A Timeline

I've been experimenting with TimeGlider, a web 2.0 application that allows you to create and manage an interactive timeline with a focus of your own choosing. I decided to try to create one for the development of Modern Art. When you click on the link, don't forget to use the slider on the right to change the viewing options. Dragging it down a bit will make a few items appear beginning in 1841.

It took me a while to get to grips with the application, but the process of selecting significant events proved fascinating. I haven't got very far but I've already made the decision to include things like the invention of oil paint in tubes and the Great Exhibition of 1851 alongside more traditional events like the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1851.

I have made the timeline public so that you can also contribute historical events, exhibitions and works of art that you think are important.

On the subject of timelines and chronology I really recommend checking out the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Laocoön contained

Eva Hesse - Laocoön, 1966
Plastic tubing, rope, wire, papier-mâché, cloth, paint
130 x 23 1/4 x 23 1/4 in. (330.2 x 59 x 59 cm)

I really enjoyed reading Vaughan's last post about the Hellenistic Laocoön. I loved the brilliant description of its formal properties and it occurred to me that the work is a superb example of an artist (or artists and restorers, in this case) struggling with the contradiction between static mass and dynamic movement that is a feature of much sculpture.

This particular sculpture had a profound influence on Michelangelo, for example. The discovery in the early 16th century of this marble version of what may have been a bronze original prompted an archaeological as well as artistic response. Arms were missing and a debate raged about the correct position of the "restored" limbs. Eventually Michelangelo's interpretation proved to be the most sensible but it was not until the 20th century that the current composition was finally achieved. Rather than being carved from a single block of marble, it appears that the work is made of eight separate sections pieced together like a giant 3D jigsaw.

I was intrigued to discover a more recent response to Laocoön in the form of the sculpture illustrated above by Eva Hesse. It seems that some of the contradictions in the 'original' are further explored by Hesse in this work. A grid-like armature appears to support a tangle of looping forms that weave in and out like limp spaghetti. There is none of the multi-directional energy of the marble sculpture. Gravity causes the drooping forms to sag and bend. Even the tower has been softened by the addition of papier-mâché to the plastic tubing. What is the artist saying about her attitude to the famous tragic priest from antiquity in choosing Laocoön as the title of her sculpture?

The answer may lie in Hesse's attitude to materials:
"I was always aware that I would take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small, and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites. And I was always aware of their absurdity, and also their contradiction formally. And it was always more interesting than making something average, normal, right size, right proportion." -- Eva Hesse
Is Hesse interested in a different kind of tragedy? Why has she chosen such delicate and impermanent materials for this work? What similarities can you see in both sculptures? What kind of language do we need to be able to discuss both works of art? What is it helpful to know beyond what we can see?

Writing about sculpture that is writhing

Laocoon and his sons, 160BC approx, 1.84m high.

In my last post I mentioned that I would break free from being boxed in. This sculpture is composed of visual forces that are in many ways the opposite of those of box forms. Here arabseque, serpentine, whiplash forces are dominant. The sculpture also has a layered sense of space as forms overlap, entwine and have a hierarchical relationship.

Poseidon sent two sea serpents to destroy his own priest and his sons, who warned the Trojans of Greeks bearing gifts in the form of the wooden horse . Troy was of course sacked and the Trojans were massacred. Lacoon's role is relatively slight in the story, but this work is prescient about the changes that it relates to and is an embodiment of energy and dynamism, but also expressive of surprise and fear and hopeless resistance.

The first son stands at the top of the steps on the plinth, whilst Laocoon, twice his size struggles upwards and rears up from the bottom step and loses his balance over the middle step. The second son is firmly rooted to the bottom of the plinth. The serpents flood the figures linking them into one unified group, but also remind us of the waves that would have crashed against the shore dragging Laocoon back into the tide and current of fate that befell him and his sons. The drapery from their bodies gushes down, reminding us of how gravity too keeps us all rooted and determines our existence in one way or another.

So few of the planes of the sculptural forms are parallel or perpendicular to the plinth. They all seem to exist at a different angle, adding further to the sense of forms in a turbulent flow. Foreheads, shoulders, waists and hips, knees and ankles all seem to be twisting in different directions. Classical art is often associated with stable forces; emotions are subsumed to intellectual ideas and the action is often parallel to the viewing audience, to enable a tale to be told through instruction. Although a classical sculpture, this group has expressive meaning and has more to connect it to the Baroque and Romanticism and the flicks of Pollock's wristy, risky gestures.

It might be an idea now to look at the language that I have used in describing sculpture so far (the box and Andre's work), to see if you can boil down the ideas to a criteria about how to deconstruct the composition of a sculptural form.



Check out the first of two Radio 4 programmes about the history of iconoclasm, the destruction of art objects usually on political or religious grounds. This story begins with the destruction of sculptures in Ely Cathedral and includes the attack on Velasquez' Rokeby Venus by "Slasher Mary". Fascinating stuff.


