Day 1: My Project and Reflections on Digital Art History | Blood, Flesh, Bone


Note: There is a short version and a long version

I am beginning a second “book” project that focuses on Mexican visual culture of death and dying from c. 1521–c. 1920, from the arrival of Spaniards into the city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1519 to the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 and its immediate aftermath.. Some of the most popular and prevalent images we associate with Mexico are of skeletons and skulls, realized in the works of artists like José Guadalupe Posada, in Day of the Dead paper-maîche figurines, and in Aztec skull racks and cadaverous masks. Given the myriad visual objects from Mexico that seem to communicate a fascination or fixation with death and dying, it seems appropriate that anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz asks with respect to Mexico, “Can Death be a national symbol?” [1]


I think digital art history will help me gather and analyze data in new ways, as well as allow me to share some of my research in a public forum. My hope is that this project will connect me to others working on related topics and generate discussion about a topic that receives a lot of popular attention.

[If you are reposting this, feel free to end here!]


More about the project goals, questions, ideas

My project takes a broad approach to consider the long history of Mexico’s changing relationship with death and dying. Bracketing my study between 1519 and c. 1920 allows me to present an overview of Mexican visual culture focused on death and dying, as well as to discuss shifting social concerns, political regimes, artistic media, and religious practices over several hundred years that affected Mexican deathways. Moreover, by bookending my project within this 400-year period, I can examine the transformations in deathways in eras marked by high numbers of deaths, whether due to illnesses, social upheavals, warfare, or infant mortality issues. Some important questions guiding my project include: What changes occurred from the time indigenous artists produced images of epidemic victims in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (mid-16th c.) to Francisco Goitia’s Landscape of Zacatecas (1912) in which a decaying body sways from a tree branch in the dry, desolate Zacatecan landscape? In what ways can individuals use death-related objects, like portraits of deceased family members, to increase their social and political positions? How do eighteenth-century painted portraits of dead elites produce meaning differently than mid-to-late nineteenth-century photographs of the dead? Do artworks demonstrate a democratization of death in Mexico between 1519 and c. 1920? How does the veneration of saints’ body parts and bodily effluvia differ from that of the body and blood of war heroes?

Mexican visual culture in this 400-year time span has numerous examples of death-related objects, images, monuments, and performances. However, art historians tend to ignore them, for reasons ranging from aesthetic considerations to morbidity, or to focus on them in only the most general fashion. Several art-historical studies serve as important inspirations for my project, especially Beatriz de la Fuente and Louise Noelle’s edited volume on funerary arts in Mexico and Nigel Llewellyn’s book on the art of death in early modern England.[2] My approach is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing on more traditional art-historical methods such as style, iconography, and social history, as well as ideas in anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and the history of science. In particular, scholars in history and anthropology—including Claudio Lomnitz, Philippe Ariès, Martina Will de Chaparro, Miruna Achim, and Stanley Brandes—have considered aspects of Mexican deathways. My project builds on their important work, but focuses primarily on visual culture as a way to access past concerns about life and to understand how images and objects actively produced meaning for people.[3] I see my project as a useful way to enter into larger scholarly conversations about death, dying, and the afterlife, as well as adding a more nuanced view of Mexicans’ relationship to death over this expanse of time. Some of the main themes of my project include arts that aid people in times of sickness, such as the epidemics of the first Great Dying; arts created in response to millenarian concerns, or the end of days; arts used to obtain a “Good Death”; the display of relics, corpses, and death portraiture; sacrifice, nationalism, and martyrs in the post-Independence period; capturing the dead in photographs; and artistic responses to or documentary photos of the Mexican Revolution.

