CFP: Transnational Perspectives on the Writing of Artists’ Lives, 19th-21st centuries.


Amsterdam School for Regional,
European and Transnational studies.

University of Amsterdam

An Interdisciplinary Workshop

25-26 January 2018

Some writers are so fascinated by other artists that they study their biographies and tell their life stories, in fictional or non-fictional form. Whereas artists’ lives have been written throughout the ages, they have become increasingly popular since the romantic period, with the rise of the artist-hero in the Künstlerroman. Many romantic and post-romantic writers portrayed an artist from their home country as iconic of the nation, thus establishing or consolidating a national cultural tradition. However, there are numerous examples of authors who wrote the life stories of writers, painters or musicians from countries other than their own:

Alexander Pushkin tells about the rivalry between two famous composers in his theatre play Mozart and Salieri (1830) ; André Maurois narrates the life story of Shelley in Ariel ou la vie de Shelley (1923);  The Moon and Sixpence  (1919) is a fictional biography of Paul Gauguin written by Somerset Maugham and Symphonie Pathétique  (1935) is Klaus Mann’s biographical novel of Tchaikovsky. More recent examples are the literary biography of Jane Austen written by the Canadian novelist Carol Shields in 2001;  Caryl Phillips’ Radio Play A Kind of Home: James Baldwin in Paris (2004) and Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time (2016) in which he examines the biography of Shostakovich.

All these examples show literary writers who, in many different ways, construct their subject’s life stories in order to reflect on life and art and to define their own aesthetic position. Whether they criticize their ‘hero’ or identify with him/her as a formative model and make it their own, they establish a trans-national relation with this particular artist.

We will further investigate the dynamics of such transnational relations and appropriations in a two-day international workshop on artists’ biographies in the 19th-21st centuries. We will focus on the lives of artists, written by artists, such as literary biographies, biographical novels and operas or theatre plays that clearly rely on biographical elements.

We aim to examine four central issues:

  1. the various forms and usages of artist’s biographies. How and why do writers engage with the lives of other artists? Which elements are foregrounded and which elements are ignored in the life narrative they construct?
  2. the truth and fiction about an artists’ life. To what effect do writers fictionalize certain biographical elements? What kind of ‘truth’ do they convey through literary writing?
  3. the historical development of the artist-hero in modern literature, literary biography and portraiture. Should we consider the romantic period as ‘tipping point’; a period in which artists begin to write about artists? Are there similar tipping or turning points in the twentieth century in the writing of artists’ lives?
  4. the transnational dynamics of identity formation. What is the importance of studying ‘foreign’ artist’s lives in the formation of artistic identities? To what extent does this contribute to the sense of belonging to a (trans)national, European or cosmopolitan artistic community? How do politics come into play here?


Proposals, no longer than 200 words, should be sent before 1 June 2017 to Kasper van Kooten ( and Marleen Rensen (

Séminaire “Biographie”: Table ronde autour des textes de Hayden White et Ivan Jablonka 12/04

Séance du séminaire “biographie”

12 avril 2017 de 14h à 16h

Maison de la Recherche:  14h – 16h salle 2.44

Table ronde autour des textes de:

Hayden White


Metahistory – The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)


Ivan Jablonka

 L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine : Manifeste pour les sciences sociales (Le Seuil, 2014).

 Présentation des textes

WHITE, Metahistory  – Présentation de l’éditeur: Since its initial publication in 1973, Hayden White’s Metahistory has remained an essential book for understanding the nature of historical writing. In this classic work, White argues that a deep structural content lies beyond the surface level of historical texts. This latent poetic and linguistic content—which White dubs the “metahistorical element”—essentially serves as a paradigm for what an “appropriate” historical explanation should be.

To support his thesis, White analyzes the complex writing styles of historians like Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt, and philosophers of history such as Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Croce. The first work in the history of historiography to concentrate on historical writing as writingMetahistory sets out to deprive history of its status as a bedrock of factual truth, to redeem narrative as the substance of historicality, and to identify the extent to which any distinction between history and ideology on the basis of the presumed scientificity of the former is spurious (Johns Hopkins University Press).


JABLONKA, L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine – Présentation de l’auteur: “L’histoire n’est pas fiction, la sociologie n’est pas roman, l’anthropologie n’est pas exotisme, et toutes trois obéissent à des exigences de méthode. À l’intérieur de ce cadre, rien n’empêche le chercheur d’écrire.

Concilier sciences sociales et création littéraire, c’est tenter d’écrire de manière plus libre, plus originale, plus juste, plus réflexive, non pour relâcher la scientificité de la recherche, mais au contraire pour la renforcer. L’histoire est d’autant plus scientifique qu’elle est littéraire.

Réciproquement, la littérature est compatible avec la démarche des sciences sociales. Les écrits du réel – enquête, reportage, journal, récit de vie, témoignage – concourent à l’intelligibilité du monde. Ils forment une littérature qui, au moyen d’un raisonnement, vise à comprendre le passé ou le présent.

Des sciences sociales qui émeuvent et captivent ? Une littérature qui produit de la connaissance ? Il y a là des perspectives nouvelles pour le siècle qui s’ouvre”. (  – Éditeur et écrivain, Ivan Jablonka est professeur d’histoire à l’université Paris 13.


Biography, gender and history: Nordic perspectives

Biography, gender and history:
Nordic perspectives

Eds. Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Tiina Kinnunen, Maarit Leskelä-Kärki, Birgitte Possing

New publication on biography and history by the book series Cultural history – Kulttuurihistoria at the University of Turku

How to construct a life of a nineteenth-century Icelandic ordinary woman? What perspectives does surveillance material open up when exploring an individual? How to use portraits as biographical clues? What do group biographies or pair biographies add to the genre of historical biography?

