So to begin with, could you explain exactly what the project is that you’re working on at the moment?
I’m currently conducting experiments in eye-tracking technology, using a series of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, which are held at Auckland Castle. I’m interested in the way that people look at the paintings, and am trying to record information about gaze times and gaze sequences scientifically. What I’ve noticed is that there’s quite a divergence between what people think they are looking at and what they actually do, and so this work should provide some fresh theoretical insights, allowing us to build on traditional interpretive approaches towards Spanish art.
So this project is quite different from that typical interpretive approach?
Yes, it’s very different. Traditional academic work can often get trapped within narrowly focused disciplinary boundaries where you end up making the same points to the same limited group of people for most of your career. What we’re trying to do is formulate bigger and bolder questions that will hopefully have an impact on lots of different disciplines. Our work combines traditional art history with developments in digital humanities and experimental psychology. That means we’re spread in departments all over the University, bringing lots of different and innovative skills to bear. We’ve been generating things that are quite new, such as heat maps of where people are actually looking when they look at paintings.
In your experiment you use different types of labelling, and record the effect that has on how people look at art, what exactly are you expecting to find?
The project is geared towards evaluating the distinction between aesthetic appreciation (whether you like it) and cognitive understanding (whether you’ve understood it).
The current labelling (above left) at Auckland Castle dates back to when it still belonged to the diocese of the Bishop of Durham, and so underneath every painting there’s a biblical quotation and an explanation of how the artist interprets it. That’s a perfectly good and reasonable way to contextualize the paintings, but it’s very scripture-driven, and the labels as they stand say nothing about aesthetic issues. So we decided to formulate a test where we would place the existing contextual labels alongside two other sets: one that just gives the name of artist and the date of composition, and another that attempts to simulate an aesthetic reaction (above right), focusing more on questions of imagery and technique.
We haven’t crunched the data from the 46 tests yet, but my suspicion is that we’ll see significant fluctuations in the relationship between aesthetic and cognitive reactions across the three data sets. The good thing is that Auckland Castle is aware of this research, and they’re interested in using the findings when the new gallery complex opens in 2018.
This initial experiment looks at Zurbarán paintings, but do you expect this research to have wider applications?
We certainly hope so. We’re starting with the Zurbaráns because there’s been no research on how audiences look at unified sequences of paintings. Most of what’s being done at the moment focuses on the relationship between representational and non-representational, say between Vermeer and Jackson Pollock. But how do people look at an integrated collection? That’s not a question that’s been raised before, and so there’s potential for this work to be extended to other series.
But what I really want to do is use the research as a platform to explore more controversial issues. I’m interested in the human body, and particularly, in images of suffering and pain. I’m writing a book at the moment on the flaying of St Bartholomew. How exactly do people look at an image of a man with his skin being pulled off? A theoretical approach suggests that we behave like children cowering behind a sofa. We look, even though we don’t want to look, drawn instinctively to something that repulses us. But is that what actually happens, and if so, how can we measure that kind of response scientifically? I’m hoping that the work on the Zurbaráns will show the way.
The same could be said of the Imago Pietatis, where Christ wrenches the wound in his side apart with his hands. Is that what viewers are drawn to or do they spend their time looking at his face? Are we embarrassed even to look at wounds?
The other interesting issue is sex. For example, a lot of female saints in the Middle Ages are depicted naked. What are women looking at and what are men looking at? What are heterosexual people looking at? Can we queer these images? What are homosexual people looking at? Do images of naked women function as catalysts to faith or should they be dismissed as examples of pious pornography? What do believers and/or atheists think? Hopefully, when we’re finished with the Zurbaráns, we’ll move on to this, with a big grant proposal leading to a major published study.
On a different note – the current investment and construction of a new gallery space for Spanish Art at Auckland Castle is a huge project – will that have a positive effect on studies at Durham?
I think it’ll have a very positive effect on the University, and on the North East in general. Hopefully, we will be able to establish Durham as the biggest centre in the world for the study of Spanish and Latin American art. It should also be a massive tourist draw. County Durham has a wonderful set of treasures that nobody seems to know about. It will be a draw for postgraduates and doctoral researchers and will have a very positive effect on research across the University as a whole.
