Research

Making Style History

Jesse Lockard & Meekyung MacMurdie

Three pages of ornament studies from the travel sketchbooks of the art historian Meyer Schapiro. Pen on paper, 1926-1927. Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library Collections.

Making Style History is a collaborative research project on pattern books and the conceptual and material underpinnings of style history developed by Jesse Lockard and Meekyung MacMurdie and supervised by Jaś Elsner. Traditionally made for and by artists, architects, and craftspeople, pattern books are firstly studio tools: compendia of prints and drawings that facilitate the collection, transmission and adaptation of ornament. However, we argue that these books were also portable laboratories where foundational concerns of art history were visually theorized: contact and origin; citation, reproduction, innovation; the diversity of cultural forms; and the epistemological status of the detail.

Questions of style are questions of change, continuity, and the invention and transmission of characteristic forms. These are the core mechanics of the pattern book, which is a literal site of and mechanism for motif transmission. We ask: what role did the intermediality inherent to pattern transmission in the studio play in shaping the evidence from which art historians built their conceptual categories and canon in the early years of the discipline? How did the culturally comparative logic and hybridizing methodologies of pattern books impact theories of Stilwandlung? Examining the convergence of taxonomical style and production history, we position pattern books as a bridge between critical historiography and material object studies. 

More broadly, we aim to “reverse engineer” pattern books and use them to challenge art history’s imbrication with colonialism, examining the processes of cultural dislocation that pattern books enact and reconstituting pattern fragments in particular artifacts, historical time, space and place, making traditions and the particularities of use. Investigating how samples and motifs were employed to contrast or link cultures, often to imperialist ends, we approach pattern books as cautionary prehistory of global art history.

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