Art in Our Virtual World
Digital art, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, augmented reality – technological advances that expand our art-viewing potential. What does it mean to look at something that exists only on a computer screen or through technological manipulation? Does it exist? How do we interact with it? Is it in part of our creative imagination? Perhaps the practice of art throughout the ages and cross-culturally has always been about taking a three-dimensional perspective and making it into something else.
How does experience with technology affect our viewing and learning experience when everything and everyone is reduced to two dimensions?
In this Postcard, Courtauld alumnus Joachim Pissarro shares his unique perspective on what teaching – and learning – about art is in the time of COVID, and how it can still be about sharing ideas, insights, and knowledge within a community and the world around us.
On behalf of all in The Courtauld community, near and far, I am wishing you a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving. I will be reaching out in the coming weeks urging you to join me and the American Foundation for The Courtauld Institute of Art in supporting students with year-end giving. Thank you for being such a valued member of our global community.
MPhil History of Art, 1982
What is one word that describes your current state of mind?
Honestly, the word that comes to mind is perplexity.
How have you found relief or joy during these past months?
We were in the Adirondacks for most of the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s known as “the North American Switzerland,” so swimming in those lakes is definitely invigorating to the soul. The first time, I thought I was going to die with cold – and I am used to the cold. It sheds all of the unnecessary anxiety and neurosis off of me. In fact, even in this cold, rainy weather, I’m going swimming after I finish this Postcard.
What has it been like teaching art history online at Hunter College?
My wife is a doctor, so during the first week I was immersed in this huge cloud of news – I knew how many people had died in Albania, Cambodia, Siberia … . So by the second week of March I already knew we were going to have to teach online, and I told my students what was going on.
A colleague said, “What are you doing, Pissarro? You’re freaking out your students. What have you told them?” I said I was just telling them what I was hearing, and that it wasn’t going to be pretty. But in the end, I think they were grateful to have this information early on. I believe I was the first faculty at Hunter, which has 23,000 students, to teach online. But it has been a tough adjustment. The most difficult part is dealing with terrible equipment and trying to correct theses online.
What is your most striking memory of The Courtauld – good or bad?
My warmest memory is going to the canteen. There was a wonderful lady who spoke with an East London accent, called Genie. Genie prepared these fabulous melted cheese sandwiches, called “toasted cheese” in the UK. For the first few months I would hear her yelling “toasted cheese!” and I had no idea what this was about, until I noticed the sandwich ready on the counter. Of course we became friends.
The other is that I’d hoped to study 20th Century American Art, but there was nobody teaching contemporary art at the time. John Golding and Christopher Green were teaching up to WWII, so I decided to do a thesis on Léger in America during WWII. It was a very small class in that field, so we all became friends. It included Matthew Teitelbaum, the director of the MFA Boston, Jeanne Harper, the Director of the National Gallery New Zealand, and Colin Roberts, who became the British governor of the Falkland Islands.
The most bizarre memory is that I would sometimes see Anthony Blunt in the library at Home House. It was rumored that after WWII it was discovered that he and a group of his Cambridge colleagues were spies and that he was later stripped of his honors and lost his knighthood. He had given his library to The Courtauld, and I remember seeing a book with his ex libris, where someone had scratched off the “Sir.”
Was there a life-changing experience or moment that led you to pursue your career?
I went to do art history at The Courtauld because I was studying German Aesthetics in France (which I still teach to this day), and they were going to downsize the number of teaching positions. I was worried I would not get a job, and art history seemed relatively close. When I applied to The Courtauld they asked what I wanted to study, and I answered something like, “The conditions of possibility for the concept of modernity to exist within a godless society.” They told me that wouldn’t cut it, and that I “needed to refine a little bit.” That’s when I understood I was not in philosophy anymore. It was a shock to the system. I’d never studied art history, so I was lagging behind badly. On top of that, suddenly everything was in English. So I had to take undergrad courses along with my graduate courses to catch up. When I went home for the holidays after the first semester, I was thinking of quitting. My father convinced me to go back, and I ended up living in London for 12 years. My first job was at Phillips Auction House, then the Royal Academy came about and offered me a guest curator position. And that was it.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Joachim Pissarro is an art historian, theoretician, educator, and director of the Hunter College Galleries. He taught at Yale University, Osaka University, and Sydney University, before becoming the Bershad Professor of Art History at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He has held curatorial positions at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2017, he curated two exhibitions: Pissarro à Eragny (co-curated with Rick Brettell) at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, and Olga Picasso (co-curated with Bernard Picasso) at the Musée Picasso, Paris and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. His most recent book, Aesthetics of the Margins / Margins of Aesthetics (co-authored with David Carrier), was published last year and follows Wild Art (Phaidon 2013).
Deborah Swallow — Märit Rausing Director of The Courtauld
Bill Griswold — Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Jason Farago — Art Critic, The New York Times
Joachim Pissarro — Art Historian, Theoretician, and Director of the Hunter College Galleries
Sara Turner — US Department of Justice
Mary Rozell — UBS Art Collection