Milena Bartlová: I Am Not Interested In the Artist, I Am Interested In the Art

(Born in 1958 in Prague)

Milena Bartlová is an art historian concerned with art and culture of the Middle Ages, museology, and the methodology of art history and visual studies. She has worked at FF MU (the Philosophical Faculty of Masaryk University in Brno), PedF UK (the Pedagogic Faculty of Charles University), the National Gallery in Prague, the Institute of Art History at the Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic, and is currently lecturing at AAAD (the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague). In 2001 she was named docent, and has been a professor since 2005.

Q: How did you get involved in the study of art history, and who or what influenced your choice of school?
A: I know exactly the moment, and I can recall it down to the smallest detail. I know the date, the place, and the time that I decided to study art history. But why? That, I unfortunately can’t tell you. For me the complication wasn’t that I didn’t know what to study, but rather that the political conditions of the time were conspired in such a way as to prevent me from studying at all. Art history was such a lofty, majestic, and beautiful field, that at first I settled for the “second best”, even though no one forced me to; all of that happened in my eighteen- or nineteen-year-old head. I went to study classical archeology, which was taught in combination with the study of Czech. The aforementioned political conditions meant that this alternative was not possible, and when it seemed like everything was lost, I decided to study art history, which I was able to do through external (distance) study.
Q: You speak about the fact art history has always been “an option”. How important was family background for you?
A: Only years after the death of my mother did I realize, that just like me, both she and my grandmother had also had an admiration of art history. My socialization in visual studies began thanks to my mother’s collection of reproductions of famous paintings, sorted into envelopes, which she kept in the library. We weren’t allowed to travel, so a large number of those reproductions had been cut out of a magazine called Ogonyok, a Soviet publication from the mid-fifties. I remember many socialist realist paintings from those images, so thanks to that I know that movement pretty well. There was a deep, instinctive inclination toward art history in our family. Perhaps it was important that my grandmother was a dramaturge, that my mother was a political economist, and, importantly, that both had received a higher education. That of course is tied to my family background, to the work I do, to how I see the world, and to how I relate to feminism. My grandmother received her doctorate in 1935, which at that time was something quite unusual. Even though no one had studied art history itself, there was still an atmosphere in the family that assumed I would study at university. Even today, that reality that is in no way a given fact
Q: Do you recall any Czech or foreign art historians who you consider to have been important in the beginning of your studies?
A: The first person who had a profound influence on me was a friend of the family Jaromír Neumann, thanks to whom in the first two years of my studies I read Ernst Hans Gombrich and then Russian authors. So I actually didn’t read what was available in Czech at all, which I consider to have been a crucial influence. If I had to name a personal idol, it would be E. H. Gombrich, who certainly had a methodological impact on me. Jaromír Neumann was another person who influenced me from the very beginning, as he was an entirely human, if not quite a professional role model. When I began studying and started to focus on the Middle Ages, of course Jaromír Homolka became significant to me. Until recently he was one of the most fascinating personalities in the Department of Art History, which anyone who knew him there will definitely confirm.
Q: And wasn’t it Jaromír Homolka who brought you to focus on the Middle Ages?
A: No, the other way round. I found him, because I was interested in the Middle Ages. To be perfectly honest, before I started studying art history I was interested in so-called “bad art”. Later I got into the art of the 19th century, but not into what was popular, but rather into the opposite: the Pre-Raphaelites, Symbolism, and neo-Gothicism in painting and sculpture. Around 1980 people started to realize that those movements weren’t completely kitsch, and that there may be a point to looking into them. They weren’t even studied too much in Europe, at our school no one was doing that. Studying the neo-Gothic led me to study the Gothic, and so I slid back into the Middle Ages.
Q: What was the topic of your thesis project, and did it have any effect on your further professional focus?
