How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Tag: Germany

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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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

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Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, Méret Oppenheim. A Surrealist sculpture often interpreted as a visual pun referencing a hairy vulva, 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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