‘In art history today there seems to be what we would call a ‘return to the object,’ after, and benefitting from, two decades of intense theorization,” says Yve-Alain Bois of the Institute for Advanced Study in a press statement about the Institute’s lecture series, “The Sensuous in Art,” a joint project with Princeton University. He goes on to say: “Exploring the theme of the sensuous — which is different from, but related to, that of the sensual — will allow us to reflect not only upon the different effects works of art were meant to have on different senses in different times and places, but also upon the way we can respond today to their summon.”

Bois, professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute, and Hal Foster, chair of the department of art and archaeology at Princeton University headed the effort, and arranged for seven lectures to be presented by leading scholars centered around the theme of the sensuous in art. The series began with “Behaving Globally,” presented by Anne Wagner, professor of Modern Art in the department of history of art at the University of California, Berkeley, followed by “As it It Were: Mysticism, Visuality, and the Odor of Sanctity,” presented by Jeffrey Hamburger, professor in the department of history of art and architecture at Harvard.

The next lecture will be held on Thursday, December 7, in Wolfensohn Hall, to be presented by Stephen Campbell, professor and chair, department of the history of art at Johns Hopkins University. Campbell, who specializes in the Italian Renaissance, will speak on “Invisible Nymphs Revisited: Materialism, Sensation, and Human Nature in Venetian Art, 1500-1520.”

The lecture, which will explore experimental approaches to representing human physical nature in the work of Giorgione, Titian, and Domenico Campagnola, is described in a synopsis on the Institute’s web site, www.ias.edu: “Outside of the university, poets, painters, and writers of treatises in the vernacular began to experiment with new ways of describing the nature of what it means to be human, and to do this with a new sense of the possibilities of poetic and artistic representation. Vernacular poetry had long provided a contemporary vernacular language for the representation of emotional states and sensuous experience.”

Campbell was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father worked for the airline Aer Lingus, and his mother was a homemaker. Campbell earned a bachelors degree in art history from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1985. He then moved to the United States to continue his education, receiving a masters from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1987, and a Ph.D. from John Hopkins in 1993. He taught at the University of Michigan from 1995 to 1999, and at the University of Pennsylvania from 1999 to 2002.

Campbell attributes the spark of his interest in art history to television, specifically, educational programming in the ’70s. “The BBC2 used to do extraordinary documentaries; they were not dumbed-down. I think they were of a much higher quality than documentaries on TV today.” And the three documentaries he remembers enjoying the most discussed El Greco, Titian and Velazquez. “I was captivated,” he says.

In his lecture at the Institute Campbell says the key work he will discuss is “The Pastoral Concert” (above), which belongs to the Louvre in Paris. There is still debate whether this painting was done by Giorgione or Titian but the current trend in thought attributes it to Titian. “Most of the discussion of this work is about ‘who did it?’ but can we talk about the meaning of the painting, looking for common themes and motifs in the picture?”

The title of his lecture borrows from a famous article on the painting, “Invisible Nymphs,” written by Philip Fehl in 1957. Campbell says: “Fehl proposed the females were muses, in the spiritual sense, and the two men could not see them.” This theory remains popular today. “Fehl is sort of a key for the painting. The article was very influential — often cited,” says Campbell.

Campbell speaks of Titian’s “extraordinarily sensual and tactile” rendering of the invisible nymphs. Titian is interested in sensation,” the actual physical acts of seeing, hearing, and touching, the “human physical nature” rather than the spiritual.

Campbell will also discuss Giorgione’s “The Tempest,” a painting that he admits “I have written a lot about. It’s another problem painting.” The painting shows a northern Italian landscape with three figures in the foreground, a clothed male to the left, looking to the right at a nude female nursing a child. According to Campbell, there is much discussion about who the characters represent; some say that they are Adam and Eve, some say that they are Mars and Venus, and others say they are simply refugees from the war against Venice in 1509.

Campbell says he will also borrow ideas from another famous piece of writing, “On The Nature of Things,” written by Lucretius (dates vary from 50 BC to 8 AD), which, Campbell says, “is an attempt to conceive of the universe in completely material terms” and which poses the question “what is the place of the senses in human nature?”

Campbell argues that the female in Giorgione’s “The Tempest” “represents human nature; human beings are born naked, exposed and vulnerable to the elements.” But he also recognizes that they are “ambiguously sensuous — is he looking voyeuristically? Are you looking voyeuristically?”

According to Campbell, “These paintings are supposed to give pleasure, but also ask the viewer to reflect on the sensations you are having. That’s why I call them philosophical paintings.”

In his press statement Bois of the Institute asks, “Is there such a thing, even, as purely visual pleasure? Do a medieval nun, a Persian calligrapher, a contemporary artist and Renaissance humanist have anything in common when it comes to the production and reception of an art object? This is the type of question, both historical and anthropological, that will hopefully be raised in this series of lectures.”

“Invisible Nymphs Revisited: Materialism, Sensation, and Human Nature in Venetian Art, 1500 to 1520,” Thursday, December 7, 5 p.m. The Sensuous in Art lecture series, Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University, Wolfensohn Hall, Einstein Drive, Princeton, Presented by Stephen Campbell, professor and chair of the department of art at the Johns Hopkins University. Part of Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University’s “The Sensuous in Art” series. Free.

“The Eye is Favored for Seeing the Writing’s Forum: On the Sensual and the Sensuous in Islamic Calligraphy,” Thursday, January 18, 5 p.m., McCormick Hall, Princeton University. Presented by David Roxburgh, professor in Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University. Free.

“Family Tragedy of the Walls of Pompeii,” Saturday, February 17, 5 p.m., Princeton University, Wolfensohn Hall, Einstein Drive. Presented by Natalie Kampen, chair of women’s studies at Barnard College. Free.

“Activating the Senses: The Body Royal and the Body Politic in a Mesopotamian Visual Aesthetics of Power,” Tuesday, March 6, 5 p.m., McCormick Hall, Princeton University. Presented by Irene Winter, professor fine arts, Harvard University. Free.

“Veronese’s Allegories of Love,” Friday, April 6, 5 p.m., Wolfensohn Hall, Einstein Drive, Princeton. Presented by George C. and Helen N. Pardee, professors of art history, University of California, Berkeley. Free.

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