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November 27, 2000

Someone old, someone new

By Eric Rangus

The newest member of Emory’s art history department is actually a familiar face.

Walter Melion was a faculty member from 1992 to 1994. He’s now an art history professor at Johns Hopkins, but until June 1, 2001, he’ll be back at Emory serving as the first Lovis Corinth Research Professor in Northern European Art.

“I loved it here. I still miss it a lot, to be perfectly honest,” said Melion, who also taught at Johns Hopkins for six years prior to joining the Emory faculty.

For his year in residence, Melion has moved not only into the Carlos Hall office of art history Professor James Meyer, who is on sabbatical, but is also renting Meyer’s condominium. Joining Melion is his partner, John Clum, an English and drama professor at Duke who is spending his own yearlong sabbatical in Atlanta.

Interestingly, Melion is living in the same complex where he resided during his original stint at Emory.

Corinth, the namesake of the professorship that brings Melion back to Emory, was a late-19th, early-20th century German painter. Melion called him a “painter’s painter” because of the way he manipulated paint as well as his wide range of subjects. The professorship and accompanying lecture series are funded by Emory College through the bequest of Kay Corinth, the late artist’s daughter-in-law.

Melion’s specific area of expertise is centered several hundred years before Corinth’s time and a few hundred miles to the northwest of Corinth’s home. The bulk of Melion’s research involves Netherlandish artists (those of Dutch, Belgian and Flemish background) of the 16th and 17th centuries. He is currently writing a book, The Meditative Art: Prints and Prayer in the Nether-lands, 1550-1620, which he hopes to finish by June.

“The field of art history is interdisciplinary in the way that one has to negotiate from theology and church history to the study of rhetoric and the history of education,” Melion said. “Of course, in my field one has to know print techniques, the history of print publishing and also a great deal about book publishing because many of the prints I study are published as illustrations in books.”

The lecture series is in its second year, Melion having been one of the presenters the previous go-round. This year, Melion will give two lectures. In February he will discuss “Love, Judgment and the Trope of Vision in Benedictus Arias Montanus’s Divine Nuptuals and Mirror of the Life of Christ.”

This Thursday, Nov. 30, at 5:30 p.m. in the Carlos Museum reception hall, Melion will open the 2000–01 series with a talk on 16th century engraver Hendrick Goltzius’s Circumcision, which depicts the circumcision of Christ.

The print, Melion said, is part of a six-image collection of engravings that depict several events in the life of the Virgin Mary and her relationship to the infant Christ. Goltzius dedicated Circumcision, which he produced between 1593 and 1594, along with it companion works, to a patron, Wilhelm V, the Duke of Bavaria. For his efforts, Melion said, Goltzius received a gold chain from Wilhelm, not only to honor the quality of the engravings but to acknowledge the service to religion fulfilled by the print. It is this early type of artistic commercialization that will form the basis of Melion’s discussion.

“What I’m asking in the lecture is, ‘How does the engraving function as both a display of art and a religious image?’” Melion said. “There was great anxiety about the relation of artistry, artisanship and artifice to religious argument at the end of the 16th century.”

Melion said he will not only explore the perceptions of the artistic and religious communities, but also those of the public. Engravings of the era, Melion said, were much more well known than paintings because they were reproducible and traded along with books at fairs throughout the continent.

Melion’s work is just half his story. He had a rather eclectic childhood. Born in Manila in 1952 to an Austrian father and Filipino mother, he was shipped off to a Scottish boarding school in Hong Kong—where he acquired the British accent he still has today.

In the mid-1960s, Melion’s family emigrated to the United States and settled in Northern California, a place he considers his home. “It took me several years to adjust,” said Melion, whose first language was German and who essentially lived as a British subject for more than half a decade.

“I liked [California], but initially it was a bit opaque. I didn’t really quite understand what was going on. But I must say, we certainly moved to the hotbed of cultural revision—San Francisco in the mid-‘60s. It certainly was an exciting place to be,” he said.

“Just because I didn’t know what was going on doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it,” he laughed.
When it came time to go to college, Melion decided to stay in California and attend UC-Santa Cruz (he turned down Harvard). He then earned a doctorate in art history at UC-Berkeley.

Melion’s family history has a unique history as well. Melion’s father, Hans, was a Viennese Jew who escaped Europe at the relatively late date of 1940. World War II had already begun and Germany had annexed Austria several years earlier.

Hans Melion made it to Shanghai, then to Manila—just in time for the Japanese invasion and occupation, then the Ameri-can re-invasion. He didn’t return to his home country of Austria until 1989. Every member of his family, save one younger brother and a first cousin had perished at Auschwitz.

“Initially he had nothing but positive things to say, then things became negative, and then he had a heart attack,” Melion said. “I think it just became too much.” His father recovered from that heart attack and lived almost 10 more years, passing away in 1998.

Melion regularly visits Vienna. It’s the location of what he called “the greatest drawing and prints collection in the world,” the Central European Hapsburg collection.

In fact, for more than a decade Melion has spent his summers in Europe, basing himself in London, which grants him easy access to the continent.

“The British library is a good place to find all [my] materials,” he said. “Anything I can’t find there, I can always make a quick trip to Amsterdam or Brussels.”


Back to Emory Report Nov. 27, 2000