A: The fact that I was only accepted after a number of postponements meant that I had already prepared for some of my exams in advance, so I was able to graduate in three years instead of five, with an explicit focus on the Middle Ages. My thesis paper was titled “Figurative Decoration of Czech Gothic Picture Frames”, and thanks Josef Krása, who was an important person in the field of art history at that time, an article based on my paper was published in the magazine Umění (Art). I came up with the topic of my thesis by myself, so it contained essentially all the questions I have since been engaged in answering in my study of art history. If you look at my books, especially the one that is about to come out (the book Medieval Painting Between Icon and Virtual Reality came out in 2012), you will see that they echo all the same themes that were in my thesis project. They are questions about International Gothic Style, nation and nationality, the way nationality has been constructed throughout the history of art, and visual theory in the context between Byzantium and the west.
Q: When you studied, were there any women teaching in the Department of Art History? What was the ratio of male to female students there?
A: During my studies there were only a handful of female professors. Each was – how to put this tactfully – more original than the next. The most notable was Alena Alsterová, whose qualification to teach as an assistant professor was the fact that her father processed the daily chess game as the editor of Rudé Právo. Věra Soukupová taught classes on art of the 19th century, in which she would introduce personalities who didn’t leave much behind and of whom today very little is known. Then there was also Eva Foglarová, who was the head of the Department of Aesthetics. At that time there was one Department of Art History and Aesthetics in Prague. There was no noticeable difference between the lectures given by men and women. As always, there were a lot of female students, but because I was doing distance studies, I was in a special situation. Anyone employed in cultural affairs had to have a university degree, so there were 40 students studying remotely, which included people like the director of the Museum of Labor Movement in Svitavy, and others like that. Finaly there are only a few people from our class who are actively engaged in art history – Jan Royt, Jiří Machalický, Pavel Kroupa and Duňa Panenková. The other students were people who were already working, so that meant a lot more men. Otherwise, the full-time students, who I went to lectures with, were made up of an even number of men and women.
Q: When was your first encounter with feminism?
A: I encountered feminism right at home. After the war my mother, still a child, was in the United States as an immigrant, and when she came back she spoke English and knew people there. So even in those years, when it wasn’t so normal, we had books and magazines in other languages. From my mother’s library I remember The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan, 1963), or other essential books. One of my mother’s many quips was, for example: “Feminism is the assertion that women are also people.” It sounds modest, but it is a lot more radical than it seems at first. For me, feminism was a crucial, fundamental starting point for the rest of my life. My grandmother, grandfather, my parents, my brother, and I all lived together in a big apartment, and although none us had an extraordinary income, and though we lived from paycheck to paycheck, we still had housekeepers because neither my grandmother nor my mother wanted to take care of the household, with all the cooking and ironing. Another certainty was always that I was going to study at university.
Q: How did you finally discover feminism in art history? When were you introduced to feminist theories and methodologies?
A: It was really important for me that Martina Pachmanová showed up here, because she brought new consciousness, awareness, and attitudes from overseas. At that moment I realized that my personal convictions and my professional life didn’t have to be two separate things, and that there was a way for them to converge. When it comes to the methodology of art history and to that of gender theory, it’s a tough question. Don’t forget that when you are concerned with the curation and criticism of contemporary art, it’s something different than looking into the past. Approaching the pre-modern eras is damn difficult. Before I left for Berlin I had taught a course called “Gender in Art History”. When you call a course like this, it cannot concern only feminism, but also queer approaches. When talking about gender, you have to address all respects of it; there are more roles, but feminism is the most obvious, and at the same time the most important.
Q: In the lecture that you and Martina Pachmanová gave six years ago, you investigated the difference between the number of female students in our field and the number of active female theorists and historians that are in the public eye to some degree. You came to the conclusion that the discrepancy was large. How do you perceive this disproportion today?
A: I wouldn’t dare to try to answer that question seriously today, because to do so would require socio-historical research, with hard data and specific conclusions. What Martina and I wrote for the introduction to that talk was more a tentative feeling we had from our surroundings. This of course brings us to the idea that feminism is either a) a questioning, say, scientific or professional, or b) a form of activism, which is a common problem with feminism, isn’t it? Our lecture was focused more on activism. We did it that way so that art historians – and especially female art historians – realized that there was a discrepancy, but I doubt that over the past six years the situation has changed significantly. Even if we are all used to the fact that the majority of university students may be women, later there may well be none in the faculty. To this day we have schools where this is the still the case, and that’s why I was pleased by the turmoil last year at the Academy of Fine Arts, which was caused by the fact that the were no women on the examination boards. We lack hard data, but my assumption, which is based on what I have read on the matter, is that the women sort of disappear. Of all European countries, the Czech Republic is the one that most wastes the potential of its women through the absence of functional parameters that would allow them to both have children and a career at the same time.
