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?