Art History Department

How do you explain and visualize opera and the performing arts to blind and partially sighted people while keeping true to historical forms?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

L to R: OA Board Member Jan Lambert, Lauren, OA Co-Artistic Director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg @ a community workshop

Hello, I am Lauren Wu and I am currently a fourth-year student competing my art history major in the Department of Art. Throughout my university career I have always been fascinated with the spectacles and traditions of the preforming arts. Opera, dance and theater have been themes and ideas that I have explored in many classes including FAH353H1 (On Display: Cultures of Exhibition, 1789-1900) and FAH345H1 (The Romantic Movement in French Art).

Love of the arts has been cultivated and nurtured by my ballet teachers, Jeannette and Marshall. Opera Atelier is an Opera Company based in Toronto, with an emphasis on baroque period opera. Annually, they mount two different productions and take a travelling production to the Royal Opera House at Versailles. Not only an Opera Company, Opera Atelier has the Making of an Opera program for schools to introduce to opera to students through participation in activities such as staging, singing, and dancing.

Photo by Bruce Zinger

Two years ago my ballet teachers approached me with a question of making opera more accessible to a broader audience. With my background in government relations and advocacy I was motivated to find a solution and provide innovative programming that catered to blind and partially sighted people.

Throughout the course of this project, I have researched how certain institutions, particularly the Art Gallery of Ontario and Metropolitan Museum of Art have approached this question and apply their solutions to what would later be used at Opera Atelier. I have had the opportunity to create partnerships with various community agencies that cater to blind and partially sighted people. These relationships have helped us create unique programming for each group. Workshops can range from a single day workshop in a community or school setting, as part of the Making of an Opera program to a series of workshops for young professionals designed to engage a new generation of opera goers.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Multisensory tour – Lauren and Rodin’s The Thinker

Designing these workshops has also put my skills developed in art history to use. Opera Atelier produces baroque opera and therefore studies the history of baroque art and baroque performance. The skills of art history such as research and the study of objects is essential for their productions Motifs, found especially in classical sculpture for example, and can be a great way to teach positions of the body or help engage students in historically informed discussions. For our course happening in the winter, we have used Ulysses sculpture at Versailles as principal inspiration. Furthermore, other courses I have taken in anthropology and archaeology have also helped the creation of this project.

I encourage any student to explore their interests outside of the classroom. Taking an independent study or internship course can help you broaden the scope of your interests. Not only does it provide a motivating challenge to complete a real project in the world, it also provides a space to develop your own ideas and have them realized in the broader community. These opportunities should not be overlooked by any student interested in a career in the arts.

My Summer with Peggy – Reflections on an Internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Image from

“Having plenty of time and the museum’s funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day.”

– Peggy Guggenheim, 1947, on amassing her collection in Paris


I walked up the crooked stone steps to the small entrance vestibule and was greeted by a dapper young man in a suit. I extended my hand with forced confidence and introduced myself as one of the new interns. After an exchange of pleasantries, he grinned goofily and motioned to the faded terracotta palazzo to his right. Like countless guests before and after me I asked him where the bathroom was…

My name is Hella Wiedmer-Newman and from April to June 2017 I was an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The PGC is one of Europe’s most beloved modern art museums, due to both Peggy Guggenheim’s biography and the unique works on display there. The museum was established in 1980; it had served as the collector’s private home from 1949 to 1979 when Guggenheim died after a career as one of the 20th century’s most important art collectors and patrons. Her friend Philip Rylands helped turn her former residence into a museum (the collection was bequeathed to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation under the condition that it remain in Venice). He served as director until June 2017 when Karole Vail, Peggy’s granddaughter and a curator at the Guggenheim in New York, took over.

The internship program employs 25 to 30 interns at a time for stays of one to three months. Interns change monthly; when there is a last-minute cancellation, others can apply to stay an extra month. As an intern, I got to perform all the jobs that make a museum tick: I guarded rooms, sold and cancelled tickets, distributed audio-guides, checked coats and staffed special events; cleaned windows, sculptures and benches; secured protective coverings for light-sensitive paintings and drawings, and replenished the gift shop. I also delivered at least five public talks a month on Guggenheim’s life, as well as individual artworks and movements represented in the collection and current exhibitions. During my internship, the exhibitions included the surrealist period of Rita Kerrn-Larsen and a retrospective of the works of the anti-abstract expressionist Mark Tobey. I also gave tours of the entire collection in English and German, remunerated with EUR 60 (unless it was for friends of the museum). At first, speaking in front of an audience of strangers can seem daunting and it takes a few tries to master: in my very first talk I got so flustered trying to explicate a painting of a nude woman riding a bicycle that I blurted out: “It’s like what Freud says about dreams and wish fulfillment; I mean, haven’t you ever had that dream where you’re naked in public, I know I have it all the time?!”