Q: So you think it is that the circumstances are to blame, and not the often-mentioned idea that women themselves “don’t want to?”
A: I’m going to answer in an ugly fashion, and I’m not going to be diplomatic here. I think the idea that “women themselves don’t want to have careers” is an ideological position that is forced on us by the male establishment. In a country where we sometimes have governments that contain no women, that is a given. That fact creates the general atmosphere, and influences the setting of guidelines.
Q: Can’t it be said that in general the emancipation of women continues and it’s just that not everyone forms and asserts their opinion so severely?
A: Yes, here we go back to what I have just broached. The fact that Czech feminism, that is sociologically based, gives so little attention to this topic is the thing I most hold against it. Under the former regime a social situation arose and lasted for forty years, whose distinctive feature was what is known as “the emancipation of women.” As a result, in 1989 we had a society in which the vast majority of women had a job, and yet some nonetheless had the feeling that they did not want to be employed. From that moment stems the idea that in the Czech social discourse one could say: “We women do not want to be publicly active.” When we had hundred percent of women employed, there was a certain percentage who did not want to have a job, and who preferred to take care of the household, which was very difficult under the previous regime. The formulation that “women themselves don’t want to”, just like everything else, comes from the specific situation of the Czech Republic, and owes its legacy to the way the former regime operated. The policy, in the words of Václav Klaus, who declares, “We are not going to look in the rearview mirror”, means that we have stopped understanding ourselves. You can’t compare this country with any other. Slovakia has a much higher number of female art historians working in education, as directors, and so on. In Slovakia, the first woman to be named Professor of Art History was Ľudmila Peterajová, and that was in 1972 or 1973. I myself was only appointed to the same position here in 2005. Even in the Czechoslovak context there is a difference between this country and Slovakia – we always have to be familiar with “Czech history” and take it into account in all considerations.
Q: With regard to politics and identity, I wanted to ask you about your involvement in the anthology edited by Martin Putna called Homosexualita v dějinách české kultury (Homosexuality in the History of Czech Culture).
A: I have to first point out that of course this is a problem that Martin Putna would have a different take on than I do. The question of feminism has its scholarly side, and it has its activist side. That also applies to the queer minority, which is of course smaller, but the activist element is present there as well. When it comes to the queer minority, you especially hear about the need to present positive role models. That means public figures who, despite their orientation being considered a type of handicap in most societies, have nevertheless stood their ground, who have achieved something, who have made good art, and so on. That is the activist side.
The problem with feminism and with the queer movement in the Czech Republic is that there the constructivist perspective isn’t part of general education, not even at the most basic level. That means that things which may seem natural, in fact are not natural at all, but are rather realities that have arisen from history. Something we can call, “the Foucauldian turn” in European thought, is something that even educated people here are not aware of. In the Czech Republic we were intellectually cut off, books by the relevant authors did not make it here, so our intellectual dissent was more focused on phenomenology, and so those other ways of thought stayed foreign. Unlike western countries, where those books are taken for granted, they are still not commonplace here. That’s why the debate over “what is natural for a woman” or over the “(un)naturalness of homosexuality” is still possible here. Nevertheless, the debate must be led in terms of the construction or identity. For example, Judith Butler’s essential book Gender Trouble (1990) is about the social construction of lesbian identity. The basic argument of the book is that in order for any identity to be real, it must to some degree be performed, which is true of national identity as well.
Q: You have taught art history at many universities: at the Pedagogic Faculty, at the Philosophical Faculty, at the Academy of Fine Arts, and in the fall you will be at the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague. What were the motivations and expectations you had when you started teaching?
