How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Tag: Japan

Can We See Evidence of Poor Hygiene in Art History?

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth grimacing and pointing at each other (1773), engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Reader question: “How can you see on people in for example the 17th century that they didn’t take care of their hygiene as well as us? Did they try to hide their teeth in paintings because they were so bad? How was their skin? Are there examples of paintings where the artist doesn’t try to make the subject look ‘better’ than they actually where?” – asked by Agnes

This is an interesting question, and one that’s actually quite difficult to answer because it’s so broad. Let me just say straight off the bat that my answer will definitely not be able to encompass all of 17th century art history (especially non-Western art history), and if you have any relevant artworks or information that I’ve missed, feel free to contact me and I’ll add it to the post. But using the limited information that I do have, let me just give you some very brief answers first: it’s complicated, maybe, fine unless they were sick, and definitely yes.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper, starting with what we know about overall hygiene in the 17th century, and finishing with a specific genre where you’ll actually find depictions of poor hygiene.

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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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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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