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Professor Elizabeth Marlowe challenges the art world to get ‘grounded’

By Hannah O'Malley '17 on October 7, 2013
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Elizabeth Marlowe, assistant professor of art and art history, started with some big questions at a recent colloquium: “What can we learn from a work of ancient art?  Will it teach us new things or reinforce what we already know?”

In addressing those questions, Marlowe highlighted the lack of attention paid to the origins of art pieces that have inhabited museums for more than a century, and how that can completely change how we view the artwork.

The bronze statue Trebonianus Gallus. (Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The bronze statue Trebonianus Gallus. (Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

At the October 1 colloquium titled ‘The Ugliest Work of Art in the Met’: Context, Connoisseurship and Class in the Study of Roman Bronze,” Marlowe distinguished between works of art with a preserved archaeological context, which she called “grounded,” and “ungrounded” pieces of art.

She demonstrated, through a series of case studies, how ungrounded works reaffirm pre-existing historical interpretations, which may not necessarily be correct.

“Objects with no historical grounding end up reinforcing our preconceived ideas,” explained Marlowe. “We need to own up to the idea that so much of what we do is connoisseurship,” a term she argues has been masked with the term “formal analysis.”

Marlowe argued that art historians have been and are currently being trained with diminishing attention to the original source and context from which the artwork came. This is a dangerous proposition, she said, because the way in which a work of art is presented has a huge impact on how it is perceived by the general public.

Too many times, she said, the information presented to the public is not based on valid historical data.

As an example, she cited the bronze statue Trebonianus Gallus, which was described as “the ugliest work of art in the Met’ by Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of  Art in New York City.

The statue was sold to the Met with the title of Trebonianus Gallus, 251-3 CE, a pairing determined by an art dealer and not based on any historical origins. The name, though, stuck, and it has since been discussed and known by that undocumented title.

The complex issues posed by Marlowe seemed to have an impact on the way in which students approach their study of art.

“Professor Marlowe introduced an issue of high importance and relevance specifically to ancient art, but also one that can and should be applied to a variety of other areas of art historical study,” said Eliza Graham ’14.

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