At the end of our respective stays, each of us had to deliver a 30-minute seminar. They didn’t have to take the form of a traditional academic paper, but were rather a way of introducing the other interns to something new, or a chance to explore something related to Venice. My seminar addressed the narrative and affective capabilities of Virtual Reality, a notable theme at this year’s Biennale.

Not all my time as an intern was work. E very month we had at least one lecture with a curator, conservator/restorer, or administrator, and a tour or lecture led by Dr. Rylands himself. We also took two trips as a group each month: a Venice trip to a local event, and a big trip beyond Venice. Highlights this summer were the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi, and Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. At the beginning of every month there was a welcome breakfast and dinner for the new interns and at the end the Festa della Fine del Mese, a potluck on the museum’s famous roof-top terrace. We would also enjoy the odd spritz by the grand canal after work, and occasional house parties and group dinners were common. Many of us also visited other parts of Italy during our stay.

But, most importantly, celebrities often visit the museum. In my last month, I spotted Anne Hathaway walking around the Anthony Caro dressed entirely in white and sporting a blue baseball cap, and, as was the custom, I immediately alerted everyone to her whereabouts. We all piled into the special exhibition space and one of us started doing a pretend tour, which actually garnered a few interested nods from Anne herself – yeah, we’re on a first name basis now.

I am often asked about salary, admission and life in Venice. The salary is EUR 800/month, which just covers rent of one of the rooms on a list sent out to interns before their arrival, and basic food. It helps if you have some money saved. I found a room in the apartment of a lovely couple, but others were not so lucky and housing was a constant topic of discussion. The application is a straightforward online process requiring two recommendations, a résumé and a short essay on one’s interest in the collection. One can specify a desired length of time (one to three months) or specific months, though the final decision rests with the PGC. It is helpful if one speaks languages other than English, especially French, Italian or German. And finally, perseverance pays off: many interns are accepted only after a second or even third try.

Living in Venice is overwhelming, in the best possible way. Especially during the tourist season and, more importantly, the Biennale, the crowds were initially daunting. But, though it was annoying at times to walk through the streets already crowded at 7:30 am – not a day went by that I didn’t see a new bride with her entire wedding party scouring the Piazza San Marco for the perfect backdrop to her photos — there are many secluded areas and nice, cheap restaurants where tourists seldom venture. (One of my favourite bars is called Adriatico Mar; they serve artisanal rhubarb spritz, need I say more?!) I was also delighted by the vast number of art spaces in Venice, not just during the Biennale. Venice swells your soul and, in a tiny way, changes you forever.

Among other things — patience, for instance, and decorum and pragmatism — the internship taught me a new comfort with researching and crafting texts on a range of topics in a very short time, and presenting them to strangers. It was also a welcome challenge to work with so many people from different countries and, as a precious side effect, to form friendships with some. The PGC internship is a truly singular opportunity; it has enriched me in many different ways and left me feeling more fully sculpted than when I first ascended those crooked stone steps.

If you have any questions about the application process, the internship itself or Venice, please do not hesitate to contact me:

Here is a link to the 2018 internship application form:

Exploring the interaction of religion and politics in early Islamic architecture

Monday, September 25, 2017

Art and architecture scholar Heba Mostafa “in the perfect spot”

As a scholar of Islamic art and architecture, Heba Mostafa feels she is in the perfect spot as she joins the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto this year.

“I’m Canadian, so coming back to Toronto made a lot of sense to me. I was born in Guelph, but raised in Egypt, and that’s where I did my training as an architect,” says Mostafa, who joins the History of Art department in the newly created position of assistant professor of Islamic art and architecture.

Staking our claim as hub of Islamic culture and art

She says the new faculty position and the opening of the Aga Khan Museum in North York also underscores that U of T and Toronto are becoming a hub of Islamic culture and art.

“It looks like Toronto is staking its claim, and that is a particularly attractive quality not only of the city, but also the university.”

Mostafa taught at the University of Cambridge, the University of California at Berkeley, and most recently at the University of Kansas, before coming to U of T.

