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Reconsidering History Painting

Gledhill, David Charles (2019) Reconsidering History Painting. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis accompanies a body of practical work as the submission for a practice-­‐ based investigation of history painting. It proposes that a contemporary form of history painting can be developed by drawing upon micro-­‐historical source material including photographs, documents and letters. It addresses research questions related to the nature of such a practice and its relevance to the present day, and represents a contribution to knowledge by setting out a range of models for a form of contemporary painting capable of reflexively engaging with historical subjects and themes. The thesis sets out the art historical precedents and theoretical contexts of the practical work, and documents the methodologies and evolution of the three major projects. The theoretical research, drawn from art history (Bann, 1984; Green and Seddon 2000), historiography (White, 1973; 1978; 1987), photography (Green and Lowry, 2003; Berger, 2013), archaeology (Schofield, 2005; 2006), and geography (Relph, 1976; Soja, 1989), contributed consistently and critically to the development of the work, and as a result, each chapter contains an embedded literature review. The Appendix contains supplementary written material, together with visual documentation of all the practical work and the exhibitions in which it has featured. During the course of study, the aims of the research shifted considerably. What began as an attempt to devise a form of photo-­‐derived painting capable of contributing to public discourse about current political conflicts, became problematic as a result of issues relating to the provenance and nature of the source material. These difficulties led to an exploration of the potential for a form of history painting based on the acquisition of accredited second-­‐hand amateur snapshots, seen as both iconic records and traces of social activity. This, in turn, opened up a greater range of historical source material and subject matter for treatment, and led to a diversification of media to include film, printmaking, and assemblage. The research aims were reframed in terms of the production of series of works intended to embody the past as a spatial, temporal, and social phenomenon that both promotes and resists interpretation. The need to integrate a sense of contemporary relevance into the practice and to acknowledge my own agency in the research, resulted in an expanded conception of history painting, in which paintings feature as key elements amongst works in a range of media, all of which are of equal significance for the conception of each project.

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