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Decoding domesticity


ART HISTORIAN MIMI HELLMAN, WITH ANTIQUE CANDLESTICK HOLDERS FROM LUCY SKIDMORE SCRIBNER’S HOUSE


Mimi Hellman settles into a wide up- holstered chair, wraps her hands around a mug of cappuccino, smiles, and sips. An art historian at Skidmore since 2004, she is analyzing the ambience of Virgil’s, a cozy, “shabby chic” coffee shop in Saratoga Springs.


“The decorative art in a place like this tells us a lot about our cultural val- ues,” says Hellman, who studies how furniture, mirrors, dishes, and other do- mestic items can reflect social hierarchy, rituals, relationships, and much more. “Serving coffee in a tiny porcelain cup by candlelight in 18th-century France had a very different meaning from what we’re doing here and now, drinking large portions from chunky glass,” she explains. “Then, having coffee was an awkward, unnatural performance, with the people themselves posed as works of art meant to please others. Here we are, kicking back, showing hospitality with big servings. Things here express open- ness and informality.”


8 SCOPE FALL 2011


After she gradu- ated from Smith College, Hellman’s work in a gourmet food store inspired her both to cook and to read books about all things gas- tronomic. She re- calls, “I became in- terested in topics such as how and when the teacup acquired its handle in Europe, which makes it very unlike the traditional Japa - nese tea bowl. It wasn’t enough for me that the objects created for this pur- pose were beautiful. I wanted to know how their use fit into society and personal identity.” She returned to


Smith for an MA in art history and con- tinued at Princeton for a PhD in art and archeology, which took her to Paris for two years to study the Hôtel de Soubise. Beyond reviewing the objects and archi- tecture of this grand mansion, Hellman scrutinized letters, memoirs, and probate records to imagine and recon struct the agendas of the occupants. The author of articles in professional journals and mu-


seum catalogs, she is now at work on a book interpreting the mansion’s “re- markable building, lavish lifestyle, and family history.”


She knows that some art historians consider 18th-century France “overly decorated, frivolous, and decadent. They prefer the seriousness and sym - metry of ancient Greek and Roman art. They don’t want to study aristocrats in powdered wigs.” But she says, “I was ex-


cited by the scandal of it.” And she ar- gues that those ornate flourishes don’t obscure, but intensify meaning, like garnishes on food that help bring out its subtleties.


At Skidmore, Hellman designs courses that use the Tang Museum, a wellspring of primary-source materials that she considers “vital.” The Tang is “absolute- ly one of the best things about Skid- more,” she declares. “Students love to use the museum as a lab, and the ex - perience breaks down boundaries that might prevent them from going to a museum for fun as well as learning.” (She also coordinates a Mellon Founda- tion–funded seminar where faculty ex- plore creative approaches to using mu- seums in teaching. The program facili- tates cross-disciplinary discussions among professors and even group visits to museums in New York City, Boston, and beyond.)


Hellman defines connoisseurship as “extraordinary expertise in determining an object’s origins, style, materials, and influences,” but she says, “those facts don’t answer the questions that intrigue me: What did this mean for the people who used it? What did it reveal or con- ceal? Who made a show of power by using it?”


“SERVING COFFEE IN A TINY


PORCELAIN CUP IN 18TH-CENTURY FRANCE HAD A VERY DIFFERENT MEANING FROM WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE AND NOW, DRINKING LARGE PORTIONS FROM CHUNKY GLASS.”


Not just savoring objects as art but understanding the roles they play in codes of social conduct is “com- plicated,” she ad- mits. “But it’s cen- tral to me as an art historian and a teacher, and even


in my personal life, to be an astute ob- server of detail in a world in which visu- al acuity is relevant—that is, the world is visually dense, and what we see influ- ences our values and choices.” She adds, “It’s tantalizing, once you have the arti- facts to work with, to want access to the whole of the period, including how it was experienced intellectually, emotion- ally, and through all five senses.” —Helen S. Edelman ’74


GARY GOLD


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