Saturday, 5 March 2016

Pat's Update on Research and Public Engagement Activities 2014-2016 and Beyond

Dr Pat Simpson, Reader in Social History of Art and SCA Research Tutor


I am currently engaged with two research projects:

Aftermath, exhibitions and film festival at UH Gallery & St Albans Museum, 2018.

This is a collaborative project between UH Art & Design Gallery & St Albans Museum led by Matthew Shaul [UH A & D Gallery]. The project team includes Professor Owen Davies [History], Dr Sarah Lloyd [History] Annabel Lucas [UH A & D Gallery] and myself, amongst others.

The projected exhibitions and film festival will explore the aftermath of WWI through images, narratives and artefacts [some of them local], and the themes will include nostalgia for the past, visions of a new world [both positive and negative], as well as evidence that contradicts the idea propagated post-war, that WWI was the 'war to end all wars'. It is hoped that it will include photographic work by Kathe Buchler, a German photographer working both before and after WWI, who made remarkable images of recuperating soldiers as well as nostalgically idyllic landscape scenes.

My contribution to the project will involve images of Soviet health propaganda connected to the utopian ideal of creating a new world and a new type of humankind, and also images of the little known western ‘War of Intervention’ in the new Soviet state 1918-c1923.

Art and Bio-Politics: Representations of Soviet Darwinism 1917-1964.  Monograph on the Moscow Darwin Museum and its use of art in the service of bio-politics.  Currently in preparation.

‘Painting as “information”?  Globalisation and Abstract Art’, in Yolanda Espina, ed.  Images of Europe. Past, Present and Future, ISSEI 2014 – Conference Proceedings, Porto: Universidade Católica Editora, 2016, pp.73-82. ISBN: 978-989-8366-82-5. eBook (PDF) available at:

Abstract - A common belief regarding globalisation is that it is driven by ‘information’.  For Maurice Castells (1996) the primary vehicles of networked information were the internet and the media.  This paper sets out to explore whether art works, particularly paintings can be regarded as containers of information which participate in the process of globalisation.

Today, identification of what counts as a painting is sometimes problematic, nevertheless a painting still has certain basic physical and visual characteristics.  Do these characteristics constitute ‘information’ ?  I suggest that, to be able to read and understand what the characteristics might signify, we need to know about the artist and the historical context in which the work was produced. Thus, I argue that the characteristics of a painting might rather be regarded as raw ‘data’, hence the retrieval of ‘information’ depends on a process of interpretation of the data by the viewer, using verifiable data from other sources.  The extent and veracity of the retrieval and interpretation of the data will depend on the cultural/socio-political baggage that the viewer brings to the encounter with the painting, in context.

Art, particularly painting, has been used in the process of globalising cultural colonisation since at least the 1400s, and this has never been disconnected from power politics. The conclusion highlights problems with treating any visual material as ‘information’, and also the deeper problem with the concept of ‘information’, and its ambiguous relationships with constructs of truth, reality, authenticity, and with the operations of power and money.

This publication is based on an eponymous paper presented at the the International Society for the Study of European Ideas conference, Porto, Portugal, August 2014.

Forthcoming in 2016

‘Art, Biopolitics and Anglo-Soviet Cultural Exchange: The “Russian Room” at Down House 1958-1964’, in Emily Lygo, ed.  Russian Journal of Communication, special edition, 2016.  

Abstract - Charles Darwin’s home at Downe in Kent, a memorial museum now owned by English Heritage, has an interesting secret.  For a brief time between c1961 and 1964 it had a ‘Russian Room’. 

In this room were displayed commemorative paintings, monumental sculpture busts and photographic albums all sent to Britain between 1958 and 1962 by Professor Aleksandr Kots and his wife Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots, the directors of the Soviet Darwin Museum in Moscow.  As will be argued, the sending of such gifts had precedents, including connections with the SCRSS, or SCR as it was named in the 1920s. 

The period in which the gifts were sent coincided with Kruschev’s ‘Thaw’, the decline of Trofim Lysenko’s power over Soviet bio-science, and the tentative resumption of Anglo-Soviet cultural and scientific relations.  This talk examines some aspects of the contextual and strategic motivations for the gifts, their display and the eventual closure of the ‘Russian Room’.

This publication is based on the paper: ‘The Russian Room at Down House Kent: Anglo Soviet Relations with the Moscow Darwin Museum in the 1950s-1960s’, delivered at the conference British-Soviet Friendship and Cultural Exchange: Promotion, Partnership and Propaganda conference, Brixton, May 2014.