This book, with contributions by scholars from various Nordic countries, reflects the biographical turn that has influenced Nordic historical research during the past few decades. It is a contribution to the growing international interest in, and theorisation of, biography and biographical research as a method of doing history. The individual chapters focus on challenges of gender, context, and relationality in biographical research, and develop the methodologies of biographical research further.

This is an excellent volume covering a significant gap in the interdisciplinary field of historical and biographical writing not only in the Nordic milieu but more widely; it does so from a rich range of perspectives, theoretical and methodological approaches, as well as biographical case studies. It is indeed a rare contribution in the life-writing literature.’
– Professor Maria Tamboukou (University of East London)

Contact person:
Maarit Leskelä-Kärki,
Book orders:

Biography, gender and history: Nordic perspectives
Eds. Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Tiina Kinnunen, Maarit Leskelä-Kärki, Birgitte Possing

Contents of the book

Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Tiina Kinnunen, Maarit Leskelä-Kärki
Doing biography


Birgitte Possing
How does one relate a complex life? Reflections on a polyphonic portrait of the minister and intellectual Bodil Koch (1903–1973)

Christina Carlsson Wetterberg
Biography as a way of challenging gender stereotypes: Reflections on writing about the Swedish author and feminist Frida Stéenhoff (1865–1945)


Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir
A biography of her own: The historical narrative and Sigríður Pálsdóttir (1809–1871)

Antti Harmainen
Group biography as an approach to studying manhood and religion in late nineteenth-century Finland

Kristine Kjærsgaard
Love and emotions in the diplomatic world: the relationship between Bodil Begtrup’s public and private lives, 1937–1956


Tiina Kinnunen
‘Fighting sisters’: A comparative biography of Ellen Key (1849–1926) and Alexandra Gripenberg (1857–1913) in the contested field of European feminisms

Irene Andersson
Telling stories of gendered space and place: the political agency of the Swedish communist Valborg Svensson (1903–1983)


Maarit Leskelä-Kärki
Remembering mother: Relations and memory in the biographical project on Minna Krohn (1841–1917)

Heini Hakosalo
Coming together: early Finnish medical women and the multiple levels of historical biography

Kaisa Vehkalahti
Bad girl biographies: Child welfare documents as gendered biographies

Tiina Kinnunen, Maarit Leskelä-Kärki, Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Birgitte Possing
Afterword: Future challenges

SAES Workshop: (Re-)Constructing Lives, June 1-3 2017

Workshop of the Biography Society

Annual Conference of the SAES
Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne
1-3 June 2017 in Reims



Pr Joanny Moulin, Aix Marseille Université
Dr Jean-Charles Perquin, Université Lumière Lyon 2

Workshop description:

Do biographies necessarily impose on lives an artificial pattern? Is not a life already a construction, quite apart from any attempt to write about it? If, on the one hand, biography may serve the ideological purpose of ceaselessly constructing and reconstructing idealized lives of iconic historical figures, on the other hand, it may just as well work the other way around. If biography can serve the purposes of myth-making, modern biography is more often than not an investigation, de-constructing the lives of historical personages to re-construct them on a more true-to-life basis. For instance, in a distant past, James Anthony Froude’s Life of Carlyle scandalized his contemporaries by knocking the great man off his pedestal, paving the way for Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and much more recently the biographies of C. G. Jung by Richard Noll and Ronald Hayman, reconstructing the life of the Swiss psychologist in a very iconoclastic light, or again Pierre Péan’s François Mitterand, Un jeunesse française, unearthing once more the socialist leader’s commitment with the Vichy government.

This workshop will particularly welcome contributions looking at the positioning of biographies relatively to this ideological notion of “construction”. Other papers may concentrate rather on the biographers’ narrative discourse as a process of re-constructing those parts or sides of their subjects’ lives that have been erased out of historical document, whether intentionally or accidentally—a limit case in this respect is Ivan Jablonka’s Laetitia, and the use of ‘fictions de méthode’ to investigate the gaps. Another direction worth exploring would be the way in which, biographical information about an author/an artist may drastically inflect the reception of his/her work.

List of contributors:

  1. James Atlas – New York Institute for the Humanities (USA)
  2. Alice Braun – Université Paris Ouest Nanterre (France)
  3. Antoine Capet – Université de Rouen (France)
  4. Patrick di Mascio – Aix-Marseille Université (France)
  5. Natalie Dykstra – Hope College, Holland, Michigan (USA)
  6. Olivier Frayssé – Université Paris IV- Sorbonne (France)
  7. Catherine Heyrendt – Université Reims-Champagne-Ardennes (France)
  8. Marco Mongelli – Univ. of Bologna & Paris IV Sorbonne (Italy & France)
  9. Joanny Moulin – Aix Marseille Université (France)
  10. Valeria Mosca – University of Genoa (Italy)
  11. Isabelle Pariente-Butterlin – Aix-Marseille Université (France)
  12. Jean-Charles Perquin – Université Lumière Lyon 2 (France)
  13. Aquarini Priyatna – Universitas Padjadjaran, Bandung, (Indonesia)
  14. Jean Raimond – Université de Reims Champagne-Ardennes (France)
  15. Hans Renders – University of Groningen (The Netherlands)
  16. Marleen Rensen – University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands)
  17. Page Richards – University of Hong Kong (China)
  18. Alexandre Tremblay – Aix-Marseille Université – (France)




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