How To Talk About Art History

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Category: Reader Questions (Page 1 of 2)

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

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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 art movement (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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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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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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A Brief History of Hairless Vulvas in Art (NSFW)

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Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, Méret Oppenheim. A Surrealist sculpture often interpreted as a visual pun referencing a hairy vagina, as the tea set is traditionally feminine.

Reader question: “I loved your post about penises, but what about vaginas? We think hairless vaginas started with porn, but I’ve definitely seen paintings in museums with hairless vaginas. What’s the deal? When did it all start?”

Aah, nudity in art, a subject dear to my heart. Vaginas and vulvas (with vulva referring specifically to the external genital region) in art have a quite different history than penises do, ranging from being symbols of fertility and life to being symbols of shame and impurity. As I wrote in my post on the Female Nude, hairless vulvas have been around in art for a long time. How long? At least 2,000 – 3,000 years, and maybe even since the beginning of art as we know it.

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Western Art History and Non-Western Art

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Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) by Bangladeshi artist Zainul Abudin, who helped form the Faculty of Fine Arts at Dhaka University.

Reader Question: “I come from Bangladesh and find that Western art history doesn’t do much to help understand the artistic traditions where I’m from – how is this addressed in your study of Art History? Is it addressed at all?”

Western art history – or at least mainstream Western art history – really does very little to address the artistic traditions of non-Western countries. Many people find this perfectly acceptable, arguing that Western art history is about Western countries and shouldn’t have to address anything beyond that. For me, there are three problems with this point of view that should push us towards a more inclusive art historical mainstream.

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