‘Lysenko “Michurinism and Art 1935-1964’, in William deJong Lambert & Nikolai Krementsov, eds, Lysenkoism as a Global Phenomenon, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Abstract - This chapter offers a case study from an art historian’s perspective, of the impact of the growth and decline of Trofim Lysenko’s power between 1935 and 1964 on the displays at the Darwin Museum, a natural history museum in Moscow. The institution was unusual for the heavy commitment of its directors, Aleksandr Kots and Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots, to the use of art works for illuminating past and contemporary evolutionary theory within the displays. The discussion focuses on the Museum’s strategic, discursive use of what Nikolai Krementsov has termed “Marxist Darwinst” rhetoric, in contextualising and explaining the significance of the art works, in order to defend its position and access state resources for a larger building to house the collection.

It will be seen that the Darwin Museum gradually aligned itself in the 1920s-1930s with aspects of Marxist Darwinism that became key elements of Lysenko’s “Michurinist biology”. This strategy opened up a gap between the scientific research and interests of the museum directorate, their connections with western scientists, and what was said to the museum visitors. Lysenko’s triumph in August 1948 necessitated dramatic changes to the museum display and very careful adherence to the current nuances of Lysenko’s version of “Michurinist biology”. After 1955, while Kruschev’s “Thaw” and de-Stalinisation allowed the museum tentatively to indicate visually its (enduring) adherence to genetics rather than Michurinism, this was strategically, equivocally expressed - ultimately to the museum’s disadvantage regarding the new building.
In conclusion, while the study notes that the museum clearly contributed, however unwillingly, to the entrenchment of Lysenkoism, it vividly illustrates some of the attendant dangers of transforming the complex discourses of science into simplified and demagogic “cultural resources.”  In particular, it underlines the deep problems underlying any suppression of public access to the complexity and relativism of real scientific discourse.

In the course of producing this chapter I was put in touch with Ben Lewis, a successful, award-winning, British freelance documentary film-maker who is preparing to make a drama-documentary about the Soviet ‘pseudoscientist’ Trofim D. Lysenko. I supplied him with visual data on two of Lysenko’s victims who are depicted in portraits displayed at the State Darwin Museum in Moscow, and also information on the Darwin Museum to Ben Lewis, September 2014. This contact has led to a recent invitation to collaborate with a number of eminent historians of science, notably William deJong Lambert, Nikolai  Krementsov and Kiril Rossianov, to support Lewis’ bid to the US National Endowment for the Humanities ‘Bridging Cultures’ fund, to develop the film.

‘Shaw and The Russians on The Mantelpiece’, presentation to volunteers and staff, Shaw’s Corner [National Trust], Ayot St Lawrence, Herts. February 2015.

Abstract - On the mantelpiece in the dining room at Shaw’s Corner there are images of 3 Russians – Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinskii, and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.  The focus of my talk is to say something about who these people were, what they did and why, perhaps, Shaw was so interested in them that he ensured that images of them were prominently embedded in the display at Shaw’s Corner when it was handed over to the National Trust.  I will look at Lenin first, move on to Dzerzhinsky, and end with Stalin [as so many people did…].

This talk related in part to my own research specialism in Soviet and Russian visual images, and also to the outstanding  work of my AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral student, Alice McEwan, on the Shaw’s Corner collection.
‘Beauty and the Beast: Imaging Human Evolution at the Moscow Darwin Museum in the 1920s’, in Fay Brauer & Serena Keshavjee, eds, Picturing Evolution and Extinction: Regeneration and Degeneration in Modern Visual Culture, Newcastle-upon-Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars’ Press, April 2015, pp.157-178.  ISBN 978-1-4438-7253-9.

Abstract - The Darwin Museum in Moscow was, from its foundation in 1907, committed to using art works to support stories of evolution.  Nationalised in 1917 as an adjunct of Moscow State University, the museum remained under the direction of its founder, Professor Aleksandr Kots, a zoologist, ornithological expert and amateur taxidermist.  He directed and supervised the creation of paintings and sculptures, principally made by Vasilii Vatagin, an artist and zoologist, to support the versions of Darwinism being projected over that period.  From the October Revolution to his death in 1964, Kots ensured that the displays at the Museum were always politically correct.
This chapter explores the potential contextual resonances of certain works by Vatagin and others in the early Revolutionary period.  The discussion starts with an examination of a pair of monumental sculptures by Vatagin entitled Age of Life (1926), depicting the variations of role, behaviour and appearance of, on the one hand Orangutans (the beast), and on the other hand, human women at different stages of their lives (beauty). The paper then goes on to consider how the modes of imaging, both in these sculptures and in other works representing human evolution in this period, connected with contemporary discourses on, and visualisations of  Darwinian evolutionary theory, both in the Soviet Union and in Western Europe.   What emerges, I argue, is a complex relationship between the images and the dialectic between contemporary Bolshevik anxieties about degeneration within the Soviet population, and utopian dreams of the Revolutionary production of a new, human biologic type.

