How To Talk About Art History

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The Art History of Pandemics

Watercolour painting of a group of men standing on an outdoor porch around a table working on rat carcasses. A group of men stand watching them in the background, and a man stands on the right of the painting holding a tray with a bottle of water and food.
India: a laboratory in which dead rats are being examined as part of a plague-prevention programme. Watercolour, by E. Schwarz, 1915/1935 (?). Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

I’ve been writing this from April to July 2020, when the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Amidst all of the fears and frustrations and disruptions of the everyday, I’ve been finding some comfort in the art and visual culture that came out of previous pandemics and epidemics from history. The Black Death used to feel like a distant historical curiosity; now, I can start to understand even a little bit of what the atmosphere might have been like.

Below, I want to take you through the diverse, beautiful, interesting, and, unfortunately, relatable art history of seven of the deadliest pandemics and epidemics throughout history, from the 100s to present day. I hope it brings some perspective or enjoyment during the strange times we’re in.

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Why are Portraits so Important in Art History?

Oil painting on canvas depicting a portrait of a man with long brown hair, a brown mustache and small pointy brown beard. He is dressed in a red outfit with an elaborate white collar and a gold medallion hanging around his neck with a wide blue ribbon. On either side of the man, he appears again, one facing the right and once facing the left. He wears the same outfit but in pale purple and dark blue. All three versions of the man are depicted against the grey stormy background.

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions, 1635-1636. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection.

Reader question: “Why are portraits so important in art history? And even in museums today, some which are dedicated to portraits (like the National Portrait Gallery in London)? To me, portraits are not aesthetic or interesting, so I’m interested in your opinion on what we could appreciate about them.”

Why are portraits important? I guess it depends on how you define ‘important’, but as you said, it’s obvious that portraits are a staple of art history, with entire museums dedicated to them. Within European art history, portraits are one of the genres within the hierarchy of genres, and elsewhere, portraits have more or less always existed as representations of people from real life.

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Paleolithic vs. Neolithic Art: How and Why are They Different?

A collection of large stones in the middle of a field. The stones are set upright in a circle. Some flat stones lay on top of the others.

Stonehenge, a Neolithic monument, in Wiltshire, England.

Reader question: “Can you tell me about the changes that took place in human development from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic periods, and the ways in which art was affected by those changes?”

This is an exciting question for me, because as someone who currently works every day with contemporary visual culture, I don’t get much of a chance to look this far back in history.

As always with questions asking me to look at broad time periods or geographies, I have to start with the disclaimer that this will be an incredibly brief overview of a very complex subject (as in…thousands of years worth of history), and with some definitions:

The Paleolithic era is a period from around 3 million to around 12,000 years ago.

The Neolithic era is a period from about 12,000 to around 2,000 years ago.

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Who is the Englishman in Malevich’s ‘An Englishman in Moscow’ (1914)?

Oil painting on canvas depicting a man with green-yellow skin in a black suit and bowler hat, staring straight at the viewer. The left side of his face is covered by a large white fish. Various other images and symbols cover the man and the painting, including a lit candle, a ladder, a red spoon, a sword, and words written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Kazimir Malevich, An Englishman in Moscow, 1914. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Reader question: “Who is the Englishman meant to be in Kazimir Malevich’s 1914 painting An Englishman in Moscow?”

Well this is quite rare: a question focusing on just a single painting! A painting that, the more you look into it, makes you want to slam your head against the desk and yell “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?”

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3 Ways Romanticists Imbued their Landscapes with Emotions

Oil painting on canvas depicting two wooden fisherboats in a slightly wavy ocean at night. The moon is breaking through the clouds, casting a dim light on the scene.

J. M. W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, exhibited 1796, oil on canvas, © Tate, London.

Reader question: “How did Constable and Turner decide to emphasise the emotion in their landscapes?”

Well, that’s a great question, because Constable and Turner were of course all about emphasising emotion. Constable even once wrote that painting “is with me but another word for feeling”.

For those who don’t know (or need a refresher), John Constable and J. M. W. Turner were both British landscape painters, who were alive during around the same time (end of the 18th century to the beginning of 19th century), and who are both associated with the Romanticism movement. Although they were different in many ways—with Constable often taking a more serene and pastoral approach to nature, and Turner using turbulent scenes of nature to reflect social or philosophical concepts—they both used landscape painting as a primary way of creating emotional reactions in their viewers.

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Artist Feature: Who Was Amrita Sher-Gil?