Here, I would like to expand on some of the themes and ideas guiding this project as a way to demonstrate its importance for understanding one facet of Mexican culture and its relevance to discussions about death and dying more generally. Over the course of Mexico’s colonial period, from 1519-1821, objects, texts, and performances speak to the significance of death in the lives of those living in the Spanish colony. The first Great Dying that begins this project occurred between the years 1519 and 1595. It is estimated that the indigenous population of Mexico declined by approximately 65-95%, resulting in the death of millions of individuals. With over 10 million people, the population was reduced to a mere 1-2 million, the result of epidemics, famine, violence, and reorganized labor that caused this major demographic catastrophe in the wake of Spanish colonization. The pervasiveness of death baffled Spaniards and Indigenous alike, with each theorizing as to why the dead outnumbered the living. One way to navigate the horrific tides of death was via visual culture. Manuscript drawings, mural cycles, theatrical performances, and sculptures convey the constant anxieties about death and the afterlife. From the evidence I have gathered thus far, it seems there were conflicting views about death and the afterlife during this era, and my goal is to probe these alternative viewpoints as a way to gain entry to the past.


After the first Great Dying, objects began to advertise different concerns about death and the afterlife, particularly concerns over how to live in order to achieve a good death (“la buena muerte”). While we might be more accustomed to the medicalized approach to death in westernized culture, the population of colonial Mexico was more accustomed to death in their daily lives. In fact, the colonial art of death and dying speaks mainly to the living: often the concern is how the dead can improve the vitality of a still living family or person, or model for someone how to gain entry to a heavenly paradise. Numerous paintings depict souls burning in Purgatory or martyrs spewing blood from wounds. Processional sculptures showcase the flagellated back of Christ—with some even incorporating actual human bone into them—and ornate vessels contain the miraculously preserved bodies or body parts of the dead. Vanitas symbols grace paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Horrifying scenes of hell remind people of what awaits them if they live improperly, and images of rotting bodies realistically portray the process of decay. Even types of jewelry contained bits of bone, flesh, and blood—a testament to the desire to keep the dead near to one’s body. I am particularly interested in how different individuals or groups of people harnessed deathways to increase one’s political power, social standing, financial gain, religious standing, and even nationalistic fervor. To provide but one example, numerous indigenous communities in the eighteenth century commissioned sumptuous altarpieces depicting souls burning in Purgatory, and they often included portraits of community members among those enflamed. Moreover, altarpieces showing ritual feasting or celebrations of dead community members are often paired with depictions of Purgatory. Altarpieces like these not only aided people in their spiritual life, but also connected them to lived communal experiences—or so I hypothesize at this time.

The century after Mexico achieved independence from Spain (1821) is marked by civil strife, more foreign incursions, continued health issues, and nationalistic concerns. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, artists working for the Royal Academy of San Carlos began to look to the Mexican past to assist in the formation of a new Mexican identity. Rather than depict subjects drawn from the Graeco-Roman past or even contemporary Europe, artists painted or sculpted bloody scenes of the Spanish Conquest as one way to excite national pride. Outside of academic art, the introduction of photography in the nineteenth century had profound implications for capturing death practices or creating works about death. Two different phenomenon are of particular interest to me: the photographic narratives surrounding the execution of Emperor Maximilian and photographs of dead children dressed as saints and angels. While each phenomenon speaks to different types of socio-political concerns in the nineteenth century, they both tackle loss and tragedy.

The second period of Great Dying serves as the closing bracket for my project. Beginning in 1910, the Mexican Revolution cost millions of lives. According to Robert McCaa, “From a millennial perspective, the human cost of the Mexican Revolution was exceeded only by the devastation of Christian conquest, colonization, and accompanying epidemics, nearly four centuries earlier.”[4] The effects of this massive dying resulted in a bevy of artistic responses, whether created during the violent decade or shortly thereafter in the 1920s and 30s. While many people today recognize José Guadalupe Posada’s Day of the Dead broadside prints, fewer people know his gritty prints documenting the Revolution. Francisco Goitia experienced battle, and so had first-hand experience of the trauma of war; he models many of his works on dead bodies. Modernist artists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, too, produced works related to the horrors of the Revolution—even if they had not directly experienced it.

