The University of Chicago News Office
May 1, 2002 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Art Historian Michael Camille, 1958-2002

A major art historian whose eye, intellect and humor helped open the Middle Ages to new perspectives, Michael Camille, the Mary L. Block Professor in Art History, died Monday morning, April 29, of a brain tumor. He was 44.

Trained at Cambridge in the traditional discipline of medieval art history, Camille expanded that discipline with high theory and earthy observation. He studied medieval image-making from playful marginal illuminations to the carvings of grand cathedrals. From these details he learned that the neat separation of “high” and “low” culture, of word and image, are modern artifacts. Through his study of the Middle Ages, Camille showed it was not always this way. He was recognized by his colleagues for his ability to use art to illuminate both medieval and modern life, something he achieved repeatedly in the course of an abundantly productive career at the University of Chicago. He made these connections most famously in Image on the Edge, his study of the “lascivious apes, autophagic dragons, pot-bellied heads, harp-playing asses, arse-kissing priests and somersaulting jongleurs to be found protruding from the edges of medieval buildings and in the margins of illuminated manuscripts,” and most explicitly in his last completed work, Monsters of Modernity: The Gargoyles of Notre Dame, on the rebuilt Notre Dame cathedral as a modern vision of the Middle Ages.

His colleague Robert Nelson, Distinguished Service Professor of Art History and the History of Culture, said that “Michael viewed the Middle Ages as important to people living now. That’s not so easily done, not just a matter of translating complicated arguments into jargon-free terms. He was arguing for a different kind of Middle Ages than the one that’s dominated popular consciousness since the nineteenth century. That was the Middle Ages as the age of faith, of the great cathedrals, dominated by knights and chivalry. [On Chicago’s Gothic campus] we ourselves work in a medieval revival university, with a sense of the Middle Ages as a lost ideal, a perfect world of great beauty and social harmony. Michael showed a different kind of Middle Ages, one that included the base, the ordinary people. I think our world is more interested in this Middle Ages.” Mary Carruthers, Professor of English and Dean of the Humanities at New York University, concurred, saying that Camille’s work showed that in medieval thought “there isn’t a split between the spiritual and the carnal. They may be in a struggle with one another but they are also supportive of one another.”

Linda Seidel, Hanna Holborn Gray Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History, explained Camille’s ability to engage people. She said his work was “never merely intellectual; there was always this spontaneous emotional connection. He would always find something in his subject to recognize, and then make it familiar to everybody else.” This distinctively emotional relation to his material was connected to a distinctive method: as Camille wrote in the introduction to Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator: “What is most important about that person who forms the subject of this book is the fact that he is not important—at least in terms of the History of Art.”

Camille, says Seidel, “was really working the underside, topics that people had ignored before. The margins of pages, ‘unimportant’ artists who become mirrors of their time, the edges of buildings, out-of-the-way carvings--he recovered them. Last year he was on the pilgrimage road in Spain, discovering semi-seen, obscene carvings along the way. His projects were always based on a visual body of work, a group of images that struck him as having something in common but with a connection that had been overlooked. Other scholars would see some huge monument as a whole, with the relationship of all the parts assumed; he would look at groups of little figures on separate structures and discover the minute gestures that drew these otherwise isolated things together.”

Born March 6, 1958 to Marcel and Mavis Camille in Keighley, Yorkshire, Camille grew up a precocious child. His partner, Stuart Michaels, Assistant Director and Lecturer in the Committee on Gender Studies, describes an unusual opportunity: “Michael was a working-class lad from Yorkshire who was brilliant and was born at exactly the right moment to arrive at the end of his precollege education in a period when Oxbridge was becoming more meritocratic. There was an English teacher in his school who sounded like a product of the sixties who thought there was no reason why a student like this couldn’t go to Cambridge. Even though no one from this school had gone to Cambridge for 50 years and nobody had any idea of which college to apply to.” Camille recounted an intimidating question from the art historian at the admission interview: “So what do you do for culture?” Camille replied instantly: “I go romping on the moors,” silencing the don. He got in.

After a distinguished career at Peterhouse College, graduating first class with honors in Art History and English in 1980, Camille went on to earn an M.A. in 1982 and a Ph.D. in Art History in 1985, after which he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. His first book was The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in the Medieval Art (1989). His next volume, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (1992) communicated one of Camille’s essential insights: that “the art of the Middle Ages was not a somber expression of social unity and transcendant order. Rather, it was rooted in the conflicted life of the body with all its somatic as well as spiritual possibilities.” Carruthers described Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator (1996) as showing “a way of reading the work of an artist that owed a lot to literary history and biography. It was more narrative than traditional art history has been—I think it upset a number of art historians because it was so literary in what it said about that particular painter, it wasn’t just about drapery.”

According to Seidel, even Camille’s introductory volume, Glorious Visions: Gothic Art (1996) managed to be provocative and compelling: “it was used heavily in classrooms as an alternative to the very dry version conventional of the Gothic.” It was a fresh alternative to “a ‘medieval’ that had become so packaged and systematized.” His last two published books were The Medieval Art of Love (1997) and Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Carruthers described two early Camille articles as having a particularly powerful impact beyond art history, and on her in particular: “Some Visual Implications of Medieval Literacy and Illiteracy,” published in Art History, and “Visual Signs of the Sacred Page: Books as Signs and Symbols in the Bible Moralisée,” published in Word and Image.

On the work Camille was engaged in at the time of his death, Michaels says that “he was becoming more and more interested in sculpture and secular material. He was asking ‘where did this idea of the medieval and the Gothic come from?’. They’re modern concepts. Under the rubric of his Guggenheim project, ‘Signs and Streetlife in Medieval France,’ he had begun working on urban streets, wooden houses, secular structures, things not even treated as medieval art, rather as folklore.” A second major work in progress was Stones of Sodom, a study of the traces of medieval homosexuality in art, for which he had been doing travel and photography.

Seidel remembers what it was like to be around Camille. “He had a mind like shooting stars. Ideas were always going off; sometimes they seemed outrageous but only because they weren’t headed in the direction other people were going. Then you realized how you could connect with his ideas and it seemed magical.” She recalls a popular episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass took Camille to the Medieval Times theme park, where actors jousted and “wenches” served pizza. “He’s wondering what this academic is going to think. But Michael’s attentive, delighted response captures so much of his pleasure in discovery—even the nonsensical made sense in his eyes. His scholarship was a way of making the unfamiliar accessible.”

Camille was the recipient of a 1988 leave and travel fellowship from the Getty Foundation, which he shared with Seidel and Nelson, his second-floor neighbors in the Art History department. Camille won a 1992-93 National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and a 2000-2001 Guggenheim Fellowship. During the 1990s, he held visiting professorships at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of California-Berkeley. He also served as visiting directeur d’etudes at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He was engaged in the life of the University in many ways, including sitting on the Board of the University of Chicago Press from 1993 to 1997, helping found the Lesbian and Gay Studies project at the University, and serving on the task force on undergraduate education.

He is survived by his parents, his sister Michelle, and his companion of 16 years, Stuart Michaels. The Art History department is planning a commemorative service; friends, colleagues and students may contact the department for more information.

Photograph available
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Last modified at 12:32 PM CST on Thursday, May 02, 2002.

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