It is safe to say that Professor Wendy Bellion is an expert on American art and material culture. Her book, Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011, UNC Press) won the prestigious Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Outstanding Scholarship from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and her next book, Iconoclasm in New York: Revolution to Reenactment (to be released fall 2019 through Penn State University Press) examines the relatively unexamined history of iconoclasm in the United States. Professor Bellion has been with the Department of Art History since 2004 and throughout her time here, she has taken an interdisciplinary approach to American art and material culture. She has taught courses on Iconoclasm, Methods and Historiography, Fakes in American Art, and much more. Professor Bellion is now embarking on a new branch of research related to art and theater in 1800s Philadelphia. As she gets ready to take a sabbatical, we wanted to talk with Professor Bellion about her upcoming research, her book release, and some of her favorite courses to teach.
Q: You're currently working on a book, Iconoclasm in New York: Revolution to Reenactment; what is the topic and how did you come to want to write it?
A: My new book explores the destruction of an enormous, gilded, equestrian statue of George III that stood for just six years in a small park in lower Manhattan (Bowling Green) before it was pulled down by a Revolutionary crowd – and it traces the afterlife of this iconoclastic action in the form of fragments, pictorial representations, and even performative re-enactments that kept the memory of the statue alive in New York right through the 1930s. It also looks at a broader field of material violence in late colonial Manhattan that saw attacks on effigies, liberty poles, and other British sculptures, and in so doing, it points to a cultural paradox: in destroying British monuments, Americans at once enacted their independence and re-iterated British practices of iconoclasm. In a nutshell, I try to show how British material culture, even in pieces, gave rise to an American creation story.
It has been refreshing to work on this book because little has been written to date on histories of iconoclasm in the United States (although Professor Jennifer van Horn has recently published a brilliant Art Bulletin article on this topic with regard to African American history and the American South). I began thinking about this subject way back in 2005, when I first presented a paper about the King's statue at a conference at UPenn's McNeil Center for Early American Studies. But it was really my work with UD graduate and undergraduate students that helped advance this research: when two of my doctoral advisees – Sarah Beetham (PhD 2014) and Katie Wood Kirchhoff (PhD 2015) – decided to write dissertations about American sculpture, we developed an independent study that later morphed into seminars on the materials and histories of sculpture in the U.S. This proved to be just the preparation that I needed in order to educate myself about marble carving, bronze casting, and the process of transforming giant white pine trees into liberty poles. So I'm indebted to my conversations with UD grads and undergrads for my work on Iconoclasm in New York!
Q: You've taught courses on iconoclasm in the past, why do you think it's important to think about this in the present day?
A: Iconoclasm has been present in just about every world culture since the dawn of time, and my seminars on this topic have tried to help students develop a deep understanding of destruction as a political, religious, and cultural practice. But you're right: there is an urgency to the study of iconoclasm right now, and there are several reasons for this. Of course, what comes to mind immediately is the removal or destruction of Confederate monuments and other contested statues in cities across the U.S. Looking further afield, we have seen innumerable cultural heritage sites threatened or damaged by terrorism, war, and even natural disasters around the globe. Yet iconoclasm can be a force of creation as well as displacement: think of the innumerable artists who have explored destructive practices in their work, from Jean Tinguely and Yoko Ono to Ed Ruscha and Valerie Hegarty. Art historians, including the students who graduate from our programs, are especially well positioned to help people think through the many nuances of iconoclasm, whether those discussions occur in the university classroom or within public communities.
Q: What is one of your favorite courses to teach?
A: It's hard to choose! I love teaching the undergraduate survey of American art (ARTH230) that introduces students to the diverse indigenous and settler material cultures of North America. It often comes as a surprise to students to begin our study of American art history not with "ye olden days" of British America, but rather with the ancient mound builders of the Mississippi Valley, Huron-French exchanges in the seventeenth century, and Dutch architecture in New Amsterdam. I also enjoyed teaching a recent graduate seminar in methods and historiography which plunged into big picture questions, both old and new, about the practice of art history: How can we account for formal changes over time? What is the scholar's voice in the art histories that she writes? I was energized by the students' appetite for philosophy, aesthetics, and criticism, which took us from Kant to Nochlin to critical race theory.
Q: Between your previous research on William Birch and the Peales, you seem to like Philadelphia and Philadelphia artists in early America - what draws you to the city and those artists in that particular time period?
A: I'm glad you asked, because my next project returns to Philadelphia to explore the intermedial relations of art and theater around 1800, when the Chestnut Street Theatre was one of the only public places to see painting in the city. I'll be looking at the theater's gilded interiors, its display of huge panoramas, its employment of scene painters from London, and its diverse audience, which could seat up to 2000 spectators each performance from all walks of Philadelphia life. I am fascinated by places that defy and complicate our familiar understandings of "American art." That includes the visual cultures of Philadelphia's performative spaces – and public sites like Manhattan parks –where immigrants often took the lead in shaping new artistic practices. Plus there is still so much to be learned about eighteenth-century cultural history (let alone the seventeenth!).
Q: You and Professor Mónica Domínguez Torres have previously collaborated as co-editors for a special issue of the Winterthur Portfolio journal titled Objects in Motion publication, which also became a course that you co-taught. Do the two of you have any future collaborations planned at the moment?
A: Yes! We hope to offer another co-taught graduate seminar in 2021, the quincentennial of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, that will continue our explorations of transcultural encounters across the early Americas. Our collaborations in teaching and writing have been so rewarding, and I hope that one day Prof. Domínguez Torres will also instruct me in the mysteries of making her excellent paella.