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


"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)

A Visual Puzzle

Language can often seem inadequate for articulating thoughts about paintings. A useful word to remember is 'syncretic', which can be used to describe a complicated aspect of an artwork. Some painters have experimented with fusing disparate ideas, themes and different visual idioms to create a challenging visual puzzle. An example of this is Poussin's 'Adoration of the Shepherds' which can be seen in the National Gallery in London. During the summer, motivated by TJ Clark's book about Poussin, 'The Sight of Death', I spent an hour or so staring at this curious painting. TJ Clark refers to the need to read paintings from the details and to follow the questions that these throw-up; in Poussin's 'Adoration' the objects and characters painted immediately give rise to problems. Why is the stable set within a crumbling ancient temple? Why are putti throwing garlands of flowers on to Christ? Why is there a canephore carrying a basket of fruit to the shepherds? The painting is difficult.

Recently a colleague of mine has pointed to Poussin's interest in drawing parallels between Dionysus and Christ. Dionysus too was the son of a god, Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele. The classical references that I have pointed to in 'Adoration' are all connected to Dionysus. However, this is only an interpretation. Validity for this can be checked by asking who Poussin made the work for, as these connections would not have made a more general public comfortable in the 17th century. A single patron may have shared Poussin's interests to test the boundaries of meanings and relationships. Even if true, or possible as an interpretation of this puzzle, finding a way to articulate how this syncretic painting remains a forceful and unified work is difficult. Not to mention the fact that why there is such a predominance of a clay colour is also an odd thing.

Syncretic is a word that could be used to describe Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon', which you might like to explore. Another interesting word which seems relevant to Poussin's 'Adoration' is liminal. What's happening between the two characters about to cross the shadowy threshold from the field into the stable?


History of Art Texts

E. H. Gombrich's classic The Story of Art, published 60 years ago and now in its 16th edition, is still a benchmark for accessible narratives of the Western canon. Despite recent additions, including one or two female 20th century artists, and large scale pull-out pages of key works, this is a traditional view of the development of European art which attempts to "bring some intelligible order into the wealth of names, periods and styles which crowd the pages of more ambitious works", and help us see the history of art as "a continuous weaving and changing of traditions in which each work refers to the past and points to the future... a living chain that still links our own time with the Pyramid age." As a general introduction to the subject, this is still hard to beat. However, there are numerous other texts available which help to question some of the assumptions made by Gombrich, do a better job of assessing the development of modern and contemporary art, explore institutional and curatorial issues and outline some of the key concepts related to art theory. I have begun to create a Reading List (top right) wich includes two Gombrich texts but also suggests other important material. I have attempted to recommend texts which are as inexpensive and accessible as possible. What should be added to or removed from the list?

Those of you considering studying for the AQA AS level History of Art qualification would do well at this stage to check out the specification online. We will begin our exploration of various art works fairly soon.

Dipity Online Free Timeline

Smarthistory -- An Art History Timeline on Dipity.

Dipity is a free online timeline program, allowing you to create multimedia posts, which I think would be an excellent for collaboration and sharing research. The above embedded timeline is an example - Perhaps (Jon) you could set up an account and give sharing privileges to those who are interested.

Digital Resources

Let's begin with a series of posts about resources to support the study of Art History.

When I first taught the subject in school about 10 years ago I asked one of my students to set up a website so that we could begin to take advantage of the range of online resources available. I'm pleased to say that some of them still exist and are as useful as ever. The last 10 years, however, has seen a major shift in the ambition of large art institutions. Many of them have created a sophisticated online presence and have taken advantage of podcasting and the growth of the iPod as a portable learning device.

The Tate Gallery, for example, has made more than 400 audio and video downloads available on iTunes U a section of the online store which features educational content. The project includes recent interviews of contemporary artists and a series of films that use Twitter to bring the audience's questions directly to artists like David Hockney. Audio recordings of leading academics, teaching resources and multimedia guides for the latest Tate exhibitions are also made available. If you have an iPod that can play video, this is a great way to carry your learning around with you. Simply subscribe to the Tate's podcasts and sync it to your iPod via iTunes. Another Tate resource worth checking out is the series of TateShots video podcasts. Each short film is designed as an insight into a recent exhibition or activity at one of the four Tate galleries in Britain. Essential viewing.

I have begun to create a list of links to useful websites (top right) and set up a Twitter account with a feed to this site. It's amazing how many major galleries and museums have a Twitter presence. There are also a huge number of excellent (and useless) YouTube videos featuring art historical content. More of these later.

Perhaps readers would be kind enough to suggest useful websites that have not yet been added to the Links list? In future posts we can take a closer look at some of these resources.


Welcome to Art Histories, a new site designed to support anyone interested in thinking about art and its histories. Over the coming weeks and months I hope to establish a community of learners who will share their experiences of art on this site. At the moment, I don't really know what will happen but I'm pretty sure I'm going to enjoy the journey.

The idea for the site came from one of my students at Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, London (UK) who was determined to study for an A level in The History of Art, despite the fact that the school did not offer the course in its normal Post 16 curriculum. I used to teach the subject and offered to help her prepare for the examinations. It then occurred to me that using a blog might be a really interesting way to promote this kind of independent learning. It would also offer me an opportunity to rope in several friends and fellow bloggers so that we might all learn together and share our thoughts.

Even if the whole experiment falls flat on its face, it will have been a useful way for me to assess the potential of this kind of learning conversation. My main criteria for success are:
  • a diverse community of contributors are engaged in creating posts for this site
  • posts elicit various comments
  • all authors have equal status and can post on any art related topic
  • the site provides a useful form of support for anyone wishing to study The History of Art at advanced level
If you stumble across this site and would like to be involved as an author, please contact me directly. Alternativey, we would appreciate any comments you might wish to make and hope to see you back here very soon!