This new series features one of our seminars at Bard Graduate Center. This month, Professors Paul Stirton and Ittai Weinryb talk about their team-taught course:

Gothic Visions: From the Visigoths to Post-Punk

This course is something of an experiment for both of us. Instead of teaching within our own periods (Medieval and Modern), we are thinking about the longer span of history, and how styles and concepts in the decorative arts change over millennia. Most people think they have a sense of what the “Gothic” is, or was, but the closer we have examined this stylistic category, the less clear and straightforward it has become.

The fine metalwork produced by a nomadic tribal society in the fifth century has very little to do with the dominant design style of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Indeed, no one thought of it as something called “Gothic” until the rather self-important Italians of the sixteenth century began using it as a critical term to dismiss the culture of Northern Europe.

What is more, the various “Gothic” revivals of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries suggest that the category functioned as a receptacle for increasingly eccentric ideas about national identity, morals, climate, socialism, and horror. It has been quite an experience contrasting the medieval objects at the Cloisters with Pugin’s “Bread Plate” of 1850, with its edifying pseudo-Gothic inscription, which we were able to handle in the Met seminar room.

The post-punk era has given a further twist to this long history, as “Gothic” has entered the world of youth sub-cultures with the full range of clothing, jewelry, graphics, and doom-laden music. It is still not clear whether the students (or the professors) will emerge with a firm grasp of “Gothic,” but we will all have a better idea of the problems in trying to define a style across time and place.

—Paul Stirton and Ittai Weinryb

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Photo by Eusebius (Guillaume Piolle)
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (British, 1812–1852) Stoneware; Diam. 13 1/8 in. (33.3 cm) Purchase, Cynthia Hazen Polsky Gift, 1994 (1994.371) The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Hans Poelzig​, Berlin, 1920​, colored lithograph, 140 x 91 cm © Berlin, Deutsches Historisches Museum​, Inv.-Nr.: P 58/59​