A: Art school is something new for me. You know, you might expect some kind of idealistic answer, but to be honest about the things that brought me to teaching, I have to say that it was a practical choice – I need to earn money. I can imagine living my life as a independent scientist, or if need be as a scientist at the Czech Academy of Sciences. Not that teaching isn’t interesting, stimulating, rewarding, and great. It’s wonderful to have students, or rather to be precise: it’s wonderful to have a few great students. I mean, one could do without the 90% who are just average, but of course you can’t do that. The work is for money, so I do it.
Q: Do you think there is a difference between the relationship female educators and male educators have to their male and female students respectively?
A: Of course in the relationship between a female instructor and her students, be they male or female, there is a certain motherly dimension, which I find interesting. One of my female colleagues and I once agreed that the relationship women have with promising students of either sex who they pay attention to is definitely different than that which men have with these students. Men often fail to see promising students as anything other than potential competition that they themselves raise.
In contrast, we agreed that this aspect, either by coincidence, or perhaps because of the gender situation, does not impose itself on us that much. In my opinion, this is a very important issue, and it is addressed by classical, radical, modern, post-war feminism. Indeed, this question has been dealt with many times, and there is a very powerful feminist strain that doesn’t allow for the values of motherhood at all. I personally came across that, like all interesting topics, through the study of the Middle Ages. When one looks at gender in the Middle Ages, you can see that the economy of gender is distributed very differently in those societies, because the main feminine value of the time was motherhood. If we take this value as fundamental, then women played a huge role in medieval culture, and even though it may not agree with correct theology, in medieval religious practice the Virgin Mary was considered just as important as Jesus.
I consider the maternal aspect to be an important part of the feminist approach. I personally also see it as significant; yet please note that you asked me about studying and teaching. Between those two stages of my life I was on maternity leave for eight years, in which I was able to complete my doctorate. That’s something that just doesn’t figure in your resumé. When you write you professional CV, you don’t count the time you spent caring for your children. In my opinion, one of the key factors in the furtherance of feminism is to take into consideration that branch of the movement that sees motherhood as a fundamental issue.
Q: When did you start thinking about methodologies as applicable strategies for research into art history?
A: That started when I was writing my thesis. The problem was that there were very few people working actively in methodology. Creative thinking itself in that direction was until recently considered something that just didn’t belong here, and so no one did it. I have the feeling that everyone is so fascinated with Max Dvořák that no one dares to touch him, even slightly.
Q: In your view, what should art history education be like?
A: I think that what any art historian, theorist, or critic mainly encounters is the work itself. I am not interested in the artist, I am interested in the art. My study of the Middle Ages taught me that, as there the artists are not present at all. The task of the art historian is to interpret art for the public, but at the same time they don’t have to speak only about the work, but to describe the context in which it was created, and in so doing help the viewer encounter it. I am more and more convinced that a well-educated art historian should be an individual capable of such visual analysis. I think that if a school isn’t able to provide that, then it is useless. At the same time, I’m persuaded that the history of art can do that, but it just doesn’t say so completely clearly. What does an art historian or theorist know that the others don’t? From my point of view they should have a trained visual memory, and should know how to compare the work they see to others that somehow relate to it. Ideally, they would have a good grasp of all the art periods linked to the work
in question anyway.
Another thing is that an art historian knows, or should know, how to break down an image into its component parts, and should be able to talk about it. This is tricky because the work is physically in front of us, we see it with our eyes, and it exists in a universe of pictures.
The conversion of vision into words is what an art historian should be trained in. They should be educated in cognition, in the analysis of images. That type of knowledge is an amazing qualification to have, because then you are not only able to analyze artistic works, but in fact any image. The scope of the art historian has widened to include visual culture on a grander scale, and so includes things such as the analysis of advertising and film (though that of course has its own specifics). That same ability is essential at art school, because at the very least artists should be able to speak about their work in a way that makes sense. I think that Czech art history schools of all types in principle do a wonderful job of that, they just don’t openly convey what they are actually doing with the students.
Q: Isn’t analysis by itself insufficient? Being able to describe and classify an image doesn’t necessarily mean that one can interpret it.
