In the Spotlight: Juliet Simpson
Juliet Simpson is Full Professor of Art History (Modern and Contemporary), Chair of Cultural Memory and Research Director for the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities at Coventry University, UK. She is a specialist in long nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art and visual culture.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
I was very attracted by the unique aspects of the Fellowships’ thematic focus, as well as the wonderful opportunities to develop new angles on my research interests in a richly transdisciplinary community of debate and exchange. The call came at just the right moment for my current research, offering the scope and space to build on my international project (scholarly exhibition and research publications) on Gothic Modern, 1875-1925: Edvard Munch to Käthe Kollwitz with Ateneum-FNG (Helsinki), the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin and the Oslo Nationalmuseum (2024-25). The CAPAS Fellowship was the galvanic stimulus for expanding the core conceptual enquiry linked to the final stages of this collaborative project. I saw it as my opportunity to tackle the bigger question of meanings of Apocalypse and Revelation in the art and visual cultures of the early twentieth century, particularly in the dislocations following 1918.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
The study of Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic worldviews is of pivotal significance to opening new frameworks and questions about cultural production – its meaning and value across geo-political, cultural, temporal and spatial contexts of difference, beyond cultural binaries, linear temporalities of ‘modernity’ and narrowly rationalist scientific or utopian world-views of ‘progress’. With regards to the arts, art history and historical memory (my core fields), this offers specific opportunities, in particular, to rethink canonical paradigms and hierarchies of meaning which underpin constructs of Western art and culture. We can use a lens of ‘end times’ to re-situate such constructs from perspectives which open new narratives for how art and cultural production navigate and reveal fundamental arenas of struggle and human truth, beyond antagonistic structures – about difference, crises, death, revelation, endings and world-making.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve?
My CAPAS Fellowship project focused on Time after Time – Apocalypse, Revelation, Eschaton in Image, Object and Word, 1900s-1933. I wanted to build and deepen my enquiry into the neglected significance and meanings of medieval, sacred pre-modern cultures in the spaces and temporalities of modern art from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century: the period anthologized as the ‘age of modernity’ and ‘avant-gardes’. The core concern of my CAPAS project is to de-stabilize and challenge fundamental assumptions and ideas of boundaries – national, cultural, and temporal, on which such constructs and hierarchies of cultural modernity have been built and disseminated. Applying the lens of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic thinking to my main field of investigation has enabled me to address hidden continuities and the survival of older cultural patterns and emotional drivers that manifest particularly during times of perceived historical crises, and which don’t sit within neat boundaries of period, place or time. At a broader, substantive level, my research addresses current and new historical-cultural approaches in the field of the so-called ‘temporal turn’. One aim was to develop frameworks through which to ask new questions about how the exercise and meaning of cultural power(in particular related to contexts of crises) is shaped by different notions of time. This also prompts thinking about a politics of time, challenging ‘linear’ temporalities and teleologies of ‘progressive modernity’.
How does the project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
My CAPAS project has enabled me to optimize the research scope of my current related projects on Gothic Modern and my co-edited journal special issue with Prof. Dr. Gabriele Rippl on Emotional Objects (published: Sept 2023, Journal of the Northern Renaissance). It’s also provided fertile opportunities to extend my career and research interests. My CAPAS project connects my latest work on the uncanny and revelatory in art and culture since the 1700s to over a decade of my international research interests, networks and outputs in the arts and cultures of the French fin-de-siècle, transnational cultures of art and memory, the afterlives of pre-modern cultures in modern and contemporary art, and uncanny medievalisms. But the Fellowship has also enabled me to take these interests in new directions and to extend my networks of collaboration. Particularly fruitful is this year’s CAPAS topic on ‘Apocalyptic Space and Time’, stimulating me to re-think the centrality of temporalities of culture in how we navigate conflicts in worldviews and shape modalities of cultural re-imagining, difference and creation.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
My core research take-away from my Fellowship is the question of how we reconceptualise, and what new knowledge we can bring to the timeliness of what may be perceived as untimely. In my research and in its broader contexts of art history and cultural memory, this relates to the meanings and value of the arts in navigating ‘end times’. There’s a way in which the idea of global ‘tipping points’ in the climate science findings and narratives can be applied in new contexts to re-imagine the vital importance of culture in times of crises, and to the kinds of world-making that harness an arts perspective in mitigating fundamental 21st-century threats to ‘truth’, ‘freedom’, ‘privacy’, rising culture wars and the misinformation that imperils communities and individuals’ lives. These are the kinds of insights stimulated by my Fellowship that I’m passionate to develop.
What are the aspects of CAPAS that have been particularly valuable to you?
On the topic of the timely moment, my CAPAS period has provided a great opportunity to deepen my project’s core concern with Apocalyptic and Revelatory temporalities in 20th-century art and cultural modernity. This has meant rich inter- and transdisciplinary conversations with CAPAS Fellows, especially in working-group collaborations with Fellows in early-modern studies (history and geography), literatures and eco-criticism, astrophysics and indigenous studies. Discussing core approaches around ideas of ‘Revelation’ and memory Apocalypses have stimulated rich debates beyond disciplinary boundaries about how we might engage expanded structures of knowledge in world-making and in rethinking post-Apocalyptic scenarios of possible futures. These exchanges have sparked my interest in further challenging teleologies of ‘modernity’ and rationalist and technological ‘utopias’ that marginalize questions of moral, ethical, and human responsibility, as well as the natural environment. I am excited by opportunities to build cross-disciplinary conversations around my key research topic, Revelations, and by a planned publication on the art and science of asteroids!
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
- A grow-bag-incubator for sea-weed production (climate crises-human disaster resilient post-apocalyptic food!)
- Cave furniture: follow the example of the rock monasteries or Hermit Saints
- A capsule library (the re-invention of imagined worlds-communities must go on!)
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?
Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal – an enduring, must-see classic which brings a uniquely brilliant medieval ‘dance of death’ imaginary into an iconic struggle for all time between love and death, darkness and light.