ as the bridegroom, is unusual for her. In sixteenth-century Italian paintings, such as those by Perugino, Raphael, and Titian, the Madonna was generally shown holding Christ, but they were not usually engaged in a kiss.13 In contrast, Parmigianino’s Mystic Marriage of St. Margaret features a sexual charge between the saint and Christ Child (fig. 5). In the altarpiece, St. Margaret looks longingly and kneels before the Christ Child on his mother’s lap. The infant lightly touches St. Margaret’s shoulder, and she leans close though does not directly kiss the Christ Child. This sexualized religious image was not unusual for Parmigianino, but it was for Sofonisba, who appears to adapt her subject manner and style to be more like Parmigianino’s. Sofonisba’s other devotional images, her Maria Lactans and Holy Family with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, feature rounded and chubby-limbed infants as opposed to the Self-Portrait Christ Child’s bonier body, a common trait of Parmigianino’s infants. In sexualizing the Christ Child, Sofonisba demonstrates her stylistic range, showing her proclivity for adaptation as a form of imitation, as a means of navigating between different forms of grace.

While Sofonisba’s self-portrayal in the Self-Portrait is unornamented, the Madonna’s grace is artificial, following the conventions outlined in Agnolo Firenzuola’s 1548 treatise.14 As Elizabeth Cropper discusses in her article on Parmigianino’s paintings, Firenzuola defined ideal female beauty in specific terms, equating the perfect silhouette with that of a capital.15 As the tenets put forth by Firenzuola were perhaps inspired by Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck, or vice-versa, there is a capital in the Parmigianino painting, echoing the beauty of Parmigianino’s perfected Madonna. Like Parmigianino, Sofonisba, too, includes a capital next to the Madonna in her Self-Portrait, presumably as an analog for the Madonna’s beauty. The capital’s inclusion acts as a purposeful allusion to the kind of grace promulgated and articulated by Parmigianino and Correggio, as opposed to the less idealized grace of Sofonisba’s own style.16 Her easy navigation between the two distinct types of grace is a kind of performance, for which Castiglione coined a term in his Book of the Courtier: sprezzatura.17

Sofonisba’s self-fashioning as a courtier is a kind of affected performance, but the canvas within the self-portrait can be considered a performance in its own right. Sofonisba not only thinks about the appearance of courtly manners but also about Correggio and Parmigianino’s type of invention. Her imitation is conspicuous, performative. Moreover, the oscillation between styles and inventions heightens the appearance of sprezzatura. As the imitation is visible, the negotiation between her own style and Correggio’s and Parmigianino’s becomes part of the painting’s mission. Sofonisba was not just considering Castiglione’s text as a prescriptive manual for the courtier: she was engaging with and interpreting the text, identifying ways to make her own form of sprezzatura recognizable in her work. I contend that through her emulative adaptation, the demonstration of her ability to assimilate to the style of others, Sofonisba gained a position at the court of Philip II. However, there are still many unanswered questions regarding this work and others like it: What other forms of imitation did Sofonisba practice? How do her devotional images reshape the artist’s oeuvre, including those which are now lost? These questions, among others, provide future avenues of scholarship surrounding this standout Renaissance artist: here’s looking at her.18


Emma Lazerson received her BA from Emory University in 2022 and is currently a first-year MA candidate in Art History at Case Western Reserve University. Her research focuses on early modern Italian female artists, contextualizing their practices in social, religious, and global theories.



1. Michael Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 22.

2. For an example of this conflation, see MS Français 598, De Mulieribus Claris, Bibliothèque National de France, 1403, Paris.

3. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson, 22–25.

4. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson, 21.

5. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson, 21.

6. Joanna Woods-Marsden, Renaissance Self-Portraiture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 201.

7. Woods-Marsden, Renaissance Self-Portraiture, 15–17.

8. “I prefer [the courtier] always [in dress] to tend a little more toward the grave and sober rather than the foppish. Hence, I think that black is more pleasing in clothing than any other color; and if not black, then at least some color on the dark side…I would have our Courtier’s dress show that sobriety which the Spanish nation so much observes, since external things often bear witness to inner things.” Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959), 89.

9. There has been little scholarship directly relating to Sofonisba’s imitation. See Maria H. Loh, “New and Improved: Repetition as Originality in Italian Baroque Practice and Theory,” The Art Bulletin 86, no. 3 (2004): 477–504. Loh discusses both the early modern notion of misto, or mixing other styles into one composition. For a discussion of the Spanish interest in copying practices among their court artists, see Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson, 137.

10. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson, 21.

11. See Ilya Sandra Perlingieri, The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 40–41, regarding Sofonisba’s introduction to Correggio’s style.

12. See Andrea Bayer, ed., Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

13. In the Middle Ages, Christ and the Madonna as bridegroom and bride was a common theme. In these medieval examples the two actors were usually represented as close in age, rather than as a mother and child, an allegorized union for the church. For examples of the nuptial kiss, see Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, “Art of the Misbegotten: Physicality and the Divine in Renaissance Images,” Artibus et Historiae 30, no. 60 (2009): 225–232.

14. Elizabeth Cropper, “On Beautiful Women, Parmigianino, Petrarchismo, and the Vernacular Style,” The Art Bulletin 58, no. 3 (September 1976): 381–383. Also see Agnolo Firenzuola, On the Beauty of Women, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler and Jacqueline Murray (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

15. Cropper, “On Beautiful Women,” 381.

16. Regina Stefaniak, “Amazing Grace: Parmigianino’s ‘Vision of Saint Jerome’,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 58, no. 1 (1995): 105–115.

17. “...practice in all things a certain sprezzautra, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. And I believe much grace comes of this: because everyone knows the difficulty of things that are rare and well done; wherefore facility in such things causes the greatest wonder.” Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 32.

18. Here I reference the titles of Perlingieri’s book and Mary Garrard’s “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist,” Renaissance Quarterly 47, no. 3 (Autumn 1994): 556–622. These authors were some of the first modern scholars to write about Sofonisba. This essay is indebted to their contributions.

Fabricated Faces: Obscured Self-Portraiture in the Works of Jo Spence and Mary Sibande

by Michaela Peine

Figure 1. Jo Spence. The Final Project [Various 7] (1991–1992). Photograph. Collaboration with Terry Dennett. © The Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery (London & Rome).
While the self-portrait occupies a unique liminal space on the spectrum of affectation and reality, the “hidden” or “obscured” self-portrait pushes farther, using the selfhood of the artist as a medium to be objectified, concealed, or symbolically transformed. However, as is demonstrated in the work of Jo Spence and Mary Sibande, this use of hidden portraits and self-objectification becomes an opportunity for artists to interrogate perceptions of themselves and their complex identities. Art historian Amelia Jones examines this dualism, or divide between artist and self-portrait, writing, “these artists…explore the capacity of the self-portrait photograph to foreground the ‘I’ as other to itself.”1 Spence and Sibande embrace this mutability of self and challenge their viewer to a greater level of subjectivity, to a multifaceted interaction with their identities, through their obscured self-portraits.