‘Art History, Politics, Heritage’, digital poster presentation, Public Engagement with Research conference UH, June 2015. 
‘Prince Peter Kropotkin: Anarchism, Eugenics and the Utopian Ideal of Letchworth Garden City’, Utopia!  Experiments in Perfection conference, Letchworth, September 2015.

Abstract - Prince Peter Kropotkin was a major Russian pre-Revolutionary socialist, who, prior to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, theorised an anarchist [ie. without a centralised government and associated administrative bureaucracy] theory of a potential utopian form of social existence.  Like the English utopian socialist, William Morris (who may have drawn on Kropotkin’s work), Kropotkin’s  ideal was of a semi-agrarian idyll as set out in his book, Farms, Fields and Factories (1898), comprising both intellectual and physical labour. Kropotkin was also very interested in the new discourse area of eugenics, and prominently participated in debates during the 1912 International Congress of Eugenics in London.  This paper considers the implications of the records held at the Letchworth Garden City Archive, regarding both Kropotkins’ interest in eugenics and in the construction of utopian anarchist society through innovative social housing projects.

‘Tales from the ‘Russian Room’ at Down House, Kent’: talk given to members of the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies, SCRSS headquarters, Brixton, March 2014.
Abstract - Charles Darwin’s home at Downe in Kent, a memorial museum now owned by English Heritage, has an interesting secret.  For a brief time between c1961 and 1964 it had a ‘Russian Room’.  In this room were displayed commemorative paintings, monumental sculpture busts and photographic albums all sent to Britain by Professor Aleksandr Kots and his wife Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots, the directors of the Soviet Darwin Museum in Moscow.  The period coincided with Kruschev’s ‘Thaw’, the decline of Trofim Lysenko’s power over Soviet bio-science, and the tentative resumption of Anglo-Soviet cultural and scientific relations.  This talk examines some aspects of the strategic motivations for the gifts, their display and the eventual closure of the ‘Russian Room’. [This is quite an established organisation (founded 1926) which has a broad membership that includes people who are just interested in the Soviet Union, and emigrés from Russia and the Soviet bloc, as well as a few academics and teachers of Russian. 

The paper was occasioned by the fact that the Darwin Museum has first established contact with the eminent British biologist and later vociferous opponent of the Soviet ‘pseudoscientist’ Trofim Lysenko, Julian Huxley, through the SCR [Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, which was the SCRSS’s predecessor].  The research has also enabled the SCRSS to gain more insight into Society’s activities in the 1920s.]
‘Art or Illustration?  The Status of Painting and Sculpture in the Soviet Natural History Museum’, Association of Art Historians Conference, London, April 2014.

Abstract - It might be said that a painting is a painting and a sculpture is a sculpture, and as such they putatively belong to the realm of ‘fine art’.  Such objects, particularly when offering recognisable figurative representations and created out of traditional materials, seem clearly to declare their status and/or definition.  But, what if the painting or sculpture has a useful function within a natural history museum in illuminating or illustrating the history of evolutionary theory, or, through portraiture, represents a hagiography of evolutionary theorists?  Is it, therefore, a piece of decorative art because of its illustrative connotations?  This is the big overarching question I opened out to the panel and audience, because I did not, then, have any clear answers.
This paper focused on the Moscow Darwin Museum. This natural history museum was founded in 1907 at the Higher Women’s Courses institute attached to Moscow University. Nationalised in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution, it still exists.  The initial directors, Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots and Professor Aleksandr Kots were thoroughly committed to using art [paintings, drawings and sculpture, including taxidermy] as means to enliven the delivery of Darwinian evolutionary theory. The paper scrutinised the use of Soviet institutional acceptance of the difference between ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ arts [illustration] by the museum directorate as a means of defence against possible criticism of the works shown at the museum.

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