How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

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Artist Feature: Who Was Osman Hamdi Bey?

An old-fashioned, black and white photograph of Osman Hamdi Bey from the nineteenth century. The photograph depicts an older bearded man wearing a suit, glasses and a fez.

Movement/Style: Academic art

Country: Turkey (Ottoman Empire)

Years: 1842 – 1910

Well, who was he?

Osman Hamdi Bey had many roles – museum director/curator, academician, archaeologist, administrator – but here, I want to focus on his art. Hamdi Bey came from Istanbul (part of the Ottoman Empire at the time) and studied art in Paris, adopting a European academic art style.

What’s important about Hamdi Bey’s work is that it shows a very different version of Islam, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East than what was portrayed in European Orientalist paintings at the time. While European painters were fascinated with Islam and the Middle East, falsely depicting it as a world of unbridled eroticism, savagery and exoticism, Hamdi Bey painted scenes that were more in line with reality. A common line of thinking among art historians is that Hamdi Bey was in some ways “speaking back to” or subverting European Orientalist paintings.

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Academic Art in the 19th Century: What Exactly Were the Impressionists Rebelling Against?

800px-Odalisque

Odalisque (1874), Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Lefebvre frequently exhibited his works at the Paris Salon, and is a good example of 19th century Academic art.

Reader Question: “It has always struck me that the Impressionists were in their time not considered as what you could call “officially acceptable painters”, and that for instance the yearly Salon in Paris consecrating the best painters of the year regularly refused their paintings (hence the “Salon des Refusés). Could you enlighten us about who were the official painters of the time and give some examples of their works?” – asked by Myriam

Thanks for this question, because it’s one of my favourite topics! It’s fascinating how the Impressionists, who were initially excluded by the institutional art world, are now much more famous than any of the artists that exhibited regularly in the Salon. These artists really reflect the most widespread tastes, aesthetics and ideas of their time. Despite this popularity, however, most of them have now drifted into obscurity.

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Where were all the female Abstract Expressionists?

Abstract painting with blue shapes on a black background. A mix of large rectangular blocks and smaller curvilinear shapes.

Blue & Black (1951 – 53), by female Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner

Reader question: “I wonder if there have been women engaging in abstract expressionist art and if we maybe only don’t know them because Clement Greenberg forgot to tell us about them?” – asked by Natascha

Short answer: Yes! There were plenty of women engaging in Abstract Expressionist art that simply never gained the fame and recognition that their male counterparts did. Perhaps more so than any other genre of art (except for maybe Neoclassicism and Minimalism), Abstract Expressionism has always been regarded as a highly masculinised movement. While it’s true that female artists were often systematically excluded and/or marginalised within the movement (hint: most of them used male pseudonyms), they were definitely there, and deserve as much attention as the men.

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Why was Cimabue so Important?

A Medieval-style painting of the Madonna sitting on a golden throne holding the Christ child. She is surrounded by four angels on either side, and below her throne there are four bearded men in robes. Golden halos surround the heads of each figure in the painting.

Maestà di Santa Trinità (1280–1285), Cimabue

Reader question: “Consider explaining how or why Cimabue is considered important—what were his influences on art and WHY was he considered great? Why is this perfectionist trait important? Did his pride influence others?” – asked by Eric

Cimabue was an Italian (more specifically, a Florentine) painter who was active in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, right before the Renaissance period started. As you correctly write, he is considered to be a very important figure in European art history. If I were to explain why, I would say that it’s for these two main reasons:

  1. He was the teacher of Giotto, considered to be the first truly great Renaissance painter, and
  2. He is seen as a kind of “transitional” artist between the Medieval and the Renaissance periods.

You’re also correct in that there are anecdotes suggesting that he was a “haughty and proud” artist who would destroy his work if there were any flaws in it. Before explaining why that legacy is so important, though, let’s look at why being Giotto’s teacher is such a big deal.

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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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