Look Back: Art History

Where do we stand and where do we start?

I’m going to talk to you about the history of art.

The only thing is, I hardly know how to begin. Since the relatively recent conception of “history of art” as a modern discipline, its practitioners have argued about it. After all, what is the best way to teach, learn and understand the progression of artistic energy spanning all seven continents and human memory since before the invention of the written word? Disagreements on the subject can be basic and broad — what’s a more appropriate name, “art history” or “history of art?” What’s more important color or composition? Should a great work be the work of one master, or is it OK to have a busy studio of mostly forgotten artists behind some of the world’s masterpieces?

Analyse That!

Equally, the quarrel can be fiddly and complex — which school of psychology is best used when interpreting the works of Leonardo da Vinci  or Vincent van Gogh? Is it possible to look at African art or the paintings on Eugene Delacroix from a “Postcolonial” standpoint anymore? And what’s “semiotics” got to do with it?

In what follows, I don’t want to offer an answer to these. Based on what I know now, I couldn’t. I would like to explore the issues these questions raise and explain why I think they’re important.

But most of all I want to look at lots of art, learn about the people and places that created it and think about what the art of the past means for us today.

In order to do that, let’s go back to basics. To start with, let’s look at the name of the blog. By “before the art,” I mean two distinct ideas.

1. Before the Art: Space

The first before is where you are when you’re looking at an image, trying to figure out what it’s all about. For example, check out this postcard.

Now here you are, physically in front of, before, the art. What questions do you have about it? Maybe most basically, who is she? Where did her clothes go? What is she holding? What kind of weird space is she in? Why does this museum exhibit this work and sell this post card? What colours is the artist using and why? And if you’re in front of the original, what do you think it’s painted with? Or is it painted? You get the gist — think about the basics. Even if it seems too basic, it isn’t, and it can get you interested and absorbed.

Now an equally important question: what do you think of it? This question is important, not because “you should appreciate art,” necessarily, but because having an opinion is a great way to learn about anything. Think about something like ice cream flavors. I bet you know names of the flavors you like and the brands you like them in, the flavors you hate, the flavor you like the most but is never in stock at your local shop and the best shop to get it at. You don’t have this information because you need it. And it’s not because you sat down with flashcards one day thinking, “I need to get my rocky road sorted out from my stupid butter pecan! Arrrrgh!”

Art’s the same way. It’s a treat, and it can be exciting and soothing. And, without stretching this simile too far, getting too much too fast can give you brain freeze. Sample a lot of it, and choose some things to go back to and some to avoid. You can’t love it all.

Also, while you’re here, in front of the art find out The General ID. The General ID is the meat and potatoes of every art history exam you ever will or will not take: who is the artist, when was this painted, what are the medium and dimensions of the original, where is it painted? This might not be the most interesting part initially, but as you keep learning and forming connections, the information starts to make a web of its own. Plus it’s the easiest question to figure out. You can almost definitely find that out on the back of your post card, on a museum label or on the Internet.

For example, here’s the back of the postcard from above

2. Before the Art: Time

The second before is a chronological one. To return to my postcard, you might ask what led up to the creation of the piece? If the artist is known – which in this case he is – where did he live? What was the art going on around him at the time like? Is this similar or different? Was the woman in the picture a popular literary figure? Or is it a portrait? Did women actually look like this or is this an idealized image? How might the artist have come by this inspiration? What does this add – if anything – to the canon of art history?

See, they’ve got the picture.

And there you have it. The two before’s. It’s not everything you need to know, but it’s a start, and it’s the easiest way to throw yourself into art history. After you’ve done that you can also start worrying about what happened “between the before’s:” Who owned this originally? Where was it hung? How much did it sell for? Has anyone tried to destroy or steal this? Which generation of art historians paid the most attention to it? And who tried to get it thrown out of the canon?

So your first assignment is to look at my postcard, and try to come up with some good answers to the questions. Tell her story, tell the artist’s story, even if it’s just a guess. I’d love to hear it.


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