Listening to TJ Clark

This last week the city of Chicago was so fortunate to host the amazing art historian T.J. Clark.

You can probably recognize his name if you’ve ever taken a modern art course- as he is an expert on the subject. I became familiar with his work last semester when I used his book The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers for my essay on Manet. I’ve read more of his work this semester, such as excerpts from The Sight of Death: An Experiment on Art Writing and Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica because my professor and thesis advisor was one of his students, how cool is that!?

The first lecture and the seminar the next day were held at my current school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and on the third day he lectured at the beautiful University of Chicago.


Disclaimer: my descriptions of these lectures do not do them justice at all. I was completely engaged  in Clark’s way of speaking so my notes are scribbled and almost incomprehensible.

I arrived for the first lecture about an hour early- such an art nerd, I know- to get a front row seat. I was so excited to find out that his wife and fellow art historian Anne Wagner was there, too! (She signed my book- yay!!!)

His first lecture covered the quality of the ‘looks’ in Velasquez’s paintings,  Aesop and Mars, and how they relate to each other. He talked about the different gazes of the figures being looks of illusion or war, and then connected them by noting that “war is performance.” He asked us to think about how the figured address us, noting that expression is a form of language, or non-language, that is the key to his tone.

  Diego_Velasquez,_Aesop     Velázquez_-_Dios_Marte_(Museo_del_Prado,_c._1638) (1)

The next day, Clark led a seminar based on his work called Cezanne and the Fetishisism of Commodities. I have to be honest here, I was a little lost on this day as I had not had time to read the paper being discussed, but nonetheless it was a great conversation among great minds. He discussed the vividness of Cezanne’s works, and the relationship between his works and ideas of strangeness, beauty, and ugliness.

I’m so happy I made the third lecture. I had worked all morning and thankfully got off in time to bike home, grab the car and drive all the way down to Hyde Park to UChicago. I sat down just as the introduction was coming to an end.


The third lecture was my favorite. The topic was a fresco panel by Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua, called Joachim’s Dream. I don’t know if it was my favorite because I just spent a semester in Italy studying Renaissance works or if it was the way Clark was able to pull so much detail and meaning out of a seemingly simple picture, but I was completely captivated the whole hour.

I wish I could have recorded these lectures for everyone to hear, because it’s hard for me to put into words how amazing they were. Clark is so descriptive and eloquent in his speech, almost as if he is reciting an hour-long poem. He makes an image come to life. One thing I noticed between the lectures is that he says that he finds himself chosen by paintings, rather than him choosing them to write about.


This last week has left me so inspired, and so excited to learn more about art history! I hope someday I can write and speak as well as Clark, and I hope to someday cross paths again- preferably when I’m a little less shy!


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