As a follow up to the previous post on Vermeer's Allegory of Painting, I have been thinking about the importance of geometrical relationships in the organisation of pictorial space. Interest in science flourished in the 17th century and Vermeer was fascinated by optical devices like the camera obscura. I wonder if the very notion of the rational organisation of his compositions according to various geometrical relationships amounted to an idea? A quick analysis like the one above seems to suggest that the artist was very conscious of mathematics, like many artists before him. Rules of proportion and harmony had been passed down through the centuries and were to be enshrined in academic approaches to art making in the 18th century. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by the mathematical laws they observed in nature. They enjoyed optical illusions and other visual phenomena that can be represented by mathematical formulae. Artists in the Renaissance, in their study of classical civilisation, began to employ some of these rules to create ever more illusionistic representations of space.

In this painting, Vermeer creates a totally believable illusion of three dimensions through the use of linear perspective. This is the stage on which the action of the painting (the artist painting his model) takes place. This sense of illusionistic space is further enhanced by the way he depicts light, from the window behind the curtain to the left of the composition, falling across various objects to reveal their forms.

However, Vermer is also interested in the arrangement of shapes across the two dimensional picture plane. The main central triangle creates a very stable composition. A regularly spaced network of horizontals further anchors the important objects in harmonious relationships. The whole arrangement appears almost completely symmetrical. This allows the artist to create a series of more organic shapes - the folds of the curtain, the billowing cloth of the model's blue sleeve and the network of lines and creases on the wall map - to compliment and soften the geometrical organisation.

Vermeer belongs to a long tradition of artists who have exploited this method of pictorial composition. Look carefully at this example:

Piero della Francesca The Baptism of Christ, 1442 Tempera on panel 167 x 116 cm National Gallery, London

Try drawing a version of the painting that concentrates on its composition. Pay particular attention to the geometrical organisation of space, both in terms of the illusion of three dimensions (using perspective and the diminution of scale) and the arrangement of forms across the picture plane. See if you can work out how the artist set about placing the main elements of the composition.

Once you've done this, try to suggest what this kind of geometrical arrangement suggests about the artist's view of the universe.


Jan Vermeer - Painter in his Studio or The Allegory of Painting, 1666

How do artists represent ideas? What kind of visual language might be required to personify abstract concepts like Love, Courage, Chastity and Wisdom? When you see a picture of an old man wearing a cloak and carrying an enormous scythe, what do you immediately think?

Allegory is the term used to describe a figurative (non literal) mode of representation that employs symbols and personification. This strategy has been used since classical times to represent complex, abstract ideas in literary and visual forms. Medieval art is full of allegorical content. Surface reality and symbolic meaning exist simultaneously. The rediscovery of classical culture in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy led to numerous allegorical works drawing on classical mythology, as well as biblical stories. Artists referred to encyclopedia of allegory in order to ensure that their imagery suggested the right combination of allegorical meanings. By the 17th century, extremely sophisticated messages could be conveyed by talented artists using a combination of established allegorical symbols and more contemporary references.

Take a close look at Vermeer's painting above. Before you head off to do some research, make a list of the visual symbols you think you can see. Is it possible to differentiate between the literal and the symbolic? The checkered tile floor is a brilliant device for conveying spacial depth and perspective. The map of the Netherlands on the back wall provides the artist with an opportunity to display his virtuoso skills of representation with wonderfully subtle passages of pattern, light and texture. How do we know that the curtain in the foreground is heavy and that light is flooding in through the window behind it? There is a great deal of sensual pleasure to be experienced by looking at this work of art. However, there is clearly much to stimulate the imagination and intellect too. The study of the content and subject matter of works of art (as distinct from their formal properties) is called Iconography.

In what sense is painting an idea? How has this idea been represented? Which objects and characters in the painting might carry symbolic significance (in addition to doing other duties like creating space, casting shadows and reflecting light)? The vast majority of allegorical works of art refer to either ancient classical mythology or religious stories and concepts. This painting is a notable exception and, therefore, an interesting one with which to begin an exploration of the uses of allegory.

The Grid

Following on from Vaughan's excellent Carl Andre post, I thought I'd make a quick plug for this fascinating book. Here's a review from MIT Press:

The Grid Book: Hannah B. Higgins

Emblematic of modernity, the grid gives form to everything from skyscrapers and office cubicles to Mondrian paintings and bits of computer code. And yet, as Hannah Higgins makes clear in this wide-ranging and revelatory book, the grid has a history that long predates modernity; it is the most prominent visual structure in Western culture. In The Grid Book, Higgins examines the history of ten grids that changed the world: the brick, the tablet, the gridiron city plan, the map, musical notation, the ledger, the screen, moveable type, the manufactured box, and the net. Charting the evolution of each grid, from the Paleolithic brick of ancient Mesopotamia through the virtual connections of the Internet, Higgins demonstrates that once a grid is invented, it may bend, crumble, or shatter, but its organizing principle never disappears.