Do you think it will trickle down to the undergraduate level?
Absolutely. I don’t see any point teaching students by relying on PowerPoint all the time. I don’t think that students are going to get excited by presentations of image after image in a hot and dusty classroom. But if we can take students over to Auckland Castle, they’ll be able to see the objects in situ, work with them, and spend time with them; and I think that that will have a very positive effect. There’s nothing like seeing an artefact in the flesh to appreciate its importance. Obviously, I don’t think all students will be converted to art, but I’d hope that many more would take a visual studies strand further in their programme of undergraduate studies.
Do you think the year abroad, in conjunction with the TLRP, allows students to better appreciate art in its original context?
The dissertation is the best place for it, but the TLRP could also potentially help students to develop their powers of visual analysis. There are lots of excellent museums and galleries in the countries that students visit, and it’s easy to form an intense personal relationship with an art object. That relationship can tell you an awful lot about the culture or cultural values of the country in which it was produced, and so yes, it’s an excellent opportunity.
Your research involves a lot of religious art, is the context of these pieces particularly important?
Yes, context is absolutely crucial, and so much art has been ripped out of its context. This has often had a detrimental effect on its meaning. Some works were painted specifically with the knowledge that there was a window on the left and light must fall from left to right, and so when you take them out of context they look very different.
That’s one of the great enigmas of the Zurbarán paintings at Auckland Castle. We know that they’ve been in the Long Room for 250 years, but we don’t know why they were produced, or who for. We don’t know who commissioned them. We suspect that they were destined for a wealthy collector in Latin America but they never got there. The most romantic theory is that English pirates ran into a Spanish galleon on the high seas, saw these wonderful paintings, stole them, and brought them to London where they were sold. That’s not entirely implausible, but it’s more likely the case that they were used as makeweights in a sale, possibly traded for tea or some other really banal commodity. The evidence is ambiguous, but the pirate-theory tends to get people interested, and it certainly fits with other acts of theft, notably that of the Apostle paintings in Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral. We know for certain from documentation that they were looted by the British Navy from Cadiz in 1702.
Do you think that religious art requires more contextual information than more modern non-representational work, for people to appreciate it?
In some senses, it does. Spanish Catholic art probably seems quite remote to a modern and largely secular audience, but at the risk of being reductive, what’s it like to be flayed alive? Would you be prepared to die for what you believe in? Is martyrdom a good thing? Is pain a good thing? Surely, these are questions that anyone can answer, and they are equally if not more relevant than a diamond encrusted skull, a shark sawn in half, or the line of bricks that won the Turner Prize. Like most art historians, I love modern art, but there’s stuff that’s far more esoteric and far more difficult to interpret than many of the medieval and renaissance images.
It’s really a problem of opening people’s eyes to objects that are ‘concealed in plain sight’, to coin a cliché. A good example is the Crucifixion. People see images of Christ on the Cross all the time, and tend to pass by without reacting. But why should the central image of Christianity present an image of a common criminal nailed to an instrument of lethal torture? What does that say about Christianity, suffering, pain, death, and so on?
As that image is so central, and normalised, do we have a tendency to not really view crucifixion scenes, or images of Christ, as ‘artwork’? Is there a problem selling religious art as art?
Yes, certainly. Our familiarity with it tends to desensitize us, but there are people who dismiss religious art without really considering its exciting range and complexity. A great example is St Catherine of Siena drinking blood from the wound in Christ’s side, nursing at his breast as if she were still a baby. The painting is a reference to communion, and is predicated on the assumption that milk is transmuted blood, but I think it gives us a lot to think about in terms of gender, and particularly role reversal, with Jesus as Mother. I’ve certainly found over the years that when students are exposed to that type of imagery, they tend to react to react positively. A few have even gone on to write dissertations on religious art, and so the problem, really, is one of familiarity and of looking at things with fresh eyes.