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Rethinking Art History

          Through Disability




Thanks to the achievement of political and cultural activism, the term “disability” has gained more and more attention in society over the last decades. Nevertheless, the definition of disability as a social and cultural construct remains problematic. The human body represents a constant subject of artistic representation across all epochs and cultures as well as the fundamental medium of art production and reception. The arousing debates around the politics and the social condition of the body with functional diversity underscore the importance of rethinking the body and its historically constructed unity also inside the art historical research. 
How can disability studies help us to rethink the body across art history? What kind of social challenges do bodies with functional diversity put on artistic institutions, such as galleries and museums? How does the depiction of functional diversity stimulate artistic creativity and question normative definitions of art? 





Representing Disability

The first aspect of the project focuses on the “visibility” of functional diversity as well as of disability as a social condition. The research examines means and forms through which functional diversity visually manifests itself, for instance how artists have made the diversity of their body into the subject of their work or what kind of traces this diversity leaves in their works. By concentrating on its representation across different times and cultures, the project also asks about the visibility of disability as a cultural construct. It explores the rise and circulation of stereotypes and measures the impact that the visual representation of functional diversity has had on its historical and social perception. The goal is to develop adequate methodologies, concepts, and vocabulary that can help to thematize disability within the art of historical research.



Functional Diversity as a Challenge to the Understanding of Art

Traditional art historical narratives tend to underscore the celebration of the artist’s mental and physical skills as the conceptual basis of historical definitions of art. In the early modern artistic vocabulary, the ability to perform the act of creation finds a reflection in categories such as Kunst-Können, destrezza, bravura etc. intended as expressions of the uninterrupted unity of the idealized body. And yet many premodern artists seem to have engaged with the depiction of functional diversity as a means to question not only aesthetic ideals, genre conventions, or the normative construction of the pictorial space, but also to rethink the work of the artists themselves. The project aims to examine visual means, techniques, and materials used by artists to represent bodies with functional diversities and their epistemological and aesthetic access to the world as a powerful means to test both the possibilities and the limits of art.

The Access to Art and the Politics of Inclusivity

Ensuring equal access to art represents a fundamental goal for most artistic institutions. The project addresses the rethinking of space policies and communicative practices through the inclusion of different notions of body in museums and other artistic institutions. It examines the reception of the most recent discourses around disability, accessibility, and their function as a stimulus for creativity in design and architecture as well as in the shaping of exhibition spaces. A further important aspect is represented by the role of mechanical and digital technology is opening new dimensions and possibilities for engaging with art. This inquiry should underline the importance of accessibility as a form of political and social inclusion, with a particular focus on the art system and its mechanisms.

Find out more about   

 Teaching + Activities 

Hendrick Golzius, The Artist's Right Han

Hendrick Goltzius, Goltzius’s Right Hand, 1588,

pen and brown ink on paper, 23 x 32.2 cm, Teylers Museum, Haarlem.

1.1 Lorenza Boettner.jpg
1.2 Joshua Reynolds.jpg

Lorenza Böttner and Johannes Koch, Untitled, c. 1983, black and white photograph, 13 x 15 cm, private collection

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man, c. 1775, oil paint on canvas, Tate Modern, London

2.1 Finnegan Shannon_b.png
2.2 Jesse Darling.jpg

Jesse Luke Darling, Collapsed Cane, 2017,

steel, aluminum, rubber and lacquer, 75 x 60 x 5 cm, exhibition view, Chapter NY, New York

Finnegan Shannon, Do You Want Us Here or Not (MMK), 2021-ongoing, plywood, paint, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main

3.1 Agnolo Bronzino.jpg
3.2 Park McArthur.jpg

Park McArthur, Ramps, 2014, ramps of different sizes and materials, installation view, Essex Street, New York

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Nano Morgante, 1552, oil paint on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence




Dr. Virginia Marano

Virginia Marano (she/her) has completed her PhD in art history at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History. Her thesis examined the diasporic dimension in the works of Jewish women sculptors in Post-war New York, previously assimilated to feminism but not yet connected to the question of exile. To conduct her doctoral research, she was awarded an ESKAS doctoral scholarship (2018–2021) and a FAN Grant (2021). In 2022, she was a SNSF Doc.Mobility fellow in the Art History Department at Hunter College/CUNY. She currently works as curatorial assistant at MASI, Museo d'arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano.

Dr. Charlotte Matter

Charlotte Matter (she/her) is postdoc researcher at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History, where she coordinates the specialized Master’s program in Art History in a Global Context. Her doctoral thesis explored the use of plastics in art of the 1960s and 1970s from a feminist perspective. Her current research interests include class and classism, labor and non-productivity, and intersectional approaches. She is co-editor of Sculpture Journal at Liverpool University Press.

Laura Valterio, M.A.

Laura Valterio (she/her) is research and teaching assistant at the University of Zurich and at the Bibliotheca Hertziana Max-Planck Institute for Art History in Rome. Her PhD project explores the history of seventeenth century Italian painting from the point of view of raw materials as well as their role in the dialogue between painting and other media. She was a graduate fellow at the NCCR eikones – Iconic Criticism at the University of Basel.


Max Kohler Stiftung

Boner Stiftung


Temperatio Stiftung

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Graduate School, Uni. of 

Zurich Graduate Campus Grants, University of Zurich


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