A: No, of course it’s not enough. In order to interpret art, you have to study a lot of different subjects. You shouldn’t be satisfied only with history, which, though it is important for the analysis itself, doesn’t suffice if you want to make sense of the work. You have to be familiar with sociology, philosophy, anthropology, literary goings-on, and you have to be aware of what is happening in the world.
Q: The approaches to studying classical art history and to studying contemporary art are different. Do you think these subjects should be studied by themselves, or do you see them as inseparable?
A: That’s a hell of a question, and honestly I still don’t have a definite answer to it. From my own experience I have the feeling that without learning what I did during my study of the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t have been able to write, for example, about Miroslav Tichý. At Humboldt University in Berlin, with a dominant orientation towards modern and contemporary art, it was clear to see how much the students were lacking knowledge of the past. Of course, it’s true that you have to omit some things, because as the amount of knowledge grows, so does the difficulty of connecting it all. Here it seems better to me to let the facts go and keep the connections. My colleagues at the pedagogic faculty always said that I couldn’t interpret the context when a student doesn’t know the facts of that context, and they subscribed to what Peter Čornej called “playing the film of history from beginning to end.” In spite of that I still like the pedagogic idea that we can take a current topic and from it look back into the past.
In my study of contemporary art I can’t shake the feeling that without knowledge of the past we lack the competence to make decisions about the present, because as reality is truly continuous, you always have something that had a strong influence on today’s world. I contend, therefore, that classical history should be connected to the present, and that the two shouldn’t be treated as completely different things. I have this little theory, a kind of philosophical formulation: “When we interpret a work of art, we are not actually talking about what makes it art, but rather about everything around it.” If I speak about an old artwork then I have to explain the circumstances in which it was created, which of course no longer exist. It can be from the Gothic period, or from the 1930s. The art historian’s role is to bring the context in which the work was made to life for the viewer, and to help them experience it. When we are speaking about a contemporary work, however, that isn’t necessary. Everyone knows what Pode Bal is dealing in their work, and so no one has to explain it. On the other hand, we are so embedded in it, it’s as if we don’t see it, and that’s the distinction. In that case, talking about the “things around” a work is different, and is more about explaining theoretical and philosophical correlations, which one doesn’t think about on a day-to-day basis.
In fact, I think that besides having the ability to interpret a work of visual art, being a critic of contemporary art means staying up-to-date with what is going on in the world, intellectually and artistically.
The history of art consists of two parts – one being history, the other art – and you have to treat each differently. The experience of art is always subjective, intense, and personal. It always takes place in the now, at this concrete time, so strictly speaking it has no history, because experience can only be in the present. In contrast, past events constitute history. The interpretation of an artwork, like the artwork itself, always belongs to the present, and is always related to the contemporary situation. I insist that the competence that art historian and critic share is the analysis of visual art. That ability can only be acquired solely through the study of art history, as far as I know. I don’t know to what degree this is taught at FAMU (The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), though, as the analysis of film also concerns this.
Q: In fact, they even do viewer analysis, which we don’t.
A: Yes, that’s true, and we should do that too – receptive aesthetics. When my book comes out, you will see that it’s about the phenomenon of performance and about the fact that viewers don’t exist, only participants.
Q: Let’s return to teaching. What do you consider the specifics of teaching at art academy?
A: For the moment I can only partially address that, because I barely have a year of teaching under my belt. I have had some experience teaching an art history course to students of general history, for whom it was likely a minor matter. Thanks to that episode, I knew that you can’t expect too much detail or theory from fine artists. What I have enjoyed most so far is the fact that even if I lecture at an art academy in exactly the same way as I would at a university, the art school students take something completely different from it. That in turn makes me react in a different fashion, and I have started to focus on aspects of artworks that I had been aware of before, but that I had not paid as much attention to: things like color, composition, and so on. It is so beneficial for person who knows a subject well from one perspective to suddenly have a chance to look at it from another. That, for me, is incredibly enriching.
Q: What do you think is the role that art theorist plays at an art school?