Jo Spence (1934–1992) explored the potential for activating this liminal space between self and “other” through her self-reflective photographic work. Collaborating with Rosy Martin, Spence explored “phototherapy,” a therapeutic project in which Spence used photography sessions to emotionally embody different figures from her history, transforming into family members, younger versions of herself, or even repressed aspects of her personality.2 Although they are overt representations of herself—literal self-portraits—these photographs highlight Spence’s understanding of the mutability of this medium. She creates obscured self-portraits, images that hide or replace the artist, which seem to subvert the purpose and expectation of directly representational self-portraits. Spence’s obscured self-portraits reveal the deeper complexity of her inner life; she assumes a multitude of identities even as she offers her external image to the viewer.

Over the course of her work, Jo Spence studied what it means to capture a self-portrait that is not only an image of oneself, but also reveals insight into the multiplicity of one’s identity. Spence pushes even further in The Final Project (1991–1992), a final series of photographs spanning the last two years of her life following a decade-long battle with breast cancer and subsequent diagnosis of leukemia. Spence’s work in this period focuses on forcing the viewer away from the objectification of her—as a woman, as a one-dimensional human, or as a passive patient suffering from illness—towards subjectification, wherein the viewer accepts the diversity of her complex individuality. Through the photographs of The Final Project Spence creates “hidden” self-portraits where she intentionally objectifies and conceals herself, replacing her own body or face with symbolic objects and images. As the viewer searches for Spence in the photographs, they are forced into a more profound space where they must also confront her intellectual multiplicity and transcendental existence.

Figure 2. Jo Spence. Remodelling Photo History: Colonization (1981–1982). Gelatin silver print. Collaboration with Terry Dennett. © The Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery (London & Rome).

In The Final Project [Various 7] (1991), a single photograph from her project, Spence once again models her own body, turning the camera on her personal experience (fig. 1). Aware of her terminal diagnosis and quickly approaching the end of her physical self, Spence forces her viewer to face this difficult reality. Spence’s self-portrait in [Various 7] is fully obscured; she has replaced her literal face and body with a plastic skeleton.3 In case the skeleton is not immediately obvious as a self-portrait, Spence reinforces this connection by mimicking the composition, location, and coloring of an earlier self-portrait, Remodeling Photo History: Colonization (1981–82) (fig. 2). Both photographs highlight the central figure through shocking white (either the white of Spence’s bare skin or the bones of the stripped skeleton) and surround it with decontextualized material trappings (i.e., the shadowy goods of a store interior, or the domestic broom, beads, and milk jars surrounding Spence). However, it is the stance of the two figures that links them most strongly as self-portraits. In [Various 7], Spence confronts the transformation of herself into a portrait, as evidenced by the skeleton dominating the frame of the image, staring directly at the viewer with the same inscrutable gaze. Meanwhile, in Colonization, Spence hides her gaze behind round dark glasses; she stares directly at us through the black sockets of her skeleton. In both images, Spence occupies a door frame, a liminal space. But while the door of Colonization offers her a portal to step closer to the viewer, the door in [Various 7] has undergone the same transcendental transformation Spence will transverse through death. Essayist Anne Boyer writes that “to look at a skeleton—a human-like form that has shed the imposed visual markers of race, gender, and class—is to see the erasure of social inscription, to look on a post-identity democracy of the dead.”4 We see Spence’s skeleton in the door, but we are separated from it by a pane of glass and a “closed” sign. We may look upon her, but she is no longer accessible to us. Instead, we are left to contend with her spiritual identity; viewing her photographs after her death, we must confront the ways she does or does not live on.

Also challenging our perceptions of her identity, Mary Sibande (1982–present) performs a parallel sleight-of-hand with her self-portrait. Born in apartheid-era South Africa, Sibande combines fashion design, sculpture, and photography to similarly confront the questions of created and modified identity. Stepping into the question of the hidden self-portrait, Sibande created “Sophie,” an alter ego sculpture based on a cast of her own body and adorned with flowing, elaborate gowns. While Sophie is a literal copy of herself, Sibande conceals the self-portrait; she assigns it a brand-new identity, “Sophie,” requiring her viewer to grapple with this externalized and disguised selfhood. Although Sibande creates this distance between herself and her self-portrait, she uses the objectification of herself in Sophie to explore her own complex relationship to her history. Scholar Tracey L. Walters describes this approach to self-portraiture, writing, “as both artist and subject, Sibande uses her body to reincarnate her relatives and give them license to claim their own identities.”5 Sibande utilizes her self-portrait not only to resurrect, but also to explore her own identity within the context of her family history.

Figure 3. Mary Sibande. I'm a Lady (2009). Archival digital print. 44.1 x 30 in. (112 x 76 cm). Courtesy of SMAC Gallery, artwork copyright of Mary Sibande.

The daughter of three generations of domestic workers, Sibande first dressed Sophie in blue-and-white, colors synonymous with the profession; however, Sophie encapsulates many seemingly contradictory identities (fig. 3). While she wears the colors of a domestic worker, the designs of the gowns are elaborately lavish, mimicking the clothing of the rich women who would hire domestic workers. At times both uniforms and custom high-fashion gowns, the changing array of Sophie’s costumes requires viewers to be constantly assessing and reassessing Sophie’s place in society.6 Looking back to the racism and oppression of apartheid as well as the strength and resilience of her foremothers, Sibande uses her self-portrait—obscured through the interface of Sophie—to encapsulate the contradictory identities of her history. Sophie is a self-portrait and an “other,” the image of a victim and an aggressor, an individual and a nation.

Figure 4. Mary Sibande. Admiration of the Purple Figure (2013). Archival digital print. 59 x 43.3 in. (150 x 110 cm). Courtesy of SMAC Gallery, artwork copyright of Mary Sibande.

In The Admiration of the Purple Figure (2013), Sibande expands the scope of her mediated self-portraits (fig. 4). Sophie emerges in the photograph wearing bright purple, rather than the Dutch-favored blue of domestic workers. This color bears deep personal, social, and political significance; in the South African Purple Rain protest of 1989, anti-apartheid protesters were sprayed by authorities with purple dye to mark the revolutionaries for arrest. In Admiration of the Purple Figure, Sibande draws sharp attention to this change of color, specifically baptizing Sophie in purple, a personal and political transformation. Although Sophie’s eyes remain closed—gone are the demure poses of her blue iteration—Sophie rises powerfully above a twisting sea of purple forms that seem to worship her yet also be a part of her, connected as if by umbilical cords. No longer does Sophie wear the hoop skirts and puffed sleeves of the apartheid elite, but instead dons a kind of battle-armor and helmet, and the fabrics of her skirt have themselves taken life, becoming the aggressive purple structures blanketing the ground. These same structures stretch to place a circlet on her head, crowning her. Through Admiration we see many forms of rebirth taking place through the specificity of Mary Sibande’s selfhood. Sibande objectifies herself, transforming her body into the character of Sophie; however, this disguised self-portrait provides a liminal space where Sibande forces the viewer to confront the complex identities of her own history.

Through their obscured self-portraits, Jo Spence and Mary Sibande interrogate perceptions of themselves. Spence fully replaces her body, forcing the viewer beyond the physicality of her image to confront her individual spirit that lives past her death. In many ways, Sibande’s self-portraits perform the opposite maneuver; through the objectification of her body, Sibande resurrects the multifaceted histories of those who have gone before her and shaped her. Spence and Sibande challenge our understanding of the self-portrait, pushing the limits of its definition and function. Viewing Spence and Sibande’s self-portraits requires the viewer to meet them in a place of mutual vulnerability, forcing the acknowledgment of their complex identities.


