How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Category: Reader Questions (Page 3 of 3)

“What are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively studied in art history.

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively explored in art history.

Reader question: “What do you think are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Oh – this is a tough but great question!

It’s tough because there are just so many areas of art history that haven’t been properly explored. There are certain “popular” areas of art history that tend to get the most amount of attention in scholarship. These areas usually adhere to the Western art history canon.

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“Why do all old statues have such small penises?”

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Close-up of Michelangelo’s David

Reader question: “Why do all old statues have such small penises?”

The reader who sent me this felt that it was a question that was maybe too silly for my blog, but – firstly – there are no questions too silly for this blog, and – secondly – the answer to this question is actually pretty interesting.

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“How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist?”

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Reader question: “How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist? How can we look past the artist and appreciate the art? Should we?”

That’s a great question! This is something that a lot of people struggle with. It’s sometimes hard to admit that beautiful and famous art can also be based on racist and sexist attitudes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Gauguin, he was a French Post-Impressionist/Symbolist artist who famously moved to Tahiti in the late 19th century and painted the people (more specifically, the women) that he met there.

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“I’m wondering about cobalt and the story about blue colours being so expensive in the past”: A Very Short History of Colours.

The super-beautiful and expensive ultramarine colour can be seen in the headdress of Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring from 1665.

The super-beautiful and expensive ultramarine colour can be seen in the headdress of Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring from 1665.

Reader question: “I’m wondering about cobalt and the story about blue colours being so expensive in the past – is that true and does it have any importance for the evolution of art?”

It is true! But it’s actually not cobalt blue that you’re thinking of, it’s ultramarine.

The history of colours in art is really weird and interesting. It’s true that the availability of various colours has often determined which ones are used and what importance they have. This is especially true the further back we go in history, when all colours were not readily available in the nearest art shop.

A surprising variety of methods were used to make different colours. To make bright red, for example, an early 8th century process was described by Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan: you had to heat mercury and sulfur in a flask, vaporize and recondense it, and then grind it to create a red colour.

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“Are all artists and their works classified as part of a particular art movement?”

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Strolling About In Spring by Zhan Ziqian can be classified as “Sui Dynasty Chinese art” – not really a well-known “art movement” according to mainstream art history.

Reader question: “Are all artists and their works classified as part of a particular movement? Like, are all artists Impressionists, Romanticists, etc.?”

The short answer is: no.

The long answer is: no, but the fact that so much of art history is focused on “movements” reflects a great deal about the way that mainstream Western art history operates. The reason for this focus on art movements is that this sort of classification means that it’s easier to talk about an artwork’s style, influence and cultural meaning. It’s useful. But it’s also pretty limiting if it’s the only way that we look at art history.

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