The Art World Works From Home: Leonardo da Vinci Scholar Martin Kemp Is Thinking About Dante and Whipping Up Indian Food

Here's how the historian is making his way through life in quarantine.

The art world may be on lockdown, but it certainly does not stop. During this unprecedented time, we’re checking in with art-world professionals, collectors, and artists to get a glimpse into how they are working from home.

Before the UK went into lockdown, Martin Kemp—one of the world’s most esteemed Leonardo da Vinci experts and a professor emeritus of art history at Oxford University—was working on a David Hockney exhibition, collaborating with musicians, and busy writing a book about Dante Alighieri, slated for the 700th anniversary of the artist’s birth, next year.

Now he is now learning to do research without libraries.

Though Kemp says he misses the collegial banter of library life, he is still writing at home (and is glad for the existence of digitized books). Read on to hear how Kemp is exploring online exhibitions, giving some new technology a try, and trying not to get cranky.

Where is your new “office”?

I have been working from my office at home since I “retired” from Oxford University. I am full-time writing, speaking (or was), broadcasting, and sometimes presenting concerts (or was). On some unusually brilliant spring days, I have been working outside on my terrace, surrounded by sparkling blossom and thrusting green shoots.

Martin Kemp's work-from-home patio office.

Martin Kemp’s work-from-home patio office.

What are you working on right now (and were any projects of yours interrupted by the lockdown)?

I’m writing a book on Dante and divine light in art (for Dante’s 700th birthday anniversary next year), which I can do largely from home since the Dante texts are all online. Though it is difficult stuff. I’m still looking for a publisher! I have also been discussing with Robert Hollingworth of I Fagiolini, the vocal ensemble, a traveling concert on Dante, in succession to a Leonardo concert we toured in 2019. But such things are up in the air.

I am also planning a Hockney show for Cambridge (the Heong Gallery at Downing and the Fitzwilliam Museum) for summer–autumn 2021. It will look at the perceptual aspects of his experiments in representation.

How has your work changed now that you are doing it from home?

The content has changed little, but I miss being in the same space as collaborators and colleagues. Teleconferencing really does not do the same job. Being excluded from libraries is a pain, not least my own Leonardo library, which is the Research Hall of the History Faculty [at Oxford University]. The choices made in the Dante book are in part determined by the availability of books, though the primary sources online are an amazing gift. Well done the British Library, the Bodleian et al.

What are you reading, both online and off?

Dante—a lot of it (and there is a lot). 

Raphael, Portrait of a woman in the role of Venus (Fornarina) (c.1519-1520). Rome, Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica - Palazzo Barberini. Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, Roma. (MIBACT) - Biblioteca Hertziana, Istituto Max Planck per la storia dell’arte/Enrico Fontolan.

Raphael, Portrait of a woman in the role of Venus (Fornarina) (ca.1519-1520).

Have you visited any good virtual exhibitions recently?

I’m looking at quite a number of online shows. The site of the Raphael exhibition in the Scudiere in Rome is a particular pleasure. An intelligently curated exhibition, which I am very sorry to have lost. The online shows of contemporary art give me a chance to catch up on what’s happening.

Have you taken up any new hobbies?

Trying not to be a grumpy (not-so-young) man.

What is the first place you want to travel to once this is over?

My schedule of talks is gone and with it the cancellation of visits to Florida, Venice, Stuttgart, and Beijing. It would be good if one or more of these happened in due course.

If you are feeling stuck while self-isolating, what’s your best method for getting un-stuck?

The buzz I get from writing is a good solvent for inertial glue.

What was the last TV show, movie, or YouTube video you watched?

I don’t have a TV and have not got into the habit of watching it. I tend to boycott YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Tweets, etc. I get harassed, and the pernicious aspects of social media outweigh the good, though in present circumstances I exempt those that facilitate face-to-face contact with family and friends. Facetime works well.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert. Collection of the Frick.

If you could have one famous work of art with you, what would it be?

Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the Frick Collection, New York. Bellini said that he liked to “wander at will” in his paintings. He has provided us with multiple journeys of delight within a single frame.

Favorite recipe to cook at home?

I cook a lot of Indian vegetarian food. I make up the recipes as I go along, always with all the individual spices in response to the available ingredients. I shop at Worton Organic Garden. The ingredients are excellent.

What are you most looking forward to doing once social distancing has been lifted?

Going to arts events, especially music, which has come to mean a great deal to me. Collaborating with world-class singers is privilege and delight.


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