Michaela Peine received her BA in English and Studio Art from Hillsdale College, specializing in oil painting and portraiture. She is pursuing an MA at the University of St. Thomas studying Art History with a certificate in Museum Studies. She is currently researching contemporary artistic responses to Northern Renaissance and Baroque art, as well as decolonial educational practices in museums.



1. Amelia Jones provides the baseline for my theories of portraiture and self-staging. Most especially in her discussion on the exaggerated performative qualities of self-portrait photography, Jones lays a groundwork highlighting the self as a tool to be manipulated or transformed. Amelia Jones, “The ‘Eternal Return’: Self-Portrait Photography as a Technology of Embodiment,” Signs 27, no. 4 (Summer 2002): 947–978.

2. Rosy Martin and Jo Spence, “New Portraits for the Old: The Use of Cameras in Therapy,” Feminist Review 19 (Spring 1985): 66–92.

3. Anne Boyer identifies the skeleton motif throughout all of The Final Project as a mutable self-portrait, a commentary on Spence’s imminent death as well as a form of self-immortalization. Anne Boyer, “The Kind of Pictures She Would Have Taken,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry 42 (Autumn/Winter 2016): 4–11.

4. Boyer, “The Kind of Pictures She Would Have Taken,” 6.

5. Tracey L. Walters, “The Art of Dressing Up in Mary Sibande’s Long Live the Dead Queen,” in Not Your Mother’s Mammy (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2021), 127.

6. For a more detailed breakdown of Sibande’s designs for Sophie, read Tracey L. Walters’ chapter.

A Fledgling Baroque: Featherworks from New Spain in Counter-Reformation Europe

by Rachel Kline

Figure 1. Unknown Mexica Artist. Ahuitzotl Shield (c. 1500). Feathers, gold leaf, and reed. Weltmuseum Wien, Austria. © KHM-Museumsverband.

Throughout the sixteenth century, Spanish clergy and nobility acquired hundreds of featherworks crafted by the Indigenous artists of New Spain, which arrived on merchant ships in major European port cities from Antwerp to Seville. The artistic tradition of featherwork, or amantecayotl, among the Mexica people of New Spain predated the conquest of Tenochtitlán but was preserved by the Spanish colonists who commissioned Indigenous artists to create Catholic images in the art form. At once objects of Mexica cultural affirmation and evidence of conquest and conversion, sixteenth-century featherworks represented the Spanish possession of the Americas and bridged the impossible distance of empire for collectors who sought to construct a cosmopolitan self-image. European viewers were enthralled by their inexplicability as objects of both human artifice and natural creation so distinct from the mimetic painting of the late Renaissance. Within the context of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent’s (1545–1563) reaffirmation of the role of images in religious practice, featherworks emerge as a non-western influence on the European Baroque, which harnessed the political valence of affect in service of the Catholic Church. By examining Mexican featherworks through a decolonial lens, this paper proposes a thread linking the affective splendor of arts indigenous to the Central Mexican Valley to the emergent Baroque style of Counter-Reformation Europe.

One of the earliest featherworks to arrive in Europe was the pre-Hispanic Ahuitzotl Shield, now in the imperial collections in Vienna (fig. 1).1 Dating to the early sixteenth century, the featherwork shield was crafted by skilled artists known as amantecas, who were trained in the art of amantecayotl. Called chimalli by the Mexica, these featherwork shields were often used in ritual performances and were particularly valued for the ways in which the image crafted from feathers responded to the vibrant effects of ambient light, granting them an affective power.2 Often received as tribute to the Aztec Emperor, or tlatoani, extravagantly decorated featherwork shields can also be read as material manifestations of the tlatoani’s authority to extract luxury resources from subordinate groups.3 The amantecas created these featherwork objects by cutting feathers into minuscule pieces and applying them to a blank surface with a natural adhesive in a similar technique to arranging mosaics.4 The feathers themselves were acquired by the pochtecas who traveled far distances into Central America to obtain them from the quetzal bird and other species not native to the Central Mexican Valley.5 As a result, featherwork objects, or amantecayotl, embodied the reach of the Aztec Empire, which wielded economic and political power over neighboring regions from which the feathers originated. The function of featherworks as an imperial signifier for the Aztecs would later be appropriated by the Spanish conquistadores who sought to convey their own imperial aspirations.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, Indigenous artists were commissioned by the Spanish clergy and colonial elites to depict Catholic imagery using the featherwork medium, thereby resulting in the creation of complex objects situated between different cultural systems of representation. While featherworks bearing religious imagery have commonly been interpreted as signs of European domination of the Mexica, the Spanish appropriation of a traditional indigenous medium for their most sacred works of devotional art speaks to a more nuanced relationship of power.6 In this reading of the featherworks, we can identify a system of artistic representation and symbolic meaning which would not be completely erased even in the face of Spanish conquest and conversion. Although the Spaniards chose to preserve the medium of featherwork and appropriate it for their own devotional arts, we can consider the skillfulness of Indigenous artists, the adaptability of Catholic images, and the dual coding of indigenous and European meaning as primary reasons why featherwork endured.7

Figure 2. Juan Bautista Cuiris. Jesus at the Age of Twelve (1590–1600). Michoacán, Mexico. Feathers on paper on copper with gilding. 10 x 7.2 in. (25.4 x 18.2 cm). Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunstihistorisches Museum, Vienna. © KHM-Museumsverband.
Figure 3. Juan Bautista Cuiris. Weeping Virgin (1590–1600). Michoacán, Mexico. Feathers on paper on copper with gilding. 10 x 7.2 in. (25.4 x 18.2 cm). Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. © KHM-Museumsverband.

The reception of featherworks from New Spain in Europe determined the impact they would have on the artistic practice and discourse of the Counter-Reformation as an era of stylistic transformation. The bewilderment that ensued upon the arrival of featherworks highlights the intensity of responses that these objects elicited.Created in Michoacán by the Indigenous artist Juan Batista Cuiris at the end of the sixteenth century, the featherwork pendants Jesus at the Age of Twelve (fig. 2) and Weeping Virgin (fig. 3) embody the astonishing optical effects that fascinated European viewers. Both figures are encircled by a shimmering turquoise background of hummingbird feathers, which appear both blue and green due to the effect of light on the surface of the feather fragments.9 The sacred quality of these images is indebted to the medium, which, through the chromatic vibrations of hummingbird feathers, breathes life into the figures of the Virgin and Christ. Building on Brendan McMahon’s argument that the “chromatic instability of colonial Mexican featherwork” transformed the visual experience of images in early modern Europe, we should reconsider their reception in the context of European stylistic developments.10 The green and blue hues of iridescent featherwork shift and change depending on the angle of both the viewer and the light source, and therefore they became enmeshed in artistic discourse about the affective capabilities of visual experience.11 In this way, featherwork images differed from the static medium of oil paint and entered into the vibrant debates surrounding the artistic imitation of nature and the wonders of the natural world. As such, the bewilderment of European viewers upon seeing Mexican featherworks can be explained not just by the objects’ embodiment of an exotic location, but by their connection to an intellectual discourse about “the illusory nature of the material world itself.”12

