Musings on the Moustache
By , on 15 February 2011
One of the most interesting aspects of my job as curator at UCL Art Collections is making the artworks accessible to student researchers. This week that has included bringing out objects for teaching sessions, such as Works on Paper: History, Practice and Contexts, c. 1400-1700 (HART2218) during which a group of students spent two hours looking at 15th to 16th German prints and drawings, by such artists as Dürer and Holbein. Yes, the collection is pretty amazing!
This part of my job also includes pulling out works for student visitors interested in having close-hand experience of an object. This is far more challenging – students often arrive with a vision of what they’d like to study but only have a vague idea of what object they’d like to see. Just yesterday, a student asked to see something sublime that was also small. If anyone out there knows anything about the sublime, you’ll know that it doesn’t usually come packaged as small. What a fascinating twist to explore! The role of curator as mediator may be challenging but it’s also what keeps me happy.
Unfortunately the experience can prove to be challenging for researchers, as there is a reason why they only have a vague idea about our collections. Our newish on-line catalogue has done wonders to make it all more accessible (see http://artcat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/default.aspx), but it only provides a handful of images, and searching by subjects is not yet possible. This is something we are hoping to solve soon but for now I’m trying out alternate ways of showing students what there is in the collection and how to access its treasures, in a way that is both informative and fun. This is where the moustache comes in.
We’ve just started the annual Slade/Strang collaboration, an invitation to Slade students practicing in any media to come to the Strang to look at what’s been made in the past in order to create something for the future. The project finalists will be exhibiting their works in the Strang in April/May 2011. At the start I always invite them over to see some of collection’s highlights. This year I decided to try something more experimental, by giving them a tour of facial hair in the collection. I did this to try out a different type of hit list, to see if this very subjective approach could prove a more useful way of showing them how to access the collection.
We do have some pretty amazing staches in the collection. I began with Van Dyck’s Self Portrait from 1645, a print made by the man himself, one in which he turns his face towards the viewer, allowing him to show off the lovely fluff of hair on his upper lip and chin from a very sexy angle. Then I progressed through examples of portraits of great men through the ages – here facial hair is just another symbol of power, alongside the shield, sword or armour breastplate. I then landed upon Mellan’s Veil of Veronica, a print of Christ’s unshaven face which the artist produced using one single engraved line, starting at the nose and then circling outwards to make a most miraculous, complete image. Hard to explain, better to see in person. It gave me a chance to talk about engraving, why this collection is so great in terms of techniques and/or religious imagery.
Then I moved through more contemporary bristle, focusing on Richard Hamilton’s Portrait of a Man (1949) to show how this now famous artist and former Slade student used particular tools to scratch the lines of his sitter’s moustache. And did you know we have a few thousand prints and drawings by former Slade students – all prize-winning works! Then I went on to show how just exploring through the boxes led me to find artworks of men with amazing wigs or eyebrows, transvestites with stubble and so much more. By the end, I managed to show samples from all the different sub-collections here at UCL Art Collections, talk about types of themes represented and explain what they might expect from their research experience at the Strang. And it was fun!<a
Strangely, the day after I gave my first tour the Guardian’s Ten of the Best was all about Moustaches, featuring the one sported by Don Adriano de Armado from Love’s Labours Lost to the accidental shadowing upon the upper lip of the heroine Marion Halcome in The Woman in White. Perhaps I’ve hit upon an emerging theme. I’m thinking of doing more with the subject to explore ideas related to mind/body, the space in between, symbols of power, or whatever, really. Any ideas for possible collaboration? For now, I’m happy with the results. So far I’ve seen 25 Slade students, with each averaging about an hour researching the collection. It may still be a challenge helping them to find their objects but at least they seem to have a better idea of how to access the rich resources here at UCL Art Collections.
Andrea Fredericksen, Curator, UCL Art Collections