The appearance of each grid was a watershed event. Brick, tablet, and city gridiron made possible sturdy housing, the standardization of language, and urban development. Maps, musical notation, financial ledgers, and moveable type promoted the organization of space, music, and time, international trade, and mass literacy. The screen of perspective painting heralded the science of the modern period, classical mechanics, and the screen arts, while the standardization of space made possible by the manufactured box suggested the purified box forms of industrial architecture and visual art. The net, the most ancient grid, made its first appearance in Stone Age Finland; today, the loose but clearly articulated networks of the World Wide Web suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of a grid of unprecedented proportions—one so powerful that it is reshaping the world, as grids do, in its image.
It's a very entertaining and illuminating read. I've long been fascinated by grids. They conjure up all kinds of associations for me and this book is good at exploring both physical and metaphorical grids as forms of networks.

I can remember having debates with students over the years about the artistic merits of Carl Andre's bricks. My favourite resource on the subject is Raymond Baxter's film entitled "Upholding the Bricks". Baxter, who was a presenter on the popular science TV show "Tomorrow's World" was Andre's uncle and the film is a really intelligent and moving tribute to Andre's dedication to his art. It's the subtlety and refined beauty of Andre's work that appeals to me. The tension in the work between repetition and deviation, similarity and irregularity, colour and tone, lightness and weight, line and volume, surface and mass, is a beautiful exploration of the formal properties of the material at his disposal. That something so elegant could be made from cheap, mass-produced objects is a marvel, but the whole history of western civilisation can also be read into the structure. Bricks signify settlements and their attendant features: a priesthood, trade, work, written language, government and the law. They are made from shaping the earth (clay); imposing a structure on it. They unite the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Together, they are more than the sum of their parts. The Romans learned how to build an empire using them. And yet, Andre brings us back to their physical presence, their weight against the floor and their blunt resistance to any form of disturbance. This work, more than perhaps any other, reminds us that what you see is what you get and that's more than enough for a whole lifetime of aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation.

Talking about sculpture: just a pile of bricks?

Carl Andre: Equivalent VIII 1966, 127 x 686 x 2292cm

When I analysed this work with some of my students, this is how they talked about it and added to what they thought are some of my ideas:
Strength, solidity, fire retardant qualities of bricks, an assisted readymade?
Easy to disassemble, ambiguous structural integrity
One unit replicated in the shape and form of the whole; grid pattern, repetition, rhythm, cells
Earth bound, lying, flat
Representative of industry and urban construction, synthetic yet beautifully proportioned, elegant, austere and abstract
Functional object transformed into aesthetic object
Calm, stillness
Mastaba, grave, sarcophagus,
Intellectual, rational level?
‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ Winckelmann 1764
Is each brick of equivalent value?

The bricks are similar, but in addressing their uniformity, the imagination fires-up a looking process that leads to the discovery of nuanced differences. This is a response that Minimalist artists such as Andre and the painter Robert Ryman
Challenges to our understanding of what sculpture can be; this work is not based in craft, but it is based in selection and decisions.
The process is additive, reductive and assembled all at the same time
The work challenges our expectation that sculptures ascend rather than lie flat and hug the floor
Geometry and multiple symmetries
The synthetic materials absorb the light
These bricks resemble neatly stacked bricks on a site, which would be ignored for their aesthetic value; this work forces us to look at the over-looked
What is less well known than this image is the collection of the many Equivalents series shown together. These were made between 1966-78. Find this on the internet and then see how it changes your perception of Equivalent VIII.

I'll move away from boxes next time.

Sculpting words about sculpture

Taking three words from Jon's Wordle about the course: sculpture, questions, analysis...how do you talk about the formal properties of sculpture and then use this as a platform to interpret possible meanings that an artist may have intended?

Have a go at describing this cube...then look at my two attempts:

1) A Cube has six planes of equal dimensions.

Each plane has the same height and width, which meet at right angles forming orthogonals with the adjacent planes. This realises a straight edge.
Each plane has four corners, each of which is a right angle.
The planes are perceived as of a flat texture and surface.
When a strong light is cast upon a cube, the perpendicular planes to the light source are covered in a shadow, which reveals the three dimensionality and volume of the cube.
It is difficult to ever see more than three planes to a cube from one angle.
Most cubes are arranged parallel to a surface.

2) A cube conveys an impression of stability and order.

Its structure represents conformity and regularity, as well as dependency, determination and control. Whilst each surface may be undecorated, the edges are contours of possibility rather than absence as any mark made on the plane is made to seem more dynamic by its relationship to the predictability of the frame lines. It can be perceived as: a geometric paradigm of perfection: a fascist declaration of intolerance of deviation; spiritual in its quiet, meditative, rhythmic contemplation individuality and universality.

Can you deduce criteria for analysis of three dimensional objects, based on these descriptions? More to come later...next I'll look at somebody who took blocks from the building site and arranged them into art.


Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral

Westminster Abbey interior

Westminster Cathedral interior

These two buildings, within 5 minutes walk from one another in the centre of London, represent two very different responses to the idea of a large religious structure. I'd like you to visit them and use your experience of both buildings as the starting point for some research about the relationships between form and function in architecture.