These decolonial reconsiderations about the reception of featherworks in early modern Europe share a concern for both the agency of the Indigenous artist whose skillful work captivated European audiences and the contributions of Latin America to intellectual discourse and artistic production across sixteenth-century Europe. The canon of early modern art should include objects like Batista Cuiris’s featherworks because of documented evidence that they were considered sophisticated art objects even by European artists themselves. In 1520, the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer traveled to Brussels to meet with Emperor Charles V regarding his pension. While in Brussels, Dürer saw the exhibition of Cortés’s gifts to Charles V, which included a large inventory of Aztec metalwork, textiles, and most likely featherwork.13 Upon viewing these objects, Dürer recorded in his journal: “I have never in my life seen anything that gave my heart such delight as these things for I saw in them the subtle ingeniousness of people in foreign lands. I cannot find words to describe all those things I found there.”14

This encounter between a Renaissance master and Aztec art is remarkable in and of itself, but the most significant aspect of Dürer’s testimony is his ascription of ingenium to the Indigenous artists of New Spain. Ingenium, or the innate quality of genius, was an early modern term attributed only to the most skilled painters, sculptors, and architects. Dürer’s inclusion of this terminology in his journal as he recalled the objects he saw that day demonstrates the affective power of New Spanish arts in the European imagination. Far from being described as exotic or primitive, the objects Cortés shipped back to the Holy Roman Empire were lauded as objects crafted by artists gifted with ingenium. However, it should be noted that while Dürer’s claim demonstrates that he perceived the makers of these objects quite differently than the dehumanizing conquistadores, it remains unclear how he viewed Indigenous artists in relation to himself, as the Aztec objects he witnessed may have fallen outside the bounds of a Renaissance definition of art, which privileged painting, sculpture, and graphic works.

Figure 4. Albrecht Dürer. Wing of a Blue Roller (c. 1512). Watercolor and gouache on parchment. 7.7 x 7.9 in. (19.6 x 20.1 cm). The Albertina Museum, Vienna. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

Though Dürer’s Wing of a Blue Roller predates his trip to Brussels, it becomes impossible to view without imagining the influence of Aztec featherworks on the artist’s detailed description of the miraculously vibrant bird wing (fig. 4). Although there is no explicit evidence that Dürer ever drew the marvelous featherworks from New Spain that he experienced in Brussels, unpacking the social life of his Wing of a Blue Roller points to a likely linkage between the two art forms.15 Regardless, the interest in and relationship between featherworks and the hyper-realism of Dürer’s nature study helps us to imagine the ways in which arts from New Spain entered and impacted the intellectual discourse surrounding European art during the sixteenth century.

Wing of a Blue Roller was acquired by Emperor Rudolf II to be displayed in his Kunstkammer at Prague Castle, which also housed Juan Batista Cuiris’s featherwork pendants of the Virgin and Christ.16 As a great patron of the arts and sciences, Rudolf II was intensely interested in natural curiosities and what Brendan McMahon has described as contingent images, or “ambiguous pictures with unstable perception.”17 We can theorize that Rudolf paired Bautista Cuiris’s featherworks with Dürer’s watercolor not only because of their associations with birds, but also because they would have provoked humanistic discourse surrounding the capacity for art to imitate or even surpass nature.

The Kunstkammer of Rudolf II was organized into the dual categories of artificialia and naturalia, with man-made objects and items collected from nature being cataloged separately but not necessarily displayed in this manner.18 However, the featherwork’s natural medium, combined with human intellectual talent, disrupts the binary of Rudolf’s system of classification and therefore represents an object of exceptional curiosity. The natural medium of hummingbird feathers would have been understood by European viewers as secondary to the featherworks’ function as devotional works of art. Further, the astonishing optical effects of Bautista Cuiris’s featherworks could make even the hyper-naturalistic watercolor by Dürer appear mute and static. The hummingbird feathers’ chromatic instability combined with the breathtaking arrangement of color would have perhaps appealed more to Rudolf II who, in prefiguring the Baroque emphasis on the spectacular, was himself captivated by the wondrous things the world had to offer. Unlike the Renaissance, in which the most mesmerizing art was that which could imitate the ancients, the Counter-Reformation era ushered in a focus on affective, bewildering images that existed beyond the realm of intellectual or artistic explanation.

Isabel Yaya has demonstrated the desire amongst collectors to possess marvelous objects from the Americas and maintains that during the Counter-Reformation, “there was also a turning away from the classical standards of beauty towards an emphasis on the atypical work of nature and the abnormal.”19 The practice of collecting objects of exotica in the late sixteenth century aligned with the humanistic pursuit of compiling the macrocosm of the world within the microcosm of the Kunstkammer, yet also implicated the European elite in the process of American colonization.20 While featherworks indeed embodied the far-flung colony of New Spain, they also promoted the growing interest among collectors and connoisseurs in the marvelous, which would ultimately lead to the stylistic shift towards the spectacular image in the Baroque era.

In reaffirming the centrality of images to Catholic worship, the Council of Trent in 1563 and the later Counter-Reformation movement introduced the political valence of affect.21 Indeed, an entire genre of art rooted in the promotion of the sensuous as inherent to the practice of worship arose following the Council of Trent.22 The responses of bewilderment that followed the introduction of featherworks into Europe predate the profoundly sensuous devotional images of the Counter-Reformation, yet their reception by Dürer speaks to a longstanding impact. Claire Farago has theorized about the significant contributions of Latin American art to the intellectual landscape of Counter-Reformation Europe and argues that “non-European art may have contributed to the theoretical and critical discussions of western art, which never directly mentioned their existence.”23 Through documentary and visual evidence, the proposed thread linking featherworks to the emergent Baroque style of the Counter-Reformation has amplified the influence of Latin America and Indigenous artists on the stylistic transformation of European art.

Within the context of the Counter-Reformation, featherworks illustrated the power of spectacular images to captivate the viewer, as Europeans remarked upon the mesmerizing inexplicability of featherworks as objects of human artifice and marvels of the natural world. Predating the European Baroque movement by more than fifty years, featherworks breathed new life into the artistic and intellectual discourses surrounding the role of the image and the wonders of nature. Through this artistic influence, perhaps featherworks can be situated within an emergent Baroque aesthetic, which valued the marvelous, sensuous qualities so inherent to the affective capabilities of featherworks. Therefore, by crediting the Indigenous makers of featherworks as contributors to a period of European stylistic transformation, this paper has sought to reaffirm the active role of Indigenous Americans in the making and remaking of the visual culture of the early modern world.


Rachel Kline is a third-year PhD student in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University specializing in the Italian Renaissance. With a background in anthropology, she hopes to use this perspective to explore the cultural meanings acquired by art objects and their materials circulating in the Renaissance. Rachel is especially interested in the artistic exchange between Italy and Northern Europe during the fifteenth century.



1. The shield was given by Hernán Cortés to the Bishop of Palencia, Don Pedro Ruiz de la Mota in his shipment sent from New Spain in 1522. Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 15001600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 28.

2. Alessandra Russo has suggested that for the Mexica people prior to Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, featherworks were linked to the religious practice of sacrifice and the accompanying ritual performances. Alessandra Russo, “Recomposing the Image: Presents and Absents in the Mass of St. Gregory, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, 1539,” in Synergies: Creating Art in Joined Culture, eds. Manuela De Giorgi, Annette Hoffmann, Nicola Suthor (Florence: Kunsthistorisches Institut-Max Planck, 2012), 467. Additionally, Diane Fane has argued that the ways in which light and color interacted on the surface of the featherwork medium granted the chimalli an affective power. Diana Fane, “Feathers, Jade, Turquoise, and Gold,” in Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe (14001700), eds. Alessandra Russo, Gerhard Wolf, and Diane Fane (Munich: Hirmer, 2015), 103.

