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Medieval Separatism and its Place in Contemporary Art




My investigation is focused on the idea of separatism as seen during the medieval period and how this notion can establish a foothold in contemporary art. Having studied this period previously, I had already become aware of minority group isolation and how such social ostracism was portrayed bluntly in artworks of the time. Although a period often chosen by historians and politicians to highlight how far we have come socially and culturally, I believe, when looking at the treatment of ‘others’, we are actually faced with the realisation that although change is in motion, it is far from being complete. Minorities, from the religious and mentally unstable, to differing racial and sexual groups, have been targeted and persecuted throughout history. Unfortunately, many strongholds of discrimination still exist and I believe that the duty to expose it falls hardest on artists, for they have the power to conjure up intense emotions in the viewer and thereby initiate social change. Social injustice has been a subject that many artists have tackled. Francis Bacon concerns himself with the emotions of pain and fear felt by minority groups, a choice undeniably fuelled by the internal struggles he faced as a homosexual. Pablo Picasso also, for a time during the Blue Period, painted the plight of the poverty stricken and those ‘cast out of society’, as seen most clearly in, The Old Guitarist (1903), (Fig. 1).



















Fig. 1


However, my practice's roots are firmly embedded in the medieval era, a period which, I believe most clearly portrays how we, as a race, separate, isolate and discard minority groups. As Bartlett points out, there was a lack of distinction between artists and craftsmen during this time, and they were not being bound by the constraints felt by artists in the centuries to follow, especially regarding the use of different media. Indeed, medieval craftsman would paint on any material which would sustain it, including, but by no means limited to, glass, wood, tallow and plaster. They also manipulated social spaces to their advantage – for example, churches, tombs and public houses –  realizing how such spaces could act as a frame for their work. I have started experimenting with different materials to see how their surfaces affect the paint and change the experience for the viewer, employing PVA glue, latex, cellophane and glass. One such project which stirred 





                                       Fig. 2                                    Fig. 3                                                   


the observer was latex masks. I was curious to test whether the same response to the subject would be aroused if I used oil as my medium and canvas as my surface. I am in the process of making a series of these paintings, having completed Figures 2 and 3.







                           Fig. 4                                 Fig. 5                                                     

I also began researching how other artists manipulated the human form. My enquiry led me to the work of 3D artist Lee Griggs and photographer Justine Khamara (e.g. Figs. 4 & 5, respectively).  Both are fascinated with the human form showing, for example, how the physical dimensions of a face can represent the multifaceted layers of personality. Khamara states that her work is ''really an investigation into photography'' and pushing the boundaries of her medium – this is something I want to explore with painting. I find Griggs’s portrayal of the human face as a malleable tool particularly effective.



Further, I have studied Bacon’s biomorphs in the Tate Modern and plan to visit the upcoming exhibition which includes his work, All Too Human. I marvel how these human-like figures are so effective in triggering anxiety and fear in the viewer (e.g. Fig. 6)









Fig. 6

My drawings (e.g. Figs. 7 & 8) of masks I created (e.g. Fig. 9) were born out of inspiration for the work of the Danish film director, Carl Theodore Dreyer.





          Fig. 7                                      Fig. 8                       Fig. 9

Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, reduces the viewer to a state of emotional exhaustion through his judicious use of darkness and light, best suited to black and white film, where the tonal contrast effectively mirrors the pain, anguish and cruelty endured by Joan whilst being prosecuted by the ecclesiastical court. Figures 10 & 11




           Fig. 10                     Fig. 11                       Fig. 12                        

are stills from Dreyer’s film which best show this and I exaggerated this notion for an ink drawing of a mask (Fig. 12). Dryer’s crusade was to expose the institutional cruelty and hypocrisy of those supposed to encapsulate goodness and equality. On release, La Passion … was banned in England and France because of its negative portrayal of the Church. Dreyer also added not-so-subtle changes to the clergyman, making one obese, another hunched back, and a third, with benign growths. This physical manipulation was intended to mirror the corruption within the church, prompting film critic, Richard Alleva, to write that Joan’s prosecutors are ‘condemned by their own faces.’ This is in stark contrast to medieval artists like Hieronymus Bosch, who painted the ‘sinful’ and ‘immoral’.  Depictions of different human races in Richard Bello’s Hereford Mappa Mundi, are ‘grotesque’ and ‘monstrous’. However, Bello was not alone in his negative depictions and Strickland13 argues that non-Christians were especially vulnerable to being depicted through art as ‘monsters, demons, or freaks of nature’.

Following this line of enquiry, I read, Stained Red: A Study of Stigma by Association to Blacklisted Artists during the ‘Red Scare’ in Hollywood, 1945 to 1960, which conveys the importance of political leanings and that ‘stigma can spread indiscriminately’. However, I follow that ignorance is no excuse for cruelty and this is a topic I wish to explore further through research and practice. Justice, in some way, has begun to be served, with people answering for their crimes, and observe the irony that former persecutors have now become the persecuted. I believe that I have touched upon a rich vein of enquiry which I can focus on contemporary issues, the central one being discrimination, in all its guises, and how this leads to separatism. 

















Alleva, R. (2005) The Films of Carl Dreyer. Commonweal, (2005-03-25)


ARC ONE Gallery (2018) Justine Khamara Artist Profile. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].


Bartlett, R. (2010) The Medieval World Complete. Thames & Hudson Ltd.


Choose Art (2018). Pablo Picasso Biography Spanish Painter and Sculptor, 1881 - 1973. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2018].


Cooper, E. (2018) Queer Francis: Life, death and anguish in the work of Francis Bacon. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].


Jonathan Jones, J. (2018) From Picasso at his mightiest to gods of American cool: the hottest art shows of 2018. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jan. 2018].


Lee (2018) Lee Griggs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2018].


McIlwain Nishimura, M. (2009) Images in the Margins. 2nd ed. London: British Library. (2018) A Feminist look at C.T. Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].


Mitchell, S. (1965) Medieval Manuscript Painting. 7th ed. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.


Pontikes, E., Negro, G. and Rao, H. (2010) Stained Red. American Sociological Review, 75(3), pp.456-478.


Sentilles, S. (2017) How We Should Respond to Photographs of Suffering. The New Yorker. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jan. 2018].


Strickland, D. (2003) Saracens, Demons and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Princeton University Press.


Wieck, R. (1999) Time Sanctified: The "Book of Hours" in Medieval Art and Life. 2nd ed. New York: George Braziller Inc.






Films and Images


La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) [DVD] Directed by C. Dreyer. France: Société Gėnėrale des Films.



Non Author Images (In order or Occurrence)



Fig. 1 The Old Guitarist (n.d.). [image] Available at: [Accessed 22 Dec. 2017].



Fig. 4 XGen Portraits. (2018) [image] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jan. 2018].



Fig. 5 Dispersion #1. (2013) [image] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].



Fig. 6 Triptych, August 1972 (2018) [image] Available at: [Accessed 4 Jan. 2018].



Fig. 10 A Feminist look at C.T. Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (2015) [image] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2018].



Fig 11. [Accessed 3 Jan. 2018].

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