I think it's important that your ideas are grounded in a physical and emotional response to specific buildings, since architecture is a kind of theatre that engages more than just the visual sense. I'm also interested to see where your research leads you and how much of the information I posted about papers 1 and 2 of the course you are able to incorporate. Ultimately, I would like you to compare and contrast these two buildings (not just these two pictures of the buildings) in terms of:
  • their formal elements (shape, space, composition, mass, volume, colour, light etc.)
  • the historical/social/cultural contexts in which they were made
  • the materials used in their construction
  • the relationship between aesthetic appearance and functions
  • notions of style
I'm happy to receive this as a comment here or attached to an email.

Units 1 and 2 of the AQA AS History of Art Course

Before we go too much further it might be good to have a close look at the skills, content and assessment scheme necessary for success in units 1 and 2 of the AS course. The following text (my highlights) comes directly from the Schemes of Work that can be downloaded in full from the AQA website:

Unit 1: Visual Analysis and Interpretation

Ethos of the unit
This unit is about visual analysis, which is considered to be the description/examination of works of art and architecture, and interpretation, regarded as how works of art and architecture can be understood and explained.

What should be taught
• How to describe, identify, analyse, and examine the formal features, subjects, and themes of paintings and sculptures, and the formal features, building types, and functions of architecture in a clear and coherent way.
• How to discuss, interpret, explain, consider, account for, and comment on paintings, sculptures, and works of architecture in a clear and coherent way.
• A broad knowledge of historical, social, and cultural contexts of art and architecture.
• Appropriate art, architectural, and art historical terminology.

Candidates must answer all three questions, each related to a painting, a sculpture and a work of architecture respectively.

The questions will always ask for:
• a description/analysis of the formal features of the work, and/or the subject/theme/building type (describe, analyse, identify, examine, etc)
• a discussion/interpretation of the work based on the description/analysis (discuss, interpret, explain, consider, account for, comment on, evaluate, etc).

Unit 2: Themes in History of Art

Ethos of the unit
This unit promotes knowledge and understanding of art history via a number of fundamental themes. The selected examples should allow the application of skills learnt for Unit 1. A thematic approach should provide the breadth of knowledge and understanding required at AS.

What should be taught
In general:
• knowledge and understanding of the prescribed art historical themes in relation to
appropriate teacher-selected examples of works of art and architecture, artists and
• appropriate art, architectural and art historical terminology
• historical, social and cultural contexts for works of art and architecture
• clear and coherent communication of this material.

More specifically:

• Knowledge of subjects in art and the ways artists have interpreted them, and an
understanding of the concept of genres in art and how and why they have been
represented in particular ways.
• Knowledge and understanding of the ways in which art and architecture are made, the materials and techniques used and how materials, techniques and processes help to determine the appearance and subsequent interpretation.
• Knowledge of the formal features of art and architecture, and an understanding of how these contribute to interpretation and meaning, together with an understanding of the concept of style and an awareness of the evolution of different styles in art and
• Knowledge and understanding of the relationship between the purpose and appearance of buildings and how to evaluate different forms of architecture in relation to their aesthetic and functional roles.
• Knowledge of historical and social contexts and their influence on the creation of art and architecture, and an awareness of how these contexts contribute to the interpretation and meaning of art and architecture.
• Different forms of artistic patronage and an understanding of how artistic patronage impacts on the appearance, interpretation and meaning of art and architecture.
• Knowledge of the changing social and cultural status of artists and architects and an
understanding of how artistic status contributes to the interpretation and meaning of works of art and architecture.
• The representation of gender, nationality and ethnicity in art and architecture and itscontribution to interpretation and meaning; how the gender, nationality and ethnicity of artists and architects influence the creation of art and architecture.
Note: The image at the top of this post is a Wordle produced from the entire text of the Scheme of Work. The largest words are those that appear most frequently in the document.

A Timeline

"The history of art is the history of revivals" -- Samuel Butler

To what extent is this true? The time period for this course begins in Classical Greece at about 500BC and ends with Post-Modernism at the end of the 20th century. In that period, how many revivals of the language of classical art have emerged in western culture? Why were the Romans so fascinated by Greek art and culture? What do we mean by the Dark Ages? How do you account for the resurgence of interest in classical art (Greek and Roman) in fifteenth century Italy? What does the phrase "Neo-Classical" mean? Thinking like this about revivals of interest in historical styles is one way of conceptualising the story of art. Obviously this approach has huge limitations, the main one being a tendency to marginalise anything that doesn't appear to fit into the grand narrative or canon. We can return to some of these criticisms later when we take a look at some of the ideological standpoints that have helped to shape and deconstruct art history. For now, I think it's a good idea to develop an understanding of a narrative so that we can visualise a map of possible connections between works of art, architecture and design across a fairly large expanse of time.

In order to get a grip on the basic chronology of the course, I'd like you this week to focus on creating a timeline of the major shifts in style since 500BC focusing specifically on the recurring interest in classical culture. Don't worry too much about over-populating your timeline with hundreds of "isms". I'm looking for a broad brush approach for now in order to develop a rough sense of the ebb and flow of cultural interests. The most useful timeline will allow you to continue to edit it over the following weeks, adding and subtracting useful information as you find it.

Why not begin by reviewing some of the works of art we have discussed so far on this blog and placing them on the timeline? Will your timeline be a physical or virtual object? Will it, like the enormous version on the Tate Modern landings, stretch around your bedroom walls or are you more comfortable with it existing on a computer screen?