Calavera for Day of the Dead

Over time the visual focus on death and dying in Mexico has transformed in response to specific socio-cultural and political changes, including epidemics, natural disasters, religious reforms, sanitation issues, political upheavals, nationalistic desires, and secularization. I believe we need to rethink how we conceive of Mexicans’ relationship to death. It is not solely a morbid fascination with what happens after life, but a way in which to navigate life more successfully.

[1] Claudio Lomnitz, Death and the Idea of Mexico (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2005), 23.

[2] Beatriz de la Fuente and Louise Noelle, Arte funerario. Coloquio internacional de historia del arte (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1980). Other important texts include the volume Iconografia Mexicana V: Vida, muerte y transfiguración, ed. Beatriz Barba de Piña Chan (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2004); and Nigel Llewellyn, Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual, c. 1500-1800 (London: Reaktion, 1997).

[3] Philippe Ariès, Images of Man and Death (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985); Death and Dying in Colonial Spanish America, edited by Martina Will de Chaparro and Miruna Achim (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2011); Will de Chaparro, Death and Dying in New Mexico (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 2007); and Stanley Brandes, Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).

[4] —Robert McCaa, “Missing Millions: The Human Cost of the Mexican Revolution.”


More about the project+digital art history

To begin this project, I’ve started to collect data on those areas in Mexico that experienced high levels of death—whether due to epidemics, natural disasters, warfare, or politico-religious practices—and organizing it into centuries (basic, I know). My hope is that I will learn digital tools that will help me relate my findings to objects and imagery focused on death between 1521–c. 1920. My goal is to understand better what death-related issues are related to local artistic productions. I want to visualize this data to notice historical patterns related to death, death practices, and death-related art. I also want to showcase networks and subjects of art, as well as their ebb and flow. It might be useful, too, to connect visual data to archives and other primary source repositories online (like this one).

At this early stage of the project, it would be useful to view such patterns—if they exist—because it would help me to focus on specific case studies and analyze data in a different manner. Some of the materials that tell us about deathways no longer exist, so I am hoping that I can provide a way to help my audience visualize what these objects and materials looked like at different historical moments. Ideally, I would share this data with colleagues not only in art history, but also those who focus on Mexican culture and the general public.

Origins of the Project


I’ve been thinking about this project for 5 years. My dissertation focused on images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in eighteenth-century New Spain. I kept finding evidence that suggested many paintings on copper of the Sacred Heart functioned as talismans to ward off plagues and epidemics. I kept searching for more concrete evidence, but I found little to help me flesh out the idea. But it kept me thinking about the intersections of epidemics, visual culture, and death. On a side note: I kept finding wonderful archival documents about bone worship, the flayed back of Christ, and nuns suckling Christ’s wounds that kept my attention on issues of death and dying.

While my research quickly turned in other directions (i.e., the visual culture of convents, the earliest self-portraits of the Spanish Americas, and body parts in general), I realized that I could develop a class around the material of death and dying. I envisioned it as a graduate seminar. So many students wanted to enroll the first semester that I offered it, that I decided to create an undergraduate course on the topic. It was and continues to be my most popular class.

Years later, and with my first book nearing publication, I decided to develop this material into a book, one that asks big questions and tries to ask thought-provoking and often open-ended questions. Much of the project has been informed by conversations with students and colleagues, who approach the material differently than I or who bring personal life experiences to bare on this material. I’ve enjoyed these moments, and my hope is that I can engage with others more publicly and collaboratively with this material.

Now I just need to learn all the tools. (Well, I guess I can settle for a few at the moment.)


I’m open to input and ideas, so if you have any please get in touch with me.

Day 1: My Project and Reflections on Digital Art History | Blood, Flesh, Bone.

Project Proposal

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard theorized the concept of copy as simulacra: an entity that is not a copy of anything tangible, but becomes truth through its hyperrealist condition. Simulacra are copies that no longer have or never have had an original reality from which to imitate. Perhaps the most prevalent form of simulacra in our contemporary digital culture is the video game. As machines of engagement with artificial environments, video games as digitally-based art works are pure simulation in which they become signs of their own reality rather than that of the physical world. Their ephemeral nature raises issues of their future preservation, which is only now becoming increasingly important for museums as collectors of cultural production. Because video games are a reproducible medium, they are not an authentic or original masterpiece. This indicates a shift in museum acquisitions and conservation of traditional physical objects to electronic media.

