History of Art Blog - CHANGE YOUR HEAD

10 July 2014

......and other things  that might help when trying to read art.

naomi blog 2 By our very own Naomi Phelan MA

As creative people, and particularly in my professional capacity I often find myself backed into the metaphorical corner and expected to be able to answer really difficult questions like ‘How is it, that modern art can be classed as art at all?’ ‘Why is it so boring?’ and worse still ‘And what do YOU think Naomi?’ - my reply usually starts with . . . ‘er well!!! Actually’, followed by a long pensive look, - which implies that I am really brainy, but in reality is meaning ‘not sure, have to come up with a good one here, not that keen on what they are referring to either, but need to sound convinced that it’s great because I should be championing all periods of arty stuff’. The thing is, and I’m an honest girl, I don’t like all art and think it’s absolutely fine for everyone else not to be ‘into’ all of it either. What I do believe though (and this is what I introduce my students to first) is that unless you CHANGE YOUR HEAD, you won’t get any of it. And then you really will be missing out on some truly fantastic and wonderful gems that are out there which would have gone forever unnoticed. Galleries and museums are fabulous places, real treasure troves - but until you start to ‘change your head’ it is possible that you are seeing brass where actually there is gold.

The understanding that one needs to ‘change their head’, when looking at art came to me gradually, during very many years of studying a whole range of differing art movements and periods. When learning about the history of art one is taught the techniques used, the personal history of the artists, and the contexts within which the pieces were produced. And it is this concept of ‘contexts’ which brought me round to the importance of how we as viewers actually approach art and design in the first place. My explanation is not rocket science, and is quite probably something that many of you have considered yourselves, however it is also something that we usually forget to do at the crucial moment of ‘looking’.

We are a product of our time – the 20th Century. We want to know what art means, we expect a certain level of skill in its execution, we wonder what on earth it is doing there in the first place and why it has been singled out as ‘different’ or ‘better’ than xyz. We gather information as a 20th century thinking person. But it wasn’t just 20th century people that created the work, and this is where we need to start changing our heads. When looking at the history of art and design it is not enough to just gaze upon it. To understand and really get something out of it, one must start to investigate and fully appreciate the historical period from which it came – trade, fashion, politics, religion - in fact lots of things that one would not expect to have an impact on art at all. Most importantly you need to learn to view/read the artwork as you would have done had you lived at the time that it was produced. Obviously we have no way of knowing what their experiences were – not literally, but we can start to meet them halfway by taking off our 20th century head and asking the types of questions or seeking the clues that a period viewer might consider or look for. Below I have included a sort of guide of what I mean.

When looking at a piece of artwork always check the date when it was produced (give or take a few decades!), so that you can easily put them into the following categories:

Pre 1500: Art is frequently symbolic and to be read literally. This is because many of the viewers at the time may well have had a limited education, particularly if the images come from public places such as churches, civic buildings etc. A good example of symbolic painting would be that an important person is painted larger than everyone else. Therefor the question to ask should be: What does it symbolise?

1500-1850: During these years artists have learnt the skills to visually record what they see accurately through the use of techniques such as perspective. Art is now about precise representation, and is measured by how much skill is used to produce it. Symbolism also features largely in some work, such as the Dutch artists, although not necessarily in all art between these dates. For paintings produced between 1500 - 1850 the question to ask should be: How well is it painted, how real does it look?

1850-1950: With the rise of photography, art and artists were given the freedom to follow their own agendas rather than having to faithfully record events/objects. During this period a lot happened, particularly in Europe – politically, socially and technologically, and it was these changes that artists turned to for their inspiration and subject matter. So between 1850 –

1950, art was about commenting on the world around it and making statements about how ‘modernity’ affects society. Therefor the question to ask here should be: How is the artist responding to his surroundings and why?

1950- Now: Since the end of the Second World War, the role of art appears to have changed again, and rather than looking outwards to a tangible society often reflects inwards forming a near philosophical debate by the artist for the artist. Issues such as - What is art? Who am I? What if? come to the fore in a whole range of guises and materials used. So a good question to ask when looking at post 1950s art is: What question does the piece ask and how does it make me think about my own understanding of creation vs creator?

Much of what I have written here may seem very obvious and is of course simplified and generalised. I dare say even, that (in theory) many of you do approach art in a similar way already. However we often either don’t, or forget to change our head at the crucial moment - leaving us asking questions like ‘why doesn’t that person (painted in 1917) look like a person’ pre 1850 question, when perhaps the question should be ‘why does that person look all mechanical? – oh it was just after WW1, the first war to incorporate tanks and machine guns, that kind of makes sense then’.

There are three other equally important considerations to be made when reading art, which again you may well have already reflected on, but if not might prove helpful the next time you find yourself trying to get to grips with some artwork – whether modern or not.
Firstly, as indicated earlier, Art is a product of the society in which it is produced. . . . . So investigate what was happening politically, socially technically and on religious grounds before-hand. The chances are that the image either symbolises or responds to one of more of these historical events.

Secondly, Artists (like Scientists) will always push the boundaries …. Take Leonardo da Vinci for example – always doing something new! It is in the nature of artists to push and explore everything from looking at things in a different way, to discovering new materials to make things with, - from trying out the newest scientific or technological methods (nickel, formaldehyde video) to trying to shock their public.

And thirdly, Artists look both ways. Generally speaking, the majority of movements, as well as looking forward frequently look at the past and produce work in direct opposition to what went before e.g. Abstract Expressionism – Pop Art - Minimalism. So to fully understand an art movement or artist look at the art that preceded it.
So there you are, a few tips on how to read paintings for you to get stuck into!!!! I know it all looks a bit scary, and please don’t feel you have to become a historian overnight. I assure you, you don’t – just glancing over this list, prior to visiting a gallery will be all you need to let what I have said float into your brain where, somehow it will just seep through your consciousness as you are looking. One day you will catch yourself looking at something and saying ‘Ah, date is pre 1850 – wow just look at how fabulously that wall is painted’ or ‘ ah, 1920 – trains, cars, speed . . . ok, it shows wheels going round really quickly in a blur – got it’. See …. It really is just a case of changing your head!

Next Blog – Learning how a really boring painting (seriously!!!!), can open up the world.
So till then.

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