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.