3.  See Alessandra Russo, "Cortes's Objects and the Idea of New Spain: Inventories as Spatial Narratives," Journal of the History of Collections 23, no. 2 (2011): 18.

4. Alessandra Russo, “A Contemporary Art from New Spain,” in Images Take Flight, 30. 

5. The pochtecas were a class of long-distance merchants in pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlán who traveled as far as the southwestern United States and Central America to acquire precious goods for the imperial capital. See Deborah L. Nichols, “Farm to Market in the Aztec Imperial Economy,” in Rethinking the Aztec Economy, eds. Deborah L. Nichols, Frances F. Berdan, and Michael Ernst (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2017), 19–43.

6. Thomas Cummins has argued that featherworks depicting Catholic subject matter were primarily evidence of successful conversion of the Mexica by the Spanish. In reference to one of the first featherworks to be made with Catholic imagery, he maintains that “the feather painting of the Mass of Saint Gregory was thus intended as more than a material gift; it was an early sign of the conversion of the Mexicans, and proof that they were capable of a profound understanding of the mysteries of Christianity.” See Thomas Cummins, “To Serve Man: Pre-Columbian Art, Western Discourses of Idolatry, and Cannibalism,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 42 (2002): 116.

7. In Reframing the Renaissance, Claire Farago calls for a methodological approach to Renaissance art which considers the exterior factors of artistic influence and asks, “What would the history of the Renaissance look like if cultural interaction and exchange, and the conditions of reception, became our primary concern?” This type of decolonial methodology that aims to re-examine the visual culture of the Renaissance has informed my approach to the reception of featherworks in Counter-Reformation Europe. Claire J. Farago, “Introduction,” in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 14501650, ed. Claire Farago (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 8.

8. At the Debate of Valladolid (1550–1551), Bartolomé de Las Casas argued in support of the humanity of Indigenous Americans by citing their artistic capabilities. Las Casas articulated how the bewildering effect of featherworks convinced him of the rights of the Indigenous to sovereignty and even placed featherworks on the same level as contemporary European painting. In his Apologética Historia Sumaria he wrote: "But what certainly seems to exceed all human inventiveness, and which all the nations of the world will find not just curious but entirely novel, and all the more worthy of admiration and esteem, is the art that those Mexican people know how to make so perfectly, of creating with natural feathers with their own natural colors everything that they and all other excellent and first-rate painters are capable of painting with brushes." Bartolomé de Las Casas, Apologética Historia Sumaria, book III, LXII, 323–325, qtd. in Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image, 85.

9. Feathers from the violetear hummingbird were increasingly used in featherworks postconquest because the species of bird was native to Mexico and the Spanish conquest had disrupted previous long-distance trade networks which imported feathers to Tenochtitlán from the rainforests of Central America. See Brendan C. McMahon, "Contingent Images: Looking Obliquely at Colonial Mexican Featherwork in Early Modern Europe," The Art Bulletin 103, no. 2 (2021): 29.

10. Brendan C. McMahon, "Contingent Images: Looking Obliquely at Colonial Mexican Featherwork in Early Modern Europe," The Art Bulletin 103, no. 2 (2021): 26.

11. McMahon, Contingent Images, 25.

12. McMahon, Contingent Images, 45.

13. Joseph Koerner, “Dürer in Motion,” in Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, eds. Susan Foister and Peter Brink (London: National Gallery, 2021), 44.

14. Albrecht Dürer qtd. in Koerner, “Dürer in Motion,” 44.

15. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has demonstrated that objects collect value and social meaning through human transactions. See Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63. Alessandra Russo has argued that Dürer, who was intensely interested in nature studies as a way of obtaining knowledge, possibly created this watercolor in dialogue with the objects of Aztec art he saw in Brussels. See Alessandra Russo, “A Contemporary Art from New Spain,” 50.

16. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representatio.” Art Journal 38, no. 1 (1978): 22–28; Alessandra Russo, “A Contemporary Art from New Spain,” 50.

17. McMahon, Contingent Images, 26.

18. DaCosta Kaufmann, “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II,” 24.

19. Isabel Yaya, “Wonders of America: The Curiosity Cabinet as a Site of Representation and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Collections 20, no. 2 (November 1, 2008): 176.

20. Daniela Bleichmar, "Seeing the World in a Room: Looking at Exotica in Early Modern Collections," in Collecting Across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World, eds. Daniela Bleichmar and Peter C. Mancall (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 15–30.

21. Between 1545 and 1563, the Council of Trent reevaluated the role of images in the Catholic Church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which had led to an outbreak of iconoclasm in Northern Europe. The Council of Trent resulted in the recognition by the Catholic Church that Protestants had renounced emotion and the senses in their practice of worship and so the Church could therefore use images that elicited an emotional response to appeal to followers lost to the Protestant movement. See Marcia B. Hall and Tracy Elizabeth Cooper, “Introduction,” in The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church, eds. Marcia B. Hall and Tracy Elizabeth Cooper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 2.

22. Hall and Cooper, “Introduction,” 2.

23. Farago, “Introduction,” 11.

“Taylor Davis Selects: Invisible Ground of Sympathy”

Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston
January 31, 2023–January 7, 2024
by Theodora Bocanegra Lang

What the deaf see is what seers hear.
A place of emptiness makes sense
to those of us who stand in the door.
– Fanny Howe, At Seaport: 2023 (2023)

The title of Invisible Ground of Sympathy, now open at the Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston, is taken from Taoism scholar Chang Chung-yuan’s (1907–1988) book Creativity and Taoism (1963), which describes the blending of the discrete subject and object through interactions. As Chang writes, “The dissolution of self and the interfusion among all individuals, which takes place upon entry into this realm of nonbeing, constitute the metaphysical structure of sympathy.” The single room of the exhibition acts as this realm of nonbeing, presenting a wide range of works with both obvious and opaque affinities (fig. 1).

Invisible Ground is curated by artist Taylor Davis (b. 1959), who selected works primarily from the museum’s permanent collection. Though Davis did not include her own sculpture, she placed five narrow and vertical copper-colored mirrors around the perimeter of the gallery. The mirrors reflect passersby onto the walls as they walk around the room, collapsing the spaces between works and visitors. This mingling is echoed in many of the works on view, such as Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera/Gift to Jimmy from Laurie) (1987) by Laurie Simmons, a photograph of a camera with legs. By anthropomorphizing the art-making apparatus, Simmons locates artists, viewers, mediums, and objects in a nebulous conflation.

Figure 1. Installation view. Taylor Davis Selects: Invisible Ground of Sympathy. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2023–2024. Photo by Mel Taing.

Interrogating these relationships further, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #48 (1979) shows the back of a young woman with a suitcase, who is looking out from the side of a road. While Sherman (b. 1954) famously uses visual cues to trigger a cinematic narrative, here seemingly of an ingénue in trouble, the scene itself could be of a number of diverse situations. Interpretation of the work relies on something already present in the mind of the viewer to project meaning. This yields a communication that fuses artist, viewer, and effect, blurring boundaries between collective and individual reception.

Extending to considerations of physical reception, Wedges (2019) by Isabel Mallet (b. 1989) is a hammered chain of nine coins made from salvaged bolts. Works from this series can be used however the possessor decides: kept on a shelf, carried in a pocket, stashed under a couch cushion, or hung on a wall. The choice to install this work on a museum wall offers a specific viewing experience. Like Davis’s mirrors, they bring the conditions of observation and the room into the work.