I suppose it's time we gave some serious thought to preparing in a structured way for the AS History of Art exams this year. For those of you who are still contemplating sitting the exams, or those of you who are still not sure, I think it's best if, over the next few weeks, we take a look at some of the big themes that you will need to be aware of. One of the trickiest to get your heads around is Patronage. Fortunately, the excellent Smart History site has a great resource which uses Voice Thread to present a discussion of the story of the relationship between the city of Florence and the subject of David (the biblical prophet who was responsible for defeating Goliath and the Philistine army). This story centres of the artists Donatello and Michelangelo and takes in the shifts in context and meaning relating to a variety of representations of David over many years, beginning with the Florentine republic and including the possibly the most famous of all patrons, the Medici family.

I'd like you to listen carefully to the discussion on this Voice Thread and make some notes on the key points. By the end you should have a pretty good grasp of some of the key issues related to the theme of patronage. I would then like you to research another famous work of art and think about how issues of patronage contribute to our art historical understanding of it. Please include your observations here in the form of a comment or post.

on the blink...

Wandering through a friend’s facebook page the other day, I came across this link:


… which turns out (unusually) to be a fascinating architecture blog. I particularly like this piece about the ‘lost world’ of the blink. And the comments are just as interesting as the post itself.

Definitely worth a view.

Parthenon animation

I am indebted to Alberti's Window for highlighting the existence of this animation which illustrates the various indignities visited upon The Parthenon during its long history. Apparently the film has caused some controversy amongst Greek Christians (who are shown hacking away bits of nude sculptures) and has the potential to further stoke the cultural fires of the Elgin marbles debate. I enjoyed seeing the building in relation to the rest of the Acropolis, at the start of the film, and its various adaptations over the years.

Richard Long online

Just had a quick look at the Richard Long online exhibition at Tate. One of the stunning wall pieces is pretty large and it's often difficult or impossible to get a really close look at the relationship between material (in this case Avon mud) and surface. The gestural marks left by Long's vigorous application of the mud to the wall are quite beautiful and the slideshow/film does a great job of allowing you to linger over close-ups in a way that would be almost impossible in the gallery. This raises some interesting questions about the way new technologies mediate our relationship to art objects. Very thought-provoking!

Lost and Found

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Found (Compositional Study) 1854 – 1855

I was reflecting again today on Manet's depiction of a prostitute in "Olympia" and how topical the subject was in late 19th century Paris. The I remembered that the subject of female virtue (and loss thereof) was also an obsession of British artists and writers during the same period. The British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, in many ways, the counterparts of the Impressionists in France. Despite the fact that many of their subjects were taken from medieval history and literature (Shakespeare was a particular favourite) and sometimes tend towards the mawkish, they also revolutionised the use of colour through painting on a white ground (as opposed to the dark red ground favoured by academic painters) which had the effect of making colours glow on the canvas. The best PRB paintings also deal with contemporary issues like work, emigration and, in the case of this work and the related finished painting, prostitution.

Here, a man from the countryside recognises a former sweetheart who has moved to the city to find work. She has turned, out of poverty, to prostitution and turns her ahead towards the wall in shame. This preparatory study, along with many other PRB works, can be seen at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I remember spending many a happy afternoon here in my youth but it's been a while since I was able to see the magnificent PRB collection at first hand. Fortunately, our favourite designers TAK! (the guys responsible for creating the front end of the Thomas Tallis School website) have completed an online PRB resource which displays all the PRB works and supplies related learning resources. Each of the images can be explored in fine detail using the amazing Silverlight application from Microsoft. Once you've downloaded the program, you can zoom in as far as you like to check out the incredible details.

I really recommend this site, especially the thoughtfully written and brilliantly illustrated thematic collections. My particular favourite is the Gender and Sexuality set of resources. Rossetti's image above is part of the "Working Women" section, for obvious reasons. I'm very keen on the kind of art history that attempts to place works of art in their historical and political contexts and uses contemporary research and theoretical perspectives to re-read art works that may appear well-known but have, in fact, been partially understood. This quality online resource is a brilliant example of how new technologies can add even more value to the experience of re-discovering great works of art.

Why do you think prostituion was such an important subject for late 19th century artists? How would you compare Rossetti's treatment of the poor prostitute in this study with Manet's depiction of "Olympia"? Can you find any other famous examples of works of art featuring working women?

Alberti's Window

Alberti's Window is a really interesting Art History blog that I discovered following the author's comment on a recent discussion here about Samson and Delilah. One of the recent posts concerns the critical reception of Manet's "Olympia". Check it out. I really like the way the posts are labeled chronologically for ease of cross reference. I've added the rss feed to this blog on our blogroll.

