‘Translating Cultures’, in 100 Objects?

March 25, 2013
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I was delighted last week to receive from Genevieve Warwick at the University of Edinburgh the latest issue of Art History, journal of the Association of Art Historians. Genevieve was awarded an AHRC Research Fellowship for her research on ‘Sculpture in Painting: Medial Translations in Renaissance Art’, under the theme of Translating Cultures. The journal’s most recent editorial contains reflections and developments triggered by Genevieve’s engagement with the theme, and draws on research undertaken as part of her grant, giving a clear indication of the ways in which ‘Translating Cultures’ is having an international impact on the disciplinary field Art History represents. The journal has now introduced a regular focus on questions of translation, and is committed to making available art-historical criticism originally published in languages other than English in order to enhance further the internationalization of the discipline.

I was also particularly interested in the comments inspired by the BBC Radio 4/British Museum collaboration in 2010 on ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. The editorial describes the increasing engagement of art history with phenomena of inter-culturation: ‘While acknowledging those canonical objects that seem to embody whole cultures within themselves, we have privileged study of the hybrid, transactional object that unsettles those conventional categories by crossing chronological and geographical borderlines as part of a ‘translation turn’ across the academy.’ The example cited of such an object is a bird of prey cup, a coconut-shell drinking vessel fashioned in the form of a hawk, produced in Germany around 1600 and now part of the Gilbert Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The editors describe the piece in the following terms:

A composite artefact both materially and culturally, it was purposefully constructed as an object of cultural migration, bringing together the exotic ‘rawness’ of a coconut with early modern European silver chasing. As a hybrid ‘object of translation’, it is a material testament to the processes of inter-culturation that produced it, and an apt illustration of a global art history, ‘according to a wider definition’.

Here is a clear invitation to identify other artefacts and objects of translation which—with equal eloquence—might illustrate the theme in all its breadth and complexity.

 


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