MA Special Option Review

Countercultures: Alternative Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America 1959-1989

Imparted by Dr. Klara Kemp-Welch (mostly)

by Margarita FA Chiclana 31st May 2020

Illustration by Grace Han

I find myself quarantined in Madrid. A glass of white wine, a post-lunch cigarette and music under the sun. Trying my best to re-gain the long-lost summer freckles. So let me tell you all about my very subjective experience at the Courtauld as a Postgraduate student. 

Coming from a BA in art history at Goldsmiths, the thought of coming to study at the Courtauld was slightly daunting. My art history, the one I love and enjoy so much, has been taught in the chillest and most forward-thinking environment. By this I mean that I can write all about art history from a post-structuralist point of view. But don’t ask me anything about Manet, or Monet, or Duchamp because honestly, I have no interest in exploring them any further. If you are, you might be thinking just like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, “off with her head!” And that’s fair enough. The beauty of art history is that you too can have an opinion on the matter. 

Anyways, I decided to apply for the MA in Countercultures because it was the only one in London that offered a fairly in-depth education in modern Latin American art history. The MA combines Latin American and Eastern European (help) art histories and narratives during a very specific period of time (1959-1989). I feel that the most important teaching of this special option is to decentralise our Western education on art history. And boy, did I struggle with this at first. In my first essay, I tried to say that a Yugoslavian artist was not pop because he was, you guessed it, from Yugoslavia. And of course, after handing in a rather lazy 800-word draft, my then teacher Dr. Małgorzata Miśniakiewicz politely told me to fuck off*, or the pedagogical equivalent, to stand in a corner facing a wall and think about what I’ve done. Conclusion: it was pop, just not by Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Surprise. 

Well-behaved students on our last day of class

At first, as I already mentioned I struggled with decentralising my own concept of art history. I had to knock down my own preconceived ideas of what I thought was the original art history versus the peripheral art history. And trust me when I say it took me at least a month to fully understand that there are many art historical narratives that intertwine within time and space--endless networks of artists who worked together from all around the world, who bounced ideas off each other under difficult political and geographical circumstances. Why didn’t I learn this during my BA? I certainly wish I had.

Our first term was led by Dr. Małgorzata Miśniakiewicz and Dr. Sofia Gotti while Klara was on sabbatical finishing her amazing and free book. And they did an amazing job, but nothing compared to what our second term was like. We were a group of eight, and we were ALL scared of Klara. We had heard a rumour. Klara, they said, had called someone stupid in class. 


Any one of us could be next, from the smartest to the dumbest, no one was safe. And so I entered our first day of class on a cold January morning. A Xanax in my belly, sweaty hands and weak knees. And on that same day I inaugurated a long history of saying stupid shit in class. Whether it was being completely off topic, or my history was flaky, or I hadn’t truly understood the readings. But not once did she call any of us stupid (regardless of the ignorance). So of course, I got comfortable in my own stupidity and started letting go of the Goldsmiths versus Courtauld dilemma. I highly doubt the tale is true, but if it is true, the person at the other end must have been a self-righteous arrogant prick, you know the type.

Not so well-behaved students being students

I’ve heard different tales of how the Courtauld MA journey has been for many friends that have already graduated so I was expecting the worst. Would I make friends? Will I fail? Nah girl, it was really quite special. While difficult (don’t get me wrong) and exhausting, it has also been an exceptional adventure where I have had to continuously step out of my comfort zone. Whether it was through participating in class and doing the dreaded presentations (you have to do one each term, and I’m not particularly eloquent) or through engaging with difficult concepts and polishing my rusty art history, this special option had me falling head over heels about Latin American art history (and yes, Eastern European one too). So if you are a BA, MA or PhD candidate make sure to look out for Klara. She might look scary, but she’s as good as gold!

In terms of socialising, we had a few classes during our first term where all MA options shared lectures and seminars. So you do get a chance to mingle with students from other options, although you will spend most of your time between people from your special option and at the library. There isn’t a huge postgraduate social scene at the Courtauld if I’m being honest, nor is it encouraged in the same way as in your BA. That’s why I encourage you, future student, to go to the events they organise. It’s a great opportunity to mingle, socialise and network. Being a part of a society like the Business of Art Society, or the Gardening Society or The Courtauldian will also give you the chance to meet different people from MA options as well as BAs, and explore the Courtauld beyond your MA specificities.