Home Open Arts Object: Critical Term - Essentialism

Open Arts Object: Critical Term - Essentialism

In this short film, Renate Dohmen and Kathleen Christian consider the impact of essentialism, a concept which gained prominence in the nineteenth century and which declared art as the expression of national cultures. Examining the watercolour An Assemblage of Works of Art in Sculpture and Painting to the earliest Period to the Time of Phydias by James Stephanoff (1845) they explore how the philosophical ideas inherent in essentialism led to art being used as a tool to rank historical and contemporary cultures around the world hierarchically, according to assumed levels of civilization that these cultures were thought to have achieved. Also considered are questions of how the new emphasis on national culture led to the display of art in national schools and how essentialism established a Eurocentric perspective of culture, since European art was employed as benchmark for the height of civilization around the globe. They also discuss paintings by Rembrandt and Zoffany, as well as an eighteenth-century Chinese punch bowl produced for the British market to explore how these works contrast with attitudes in the nineteenth century, when cultural mixing and visual references to other cultures were deemed a sign of cultural decadence.

Works featured are Rembrandt’s Man in Oriental Costume, (1632), Zoffany’s Major William Palmer and his Second Wife, the Mughal Princess Bibi Faiz Bakhsh, (1785), James Stephanoff’s  An Assemblage of Works of Art in Sculpture and Painting to the earliest Period to the Time of Phydias (1845), a Chinese punch bowl made for the British market (1760), and a 1905 floor plan from the National Gallery.

transcript of film

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A344 Art and its Global Histories Open University undergraduate module

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