Oil painting on canvas of a woman with light brown skin and black hair swept up in a yellow beret. She is sitting next to a table with only her torso visible. Her head is turned in profile looking towards our left. Her left hand is resting on the table in front of her next to a small gold-coloured bowl.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-portrait (Untitled), 1931, oil on canvas, private collection

Movement/Style: A mixture of Western modernism and traditional Indian art styles

Country: Hungary and India

Years: 1913 – 1941

Well, who was she?

Amrita Sher-Gil was a Hungarian-Indian painter who was born in Hungary and moved to India later in her life. She’s known as a pioneer of modern Indian art, and is one of the most influential Indian women artists in history. Her work portrayed the lives of women, especially Indian women, and her style evolved from Western influences to classical Indian influences.

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Are There Any “Art Movements” in Photography?

Monochrome photograph of two women sitting in a wooden rowboat on the floor of a photography studio. One woman wears a dress and a hat and looks at us, while the other wears a coat and a cap and looks down. Both woman have cigarettes in their mouths. A backdrop of a wooded area hangs on the wall behind them and a small dog sits in the boat.

An example of pictorialist photography. Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg, Marie Høeg og Bolette Berg i båten, ca. 1895-1903. Preus Museum, Norway.

Reader question: “My question is related to photography. More specifically movements in photography. For example, in paintings we have romanticism, surrealism, minimalism, etc. Are there anything similar in photography or are there anything specific to photography in this regards?”—asked by Phaisal

That’s a great question, and my short answers are: yes, photography was often part of those art movements (once it was invented), but also, yes; there are a couple of movements that are specific to photography.

(Sidenote: “Art movements” are often there to help us understand a large range of influences, aims, and styles that were happening in a certain period of time, but it’s also of course true that not all art belonged to a movement. In this early blog post, I answered the question “Are all artists and their works classified as part of a particular movements?”, which could be useful reading for this topic as well.)

  1. Photography in ‘non-photography’ art movements

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5 Examples of Animals Acting Like Humans in Art History

Oil painting on canvas of seven dogs of different breeds sitting around a round poker table. Each dog is holding playing cards and there are poker chips on the table. The dog closest to the viewer is holding an extra playing card with its toes beneath the table.

I was recently challenged by Tamar Avishai of the art history podcast The Lonely Palette to write a blog post inspired by her recent episode on C. M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker, the famous series of paintings of dogs playing poker (she herself was challenged by a listener). Her episode is a great exploration of kitsch in art history and you should definitely check it out!

When thinking about how to approach this truly beautiful challenge, I was inspired to focus on one of my favourite things: animals in art history. Specifically, animals acting like humans in art history. This is a theme that reoccurs again and again, across cultures. Why is it so popular? What are these artworks saying about society? How cute are the animals in them? To start to answer these questions, I’ve compiled a short list, in no particular order, of animals acting like humans in art history below.

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Some Spanish Art, and How it Reflected Spanish Society

Oil painting on canvas of an old woman sitting in a kitchen frying eggs in a red pot in front of her and holding another egg in her hand. A young boy holding a package and a bottle stands next to her.

Diego Velázquez, Vieja friendo huevos (Old Woman Frying Eggs), 1618. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Reader question: “My question is what does the Spanish art from the late Middle Ages and early modern period tell us about Spanish culture and society at that time period. Thank you!” —asked by Kaylie

It’s a very broad topic but I’ll do my best to give an overview! Let’s start with some definitions:

Late Middle Ages = generally understood to be ca. 1300 to 1500.

Early modern period = there are various definitions of where the early modern period starts, but let’s say roughly the mid-1400s to the 1700s.

That means that the time period we’re looking at here is between 1300 and the 1700s. Before we get to the juicy bits—the art—I just want to take a few paragraphs to look at what happened in Spain during this period (which wasn’t even really “Spain” until the end of the 1400s). Let’s start by looking at a brief timeline (borrowed from BBC) to help us:

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Can We See Evidence of Poor Hygiene in Art History?

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Reader question: “How can you see on people in for example the 17th century that they didn’t take care of their hygiene as well as us? Did they try to hide their teeth in paintings because they were so bad? How was their skin? Are there examples of paintings where the artist doesn’t try to make the subject look ‘better’ than they actually where?” – asked by Agnes

This is an interesting question, and one that’s actually quite difficult to answer because it’s so broad. Let me just say straight off the bat that my answer will definitely not be able to encompass all of 17th century art history (especially non-Western art history), and if you have any relevant artworks or information that I’ve missed, feel free to contact me and I’ll add it to the post. But using the limited information that I do have, let me just give you some very brief answers first: it’s complicated, maybe, fine unless they were sick, and definitely yes.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper, starting with what we know about overall hygiene in the 17th century, and finishing with a specific genre where you’ll actually find depictions of poor hygiene.

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