Section: Arts

Courtois gives powerful lecture on history of Deafness in art

On Friday, students and professors alike found seats in a classroom in The Gund, holding lemonade and cookies from the display outside. “This is the most excited I’ve been in so long,” one student said, and rightfully so. Professor and academic Alexandra Courtois de Viçoise had come to The Gund to give a lecture and lead a discussion on disability, specifically Deafness, in art. 

Courtois was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History at Kenyon from 2018-2022. She then spent one year teaching at New York University and is now a lecturer at the American University of Paris, where she also works at the Louvre Museum. Her research areas include the social model of disability studies in late 19th-century European art. She returned to Kenyon as part of The Gund’s efforts to extend the life of Christine Sun Kim’s art outside the exhibit and into the campus and community. 

In the classroom, the air buzzed with palpable excitement. Students signed eagerly to each other as more and more chairs were brought in to accommodate the growing crowd. The two ASL interpreters arrived to interpret throughout the lecture. Courtois clarified at the beginning of the presentation that she is speaking from the experience of a hearing person, not someone who identifies as deaf or Deaf. When a person identifies as Deaf, with an uppercase letter, they identify as belonging to a greater Deaf community, whereas deaf with a lowercase “d” refers to the medical qualification. 

Her presentation was an overarching, but by no means exhaustive, survey of Deafness in art. Her talk took the audience from Europe to America, starting in the 15th century and continuing to current artists like Kim. She spoke about the Spanish artist Juan Fernández Navarrete, known as “El Mudo,” whose use of boldness and warm colors led him to be called the “Spanish Titian.” She discussed the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and René Princeteau, two deaf artists who learned from one another. In their sketches, they enlarged the ears of hearing people and drew blurred hands to convey early sign language. 

Courtois’ love of the subject was clear as she discussed the artwork, but her distaste for historical discrimination against deaf people was equally evident as she tracked the perceptions of deaf people throughout history. They were seen as “poor innovators” when they followed conventions but “savage” when they did not. She talked about the relevance of class status when it came to the deaf artists: only those who could afford to attend art academies became artists, so the study of deafness through art is bound by the financial situations of the artists when they were creating. 

Courtois raised another question when she discussed the work of Canadian impressionist painter Helen McNicoll. Did McNicoll paint in Impressionism because, as a woman, that was the only style she was permitted to create, or was it truly the style of her choice? 

Visual art needs no audio to be understood. Some deaf artists carried a notebook at all times to communicate. Luca Riva, a deaf artist from Milan, created a will entirely made up of drawings. That raised another question from the audience: Are the artists explored in this talk brilliant because they are Deaf, or are they brilliant artists who just happen to be Deaf? Courtois is inclined to say that it varied by the artist and their personal identity. 

Her presentation finished with a brief biography of the artists who founded De’VIA, a genre that seeks to express the Deaf experience through visual art. Her closing message: “Care is a subject that is especially relevant when disability is involved.” She calls on everyone to care about the Deaf experience and Deaf artists. This was a perfect segue into a video from Art 21 about Kim and her work. 

At the beginning of the talk, Courtois pointed out that “disability is everywhere, but it is rarely in the history that we study.” She sought to illuminate the many contributions brilliant deaf artists have made to the field of visual art. Although her presentation was far too short to encompass all of these contributions, she certainly illuminated the lives of every member of the audience.

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