The exhibition probes the room as seen by the visitor’s vantage point, as articulated by poet Fanny Howe in a text commissioned for the exhibition (excerpted above). By centering viewpoint and personal experience, Howe emphasizes the individuality of looking. The inclusion of Howe’s poem in the show also muddles categorizations of visual art: it is installed like an artwork on a low pedestal with a corresponding wall label and printed copies are available for visitors to take home.

Invisible Ground presents the viewer with an array of disparate works, each an opportunity for a different kind of communication. The gallery acts as a site of building bridges, highlighting connections and differences between subject and object and between viewer and art. Davis’s decision not to include her own sculptural work itself turns a mirror on all relationships present.


Theodora Bocanegra Lang is an MA candidate in Modern and Contemporary Art History at Columbia University. She received her BA from Oberlin College in Art History. She was most recently curatorial assistant at Dia Art Foundation, where she worked on exhibitions with Jo Baer, Joan Jonas, and Maren Hassinger.

Editors’ Introduction

by Sybil F. Joslyn

Affectation, the theme we have chosen for this issue of SEQUITUR, is at once relevant and expansive in its possibilities. In our present moment, as we still feel the effects of a global pandemic, international warfare, social justice uprisings, and climate threats, we as a people face a reckoning: who do we want to be, as a nation, as a community, and as individuals? What beliefs do we hold dear in our hearts, and in what capacity do we act? What aspects of our behavior are genuine, and which are performative, or rather, an embodiment of affectation? Centrally, these questions allude to a series of inherent dualities between interiority and exteriority, surface and depth, and artifice and core, and apply to topics inclusive of human behavior, materiality, and identity. It is these dualities and topics, in addition to its timeliness, that drove our excitement to call for material related to the theme of affectation.

Affectation has long been intertwined with the complexities of human self-presentation and artistic production. In behavior, appearance, or speech, it can refer to an intentionally exaggerated display, a manufactured artifice intended to deceive. In the history of art, architecture, and material culture, these impulses toward the artificial or hyperbolic might be employed by artists, practitioners, or makers to convey a certain message, meaning, or emotion. From the fanciful gestures of the Rococo to the simplicity of geometric abstraction, affectation defines the visual world we witness and the material world we navigate. In small objects and monumental structures alike, creators have manipulated materials, shapes, and formal qualities to curate a particular experience for the observer or user. Limited to appearances, the façade of affectation often masks motivations, identities, or truths that lie beneath the surface.

Another definition of affectation resists this binary and instead speaks intimately to the relationships between object and viewer, or between artwork and observer. An affective thing has an effect on something or someone, and thus affectation can refer to an object or work of art with a perceived influence or power. Over the last half century, scholars from the social sciences, folklore studies, and humanities disciplines have begun to critically study the capacity of objects to shape human behavior.1 In their links to functionality, religion, superstition, and status, objects and artworks are potent communicators and actors within the material networks of the human world. Whether they have inherent agency or gain agency due to human belief depends on your theoretical underpinning of choice, but a simple truth remains: objects and artworks have the power to move people, both physically and emotionally. Perhaps nowhere is this power more evident than in fields that prioritize the study of visual and material culture.

Figure 1. F.W. Powell (active c. 1935). Figurehead (c. 1938). Watercolor, graphite, colored pencil, and heightening on paper. 22.3 x 15.5 in. (56.5 x 39.4 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of the Index of American Design.

For instance, certain objects embody multiple facets of affectation, like a ship figurehead captured by F.W. Powell for the Index of American Design around 1938 (fig. 1). Likely dating to the late nineteenth century, the figurehead once adorned the prow of a fast-moving sailing ship, her left hand extended outward in front of her in the direction of the boat’s movement. Dressed in Grecian sandals and flowing chiton, she exemplifies figureheads of the neoclassical type that rose to popularity during the waning years of America’s Age of Sail. She appears every bit the classical goddess, the whiteness of her body and clothing carved in deep relief in imitation of the marble fine art sculpture that permeated visual culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet as Powell’s drawing shows us, these stylistic qualities are surface-deep; they comprise an affectation belied by cracks that have developed in her artifice, cracks that reveal the true character of the figurehead’s making. When we look closely at Powell’s drawing, chips in the figurehead’s paint and deformities in her surface allow her wooden materiality to become evident to the viewer, and weathered patches reveal pegs and joinery where her arm and cape have been attached to her greater form. This discrepancy between appearance and material nature is only one way in which the figurehead embodies our issue’s theme of affectation.

Figureheads, in their symbolic importance, also held a certain affective power for the crews of their respective ships. They were viewed as intimately tied to the context for which they were made, an embodiment of ship name, mission, and crew livelihood. Through their position on the prow, they were viewed as symbolic navigators and as the eyes of the ship, as guardians and protectors that would help ships find safe harbor at their destinations. Manifesting the superstitious lore of her maker and the seamen, the figurehead also held an apotropaic power to ward off disaster due to storm or threat in battle and to bring good omens if her form appealed to the personified sea. Akin to lucky charms, ship figureheads were a central component of shipbuilding during America’s Age of Sail and were believed to have held the power to affect the course of perilous journeys at sea. It is both aspects of affectation—artifice and affective power—that our seven authors engage with so beautifully in this issue of SEQUITUR.

Beginning our issue, Rachel Kline’s feature essay examines the facets of affectation present in the production and reception of Mexica amentecayotl, or feather pictures, in counter-reformation Europe. Crafted by Indigenous makers and featuring Catholic imagery, the material rarity and luminosity of these featherworks appealed to the tastes of cosmopolitan European consumers who favored transcendent artistic images in line with the burgeoning drama of the Baroque. Employing a primarily decolonial lens, Kline’s essay illuminates the affective power of materials and images while emphasizing the active and singular role Indigenous craftspeople played in the development of European collecting and style. Theodora Bocanegra Lang’s exhibition review of Taylor Davis Selects: Invisible Ground of Sympathy, currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston, creates a meaningful dialogue with Kline’s essay. Identifying the exhibition as a contrasting collection of objects, Lang expounds upon the affective power of each of its elements. In highlighting the connections between artworks and exhibition, artworks and collection, and artworks and visitor, Lang clarifies how the elements communicate and build a bridge between viewer and art and characterizes the viewer experience as one existing between the realms of nonbeing and objecthood. While varying drastically in time period and media, both Kline and Lang address how affective power forges relationships between people and art objects.

Three of our authors take a different approach to the theme and examine affectation as a manifestation of self-fashioning or self-presentation. Through a close stylistic and contextual analysis of Sofinisba Anguissila’s Self Portrait with Madonna and Child, Emma Lazerson discusses in her feature essay the ways in which the artist displayed two modes of artistic performance and affectation in her work. By adopting contemporary conventions of courtly dress and performativity and by imitating the styles of revered artists in the embedded easel painting in her Self Portrait, Anguissila fashioned herself as both courtier and master as a preemptive gesture of belonging to a group that had yet to accept her. Michaela Peine similarly addresses the themes of affectation and self-presentation in her research spotlight but does so through an analysis of “hidden” or obscured photographic self-portraits by Jo Spence and Mary Sibande. By examining select works, Peine explores the ways each artist constructed or modified identities to present to the viewer. In this way, both Spence and Sibande embrace the multifaceted nature of identity and adopt affectation as a possible valence of the self. Rounding out this discussion of connections between affectation and identity is Ateret Sultan-Reisler, who in her exhibition review addresses the nuanced message of Philip Guston Now, a retrospective of the artist’s work that was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston last year. Concerned primarily with providing previously minimized historical and biographical context to his work, the exhibition illuminates for the viewer connections between Guston’s lived experience and the affectation of his expressive, abstracted style. Ultimately, Sultan-Reisler tells us, Guston’s turn away from figuration to abstraction, and back to figuration, can be viewed as an artistic response to societal oppression.

