26 May 2022 -

Hidden Histories: Gender in Design interview: Barbara Jaffee

Our final Hidden Histories: Gender in Design seminar examines pedagogic histories and practices. Ahead of the event, our Ambassador Alexandra Banister asked Barbara Jaffee, Associate Professor Emerita of Modern Art and Design History at Northern Illinois University, more about her research into the work of the art historian Helen Gardner.

To attend the seminar on Thursday 26th May, please register for free via Eventbrite:

Alexandra Banister: What is your background and how did you develop an interest in design history?

Barbara Jaffee: I am a PhD in Art History from the University of Chicago and Emerita Professor of Modern Art and Design History at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, where I taught for almost twenty years. Prior to that I earned two fine arts degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taught painting there for over a decade, and a Master's in History of 19th and 20th century Architecture and Art from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was very fortunate to study with the design historian Victor Margolin at UIC, whose encouragement and example led me to broaden the scope of my nascent research into the origins of modernism in American painting.

AB: What does your research focus on?

BJ: My research focuses on art and design pedagogies of the early twentieth century and their impact on the development of modernism in American art.

AB: Your talk is part of a wider seminar series on Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, how does this apply to your work?

BJ: I have become very interested in the historiography of American modernism, much of which is written beginning in the Cold War era and insists on medium specificity. However, the history of art in the United States in the early twentieth century is largely a story of modernism's integration across media, including design and decorative arts. The art historian Helen Gardner, author of the popular survey textbook Art Through the Ages, understood this well. Active in Chicago between 1915 and her death in 1946, Gardner's final edition of her book, published in 1948, is remarkably prescient in its celebration of globalism, industrialism, and collectivism in art. Unfortunately, posthumous revisions of Gardner's text have erased these innovations, including any acknowledgment of the author herself (who remains a vestigial presence at best in the renaming of the text as Gardner's Art Through the Ages in 1959).

AB: Please tell us about an interesting piece of design you have discovered as part of your research.

BJ: Gardner was a relativist who marshalled the insights of human psychology to argue for generally valid laws of artistic creation. She insisted her students make schematic drawings of compositional effects of canonical artworks, and used these diagrams as critical supplements to her text.


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