Kate Aspinall is an independent art historian and a consultant researcher for the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. She recently completed her PhD at the University of East Anglia, focused on the concept of drawing in early twentieth-century British visual culture. Most recently, she has written a chapter on Jacob Bronowski, Feliks Topolski and the subjectivity of scientific judgement for British Art in the Nuclear Age (Ashgate, 2014), and presented the paper ‘The Pasmore Report?: Reflections on the 1960 Coldstream Report and its Legacy’ at Art School Educated Conference, Tate (2014). She is in the process of turning her manuscript into a monograph, titled ‘The Paradox of Medium Specificity: Drawing Practice and Twentieth Century Modernism in Britain’.
Selected Papers and Publications
‘A Signature of Our Race: The Line That Links Medieval Illumination and 1930s British Modernism’
(Forthcoming special special issue of Visual Resources, 2016)
In a 1933 Burlington Magazine article, British theorist Herbert Read proposed ‘a basic linear signature of our race’. This reductive generalisation to line is representative of a wider theoretical community who linked the British avant-garde with medieval illumination via the watercolours of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Theorists and scholars such as Kenneth Clark, W. G. Constable and Nikolaus Pevsner joined Read in identifying drawing as an essential aspect of medieval illumination that had re-emerged in the compositions of the Romantic period as well as those of the neo-Romantics, including John Piper, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.
Theoretical enthusiasm for this lineage arose not only from aesthetic affinities but also from political utility. Amid concerns over mounting fascist nationalism on the Continent, notions of medieval and Romantic art were useful together as emblems of a distinctly British individualistic national – and artistic – identity. This occurred at a point of uncertainty about what modern drawing was: whether it was compositional tool or a performative autograph of an artistic genius. This paper proposes that the individualism of linearity, as seen by the theorists, intimately links the political and artistic questions of the time with the mythologies of medieval illumination.
‘The Pasmore Report?: Reflections on the 1960 Coldstream Report
and its legacy’
(Art School Educated Conference, Tate Britain, 11-12 September 2014)
The publication of the First Report of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (1960), otherwise known as the first ‘Coldstream Report’, is a graspable moment of displacement in the British art world. It represents a shift between an educational system based on disciplined studies of techniques and crafts to one based on conceptual thinking and design. Its legacy is marked by trauma and confusion that deepened as the decade matured, spilling over into creative outbursts and political revolt. It has become a symbol of oppressive, narrowly defined rigour and prejudiced artistic values. As such, both the report and the painter and educator who leant it his name, William Coldstream, have been blamed and demonised. This paper approaches the report as an image, for it is not only invested with symbolic, representational meaning, but it also is among those victims of iconoclasm – works of art, signs, inscriptions or pictures – that act in the words of theorist Bruno Latour “as a mediation to access something else”. The Report is a window to a set of values for education, but also for the perception of the artist’s relationship to society. Half a century later, it is important to carefully weigh the document itself against the politics and motivations of the diverse committee members who authored it. Using ministerial archival records opened in the late 1990s, this paper reflects on how such a document presents a methodological conundrum in tracing intention and effect, as well as the dangers of conflating it with any one participant.
‘The Aesthetic of Scientific Authority in a Nuclear Age: Jacob Bronowski and Feliks Topolski’
(British Art in the Nuclear Age, ed. Catherine Jolivette; Ashgate, 2014)
Celebrity historian of science Jacob Bronowski interpreted Polish émigré artist Feliks Topolski’s use of line as an analogy for science’s use of subjective judgment in the ‘Knowledge or Certainty’ segment of Bronowski’s 1973 BBC television series The Ascent of Man. The culmination of Bronowski’s views on the relationship of scientific authority and epistemological method, the episode examines the ethics of interpreting scientific judgement through Topolski’s particular dynamic aesthetic. As a visual embodiment of Bronowski’s ideal epistemological approach, Topolski’s drawings become instructive rather than merely aesthetic – helping a public removed from scientific realities to conceptualise the language and significance of subjective (and thus fallible) judgement as a possible alternative to unreflective technocracy. Through addressing the developing paradoxes for nuclear scientists as authorities in the 1950s and Bronowski’s decades-long engagement with these discussions, it is possible to trace the seeds of that later collaboration, which was formulated around the hotly debated twenty-five year anniversary of the atomic bombings in Japan.