Alexander Nemerov, who will begin his new position this fall as the chair of Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, hopes to develop the department into a major center for the study and practice of art, teach Stanford students that art matters in their lives and change people’s lives with his books and lectures.
“The arts are distinctly in second place at Stanford, which is exciting and challenging,” said Nemerov, who is also the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford. “There are many students who feel that, in paraphrase, the arts are a kind of useless adornment to the real matter of life.”
“If anything, it intensifies one’s sense of purpose,” he added. “That’s what I try to bring to the job every day of teaching. What I’m trying to teach is that art matters in one’s life.”
As the new chair of Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, Nemerov wishes to “follow the path set by [his] excellent predecessor, Nancy Troy.”
“Being a chair not only means guiding the department and being a fair and truthful representative of my colleagues and of the department’s place in the University,” Nemerov said. “It also means having a vision of the importance of the arts and humanities on campus — to convince more students that the arts and humanities are not an adornment to one’s education but essential.”
Nemerov first developed his passion for art and art history during senior year of high school in St. Louis, when his AP Art History teacher, playing an integral role, took Nemerov and his class to a museum in Kansas City.
“I think [my AP Art History teacher] was influential in opening my eyes,” Nemerov said. “We went to the museum there called the Nelson-Atkins… That really made a big impression on me.”
After high school, Nemerov found his love for 17th-century art during his undergraduate and graduate studies, particularly artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, who he often features in his lectures.
“I look forward to my lectures; I love giving them, and I love the way the students respond,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.
When giving lectures to Stanford students, Nemerov tries to do justice to three different entities in his lecture.
“One: Am I speaking about the artist’s work in a way that honors it and takes it very seriously?” Nemerov said. “Two: my own feelings — am I doing justice to my own attitudes and my own feelings about the art in question? Three: Am I making my lectures worthwhile for my audience to be there for an hour with me to think about this art?”
“If I fail to meet any one of those three conditions, then the lecture is a failure,” he added.
As Nemerov’s former students, Brooks Hamby ’18 and Nicole Wong ’18 spoke about the influence and impact Nemerov’s lectures left on their lives. Hamby, who is not planning to major in the arts and humanities, still wishes to learn about art and art history.
“I’m really excited to take more courses surrounding art and art history just for personal gain, because I learned an incredible amount in looking at the artworks through his lens, how he talks and how he interprets things,” Hamby said. “It’s transformed the way I look at art and photography and all the rest.”
Wong, who took Art History 1B (Introduction to the Visual Arts: History of Western Art from the Renaissance to the Present) with Nemerov in fall 2014, said that she considers Nemerov one of her favorite professors.
“Professor Nemerov has this way of feeling for the art he’s talking about, and he has this amazing quality of being able to share that with his students as well,” Wong said. “Not every professor is able to do that.”
Yet, although he has gained widespread recognition as an art historian and professor, Nemerov explained that he wants to be remembered for more than just titles.
“My hopes for my legacy is for my books and lectures to outlive myself and change the lives of people,” Nemerov said. “I believe works of art, when we encounter them on those rare occasions, truly change our lives.”
Contact James Noh at nohmailbox ‘at’ gmail.com.