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2020 Guggenheim Fellow Elina Gertsman Examines Abstraction In Medieval Art

Growing up in Tallinn, Estonia helped Elina Gertsman decide what to do with her life.

“It’s the way you would imagine a proper medieval city would be, with churches and towers, ramparts and guildhalls, and a glorious town hall square. When I was a child, my grandfather used to take me on walks through the city. When we were teenagers, this was our playground: we spent our afternoons and evenings in the old town. My love of that city was all- consuming. It absolutely shaped the way I perceived the world," Gertsman said.

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 Shrine Madonna (ca. 1430-50), at Misterhult, Sweden.[ Elina Räsänen/Elina Gertsman]

When Gertsman was a teenager, she and her family left her beloved hometown, which at that time was still part of the Soviet Union to move to the United States. In 2004, she earned her Ph.D. from Boston University in Art History, specializing in medieval art.

In 2010, after teaching at the University of Chicago and Southern Illinois University, Gertsman took a position at  Case Western Reserve University as an assistant professor of art history. For Gertsman, the opportunity to take advantage of CWRU’s joint program with the Cleveland Museum of Art was a major draw.

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Elina Gertsman teaching medieval books through facsimiles at the Ingalls Library at the Cleveland Museum of Art [Howard Agriesti/Elina Gertsman]

The medieval collection is easily one of the best in the world. The possibility of teaching in the program that essentially takes place in the museum where I can teach in the galleries where my students and I have access to these objects, it's unprecedented. I would find something like this nowhereelse,” Gertsman said.

Gertsman is now a professor of art history as well as Archbishop Paul J.Hallinan Professor in Catholic Studies II and director of graduate studies at CWRU.  She’s written and edited a number of books as well as collaborated with several CMA curators on different projects, most notably co-curating the centennial show "Myth and Mystique: Cleveland's Gothic Table Fountain" with the former Bergman Curator of Medieval Art, Stephen Fliegel

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[Elina Gertsman]

In 2020, Gertsman received a Guggenheim fellowship, which provides her with money to spend a year working on a project of her choosing. Gertsman will devote her time to completing her new book project, “Withdrawal in Presence: Visualizing Medieval Abstraction.” The book challenges the notion that abstraction is the purview of modern and contemporary art, but instead originates in medieval culture.  

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[Elina Gertsman]

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