This project addresses the problem of establishing and maintaining copies of video games in museums. It will question: How do museums collect transitory media? What parameters of quality should be considered? How should they be stored when the hardware is obsolete? Should we document social networking in video games? How do curators present and mediate this art form? As simulacra, video games are changing the types of things museum collect which signifies larger paradigm shifts in contemporary culture regarding our values and commodity consumption. Long scoffed at in the art world, copies of digital media are now being exhibited in large-scale institutions alongside the Abstract Expressionists. Issues of their preservation fulfill museums’ mission to conserve and mediate historical objects as part of our shared cultural memory.

Source: Project Proposal

The urban world of Brazilian modernists

My project is on literary and visual representations of São Paulo in Brazilian Modernism in the 1920s and 1930s. Ideally, and ambitiously, I would like to combine mapping and text mining to cross-reference historical maps of the city with contemporary literary and visual works that mention specific sites, streets, buildings, etc. Clicking or hovering over a location would bring up, for example, a “pop-up” list of the books, poems, and other writings that mention this site (maybe a little rectangle with hypertext in it). One could then click on any item on the list to access the page(s) where the location is mentioned, and from there read the whole work. This would also be the case with paintings and prints. Each “pop-up” list of works could also contain thumbnails of historical photographs and illustrations to give the viewer an idea of what that street looked like at the time. And the viewer could also do this the other way around–when reading a novel, or short story, the textual mention to a location would link to the city map and bring up historical images. (This is the part that would require text mining.) There could be two or three different historical maps overlaid–the 1920s, the 1930s, and a contemporary map–so this project would also trace the transformation of the city over time, highlighting what is left and what disappeared from the urban world evoked by Modernists in the early 20th century. I wonder if I can transform this project into a smaller, more feasible task for the duration of our institute.


Source: The urban world of Brazilian modernists

Day 1

My first blog. Who would have thought it was this easy? Here I am, in Fairfax, Virginia at George Mason University, at the summer institute “Rebuilding the Portfolio: Digital Humanities for Art History,”  learning all kinds of exciting new skills for researching and teaching. My goal is to use new digital methods to explore transnational art networks in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Specifically, I want to create a website that catalogs and maps the participation of Latin American artists in international biennials during the sixties and seventies.


This newspaper photograph from an exhibition review shows a detail of Argentine artist Rogelio Polesello’s Image Multiplying Lenses, 1972, installed at the III Bienal de Arte Coltejer, Medellín.

I envision an online searchable database of biennials that can be searched by biennial, country, or artist, to which other scholars will be invited to contribute information. The database will generate maps that visualize the international networks created by the biennials.

I am so excited, and so grateful to the institute organizers, George Mason University, and the Getty Institute for giving me this opportunity to learn the skills necessary to develop my project!

Source: Day 1


9232679322_2eef8c361c_oI’ll be growing an experimental space in the next two weeks and beyond as a way to learn digital humanities techniques, tools, perspectives, and principles. My subject focus will be the work of Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904), a painter, stained glass artist, socialite, and designer of book covers for Houghton Mifflin in Boston in the 1880s and 1890s. The last two roles offer an especially tantalizing range of options for investigating Whitman’s means of production. Her designs are well represented in several freely-available digital image collections (notably the Boston Public Library’s Flickr collection), and a few of her own texts about art have been digitized, including The Making of Pictures, 1886. I would like to explore the reflexive nature of social and business connections as well as Whitman’s public voice through an analysis of her social networks, word choices, topics, “patrons,” etc.