A: That’s a question that before I didn’t have a clear answer to – after all, my qualification itself is in historic art. These days I insist that active artists, and accordingly, art students, must be familiar with tradition. If I am the next artist in a long line of artists, then I must know how that line looked before. Even in my first year of teaching at an art school, I have seen firsthand how captivated the students are by looking at some of the problems dealt with by their predecessors, and how they realize that they are actually dealing with something similar. I think that the history of art, including antiquity, should be taught very radically from the perspective of artistic problems that are today seen as relevant and exciting. My main experience with students is that though they may not consciously learn that much, they will definitely gain a subconscious understanding that the history of art didn’t start with their birth, nor at the beginning of the 20th century, nor with impressionism, but is rather a long tradition, which is continuously being intertwined with, enriched by, and kept alive by current creative practice.
Another issue is of course the relationship of the theorist to contemporary artistic production. With regard to that, I more and more think that curatorial studies should teach future curators to live and think in the same way as artists, just as artists should also learn to function like curators. A mutual interaction between the two groups would therefore begin from the time of studies, which is imperative for conceptual art today, and without which it is rarely possible to make things happen. That’s an example of one of the things that the Academy of Fine Arts systematically refuses.
Q: Is that because they don’t want theory to influence creation?
A: I think it’s more that there’s mutual distrust and ignorance of the other. Today I read an article in which someone got sincerely angry about the fact that the theorists tend to take up too much space at
exhibitions, instead of giving it to the artists. I think that what could really help us move forward is precisely the mutual experience during the studies. Cooperation wouldn’t be imposed, but would be encouraged and facilitated so that the two camps could get to know, and learn to trust each other. The theoretician shouldn’t feel like they know better than the artist, and likewise the artist shouldn’t feel like the theoretician is acting superior. It’s important to realize that both are contributing
to something together. Albeit this was theoretically formulated fifteen years ago, it is nevertheless still a novelty.
I was in Berlin last year for a conference which was concerned with so-called “curatorial design”. The idea was that exhibitions are not put together only by the artist and the curator, but by the artist, curator, and the person who designed the exhibition. All of them are part of a triangle of cooperation from the very beginning.
Q: In your work you deal with a lot of themes – we have already spoken about the Middle Ages and feminism, and you additionally investigate the question of nationalism. Are there any other topics in the art-historical context that you consider as currently relevant?
A: If I look at it completely generally, I would say that today in the context of Euro-American humanities the three key questions are identity, memory, and objectness. This July the world art historical congress is going to discuss the theme of “the Object in Art”– that is a thing, an object in art, not “Art as Object”, which the three questions I mentioned all have something to do with. The dialogue is about the tension between what is alive and what isn’t, what is natural and what is man-made. These days we have the feeling that we are approaching a border that is being disrupted, so the question is whether that is true, or if we are only imagining it.
Questions of identity are extremely important, especially when you are looking at them from a national perspective. When you approach questions of nationality as regarding identity we start with the individual and not with some over-arching ideas. Large, over-arching constructs like a nation or a state have a very dangerous history behind them, and they were put to use a lot in the two world wars. When we look at this from the perspective of personal identity we may seem to be in safe territory, but in fact we are still talking about nationality.
The question of nationality is constantly becoming more and more politically relevant in this country.
The third issue that I see as extremely significant is memory. As with identity, memory raises questions from the personal – I am consciously not saying “subjective”– point of view, from the perspective of every individual and not from some objective angle (such as that of the state). This is an issue that the Germans have worked through well, because they have a very strong culture of both memory and remembrance, as they are continuously trying to overcome the Second World War.
Here I once again have to bring up feminism because the two main people who are concerned with the theme of memory are the university professors Jan Assmann, who is an Egyptologist, and his wife Aleida Assmann. For a long time Jan was much more well known than Aleida was, because she has five children, or rather they have five children. She is about sixty today, but she has been able to reach the top of her profession, and has become more famous than him. What makes her so amazing is something we could call her “feminine quality”, which means she doesn’t shy away from speaking from her own personal point of view, she doesn’t insist on taking an objective stance, but is able to approach things from her own individual position. In 1999, Aleida Assmann published a book called Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, or Spaces of Memories: Forms and Transitions of Cultural Memory. Since then she has put out either a book or a collection of essays every two or three years, and even with five kids, she belongs amongst the intellectual stars of Europe.