Manet and Goya

Edouard Manet - Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, 1867

Francsico de Goya - The Third of May 1808, 1814

In 1861, President Benito Juárez of Mexico passed a law that ended the repayment of Mexican debts to European nations. Napoleon III responded by invading Mexico and installing the Austrian noble Maximilian von Habsburg as Emperor. The intervention was a disaster. By 1865, the French military was on the retreat, and the end of the American Civil War meant that the United States might intervene on Mexico’s behalf. In February of 1867, Napoleon III withdrew all the remaining French troops. Maximilian was stranded. He was tried for treason by the Mexican government, found guilty, and executed on June 19, 1867. Manet was clearly moved by these historical events and painted five versions of the Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. The best of them was completed in 1869. It is clearly a direct artistic response to Francisco de Goya's painting Third of May, 1808.

Both artists were painting during times of great historical upheaval. Goya responded to the first Emperor Napoleon's invasion of Spain and the subsequent brutality of the French troops. The cultural context for his painting was Romanticism - a reaction to the Enlightenment - a term which describes a set of attitudes to the power of the imagination, a commitment to the truth of feeling and a sensitivity to contemporary political events. The context for Manet's art is the urban expansion of Paris, rapid industrialisation and the emergence of new ways of seeing in response to modern life. 50 years after Goya's celebrated painting, another French Emperor was responsible for distant acts of violence and Manet seems to have drawn on both the newspaper reports of the execution and Goya's composition for his own version of events.

Some art historians claim Manet as the Father of Modern Art because he was so responsive to the texture of modern life. His brushwork is alive. He rejects the super-smooth finish of academic painting, preferring a superb range of effects which suggest the continual flux of life in the modern city. And yet Manet's way of seeing is grounded in art history. We have seen how he responded, controversially, to Titian's example. What I'd like to know is how you feel about these two paintings of an executution. How has each artist composed the scene? How have they dealt with pictorial space? How would you describe the use of light, the roles of the various characters in the paintings (the victims, the soldiers, the onlookers) and each artist's attitide to the events depicted? What, would you say, is the main difference between the two works?

Check out the excellent Museum of Modern Art online exhibition of Manet's Maximilian paintings for further insights into this great series of paintings.

Tate Britain

The latest installation in the Duveen Galleries is a huge sculpture by Eva Rothschild. Stretching the full length of the galleries and made of aluminium box tubing, "Cold Corners" is a spidery tangle of black lines that resembles a computer generated scribble in three dimensions. I love the contrasts in colour and form with the surrounding architecture and the way the work darts about in the space like a child high on artificial preservatives. To quote from the exhibition info board: "Cold Corners is too large and complex to be taken in at a single glance. Instead it can be experienced over time as the visitor walks around or through it."

-- Post From My iPhone

Manet and Titian comparison

Edouard Manet - Olympia, 1863

Titian - The Venus of Urbino, 1538

I watched a really interesting documentary last night on TV about Manet. It had its tabloid headline moments but there was a really thought-provoking analysis of the relationship between Manet's infamous "Olympia" and its historical precedent, Titian's "Venus of Urbino". I would be very interested in what you think about these images, in particular the relationship between the female subject and the gaze of the viewer. Manet's image caused a huge uproar when it was exhibited in the Paris Salon. Can you suggest why? What are the interesting similarities and differences between these two celebrated images?

Judith-Carravagio and Titian

These two paintings are both believed to depict the story of Judith and Holofernes. Where the Jewish widow Judith (seduces possibly and) makes the Asyrian general Holofernes drunk and then beheads him. There is a whole book in the bible named after Judith because she is a Jewish Heroine, having saved them from their aggressors the Assyrians. Titian's depiction arouses some question as to whether it is truely about Judith, or Salome and John the Baptiste, because the lady subject hold the head of the man on a platter like in the story of Salome and John the Baptiste, but there is also a girl servent at her side and neither are dressed in regal clothes mirroring the story of Judith. This could be because Titian wanted the painting to be versatile and used for both stories.

When comparing the two paintings, Titian's (painted in 1515) uses the light very differently to Carravagio's (painted in 1598). Titian's depiction seems opposite to the quote about Tenebreism, he uses light not to create space or atmosphere, but purely to highlight the subject's faces and places of interest. The composition, to me, leaves much to be desired, because if the head on the platter was eliminated, the painting could be of the madonna, or a portrait of an important lady. The subject looks demure and incapable of murdering the man infront of her. Thus the subjects seem to even, placid, the combination of light and composition ignores a possible drama and story.
Carravagio however uses light for a specific purpose of creating a mood, drama, a scene. The subjects seem to intereact more in comparison to Titian's painting, involving the viewer more, interacting with them. Even though the old lady touches neither of the two other subjects, she still leans in, in interest and curiosoty. The painter is still able to dipict beatiful fabrics and interesting emotions even though not all are in ultimate light. A factor that Titian seems not to be aware of in the other painting.

p.s. Mr Nicolls, i cant edit the website because its on your user area

Not a beach read, but...

Definitely worth a look - great on context. You get a real feel for the competitive edge that drove the 'Renaissance man'.

The Classical in Art and Architecture - Grappling with beauty, nature and the ‘undefinable'.

When we look at classical art and architecture, we can sometimes be confused. We see what appears to be a perfection – a consummate marriage of science and art, expressed in a language of control that mystifies us. We know that these are things are beautiful, but we’re not sure why and how.