Her research focuses on the interaction of religion and politics in early Islamic architecture, particularly in the early mosque, palace and shrine.

A “great story” with many unresolved questions

Her fascination with the early Islamic period stems from the fact that it is a “great story” with many unresolved questions. For example, the architectural idiom developed rapidly, with such iconic buildings as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem constructed only a few decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the first half of the seventh century, she says.

The Aga Khan Museum highlights the artistic, intellectual, and scientific heritage of Muslim civilizations across the centuries from the Iberian Peninsula to China. Photo: aa440 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Like other researchers, she works to dispel the notion that Islam was outside or alien to the early Western world.

“If you have an understanding of Western culture, you can understand Islamic culture very easily, because it’s a product of the same shared history ― the late antique world, the period between approximately 250 and 750 CE.”

Islamic architecture reflects the complexity and nuance of its culture in a unique way, and appreciating it deepens that understanding, says Mostafa, who is teaching a course on Monuments of the Islamic World this fall, and a graduate seminar in Early Islamic Architecture in the spring semester.

A trained architect and architectural historian, Mostafa borrows from her background in design to help her art history students in the classroom.

“Art history is often taught as narrative and that is great, but there are other ways to understand a problem”

“Art history is often taught as narrative and that is great, but there are other ways to understand a problem, and that’s where I borrow these other methods from design,” says Mostafa.

“They treat the subject analysis as a design problem on some level, and I ask my students to do some mapping and sketching, as using some of the graphical tools from design can be extremely helpful in organizing all of the complexity.”

Mostafa says her goal is to stoke the natural fire and curiosity in her students.

“In the field of early Islamic architecture, there are so many unanswered questions, so they hear these riddles and they feel that they want to try to figure them out, even on the most basic level.”

Ultimately, she wants to help her students develop their analytical capabilities and critical thinking through Islamic art and architectural history so they can apply it to other subjects.

For that reason, she says she’s passionately against “learning” through memorization.

“My goal is for them not to only be able to discuss Islamic architecture, but any architecture

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Photo: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

“My goal is for them not to only be able to discuss Islamic architecture, but any architecture. I believe if they understand it, they will never have to memorize anything,” says Mostafa.

“I see it as similar to improvised music. My students should be able to analyze or at least speculate about any artwork, building or city just by looking and asking some basic questions, in the same way musicians can riff on a melody.”

She’s proud of the way she has been able to marry her academic disciplines with her cultural background and apply it to her teaching and research.

“As an Egyptian who is also Canadian, I’m able to understand and speak in both worlds,” says Mostafa.

“I’ve taught in architecture programs, and I’ve taught in art history programs, and I have kept that connection between cultures and also between disciplines.”

This story was originally published on the University of Toronto Arts & Science News Site (September 21, 2017)

Article by:  Peter Boisseau

UofT Art Historian Has Useful Perspective on Photography in the Post-Truth Era

Monday, February 27, 2017


An art historian, Bear is interested in the sociology of knowledge, in particular, how people in different historical periods become convinced that what they are looking at is real.

Bear’s passion is how works of photography are received, rather than how they are produced. His first book, Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subject, recently won the prestigious 2016 Historians of British Art book award for a post-1800 subject.

“I’m interested in the skills people develop or have imposed upon them to make sense of visual representations,” said Bear, an associate professor in the Department of History of Art in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “In the past three months terms like fake news and alternative facts have become common. This new vocabulary makes us aware that these questions are important and are relevant to what makes a citizen informed about his or her place in the world.”

Photos don’t tell us much; supplementary information is key

For example, during President Trump’s inauguration, questions arose about the size of the crowd in attendance and photos were used to support the conclusions. Unsurprisingly, Bear received a number of emails as events unfolded.

“In our culture, visual representation and its relation to evidence, proof and the truth may be difficult to sort out,” he said. “Photographs themselves don’t tell us very much; supplementary information is key. The idea that there is smoking gun proof from a photo is problematic.”

Given the timeliness of this subject, this year’s Historians of British Art book award was all the more appropriate.

People have expectations for photographs to be an impartial reflection of the real world

“I had no idea that I was being considered at all,” Bear said. “It’s a nice surprise. The main benefit is recognition. It will allow my book to reach a wider audience and I hope it will open doors for research.”

The book, which grew out of his doctoral research, explores “why people are compelled to believe certain kinds of images and not others. Photography seemed like a good place to start, because people have heightened expectations for photographs to be an impartial reflection of the real world, and we know that’s not true.”

