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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. 

On our trip to Escala Collection

One of the best parts of the MA is the trip. Most of the MAs go on a trip abroad for a week or so. And it is mostly paid by the Courtauld, success! Klara organised an amazing trip to Budapest, when Corona was closing in on us but was also far away enough for us to enjoy our long-lost freedom. So we all stayed together for a week, eight of us in a cat-themed Airbnb. During the first three days we attended a symposium on Mail Art organised by Artpool. This was interesting for the first few hours of the first day. By the third day of listening to all sorts of accents explaining all sorts of theories on the archive, I had had enough. I made sure to keep awake for Klara’s appearance, because it was going to be the best one obviously. She kept it light and fun and interesting in the short time she had. I think the best (or worst) part was knowing that while I was like this: 

(Yes, that’s me sleeping at the conference after a copious Hungarian lunch provided by the Museum of Fine Art) Klara’s fourteen-year-old daughter, an incredibly intelligent and well-behaved young lady, was rating the speakers. Yes, you heard right, while I (twenty-five-year-old MA student) slept, she engaged with the conference and rated the speakers. Imagine. This isn’t the epitome of my comfort with stupidity. Wait for it. We went to visit Artpool’s Mail Art archive. I mean it’s in the name, Mail Art is art that you mail. And in my excitement, being surrounded by so much of it, I mean thousands of folders filled with mail art from Yayoi Kusama, Joan Miró, Guillermo Deisler, Ewa Partum, Gregor Galantai, Ulisses Carrión, Edgardo Atonio Vigo, Zofia Kulik and the list could go on forever, I dare ask Klara how they have collected so much Mail Art (help). I can still hear a friend’s laughter drilling my ears. The coolest part was that you could touch everything, grab a folder and open its secrets with no one hovering over you or asking you to be careful. 

When I mailed 20 postcards (or Mail Art if you will) but they never reached anyone

We had a full day of visiting galleries and museums; some were very random, while others pretty cool. The day ended with a cake at a fancy Viennese style café where Klara gave us our grades for our second essay. Belly full of cake and a distinction under my arm, we left for our dinner with artist Tamás St. Auby. A rather crazy and funny artist in an odd way individual whose thirst for entertainment (and alcohol) was endless. He is not a fan of admitting that his pieces are collected far and wide and that he is a part of the art-world fun-ride. But that is also part of his charm. He let us know that he did not believe in grades and that students are usually terrified of their teachers (and he wasn’t far off on the latter; if only I’d met him in January, I would have agreed).

Our trip didn’t end until we went to the baths (obviously) where the same artist kindly let us know that we would get gonorrhea (yes that’s right) from them. We took our chances and let our bodies unwind in the warm baths. The trip can be summarised as an incredibly well organised cultural explosion filled with love, drama and alcohol. What else do you need? The umami of trips.

Faces are not the only blurry thing from that night

I’m sure I’ve left a million things out, but I cannot leave without writing why Klara is the best (or one of the best) teachers you will ever have. She is one of the most passionate teachers I have had, always open to suggestions and comments, regardless of how stupid they may sound to you. One of the things I enjoy the most about her teaching and her tutorials is that she always welcomes creativity in the research papers that you hand in. One of the biggest benefits is also her private office library; she has the coolest books (that the Courtauld library sometimes doesn’t have) and she kindly lends them to you (I can still remember when she lent me a book and I wrapped it up in kitchen plastic film to avoid any scratches on my way to and from uni). She’s like a walking art historical encyclopaedia, her knowledge is endless. Mix this with her passion, empathy and kindness and it’s difficult to top.**

All in all the MA has been an incredibly positive experience. With its highs and lows as any other experience. Whether it was writing an essay in two days with a temperature or getting my first distinction, I relish the memories of happier times. And if you’re scared of starting your MA or even trying to apply to the Courtauld, don’t be. They’re just like any other university. A bunch of freaks theorising on art history. What’s not to love?

*She did not say that at all, she was the loveliest and let me know that what I wanted to say had been debunked a long time ago. She helped me understand the artist better and gave me a lot of resources to look at.

**This post has not been sponsored by Dr. Klara Kemp-Welch, nor am I sucking up to her because I am already graduating with a distinction (Thanks Sars-Cov-2, xoxo)


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