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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

Art historian Svetlana Alpers to speak Nov. 8

Art historian Svetlana Alpers is intrigued by the paintings that hang in museums worldwide and by the behavior of the visitors they attract.

"While schoolchildren in the United States, like gallery-goers in Germany, are expected to sit quietly on the floor, listen to a lecture and then learn to answer questions put to them about paintings, schoolchildren in France Beaubourg is where I witnessed this are encouraged to start talking among themselves."

That's Alpers writing in her latest book, The Making of Rubens, published in 1995. An examination of the artist's political vision, her work elicited praise from one reviewer who cited her "extraordinary skill" that "lies in an intensely creative, critical response to what might be called the discourse on Rubens."

Professor emerita of art at the University of California-Berkeley, Alpers is the second speaker in the autumn quarter series of Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts.

She will talk about "What Are We Looking For? Expectations in Art History" at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, in Room 290 of the Law School. The following day she will sign books at the Bookstore at noon and participate in a discussion at the Cantor Arts Center auditorium from 4 to 6 p.m.

Often described as a "progressive" art historian, Alpers has spent her career traveling her own determined path.

"I'm suspicious of programs and of labels like 'the new art history,'" she once told an interviewer. "I resist the appellation. I do my work, and I'm not conscious as I'm doing it that it's part of the new art history. I'm studying art. This is a difficult thing to do. I'm simply trying to do it in the best way I can."

Alpers has concentrated in much of her work on "problems connected with visual culture of the Baroque period," according to the website compiled by Alex Ross, head librarian of the Art and Architecture Library (

In what many consider her most important work, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, Alpers writes that "if the theater was the arena in which the England of Elizabeth most fully represented itself to itself, images played that role for the Dutch."

Instead of studying the history of Dutch art, Alpers said she preferred to look at that nation's visual culture.

"In Holland, if we look beyond what is normally considered to be art, we find that images proliferate everywhere," Alpers writes. "They are printed in books, woven into the cloth of tapestries or table linens, painted onto tiles, and of course framed on walls. And everything is pictures from insects and flowers to Brazilian natives in full life-size to the domestic arrangements of the Amsterdammers. The maps printed in Holland describe the world and Europe to itself."

In her study, Ross notes, Alpers "supported her principal assertion that Dutch paintings, and the national visual sensibility behind them, were descriptive rather than narrative with a fascinating array of ideas and data culled from many different fields, including optics, perspective theory and cartography."

One reviewer suggested that "like Baudelaire's ideal critic, Professor Alpers is partial and impassioned."

"One cannot but read Professor Alpers' book with a sense of great excitement," he continued. "To race through it on a first reading is an exhilarating experience."

In Alpers' second book, Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market, she chose to focus more narrowly on the career of one artist and examine how he marketed his art.

"I propose to see him not outside but inside his culture, and I do this by considering the circumstances of his shop and the making and the marketing of his art," Alpers wrote about Rembrandt's career.

"The Netherlands was, after all, not only a leader in lenses and maps, but also in banking, commerce and the conduct of trade. Instead of concentrating on questions concerning sight and knowledge of the world seen, which assimilate pictures to the production of natural knowledge, this study concentrates on making and marketing, which assimilate pictures to the production of value."

The many interests that Alpers brings to her study of art and visual culture are expected to draw faculty from a wide range of departments to her talk.

"In her [first] book she related Dutch art of the 17th century to the contemporary philosophy of language," says Paul Kiparsky, professor of linguistics, who has arranged for Alpers to talk informally about language and art with faculty and students in his department. "She shows that the way in which painters represented the world and objects has a relationship to the way in which philosophers thought of things and words."


By Diane Manuel

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