At the international conference “WerkStattWissen – The Work of Art. Material and Technology in Sources and Workshop Practice” at the Bern University of the Arts, I had the chance to talk to Ann-Sophie Lehmann about her current research and her engagement with material culture studies.
Michèle Seehafer: When and why did you become interested in material culture studies?
Ann-Sophie Lehmann: I guess that goes back to my ambition to enter art school and working for one year in a gallery and conservation studio straight after finishing high school. There I learned the basics of restoring old nineteenth-century paintings, and sometimes earlier works. I painted a lot and went to drawing classes but then that didn’t work out and so I moved from Bremen to Vienna and started studying art history instead and liked it. It struck me from the very beginning – so this is the early 90s – that materials and techniques got very little attention. Conservation sciences were merely seen as “auxiliary sciences” of art history, a support that you ought really to know about but if you didn’t it wasn’t a problem. With my background, it seemed that I saw relations everywhere between materials and techniques on the one hand and meaning and making on the other but no one wrote or talked about it. From Vienna I moved to the Netherlands and finished my studies and started a PhD. Focusing on the painting techniques of flesh colour, I found that making and meaning, and art practice and art theory were closely connected, and that understanding making helps tremendously to understand representation. But it was only around 2005 that I started to read works outside of art history, especially anthropology. That was a tremendous eye-opener: here people actually wrote about making and materials from a theoretical viewpoint. It was the work of Tim Ingold that showed me that you can actually think with materials and about materials and incorporate them into art history that way.
Did material culture studies shape your inter- and transdisciplinary scholarship?
Yes definitely. I think material culture studies per se must be interdisciplinary. Material and objects cannot be studied from just one disciplinary perspective or you will always miss out on their complexity. That is why I also think material culture studies in itself cannot be a discipline. It feeds on very specific knowledge, deep knowledge in different disciplines that has to be brought together. I would be very critical of an approach that says “now we are going to teach students material culture studies” because I think you need both the specializations and the broad perspective. This does not make it easy of course, you need to continuously zoom in and zoom out. Material culture studies offers you the opportunity to get to know objects from close up. It means that eventually you have to engage with one material at the time and see how it relates to other materials and that will lead you to more and more precise knowledge. What students need to learn is how to approach the specialist and put all the different elements of information together and to know the right questions to ask; but also to learn how you can do a close reading of a material. I think it is impossible to throw all materials and all objects into one box and label that as one discipline; in a way that would be doing exactly what material culture studies have tried to overcome: reducing materials and objects to being nothing more than that. You have to look at the specificities of materials and objects.
Can you give an example of a source that proved particularly fruitful to you in your research?
A recipe in a German manuscript from the second half of the fifteenth century that describes how to mix flesh paint, and specifically flesh paint with oil as a binding medium. It proved that oil was introduced gradually and that flesh was among the last pictorial elements to be painted with it and that this was partly responsible for the “Eyckian revolution” in panel painting. The recipe also specifies the sort of oil: walnut instead of linseed, because the latter yellows too much, pointing to a very precise knowledge about the qualities of oil for panel painting at that time and to the reception and spread of Eyckian techniques in written form. The recipe also shows that writing knowledge down invariably comes only after a technique has been established through practice, and demonstrates that practice comes before theory, not the other way around as the notion of a ‘painted art theory’ would have it (see “Jan van Eyck und die Entdeckung der Leibfarbe”, in: Weder Haut noch Fleisch. Das Inkarnat in der Kunstgeschichte, ed. Daniela Bohde and Mechthilde Fend (Berlin, 2007), 21–40). That was a discovery that also made me think about the relationship between text and image. In art history we are trained to treat texts as the most important source. As if painters would have resorted to a library and looked at a book if they didn’t know what to paint! It seems obvious today, but it wasn’t for a long time, and the recipe showed me that art works and the practices that led up to them are just as important sources for our work as the texts that describe them.
Has the engagement with material culture studies influenced your collaboration with museums and archives?
If you define material culture studies as a discipline that really includes materials and objects (there has been a lot of debate about that within material culture studies), then yes, definitely. Taking materials and objects seriously means that you have to collaborate. My first interdisciplinary collaboration was with physicists who were interested in material properties and how we perceive them and we worked on how painters render human skin and leaves of trees. Now we are collaborating again in the Recipes and Realities project. While in art history we are trained to study objects and materials in situ, i.e. in museums or the conservation lab or the art academy or gallery, objects and materials do not often enter the place where we teach: the University. That should change and I collaborated with the Museum der Dinge and the Material-Archiv to show that learning through materials and objects has a long history that can be revived for our purposes today and I try to implement that in my own teaching. I think materials literally blur the boundaries of our disciplines. But as I said before, that does not mean that disciplines have to dissolve. It is more that materials act as a go-between – art and science, art and anthropology: at the bottom you will often find a material.
What is the trajectory of material culture studies? How do you think material culture studies will develop in the next few years?
I hope that the humanities will use material culture studies to develop a field that will show the natural sciences and the rest of the world why the humanities are important. We always have so few arguments when we are asked about our relevance to society – yes, we can think critically, people need to know about the past to shape the future and everyone appreciates art – but somehow these arguments do not strike many people as important enough to see how vital and really crucial the humanities are. The history of materials, their making and the social, economic and environmental connections that materials forge could become strong arguments. So I hope that materials and material culture studies will form a bridge for the humanities to address pressing issues outside our own fields. And with regard to art history, what I currently see developing is the kind of art history that I dreamt of 20 years ago: institutions are really starting to collaborate at the very core. We are now at the University of Applied Arts in Bern where an academic project on theoretical sources is based. Nodes like these are emerging everywhere; traditionally trained, text-based art historians, conservators, curators, artists and craftspeople collaborate, and often this collaboration is afforded through materials: art historians learn how to make reconstructions, they learn about material properties, about new technologies. So for art history in particular, I see that material culture studies is helping our discipline to make explicit the deep material knowledge that art historians generally possess, to historicize and theorize that knowledge and overcome the theory-practice divide within our field.