How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Category: Art History 101

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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Art History 101: The Difference Between “Genres” and “Genre Painting”

Wassilij_Grigorjewitsch_Perow_004

The hunters at rest (Охотники на привале) (1871), a genre painting by Russian artist Vasily Perov

Ok, so this might get confusing. First of all, there’s a traditional hierarchy of genres in Western art history, and genre painting is actually one of those genres, even though it’s called “genre painting” which kind of makes no sense. Wait, let me back up: genres, a.k.a. categories, in Western art history are not styles (like Impressionism, Pop Art, Realism) but are instead about the types of scenes that are being painted (portrait, landscape, still life). Let me back up again: a “genre painting” is not, as you might think, a painting that fits into any one of these genres; instead, a genre painting is a type of scene and is therefore “a genre” in itself.

Let’s see if we can make sense of this.

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Art History 101: The Female Nude (NSFW)

Art in Island's reimagined version of Francois Boucher's Nude on a Sofa, complete with two young boys sneaking a peek at her butt to truly emphasize that

Art in Island‘s reimagined version of Francois Boucher’s Nude on a Sofa, complete with two children sneaking a peek at her butt. Photo by me.

I recently visited the interactive art museum Art In Island in Manila, where visitors are encouraged to take photographs with large murals painted on the walls. Some of these murals are inspired by famous works of art, and some are inspired by famous works of art featuring naked women. Seeing the way that these female bodies had been recontextualised, into a space where visitors were encouraged to interact with them, made me realize something: it’s time to talk about the Female Nude in art history.

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