Conference Session: Association for Art History 2019 Annual Conference| Modern(ist) objects? The objet trouvé in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Session Details

4403133_06Frontispiece, A Catalogue of the Portland Museum, lately the property of the Duchess Dowager of Portland, deceased, which will be sold by auction by Mr. Skinner and Co., on Monday the 24th of April, 1786.

Now that we’ve finally confirmed our speakers, I’m excited to be able to share the details of our Association for Art History 2019 Annual Conference session on the found object in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Below you’ll find our session abstract and those of our speakers.

Session Abstract

Modern(ist) objects? The objet trouvé in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Molly Duggins (National Art School, Sydney) & Freya Gowrley (University of Edinburgh)

Marcel Duchamp’s series of ‘readymades’, particularly the infamous Fountain of 1917, are often viewed as heralding a watershed moment in the history of art. Produced between 1913 and 1921, Duchamp utilised found and appropriated objects, often drawn from everyday life, to redefine and question the very nature of art. Yet the art historical emphasis on the revolutionary nature of Duchamp’s practice overlooks the productive possibilities offered by a longer and more fluid notion of the found object, or objet trouvé. Indeed, found objects have a long and venerable history stretching back well before the advent of Modernism, being used in the production of an array of cultural practices throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Transformed by aesthetic and material processes such as display, translation, and adaptation, both everyday and extraordinary found objects proliferate in collections, collages, still lives, manuscripts, and assemblages made throughout this period. This session accordingly seeks to examine the expanded field of the found object and the readymade by exploring these earlier manifestations.


Paper Abstracts

‘Excavating the ‘Other’: (Post) Colonial Archaeology and Dextrous Encounter in the Duchess of Portland’s Box’

 Madeleine Pelling, University of York

Sometime in the 1780s, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, duchess of Portland wrote out a label for an object in her famous Portland Museum. The object in question was a figurine carved from shell over a hundred years earlier. She recorded how “this was found on a small isl[and] near Exuma it is supposed to have been left there by th[e] Indians and made of the shell of a conch.” She then placed the figurine inside a wooden box, arranging it alongside a green hardstone axe head, an ancient Egyptian figurine, an eagle stone in a sewn wash-leather bag, and a folded paper containing a preserved butterfly. For the duchess, the moment of ‘discovery’ was a central conceit useful in constructing a largely fictive and European fantasy of an unknown people, embodied and fetishized in the objects themselves which, through excavation of the box, could be ‘found’ again and again by the duchess and her visitors.

This paper is simultaneously concerned with the box as a framework designed to prompt tactile enquiry, and the hand as a colonial apparatus used to discover fictions attached to the material objects within. It builds on Constance Classen’s claim for the tactility of the eighteenth-century museum, as well as Kate Smith’s work on the eighteenth-century hand as an extension of the burgeoning world of material commodity. I suggest the box as a liminal space that offered any visitor who might put their hand into its depths the chance to enter a carefully designated in-between space in which tactile excavation brought with it bodily encounters with a different world, textures and materials. Although lifting the lid of the box triggered an invitation to excavate its contents, the truth is that none of the objects inside had ever been subterranean. The kind of archaeology practiced in this context, and practiced theoretically throughout this paper, relies on the plumbing of the container itself and a bringing of its contents to the surface as a way to expose the cultural assumptions and stories attached to them.


‘Superfluous Springs: fontaines à parfum and the marchands–merciers in eighteenth–century Paris as ‘Perturbed Objects”’

 Patricia Ferguson, British Museum, Britain, Europe and Pre–History, Project Curator, 18th Century Ceramics

 In Surrealist Objects and Poems, 1937, Herbert Read recorded the term ‘perturbed objects’. It was represented by a work of art by Julian and Ursula Trevelyan, Large Bomblette (Tate, London, T07465), which brought together an unusual assemblage of materials in a bizarre form of display with comic connotations. The incongruity of the arrangement (and wit) is not dissimilar from eighteenth-century fontaines à parfum created in eighteenth-century Paris by marchands–merciers (“Makers of nothing, sellers of everything”) from ‘found objects’ mounted in gilt metal (ormolu) or other precious materials. For the most part these are unique objects juxtaposed from exotic, but familiar, playful, readymade elements, primarily of porcelain, which had independent historiographies outside of these assemblages. However, rather than being non–functional works of art, these unexpected historic combinations were an ultimate indulgence enjoyed by the aristocracy, forming part of the performance of ablutions in the private apartments, dispensing the most ephemeral of luxury goods, perfume. As inventive taste–makers, these retailers purchased rare second–hand goods or commissioned bespoke porcelain from Asia or Europe, for which they ordered mounts to their own specifications. Their unsettling aesthetic is not always pleasing as the mounts domesticating the foreign may disguise ravages of use or confusing scales, which are frequently combined with artificial flowers referencing the contents to be dispensed. In the most inventive examples, fontaines à parfum change our perception of the original objects assembled, embodying very antithesis of Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917.


Domestic Materialities: found object and natural material collages in Victorian-Canadian Women’s Albums’

 Hilary Dow, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

This paper will examine the presence of found objects and multimedia collages found in Victorian women’s albums in Canada. During the Victorian era, upper-middle class settler women experimented with a range of domestic and natural found objects such as lace, hair, seaweed, shells, rocks, leaves, flowers, and ferns. Through collaging such found objects, Canadian women created complex and aesthetic designs, which they typically pasted into their personal, family photograph and souvenir albums.  This paper does not seek to study albums as objects, but rather, investigate the nature and styles of collage from the period, a topic which has never been examined in Canadian scholarship. Examples of collages which will be discussed in this conference paper include collage pages from A Souvenir of Victoria Album from British Columbia, Lady Belleau Album from Quebec and C.W. Bell Album from Ontario. Theoretically, I will examine the relationship between the materiality of objects used in these unique collages and their associative meanings, taking into account materiality, feminist, photographic and settler-colonial theory (Batchen 2004, Di Bello 2007, Duggins 2018, Edwards 1999).  I argue that found objects were used in such collages to reference materials and places associated with domestic spaces, colonialism, death, and memory.


‘The Found Object in 18th and 19th Century Home “Art” Craft’

Marilyn Casto, Associate Professor, Art History, Virginia Tech

This presentation examines the role of found objects, particularly those obtained from nature, in women’s craft work of the 18th and 19th centuries and the purposes and goals for their use in work intended to create an artistic ambiance. This era saw the development of many applications of what was basically collage with found objects resulting in the creation of “paintings” made from assorted materials, particularly bark, pinecones and other natural materials. Women also used surfaces such as fungi as a background for drawing, making the found object the integral and intentional basis for the art.

There were four main goals in the use of such materials. 1. Memory. Plants, shells, and other natural materials served to evoke the memory of family or friends who may have been present when they were gathered or who provided the substances. 2. Connection to web of others. Materials such as shells or feathers were often exchanged among friends and acquaintances creating a web of contacts who broadened a maker’s world. 3. Ties to nature. Use of substances sourced from the natural world demonstrated interest in a topic that for many reasons became an obsession for the era. 4. Demonstration of resourcefulness. Use of unconventional materials such as fish scales or drawings on fungi provided a physical demonstration of an individual’s creativity and ability to envision new concepts in use of materials.


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