Object lessons

2 Oct 2017

Art historian Philippe Cordez teases out the hidden connotations of objects that have come down to us from pre-modern times. He joined LMU as a Research Fellow, and now leads a Junior Research Group financed by the Elite Network of Bavaria.

Art historian Dr. Philippe Cordez heads the Junior Research Group in Premodern Objects: "An Archaeology of Experience“

In 2013, Cordez, then at the Art History Institute Florence – Max-Planck-Institute, was awarded an LMU Research Fellowship. | © Judith Glaubitz/LMU

Art historian Philippe Cordez studies objects originating from the Pre-Modern Era, both precious and (ostensibly) banal, which he discovers in museums all over the world. Among the items he has analyzed are objects that have traditionally been associated with Charlemagne himself and combs made of ivory from the Early and the High Middle Ages. To us, the function of a comb appears obvious, but in the past such things could also be used in ritual or religious contexts. “The concept of an ‘object’, in the sense of something tangible that has a clearly delineated form and a specific function, is only two centuries old,” says Cordez. The objects that interest him are much older, and they raise an apparently paradoxical question: “What are objects when they are not regarded as objects? When it first dawned on me that something as apparently evident as our everyday, three-dimensional objects could provoke such a question, I was quite astonished. For the question itself implies that people can have highly diverse relationships with what we now call objects.”

His research is devoted to uncovering these relationships. “When art history as we know it established itself as an independent discipline in the 19th century, the study of objects was among its concerns. But over the course of the 20th century it concentrated more and more on images. Architecture retained its place, but three-dimensional objects that one can pick up in one’s hand – what was referred to as ‘arts and crafts’ in the 19th century and the reason why we have museums dedicated to the decorative arts – virtually disappeared from the purview of academic art history. When art history becomes solely a matter of images, it neglects part of its mission and forgoes many opportunities to engage in rewarding exchanges with other areas in the Humanities. My group and I hope, building on and complementing methods of visual studies, to strengthen the status of object studies, and in so doing to make art history more able of illuminating interactions with other disciplines,” he says.

Cordez came to LMU as a Research Fellow in 2013, but within a few months – with funding from the Elite Network of Bavaria (Elitenetzwerk Bayern) – he was able to set up a Junior Research Group devoted to the study of “Premodern Objects”. Since then he has combined his work as a Research Fellow with his duties as the leader of an independent group. “I very much appreciate the flexibility that the Fellowship Program gives me. Indeed, I advantage of it from the very beginning,” he says. In his first few months in Munich, the Fellowship enabled him to prepare the first projects of his group, and has since helped him to develop collaborations with the Institute and to integrate his research into the curriculum.

This is reflected in the involvement of students in the project “Objects in the Form of Books”, which focuses on a selection of 50 objects with the aim of understanding how and why a book shape was involved in their creation. Cordez picks up a volume bound in leather which is embossed with a fine Victorian design – and proceeds to take the upper part off to reveal the contents of a sewing set. “This curious object bears the title ‘lady’s companion’, and was quite common in the 19th century,” he explains, as he displays the book’s contents – spools of thread, needles, a thimble, a little knife and much else that a practiced needlewoman might need. “This is certainly not fine art in the sense in which that term was used in the 18th and 19th centuries. But for me art is something that has been made, and in this case cleverly made. We study book-shaped items dating from the Late Middle Ages up to the present, and we keep coming across things that are interesting and complex, and raise questions with which none of the traditional disciplines concerns itself.“

Art historical analysis of the ‘book’ that bears the title “Lady’s Companion” reveals why it would be a mistake to see it as something bizarre that belongs in a cabinet of curiosities: The choice of the book form conveys a message. “It proclaims that its owner is a gentlewoman. This sewing kit was used not to make items of clothing, but for ‘fancy sewing’ in sociable needlework sessions with friends or with other family members. The term ‘lady’s companion’ was also used for women’s magazines in the Victorian period. Possession of this object indicated that one was virtuous and could sew and read with equal facility, and perhaps write and paint as well.” Indeed, this sewing set contains a pencil, and a paint-box in book form is featured in the project. This type of analysis reveals what the makers and users of such objects associated with books. “They focused on specific connotations of the book. Here, it is the notion of refinement and education, which was projected from the object onto its owner, even though this book is not a book but a container for a sewing kit.”

In his researches, Cordez works closely with specialists in very different disciplines. For example, a pharmacist and medical historian was recruited to analyze a portable set of homeopathic agents assembled by Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, around 1820. “Hahnemann chose a book-shaped packaging in order to confer an aura of learning and authority on his doctrines and thus give them a certain degree of legitimacy.”

Philippe Cordez finds the objects he studies in museums in Europe and North America, many of which he has visited with the aid of the travel funds provided as part of his fellowship. These trips “are indispensable for the development of object-based research, an area of art history that has been neglected for a long time,” he says. But he also uses the Internet and Ebay for his research. One result of these trawls was a French cigarette lighter made from a shell casing and fashioned in the form of a book, which bears the engraved inscription ‘Verdun 1916’.

Bringing out the forgotten

Cordez explores his research field in a series of case studies. Employing various art historical methods of analysis, he focuses each time on novel aspects of the relationship between the objects and their subjects. In the project “Object Fantasies”, the emphasis is on creativity. “The creative impulse always plays a role in our interactions with objects,” he says. Personal memories and fantasies form a major part of our relationships with particular objects, and they also play an important role in the design of new objects.” His own interest in objects studies was aroused early on. “Among other things, I studied Museum Sciences at the École du Louvre in Paris, and that made a deep impression on me. As a specialist in this field, I am interested in why we collect and conserve objects for centuries in museums. It is not a self-explanatory activity, as witnessed by the fact that many cultures around the world feel no need to engage in it.”

In one of his earliest projects he studied objects that were traditionally thought to have belonged to Charlemagne. In many cases, it was easy to prove – and widely known – that these attributions were erroneous. However, Cordez was the first to reconstruct why these objects had come to be associated with the Frankish king who was crowned as the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800. “Charlemagne’s reign as Emperor of the Christian West left its mark on the political systems that developed in the centuries that followed. Many later institutions wished to boost their own legitimacy by demonstrating a direct relationship with the emperor – for example, by asserting that ‘Charlemagne presented us with this object when he granted these rights or lands to us’. That was particularly important for the ancient abbeys that had been founded in Carolingian times, and later needed to defend their legal privileges against the claims of younger religious orders.” And this often proved successful.

“Art historians soon recognized these attributions as spurious, and simply corrected them. As a result, the grounds for such false ascriptions were of no further interest. But these stories are part of the history of these objects. Indeed, they very often explain why the objects have survived in the first place.” Thus, Cordez’s work on objects not only revises the often Eurocentric perspectives of art historians’ concept of art, but it also brings connections to light that have been forgotten or ignored. In doing so, he not only seeks out overlooked but revealing items from the distant and the more recent past, he also reveals the historical significance of what we perceive when we deal with objects that used to be no objects.

What are you looking for?