Natalie McCann: contemporizing Renaissance

While some have skeletons in the closet, Natalie McCann grew up with skulls literally in the bookshelves. Raised by a musician dad and a fine artist/medical illustrator mom, she grew up in a Bohemian household. Other kids were sent to bed, but Natalie was invited to the table where artists gathered and talked passionately into the night. With parents that encouraged rather than discouraged her desires to pursue an artistic path, it’s no wonder that Natalie has become an art historian specialising in the Renaissance/ Baroque periods. As a curator Natalie navigates between Renaissance and contemporary art, as she connects the two.  

Natalie shows history through modern lens

Having received her degree from Columbia University in the city of New York, she is mainly interested in the Northern Renaissance. Her focus is on material from Germany, France, the Netherlands, England and the north of Italy. Natalie is drawn to the beauty of Renaissance. The impressive technical skills and hidden details of artworks led her to the position of history detective. She is currently working on her PhD about visual representation of writing and writers : Power, Literacy, & The Quill: The Representation of Writing in Northern Renaissance Art, circa 1450-1615. )

“I focus throughout on the visual representation of writers and acts of writing from a feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial perspective.”

Literacy was highly valued in this time. In fact, writing materials were often juxtaposed with expensive comsumer goods. Think of a Rennaissance painting as a carefully curated instagram page. “Literacy played a profound role in the visual negotiation of power relations. Social differentials that were enacted and maintained through writing pertained, among other things, to nation-building, the accumulation of wealth, and the performance of gender.” 

Building contextual relationships

While Renaissance art may seem less trendy and unrelatable due to aging conditions, Natalie is fascinated by old objects, darkened varnishes and the historical depth. She does believe, however, that people need encouragement and background to appreciate it fully. In contrast, contemporary art offers immediacy, requiring less historical explanation. Placing them side by side can give context to both. Natalie’s passion for Renaissance and contemporary art has led her to think about a different way of curating. She sees exhibitions more in terms of concepts and ideas than in terms of time lines. This allows her to bring together what is not usually associated.

images by PILOTENKUECHE or supplied by curator

Describing herself as an open-minded person, she is comfortable working with both deceased and living artists. These two collaborative ways of working require different skills. On one hand, working with old objects involves conducting research, digging through textual fragments and working with specialists. On the other hand, the process of working with contemporary artists is characterized by close collaboration, proximity, playing with ideas and working hand in hand. Research in contemporary art serves as a tool to help artists express their visual thoughts verbally.

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

One of Natalie’s most recent curatorial experiences was at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. She had the opportunity to combine her passion for both renaissance and contemporary art. It is an encyclopedic museum, meaning that they have all different regions and time periods. Natalie was assisting for the show devoted to Afro-Cuban painter Harmonia Rosales. Rosales reimagines Renaissance art portraying Black people as protagonist. This is an excellent example of living artists responding to precedent with a contemporary twist. Natalie considers it one of her most rewarding career experiences thus far. 

She finds working with contemporary artists who are interested in historical art rewarding. If one looks closely, many contemporary artworks respond to the canon, a process in which specific aspects of culture are established as crucial, of the utmost importance or exemplary. As a renaissance specialist, Natalie enables the artists to situate their art in time. Having the expertise of a researcher takes their works to a whole new level of reflexion.

A new experience abroad for Natalie

Natalie envisions her three month curatorial residency in Leipzig as a chance to extend her skill set while working hand-in-hand with curator Raffaella Matrone. She also looks forward to the social experience. Academic work tends to be isolating as the majority of time is spent by yourself doing research. PILOTENKUECHE International Art Program will give her the chance to take a seat at the table with artists again, this time allowing her to learn and share with people from various cultural and artistic backgrounds. 

written by Margot Lallier


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