And so the process of analysis begins…

Architects have forever wondered of the origins of classical form. And this is usually presented as a story of transformation, of development from ‘primitive hut’ to Doric Temple. This gives us a means of interpreting what appear to be highly or purely decorative forms as previously having had ‘use’ - and of seeing the classical language of architecture as a stylisation of functional elements (the exposed end of roof beams become triglyphs for example).

Illustration on the origins of the Doric Order from Bannister Fletcher’s ‘A history of Architecture’ the seminal work of Architectural History still used today.

Modern architects sometimes use the ‘deconstruction’ of the origins of classical language in modern buildings – this view of the rear of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden shows the ‘doric’ language of the collanade ‘disintegrating into the language of the primitive hut for the ‘loggia’ at high level.

Once we have understood, or ‘interpreted’, the nature of the shapes that make up classical architecture, we can measure them - to learn of the specific relationships between the individual parts and the whole. And many have, from Vitruvius, through Leonardo, Palladio, et al.

Illustration from Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards A New Architecture”

Illustration from Palladio’s Four books on Architecture

Through this process of measuring and comparing, we discover that there really is a very sophisticated set of relationships, of proportions, which govern the language of classical architecture. And this is where it gets interesting. Because we discover that one of the fundamental ratios used in classical art and architecture is that of the Golden Section (golden ratio). It can be found throughout the buildings, from the proportions of the plan of a room, to the shape of windows, distances between columns etc. etc.

The golden section is a line segment sectioned into two according to the golden ratio. The total length a + b is to the longer segment a as a is to the shorter segment b. See more about this at http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/GoldenSection.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio

It turns out that the Golden Section is a very special ratio. It can be defined easily graphically, but not so easily mathematically as a whole number. It has an infinite set of results – small and big (the Fibonacci series is one expression of golden ratio proportions), and this means it can be used to generate relationships between things of entirely different scales: from the size of a sculpted icanthus leaf to the size of a city for example, or to put it another way: from the human to the urban.

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

And this is where Architects and Artists can get waylayed. Because all of a sudden, we believe we can almost see it – a system of measurement, of understanding, that encompasses everything – Art that consumes Science!

Le Corbusier’s “The Modular”

Dom. Hans Van Den Laan’s “The Plastic Number”

Fractal image

But this is a problem. This is science - not art or architecture. This is using a system of rules to try and proscribe (not describe) beauty. And Art and Architecture, like nature and society, do not operate on a pure system of rules and regulations. It is often the mistake, the error, the quirk against the system, the lack of perfection, which makes buildings / paintings / sculptures beautiful. Because in the end, we live in a world which is not describable empirically, a world in which we don’t have exactly 365 days a year, a world in which there isn’t exactly 8 notes in a natural musical octave, a world which is way out of the reach of our understanding through an all encompassing theory (unless you're Steven Hawking).

And this is why, although it worthwhile understanding the principles of a classical language, we also need, in the end, just to trust our own judgement.

This is beautiful.

That is ugly.

Etc. etc.

Samson and Delilah

Peter Paul Rubens - Samson and Delilah, 1609 (The National Gallery)

Anthony van Dyck - Samson and Delilah, 1619-20 (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

It is often a useful exercise to compare and contrast treatments of the same subject by different artists in an effort to hone your skills of visual analysis. We have now collected three different versions of the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah but, for the purposes of this exercise, let's consider these two versions above. It seems clear that van Dyck would have been aware of Rubens' picture since he was employed in the master's studio in his early career. There are clearly similarities in the treatment of Samson's betrayal by Delilah, but also some interesting differences.

Why do you think these artists were so captivated by this particular Bible story?

What similarities can you see in these depictions of the story?
What about the differences? How have both artists approached the treatment of light? How would you describe each artists' handling of paint?

In what sense do both of these paintings belong to the style called Baroque?

Here are a couple of other versions of the Samson and Delilah story, one by van Dyck later in his career and another by Rembrandt.

Anthony van Dyck - Samson and Delilah, 1630 (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

Rembrandt van Rijn - Samson and Delilah, 1630 (The Rijksmuseum)

...returning to the theme of thresholds, some short essays by one of my exam groups examined the thresholds of pain and vulnerability that are the subject matter of Rembrandt's painting 'The Blinding of Samson' 1636. They did so by first examining the way in which Rembrandt used light and shadow to construct pictorial space. This is an exercise relevant to the AQA AS level 'Visual Analysis' paper.

I am frequently reminded by my students why I enjoy teaching Art History. I was impressed by their willingness to explore the relationship between form and subject matter, and to not give-up on a painting which at first appears 'confused both in light and composition' (C Wright 'The Dutch Painters').

'The dramatic light highlighting the blinding of Samson seems to be a natural source, entering from outside the chamber. The contrast between tenebrism on the right and light on the left may represent evil and good. The Philistine holding the spear is silhouetted against the gaping sky creating pictorial space. The light reflecting on the armour of the soldiers allows the viewer to retain their bearings as the eye casts about the dark canvas looking form forms to read. This could mimic the struggle and dramatically dwindling and punctured sense of sight that Samson experiences. Samson's blindness is foreshadowed by the dark void inside the chamber. Chiaroscuro is used on the soldiers' forms to indicate a sense of volume in space. The bodies are depicted as confined and drawn with diagonal forces, all of which is picked out in light and shadow. Their overlapping shapes reflect the conflict of forces within the space. Samson seems to glow in the painting and Delilah's clothes have a transparent, ethereal quality. The light frames her trophy: Samson's hair and strength'. (composite answer from different students).