Source: Venturing

MY Doing DH project

My project is to map 19th-c. French and British artists’ replicas, which were works of art that are versions of a first version and made by the artist of that first version. Given that the replica was usually the hub of its own cultural, economic and social changes, my mapping project will spatially explore replicas’ contributions to art production, reception, the market, and aesthetic value across time since the early 19th century. I want to map (1) geographic sites where replicas and first versions were produced, commissioned, and collected and (2) explore how changing provenance of these objects to measure changes in taste over time and the transatlantic market for replicas. I would like to determine whether exhibitions of a replica or first version inspired commissions, or if these trajectories were distinct, indicating replicas’ independence from exhibition networks, and if they helped define and shape the 19th-c. political economy of art.

Source: MY Doing DH project

Day 1: Digital Humanities for Art Historians

We just finished the first day of a two-week summer institute at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: Rebuilding the Portfolio: DH for Art Historians. My interest in using digital research tools in art history has grown significantly in the last couple of years, in large part due to the work of colleagues who have made innovative use of them, particularly Titia Hulst and Anne Helmreich. Both Titia and Anne study the history of the art market, and one of my current projects seeks to extend such approaches to the circulation of reproductions of works of art in the nineteenth century. This project draws on archival research I conducted a few years back, which brought my attention to a body of records that promises to help us better understand how art reproductions were licensed and circulated within the international market. I’m hoping not only that the institute will teach me new skills but also that it will help me figure out if this is a project worth pursuing in the coming years.

Source: Day 1: Digital Humanities for Art Historians

Day 1 / homework


My project for Rebuilding the portfolio is based upon my experience as a graduate student dealing with an uncommon subject for Argentine art historians: the careers of women artists in Buenos Aires between 1880 and 1920. There’s little trustworthy information on the large group of active women artists and their stories are little-known. My aim is to create a database with biographies of these remarkable women, allowing visitors to comment/correct the information available. I would like each biography to have a set of tags that connects the data and makes it easy to see unforeseen links (for example, the school they attended, the places the exhibited at, the genres they worked on).



Doing Digital Humanities, Day One

Nicholas V. Artamanoff Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Cami  Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian InstitutionNicholas V. ArtamanoffSokollu Mehmed Paşa CamiMyron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution

The story of the discovery and identification of Nicholas V. Artamanoff’s photographs of Istanbul is an impressive tale of archival research and detective work (check back for the story in an upcoming post). This collection of images, about 1000 in number, is spread among a number of repositories in Washington, New York and Istanbul, and despite the great detective work carried out so far, there is a great deal we will never know about this collection.

Artamanoff’s photographs of the Byzantine monuments of Istanbul and archaeological sites in western Turkey are of great value to scholars of pre-Ottoman Turkey, but it is the photographs of Istanbul that are the focus of this project. Taken in the 1930s and 1940s, they show the city during a period which has been little studied, and for which there is a very scanty visual record.

Despite their potential importance, Artamanoff’s photographs of Istanbul are not without challenges as a research subject. Sites were not identified, the photographs are not specifically dated, the circumstances in which they were taken are not known, and it is extremely likely that we possess an incomplete set of Artamanoff’s work.

All of this makes these photographs a perfect case study for a digitally focused study. What might we learn about this collection by applying tools of digital analysis to the photographs? Mapping the locations of Artamanoff’s subjects on a map of Istanbul, linking the sites to contemporary images of the same places, analysing the kinds of monuments and streetscapes Artamanoff favored–all of this could give us insights into the city in which he worked.

Source: Doing Digital Humanities, Day One

My Proposed Project

I am interested in exploring some of the documentation created by my institution in its first twenty-five years or so. My museum held its first exhibition in 1919 and was officially founded in 1921. Going back to those first years, I am interested in collecting information to form data sets related to collecting (who works were purchased from, what works were purchased together, in what sequence were works purchased, how soon after creation were works purchased) as well as frequency and patterns of display (which works were hung together, how often were works on view). These sets of data, with the help of some digital tools, could reveal patterns of habit and perspectives on the collection (both individual works and how the works related to each other). It is possible that I could provide substantial examples to support long held ideas about our collection or that I could disprove theories about the same.

Source: My Proposed Project