Bear took a trip back in time to the beginnings of photography as a medium to compare what sense people make of photos compared to older, more traditional media such as painting.

Historical paintings created before photography provided a public record of battles and events

He is currently exploring historical paintings created before photography was invented and how they provided a public record of battles and other historical events.

“In the first quarter of the 19th century, historical paintings go from being the most important genre of painting to almost invisible,” Bear said. “Eventually, objects used in battle or live testimony from that battle seemed more immediate to viewers than paintings of them. My hypothesis is that they became less important because they don’t give viewers the same proximity to the past that other kinds of evidence do.”

Bear didn’t set out to become an art historian. Growing up outside New York City, he had access to an abundance of museums and loved the art he experienced. As he earned his bachelor’s degree in literature, Bear realized that his essays focused largely on the visual elements in the stories. He began incorporating art history courses into his curriculum and moved on to study art history at the graduate level at Columbia University.

“By then, I had some sense that I was interested in modern art,” Bear said. “19th century art provided me with a way of thinking about the origins of technological and social movements that seemed to offer a way to get sense of our own culture and moment.”

This story was originally published on the University of Toronto Arts & Science News Site (Feb. 24, 2017)

Article by: Elaine Smith

The Class of ’51

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


L to R: Charles Comfort, John Golding, and Stephen Vickers.

Shirley (Tyte) Beatty, Class of ’51, sent along this photograph of Charles Comfort, John Golding, and Stephen Vickers. Students of that era in what was then called the Department of Art and Archaeology were taught by such eminent figures as the distinguished medievalists Peter Brieger and Stephen Vickers, and the major Canadian artist and Director of the National Gallery, Charles Comfort (a founding faculty member of the Department). Shirley Beatty remembers going to Comfort’s class every Saturday morning for a full year to the army reserve barracks on the east side of St. George Street at Bloor, where students painted in different genres (portrait, still life) to learn about actual historical techniques of art-making (including egg tempera and fresco). The Fine Art studio courses, like courses in philosophy, history, and modern languages, were part of the core art history and archaeology program.


John Golding, “E.C.M. SD.” 1976. Oil on canvas. 182.88 x 152.4 cm. Gift by bequest of Murray Davis, (UC 4T8), 1998. Collection of University College, University of Toronto

Beatty’s cohort in the Class of ’51 included a young student from Mexico, John Golding (1929–2012). Golding was a notable graduate of the Department of Art and Archaeoloy, who went on to become both as an eminent artist, teaching painting at the Royal College of Art, and a major art historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art. His book Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907–1914 (1959) is a richly considered standard study, republished in numerous revised editions. Golding co-curated the landmark exhibitions Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, at the Tate Gallery in 1994; and Matisse/Picasso, in 2002–03, at the London Tate Modern, the Grand Palais in Paris, and MoMA New York. His book Paths to the Absolute (2000), Golding’s consideration of the meanings of twentieth century abstraction, won the prestigious Mitchell prize in 2002.

In 2014 Shirley Beatty, who had a career in film production and editing for the United Church of Canada, generously endowed the William R. and Shirley Beatty Undergraduate Scholarships for students in History of Art with the highest level of financial need. This is to ensure students would be able to have access to the fulfilling experience of studying art and art history in our department that she had had, regardless of their financial circumstances. The gift is also meant to send a larger message about the importance of the study of art and the humanities, and the way they enrich life, no matter what the career. “Hopefully, with a little bit of help from this scholarship they will have less of a financial burden. Perhaps they’ll be able to enjoy the university experience more fully, as I did, and focus more on fulfilling their dreams instead of just dreaming them.”


Two graduates of the Class of ’51, Sybil Salvin Rampen (L) and Shirley (Tyte) Beatty (R) at the Joshua Creek Heritage Art Centre.

Another member of the Class of ’51, Sybil Salvin Rampen is an artist and educator. Following her BA in the University of Toronto in Art and Archaeology she pursued studies in Paris and London, and attained an Art Specialist designation from the Ontario College of Education. She is the founder of the Joshua Creek Heritage Art Centre near Oakville, where she teaches art and mentors emerging artists. Set in beautiful gardens, it is a cultural facility promoting creative projects, local heritage, community, outreach, accessibility, and ecology through workshops, films, musical events, and lectures. As a contribution to the history of the department, Sybil Rampen gave her beautiful (illustrated) undergraduate notes taken in Peter Brieger’s classes to the Department of Art library.

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