Finally, two of our contributors address affectation as a symbolic manifestation of the self. In his feature essay, Samuel Love traces artistic fascination with the affected visage of the commedia dell'arte archetype of Pierrot from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1980s. By analyzing the origins of anxiety provoked by coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns, Love identifies the ways in which alternative artistic communities from the Decadents through performers of Glam Rock identified with and adopted the Pierrot mask in recognition of their marginalized status. Concluding our issue, Isabella Dobson summarizes the events of Adornment, Boston University’s Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) 39th Annual Graduate Symposium in the History of Art & Architecture, held for the first time in person since 2019. Organized by PhD students Hannah Jew and Rachel Kline, the Symposium featured seven graduate students who presented work in two panels, “Adornment, Power, and the Collective” and “Adornment, Identity, and the Body.” Reflecting on the theme, Keynote speaker Dr. Jill Burke introduced the argument of her upcoming book, How to Be a Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity, in which she makes a compelling argument that female practices of adornment during the Renaissance can be viewed as acts of empowerment and agency. While the graduate speakers addressed a wide range of topics from Ancient Assyrian burial embellishments through Chinese export embroidery in the nineteenth-century, each showed how closely the themes of adornment and affectation are intertwined. Whether to convey power, communicate identity, or relate aspiration, artists and subjects throughout time have utilized objects with affective power and carefully cultivated their self-presentation for personal, political, and economic ends. Above all, the work presented at the Symposium has elucidated how central the study of adornment is to our understanding of visual and material culture.

It is with immense gratitude that the editors of this issue of SEQUITUR thank the authors for their contributions that so thoughtfully engage the theme of affectation. Addressing subjects from sixteenth-century featherworks through the counterculture of Europe’s twentieth, this collection of essays and reflections effectively grounds the abstract theme of affectation and demonstrates the fascinating possibilities its study can yield. It is our hope that this issue will not only provide an informative and intellectually stimulating respite from these challenging times, but that it will also prompt moments of introspection on the part of our readers. By turning the mirror on ourselves, we might use these discussions of inspiration, self-fashioning, power, and identity to consider how affectation has made us who we are and who we might become.


Sybil F. Joslyn is a PhD candidate in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University. She studies American art and material culture in the long nineteenth century, and her research explores the intersection between material and visual culture, the expression of individual and national identities, and intercultural exchange in the Atlantic World. Previously, Sybil has held internships and fellowships at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bard Graduate Center, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., and the Winter Show. Her dissertation examines maritime salvage as object, material, and process to interrogate perceptions of identity, property, and value during America’s Age of Sail.



1. Scholarly publications on object agency include: Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2005), 6486; Daniel Miller, “Materiality: An Introduction,” in Materiality, ed. Daniel Miller (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 150; and Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 122.

Notes about Contributors

Isabella Dobson is a PhD student in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University interested in the ways that eroticism, desire, and sensuality operate in paintings and prints of the female body from the Early Modern period.

 Theodora Bocanegra Lang is an MA candidate in Modern and Contemporary Art History at Columbia University. She received her BA from Oberlin College in Art History. She was most recently curatorial assistant at Dia Art Foundation, where she worked on exhibitions with Jo Baer, Joan Jonas, and Maren Hassinger.

Sybil F. Joslyn is a PhD candidate in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University. She studies American art and material culture in the long nineteenth century, and her research explores the intersection between material and visual culture, the expression of individual and national identities, and intercultural exchange in the Atlantic World. Previously, Sybil has held internships and fellowships at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bard Graduate Center, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., and the Winter Show. Her dissertation examines maritime salvage as object, material, and process to interrogate perceptions of identity, property, and value during America’s Age of Sail.

Rachel Kline is a third-year PhD student in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University specializing in the Italian Renaissance. With a background in anthropology, she hopes to use this perspective to explore the cultural meanings acquired by art objects and their materials circulating in the Renaissance. Rachel is especially interested in the artistic exchange between Italy and Northern Europe during the fifteenth century.

Emma Lazerson received her BA from Emory University in 2022 and is currently a first-year MA candidate in Art History at Case Western Reserve University. Her research focuses on early modern Italian female artists, contextualizing their practices in social, religious, and global theories.

Samuel Love is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of York. His thesis explores the carnivalesque visual culture of interwar British High Society, tracing how its engagements with baroque and Dionysian iconographies constituted a transgressive rejection of sociopolitical norms.

Michaela Peine received her BA in English and Studio Art from Hillsdale College, specializing in oil painting and portraiture. She is pursuing an MA at the University of St. Thomas studying Art History with a certificate in Museum Studies. She is currently researching contemporary artistic responses to Northern Renaissance and Baroque art, as well as decolonial educational practices in museums. 

Ateret Sultan-Reisler is the John Wilmerding Intern in American Art at National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. She is working on a major retrospective of Elizabeth Catlett (202425). Ateret holds an MA in History of Art & Architecture from Boston University and a BA in Art History and Psychology from University of Maryland.

SIREN (some poetics)

Amant, Brooklyn, NY
September 15, 2022–March 5, 2023
by Farren Fei Yuan

The exhibition SIREN (some poetics) that was unveiled this fall at Amant in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn offers an evocative experience that dissolves the boundaries in sensory perception and artistic media. As such, it posits an alternative to the proliferation of Instagram-ready exhibitions that are focused on creating spectacles and repackaging works of art into reified commodity forms.

Founded in 2019 as a non-profit arts organization, Amant acts at once as a studio space for young artists and an exhibition space, aiming, most importantly, “to slow down the art-making process.”1 SIREN, for example, takes place in the multiple spaces of the gallery that spans across Maujer Street and envelops a courtyard garden. In contrast to exhibitions that simply present information to be received, visitors to Amant are led to make their own discoveries: inadvertently walking into the uncanny installation of a tire, an umbrella, and a school desk, or catching the sounds of bell chimes in the distance (figs. 1 and 2). These outdoor works embed poetics in the everyday.  

Figure 1. Installation view of SIREN (some poetics), Amant, Brooklyn, New York, 2022–23. At left: Ser Serpas. the path lest take me away (2022). Found objects (tire, wall, metal bar from bookcase). Dimensions variable. At right: Ser Serpas. undulating cathartic autonomy the shack (2022). Found objects (umbrella, public school desks). Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Amant. Photograph by New Document.