There are many technical terms here for AS students to look-up and learn. Many of these also relate to the concept baroque, which is a term often used to summarise characteritics of 17th century art and architecture.


Architecture as Theatre

1868 Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends

The Parthenon is considered to have been one of the best examples of Greek Doric architecture. We will return to the idea of Orders in Greek architecture in a future post so, for now, I'd like to focus on what it might have been like to visit the building in all its glory. This is rather like the difference between reading a play on the page and imagining a staged performance. The building today is a shadow of its former self so let's try to imagine what it might have been like in the 5th century BCE. Fortunately, several websites can help us in this quest.

The following text does a pretty good job of describing what it might have been like to visit The Parthenon just after it was completed:

"All temples in Greece were designed to be seen only from the outside. The viewers never entered a temple and could only glimpse the interior statues through the open doors. The Parthenon was conceived in a way that the aesthetic elements allow for a smooth transition between the exterior and the interior that housed the chryselephantine statue of Athena. A visitor to the Acropolis would be confronted by the majestic proportion of the Parthenon in three quarters view. As the viewer moved closer, the details of the sculptures would become decipherable, and when in proximity to the base of the columns, parts of the frieze would become evident in tantalizing colorful glimpses peering from the spaces between the columns. Moving towards the east and looking up, a visitor would be mesmerized with the depiction of the Panathenaic procession as it appeared in cinematic fashion on the frieze. A visitor moving east would eventually turn the corner to face the entrance of the Parthenon, and there he would be confronted with the birth of Athena high above on the east pediment. Then, through the immense open doors, any visitor would be enchanted by the glistening gold and ivory hues of the monumental statue of Athena standing at the back of the dim cella. The statue of Athena Pallas reflected its immense stature on the tranquil surface of the water-pool floor, and was framed by yet more Doric columns, this time smaller, in a double-decked arrangement that made the interior space seem as if it were even larger and taller than the exterior. It seems certain that the master planners of the Parthenon conceived it as a theatrical event. The temple was constructed with the movements of the viewer in mind, and by the arrangement of the temple, the monumental sculptures of the pediment, and the detailed frieze, the emotions of the visitors were choreographed to prepare them for the ultimate glimpse of the majestic Athena Parthenos and to maximize the effect of an awe inspiring visit."

Part of the building's beauty might lie in the control of geometrical relationships. The balance and harmony of the various elements of the building are the result of mathematical calculations. We will return to some of these ideas in future posts but one of the most important concepts is the use of optical effects which work to counteract some of the distortions caused by viewing three dimensional objects in space. Check out this slightly cheesy but interesting video which explores some of the optical tricks employed by the builders of The Parthenon:

Watch NOVA | Optical Tricks of the Parthenon | PBS in Entertainment Videos | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com


"Unity and simplicity are the two true sources of beauty." Winckelmann


A key concept in the study of art history is chronology. Having an understanding of the relationships between historical events, political, social and economic contexts and the art produced in a given period is pretty crucial. Many History of Art text books are structured chronologically, enabling the authors to tell a story about changes and developments over time. Of course, there are recent examples of galleries and museums re-structuring their collections thematically, rather than chronologically and we will certainly be whizzing around in history on this blog to keep things interesting. Nevertheless, the internet contains lots of useful resources for students trying to get a grip on some basic chronology. One really good example is the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. Here is a brief description of the resource:
The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History is a chronological, geographical, and thematic exploration of the history of art from around the world, as illustrated especially by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. The Museum's curatorial, conservation, and education staff—the largest team of art experts anywhere in the world—research and write the Timeline, which is an invaluable reference and research tool for students, educators, scholars, and anyone interested in the study of art history and related subjects. First launched in 2000, the Timeline now extends from prehistory to the present day. It will continue to expand in scope and depth, and also reflect the most up-to-date scholarship.
Given that the AS course begins with classical Greek art from approximately 500 BCE, it might make sense for us to check out this period on the timeline and the associated resources that include examples of works of art and thematic essays. If you are planning a trip to a gallery this weekend, may I suggest a quick trip to see Poussin's Adoration at the National Gallery, followed by the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum.

Here are a couple of questions for you to consider:
  • What does the word "classical" mean in the context of art history?
  • Why do you think the exam board have selected 500 BCE as the historical starting point of the course?
  • What do you already know about the ancient Greek civilisation?
  • What evidence can you see around you that the language of "classical" art and architecture is still very important?
You may wish to post some responses to these questions as comments so that we can have a discussion.

Constable v Goya

Doña Isabel de Porcel by Francisco de Goya, before 1805 (National Gallery)
Mary Freer by John Constable, 1809 (National Portrait Gallery current exhibition)