AAH 2011 – Round Up of the Annual Conference

Last week, from Thursday 31 March to Saturday 2 April, the art historians of the world converged on the Midlands for AAH 2011, the Association of Art Historians’ Annual Conference, held this year at the University of Warwick near Coventry.

The main venue was the Warwick Art Centre, with plenary sessions held in the main lecture theatre and the book fair held in the Mead Gallery. Coffee breaks, lunches and receptions were also held in the Mead Gallery, giving delegates plenty of time to browse the selections and take advantage of the publishers’ discounts while milling, chatting, and scoffing tea and cupcakes. I’ve brought home lots of catalogues and stocklists and hope to make a purchase before the offers run out.

Sessions were run in the nearby Social Sciences block (not quite far enough away to get lost) in well-equipped seminar rooms (though some were a touch on the small side). All the session rooms were close together, which made it relatively easy to slip between sessions without causing too much confusion or disruption. I spent most of my time zipping between sessions on Ephemera (convened by Katie Scott and Richard Taws), Wax (convened by Hanneke Grootenboor and Allison Goudie), and Ugliness (convened by Andrei Pop and Mechthild Widrich). I especially enjoyed Mechthild Fend’s paper on wax moulds of skin diseases from the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris; Frédérique Desbuissons’ paper on ‘culinary ugliness’ and the use of food metaphors by nineteenth-century French art critics to critique bad painting; Edward Payne’s paper on Jusepe de Ribera’s prints of grotesque heads and body parts; and Alice Barnaby’s paper ‘fast feedback’, on light and ephemeral viewing experiences in nineteenth-century transparencies.

The plenaries this year were: on Thursday, Stephen Bann (Professor of History of Art, University of Bristol) in conversation with Karen Lang (Editor of The Art Bulletin); and on Friday, Pat Rubin (formerly Head of Research at the Courtauld, now Director of IFA at NYU) who spoke on Art History from the Bottom Up (which did indeed involve a lot of bottoms!). A plenary lecture by Horst Bredekamp had been scheduled for the Thursday but was cancelled, and the conversation with Stephen Bann and Karen Lang was a brilliant replacement. I really enjoyed the different formats of the two plenary events; they gave each night a different flavour.

As always, AAH 2011 combined friendly accessibility with intellectual rigour. One of the things I really appreciate about AAH is the format of sessions, with each speaker giving a 30 minute paper followed by 10 minutes of question time. It means that ideas can be properly developed in the presentation and then properly thrashed out in discussion, as well as giving the audience enough time to move between sessions. However, I do think that we could have squeezed an extra paper into each session (4 rather than 3), especially on the Thursday and Saturday, which were only half days. Overall, fantastic work by Matt Lodder and Claire Davies of the AAH and by the organisers from the History of Art department at the University of Warwick.

Looking forward to doing it all again in Milton Keynes at the Open University for AAH 2012!

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