SIREN is accompanied by a series of performances, poetry readings, “learnshops,” and creative writing workshops that take place during the exhibition period, in various spaces across the buildings. The ideas generated from these multi-disciplinary and open-ended activities become incorporated into one’s understanding of the artworks. SIREN takes place within a larger stream of everyday activities, meaning that the exhibition is “read,” “written,” and “narrated” even if it is also “seen.” SIREN encounters its audience on an individual level, through a private, slow, and multi-sensory experience. Visuality as the privileged mode of engaging with art is challenged by a range of activities that interpenetrate the gallery space.2 

The dismantling of hierarchical categories of perception and knowledge has strong thematic resonance with SIREN. As Quinn Latimer writes, the siren which sounds “over land [and] across water” stands for both an emittance that establishes perceptual, linguistic, social, and territorial borders and as an expansive call that stretches across uneven terrains.3 This double-sided notion of drawing and erasing boundaries, at once disciplining and liberating, underpins the concerns of the works featured in the exhibition. The seventeen participating artists work freely in watercolor, drawings, textiles, sculptural installations, videos, and the written word, to interrogate the idea of the siren across domains and temporalities: as a figure of myths, songs, and poetry as well as of technology.

Figure 2. Installation view of SIREN (some poetics), Amant, Brooklyn, New York, 2022–23. Center: Mayra A. Rodríguez Castro. Senti (2022). Stainless steel, aluminum and silver aggregate chimes, horsehair string. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Amant. Photograph by Adrianna Glaviano.

Lilian Lijn’s Queen of Hearts, Queen of Diamonds (1980), a pair of optical glass prisms whose three facets extend out through a tower of aluminum plates, are set apart, each emitting light that cuts across the space and interacts with the gallery lighting. Fetishized figures of patriarchal female archetypes and goddesses from Ancient Greek, Hindu, and Indigenous mythologies are dissipated into an assemblage of visual forms, texts, sound, volumes, and light that refuses to unify into an intelligible form. Their elusive bodies take the form of metallic pyramids under ample light (fig. 3) to flickering conical silhouettes in darkness (fig. 4), resisting capture by the objectifying gaze.   

Figure 3. Installation view of SIREN (some poetics), Amant, Brooklyn, New York, 2022–23. Left foreground and right background: Lilian Lijn. Queen of Hearts, Queen of Diamonds (1980). Optical glass prism and aluminum. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Amant. Photograph by the author.
Figure 5. Installation view of SIREN (some poetics), Amant, Brooklyn, New York, 2022–23. Front: Bia Davou. Untitled (Odyssey) (1980s). Ink, fabric and thread on linen (set of four sails comprising one installation): small black sail; large sail with brown fabric; sail with black fabric and blue lettering; sail with gray lettering. Dimensions variable. Back: Patricia L. Boyd. Borrowed Time I-IX (2022). From Wall Pieces series (2017-). Used restaurant grease, wax, damar resin. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists and Amant. Photograph by New Document.

If Lijn works towards the dissolution of reified forms (both actual and figurative), other artists in the exhibition affront the visitor with sensoralities of the abject, thereby frustrating any attempt to spectacularize, reducing the exhibition into a pleasing yet inconsequential image. The most subtle example is a work by Patricia L. Boyd who has collected grease from restaurant leftovers, then used these materials to create negative casts of office items bought at a liquidation auction (fig. 5). The casts constitute a lexicon of rejects, the material evidence of the failures and excesses of contemporary society. However, these casts are embedded in the gallery walls, well above eye-level, such that their texture and form cannot be discerned. Boyd often works with “boundaries and thresholds”: the Borrowed Times series here introduces the abject (literally) into the institutional structure of the gallery and challenges the threshold of the visitor’s comfort.4

Figure 6. Installation view of SIREN (some poetics), Amant, Brooklyn, New York, 2022–23. Front Left: Nour Mobarak. Fugue I-II (2019). Trametes versicolor, wood pellets, two speakers. Dimensions variable. Rear Right: Senga Nengudi. R.S.V.P: Reverie-Combat Fatigue (1977/2011). Nylon mesh, sand, and pole. 60 x 48 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 x 121.9 cm). Courtesy the artists and Amant. Photograph by New Document.

Such materiality of degeneration and decay is also palpable in Senga Nengudi’s R.S.V.P: Reverie-Combat Fatigue (1977/2011) in which hanging nylon stockings capture the material experience of the female body in its most deject, subversive state; or Nour Mobarak’s Fugue I and Fugue II (2019) where cultivated fungi cover two speakers whose multi-layered poetic recordings reflect upon history and memory (fig. 6). Addressing other dimensions of society, other artists in the exhibition turn moments of system failure into poetic allegories. Rivane Neuenschwander visualizes a possible glitch in communication in her textile piece, The Silence of the Sirens (2013) (fig. 7), a poetic constellation that emerges over a geometric grid, drifting between registers of sound and language: “silence,” “siren,” “SS,” “ssss(h).” The muted emptiness of the woven ground, and the refusal of the letters to give in to intelligible language, posit the mythical power of silence: as in Kafka’s parable referred to in the title, perhaps Odysseus survives because the sirens did not sing. 

Figure 7. Rivane Neuenschwander. The Silence of the Sirens (2013). Felt, thread, fusible interfacing, and D-ring metal hook. 73 1/4 x 51 1/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles. Photograph by Jean Vong.

Making system failures visible exposes the problems and contradictions that would otherwise be simply smoothed over to produce an impression of successful operation. The artist collective Shanzhai Lyric, for example, composes poems out of counterfeit goods, consumer detritus, and theft practices (fig. 8). In Iris Touliatou’s HAPPINESS, 2018-2022 (to Laurie) (2022), a small display screen is held in place on a wall by the frame of an egg carton (fig. 9). Captions pop up at intervals, synchronized via a custom-made software to the speed of incoming notifications from the artist’s unread Gmail inbox. The continuous generation of signs that overflow in an incoherent narrative dramatically plays out the fracturing of today’s user-consumer’s sense of self. These are further played out on a phallic formal structure that is made uncanny by empty carton slots, the shadow cast on the wall, and the reflection of the viewer on the dark screen. The comfortably distant and secure position of the viewer that the spectacle relies on for its ideological functioning is disturbed.

Figure 8. Installation view of SIREN (some poetics), Amant, Brooklyn, New York, 2022–23. Foreground: Shanzhai Lyric. The Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing). Poetry-garments, mixed-media. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Amant. Photograph by Adrianna Glaviano.
Figure 9. Iris Touliatou. HAPPINESS, 2018-2022 (to Laurie) (2022). 7” LGD screen, carton, magnets, and eggs. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Amant. Photograph by the author.

SIREN posits the un-form, the abject, and the glitch as ways to practice contemporary poetics. The subversive power of the works is subtly embedded in their poetic beauty, like the deceptive charm of sirens, confronting the visitors and thereby resuscitating their experience. In a society of hyper-mediation, we need more exhibitions like SIREN which provoke us to reexamine and rethink common perceptions.


Farren Fei Yuan is an aspiring art researcher and critic. She graduated with a first class in BA in History of Art from The University of Oxford and is currently pursuing an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies at Columbia University. Yuan has a special interest in image-text relations and post-war visual culture in the global context.



1. “About,” Amant, accessed December 10, 2022,

2. This challenge to the assumptions underlying our conceptions of different activities is a strategy Rancière puts forth as an alternative to the rigidified practice of mixed media and interdisciplinarity. See Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” in The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2021), 22.

3. Quinn Latimer, “SIREN (some poetics) [exh. guide],” Brooklyn, New York: Amant, 2022.

4. Patricia L. Boyd, “Contact Barrier: Patricia L. Boyd,” by Dora Budor, Mousse Magazine, July 5 2021,