Featured Review: Rhapsody of Northern Art

Peter Hupfauf is an artist and art historian based in Sydney with an interest in Old Norse culture. His most recent publication, Rhapsody of Northern Art (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019), presents fascinating artefacts produced between the late Bronze Age and the start of the Romanesque Period in order to argue that such items should be regarded as works of art rather than mere objects. Ancient artefacts from Northern Europe, exhibited in museums, are usually appreciated as documenting the past and reflecting its society. The people viewing these items are able to become aware of skills and techniques that were applied many generations ago.

Since the early 20th century, however, artists such as Marcel Duchamp have created “object art” and installations from contemporary artists often show art of a quality similar to that of some ancient Central and Northern European cultures. Rhapsody of Northern Art will help and encourage readers to see and appreciate Bronze Age and early Medieval artefacts of Central and Northern Europe in the way they do works of art created by internationally well-known contemporary artists.

In today’s featured review, Dr Penelope McElwee casts an eye over the book, detailing how Hupfauf brings his expertise to bear on both ancient and contemporary art:

“The raison d’être of Rhapsody of Northern Art is an artist’s search for a personal artistic identity, not one related to the cultural history of the Mediterranean, even though Peter Hupfauf the author acknowledges its importance, but one he considers more relevant to his German nationality and which can be found in the regions north of the Alps. Consequently, Hupfauf brings to his reader’s attention artefacts created by the people who populated this region between the Bronze Age and the early Middle Ages. The term ‘object’ is applied rather than the more familiar labels ‘painting and sculpture’ in the exploration of the chosen pieces – some illustrated, some not. Looking at these pieces, whether from Austria, England, Germany, Norway, and Sweden (to name just a few of the countries of origin), allows the viewer to appreciate the skills and techniques inherent in their production by people of a bygone age.

“Of course, to the contemporary eye, it is not always possible to understand what meaning or message a particular object is conveying. Nevertheless, many of the shown artefacts are finely crafted and may be regarded as ‘works of fine art’ in their own right, whether in the medium of paint, stone, metal, wood, or bone. To defend this premise further, Peter Hupfauf, in the early pages of his book, alerts the reader to note that many works created by specific twentieth century artists bear an affinity to some of his illustrated pieces. Three names in this regard stand out: Marcel Duchamp whose work was multi-faceted’ Joseph Beuys who, in the words of the author, ’was a happening and performance artist, as well as sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist, and teacher’, and finally, Ai Weiwei whose work demonstrates a strong sociological critique, inherent also in the depiction of ritual in the Tanum Petroglyphs. The works of these three artists demonstrate how they, in many instances, chose to select diverse materials, cheap, familiar, and precious, to create their ‘ard’, either in the form of artefacts or installations.

“Through this initial comparison, Peter Hupfauf’s book allows the reader more readily to understand and appreciate the versatility of the craft and workmanship of those who lived and worked in a different age: a people who did not merely create ‘objects’ but produced ‘works of art’ that can be appreciated as such today.”

Dr Penelope McElwee is the author of The Non-Representation of the Agricultural Labourers in 18th and 19th Century English Paintings (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016).

To read an extract of Rhapsody of Northern Art, please click here. To purchase the text, you can follow this link.

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