How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Why is “Tim’s Vermeer” so Controversial?

A photograph of a man sitting in a room styled in a 17th century Dutch manner. He sits on top of a black and white tiled floor. Next to him is a table covered with a luxurious carpet and a white jug, and an upholstered chair with a cello on the floor next to it. At the back of the room there is an ornate harpsichord with two mannequins next to it. A female mannequin is wearing a yellow dress and sitting by the harpsichord with her back to the viewer. A male mannequin is wearing a black outfit and standing next to her.

Screenshot from Tim’s Vermeer. Tim Jenison sits in his recreation of the room in Vermeer’s The music lesson.

“What do you think about the theory that Vermeer used an elaborate technique involving mirrors when he painted (as proposed in the movie Tim’s Vermeer)?” – asked by Michael

Note: This post will contain spoilers for the movie Tim’s Vermeer.

The documentary film Tim’s Vermeer follows inventor Tim Jenison on his quest to recreate a Vermeer painting using a system of mirrors. The film argues that Vermeer could have used this method when creating his artworks. It also – whether on purpose or not – opens up some interesting art historical debates regarding the concept of “artistic genius” and the separation of art and technology.

I had never seen this movie when I received this question, so for those of you in my situation, here’s a short description: Tim’s Vermeer is a 2013 American documentary film about inventor Tim Jenison’s experiments with duplicating Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. His experiments were based on the idea that Vermeer created his artworks with the help of mirrors. Jenison eventually succeeds in figuring out a technique that allows him to perfectly paint a scene in front of him despite having no artistic training. He thus reconstructs and paints the scene depicted in Vermeer’s The music lesson (1662 – 1665).

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Art History 101: Why Primitivism was Cultural Appropriation

Cubist-style painting. Five women stand or sit in front of a background of stylised draperies. A fruit bowl sits at the bottom center of the painting. Each figure is depicted in a stylised, angular manner with disjointed limbs. The overall effect is slightly menacing, but with a light pastel colour palette.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Pablo Picasso. The faces of the two women on the right were inspired by African tribal masks.

Content warning for descriptions of racism.

Cultural appropriation is an important concept that has gotten more and more attention in recent years. It occurs when someone, usually a member of a dominant culture, takes on aspects of another culture that has been oppressed by that dominant group.

The person who appropriates often gets cultural or economic capital – such as admiration, money, or artistic inspiration – from it, while the appropriated culture gets mistreated for doing the exact same thing. A common example is the appropriation of black hairstyles by white people. Cultural appropriation can lead to cultures being exploited, misrepresented and erased.

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Artist Feature: Who was Marie Bracquemond?

Image description: Black and white etching in a realistic style. A woman in a dress is sitting on a chair holding a paintbrush and palette. She's looking at an easel standing in front of her, which the viewer can only see the back of.

Self-portrait (19th century), Marie Bracquemond

Note: This Artist Feature is part of an ongoing series to document the female artists whose articles were added or improved on Wikipedia during the Art + Feminism edit-a-thon I organised in March 2016.

Movement/Style: Impressionism

Country: France

Years: 1840 – 1916

Well, who was she?

In 1928, French art historian Henri Focillon wrote that there were three ”grande dames” of Impressionism: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond. These three artists are practically the only female Impressionists who have managed to reach long-standing fame. Of these, Marie Bracquemond is arguably the least known.

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Are Self Portraits and Selfies the Same Thing?

Image description: To the right is a painted self-portrait of Paul Gauguin, a French man with brown hair and a mustache. We can only see his head, shoulders and one arm, and in the background we can see a framed picture on the wall. He is holding his hand up to his chin in a thoughtful pose. On the left is a selfie of me taken with a webcam. I am mirroring Gauguin's pose by holding my hand up to my chin.

Right: Self-portrait (c. 1893), Paul Gauguin. Left: A selfie of me (2016).

Reader Question: “I have a question — I hear a lot of people say that those old fashioned portraits are the equivalent of selfies today, mostly in retaliation to people calling selfie-culture vain, frivolous, etc. What do you think?”

A lot has been written online regarding this subject. Selfies are, as you say, seen as vain, frivolous – in general, as ”low culture”. In retaliation, numerous people have argued that they actually have a lot in common with more traditional self portraits. I do agree with this; however, saying that selfies are simply the equivalent to self portraits actually downplays the uniqueness of selfies as an artistic medium. While the comparison makes a powerful point, there’s more to the situation.

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Lesbianism and Queer Women in Art History: Where Are They?

Two naked women are on a bare ground next to a big jungle. One of them is lying with her head in the other's lap. The ground is cracking next to them with roots showing. A small monkey is visible in the jungle, watching the pair.

Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself) (1939), Frida Kahlo

Reader Question: ‘I’m wondering about lesbian art, i.e. art depicting lesbian lovers. What are some of the oldest examples of this? The reason I’m asking is because we know quite a lot about homosexuality between men in the old days, and I have even heard some people say that homosexuality between women is a “modern phenomenon”.’

This is an important topic for me. That’s because I, the art historian behind this blog, happen to be a queer woman. (Not exactly a big shocker to anyone who knows me.)

This means that I’m always on the lookout for representations of relationships and identities like my own in art, media and pop culture. But while art history is filled with opposite-sex love stories, what about lesbian and other queer female visibility in art? Is it even there at all?

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Art History 101: How to Look at an Artwork

Image description: a person with long black hair is looking at a painting. The painting depicts a man with black birds flying around him.

Looking at The Circle Game by Elmer Borlongan at the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo, Philippines. Photo © Ellen Oredsson

Looking at art can be wonderful, but it can also be difficult. I didn’t learn how to interpret art during my childhood in the same way that I learned to interpret books or movies. This meant that even if I enjoyed looking at art, sometimes it felt like looking without really seeing or understanding – a feeling many others share. To make the process easier, I’ve written some guidelines for how to look at an artwork that you’re interested in.

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Artist Feature: Who is Bu Hua?

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Beauty No. 3 (2008), Bu Hua. Giclée print. Image courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Collection.

Note: This Artist Feature is part of an ongoing series to document the female artists whose articles were added or improved on Wikipedia during the Art + Feminism edit-a-thon I organised in March 2016.

Movement/Style: Digital art, flash animation

Country: China.

Years: 1973 – still alive!

Well, who is she?

Bu Hua (卜桦) is a striking figure in the (relatively short) history of digital art. She has become well known for her digital artworks and specifically her flash animations. She was introduced to Flash in the early 2000s and published her first animation works on the now-defunct Chinese website flashempire.com in 2002. Since then she has kept creating digital art, exploring themes relating to life in contemporary China, such as growing urban development, the destruction of Chinese cultural heritage, and the uneasy meeting between China and the West.

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The Top 7 Artworks That Surprised Me: Seeing Art in Person

The Mona Lisa: reproduction vs. in person.

Reader question: “Art has been a big draw factor in choosing where to go. What I have learned is seeing art in a book vs see art in person is a whole other thing. I never really got Rothko until I saw it “live”. Then whoa. It sucked me in and I had to fight to get out. My two kids and husband were also captive to it. Anyway, if you had to make a list of “Art that Surprises in Person” Or “Art you Have to Be With to Believe”, what would you put on there?”

This is actually a comment that is often made about Rothko’s work! Mark Rothko was an American painter who is generally identified as an Abstract Expressionist. His most recognisable art style consists of large rectangles set on top of each other within a coloured field.

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Depictions of STDs in Art History

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Engraving showing a man in a fumigation stove (1659), Jacques Laniet. A common treatment for syphilis at the time. Mercury would be placed inside the stove, and a fire would be started to vaporise the mercury around the patient.

Reader Question: “I remember hearing (learning?) years ago that some paintings depict people with physical indications of STDs. Perhaps syphilis? Is this true? Are other STDs depicted in art throughout history?”

Yes, this is true! This is a subject that really reflects how useful art history can be in studying the history of science and medicine, and how art has been used to educate people about medical conditions for hundreds of years. Beyond that, however, we can also use art to see how societal views of STDs have evolved – from simply fearful to judgmental and sexualised.

You’re right, by the way: syphilis is the STD that’s most commonly represented throughout art history, so it’s the one we’re going to focus on (with one brief depiction of gonorrhoea). Syphilis is one of the only STDs that have been around for a really long time (along with, again, gonorrhoea), so it is a disease that has been widely depicted in art history.

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Artist Feature: Who is Xiao Lu?

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Xiao Lu. Image from http://www.liveaction.se/

Note: This Artist Feature is part of an ongoing series to document the female artists whose articles were added or improved on Wikipedia during the Art + Feminism edit-a-thon I co-organised in March 2016.

Movement/Style: Contemporary performance, installation and video art.

Country: China.

Years: 1962 – still alive!

Well, who is she?

Xiao Lu (肖鲁) is a Chinese artist who rose to worldwide fame when she participated in the 1989 China Avant-garde Exhibition with her work, Dialogue. Two hours into the exhibition, she shot her own work with a pellet gun and caused the exhibition to immediately shut down. Her actions were seen as a threat to the Chinese government and she was instantly detained. Four months later, when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, her gunshots were dubbed “the first gunshots of Tiananmen”.

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