Tag Archives: 20th Century

Finding Your Way In: Tips for approaching an artwork you’ve never seen before

One of the things people assume about you when they learn that you’re an art historian (and one of the things that we jokingly say about ourselves!) is that we make brilliant dinner party conversation.  People will throw out their favourite artists (or simply the last one they heard of), and assume that we’re not only familiar with their entire output, but have an insightful and fully-formed opinion on them.  But one of the exciting things about art history, whether you choose to officially study it, or simply indulge a passion for it, is discovering new works of art, artists, and even entire movements you’ve never before encountered.  But this can be a slightly intimidating experience.  It can be difficult to figure your way into a work that feels unfamiliar.  There are however a few things that you can look out for to help you find your way into a new work of art which I’ll be exploring in this new series.  These suggestions are in no way proscriptive, it’s important that you embrace your own response to the work, but if you’re ever stuck when looking at a new work, these tips might be worth bearing in mind.


The artist’s choice of medium can make a huge difference to the overall effect of the artwork.  Often museum labels will help you with this, but it satisfying to be able to identify the materials yourself.  Some are really easy to identify, with oil or watercolours perhaps, but this can sometimes be difficult; often the material of sculpture can be hard to pinpoint.  But with a little practice you start to gain a familiarity with the materials, and build up a knowledge of what they look like and how they’re used.

Once you have an idea of what the material is, it’s worth thinking about the qualities and constraints of that material.  The development of oil painting allowed artists in the Northern Renaissance to create amazingly realistic images, using are fully layered pigments and glazes to bring a vitality to their works unmatched by the frescoes of their Southern cousins.  It is thought that these new paints were created in part in response to the damp climate of the North, which made the plaster-based techniques of Italian artists implausible. Centuries later, the vivid colours of the Impressionists were made possible by the development of new, chemical pigments. The bright yellows and blues seen in so many of their works was made possible by these new pigments.  Their en plain air techniques were also made possible by the invention of tubes of paint, making the materials far more portable.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pont Neuf, 1872

Sculpture is perhaps even more dependent on its materials.  The physical qualities are of key importance, having a fundamental effect on what one would be able to sculpt.  The poor tensile strength of marble is the reason why so many sculptures are supported by ugly props, with bars of the material holding up their arms or legs.  This is why so many Greek gods are leaning against a conveniently positioned tree trunk.  The opposite quality enables the fantastical creations of the sixteenth century, such as Giambologna’s Mercury ( which positively flaunts the tensile strength of bronze with its outstretched limbs.

Giambologna Mercury

Giambologna, Mercury, 1580

The sculpture’s material isn’t just of interest form the point of view of its physical qualities.  Many materials also take on a symbolic quality, or accrue connotations that can impact on the meaning of the finished work.  In his seminal work The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, Michael Baxandall explored the way in which cultural associations about limewood came to be attached to the sculptures that were carved from it.  The special, pseudo-magical qualities that folklore attached to the tree itself impacted on how the sculptures were understood by contemporary viewers.  This book also contains Baxandall’s examination of the different woods on a cellular level, and the implications of this for the forms it was sculpted into.  Far later, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore would lead the ‘truth to materials’ movement, which sought to exploit the inherent qualities of the material to create sculpted forms that somehow reflected the nature of the material itself.

Henry Moore REcumbent Figure.jpg

Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938, image credit

In painting too, materials could gain their own symbolic meanings.  The most famous example of this is the use of lapis lazuli in depictions of the Virgin Mary.  The high cost of the pigment, due to it being imported all the way from Afghanistan, where it still only occurred in relatively small quantities, meant that it came to be seen as appropriate for depicting this holy figure.

The Virgin and Child

Massacio, The Virgin and Child, 1426

The price of the material is thus also worth considering.  While it is obviously often the case that materials are chosen for their expense, they can also be deliberately inexpensive.  For instance, Russian Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko chose cheap, readily available materials such as plywood, in a deliberate attempt to make their art more accessible, and to strip it of the bourgeois connotations of more conventional materials.  In other cases, the material may be chosen specifically for such connotations.  Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, created for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, made use of Carrara marble (Michelangelo’s David was able made from Carrara marble), placing it in a tradition of nude sculptures dating back through the Renaissance to Roman art, which in turn imitated Greek art. By using this material Quinn makes a bold and positive claim for the beauty and importance of his subject, and forces his viewers to reconsider the negative effects of the bland uniformity of sculpture in the Classical tradition.  Quinn himself commented on his choice of material, ‘Marble is the material used to commemorate heroes, and these people seem to me to be a new kind of hero – people who instead of conquering the outside world have conquered their own inner world and gone on to live fulfilled lives. To me, they celebrate the diversity of humanity. Most monuments are commemorating past events; because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity’.

Alison Lapper Pregnant

Mark Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, image credit

So there are lots of aspects to the choice of material in artworks.  These certainly shouldn’t be treated as a tick-list of things to go through, but thinking about material in this way can offer a new perspective on a work of art, and can be an interesting approach to take when you find yourself in front of a brand new (to you, or the world) work of art.



Mark Quin quote excerpted from: http://marcquinn.com/artworks/alison-lapper.

Images unless otherwise stated are sourced from wikicommons.


Alexander Rodchenko, Oval Hanging Construction No.12 (1920)

This seminal work by Rodchenko (1891-1956) is a key example of the Constructivist Movement.  Dating from 1920, the sculpture is a demonstration of the ways in which artists such as Rodchenko sought to make themselves ‘useful’ in a post-Revolutionary Society.  The birth of Soviet Russia brought about fundamental shifts in attitudes towards culture.  There was a strong inclination to see both art and artists as part of the bourgeois society that the 1917 Revolution had swept aside.  With works like this, Rodchenko and others took up the task of justifying their existence in the new society that they had played a part in bringing about.


Alexander Rodchenko, 1935

A major part of this was to try and establish art as relating to some sort of practical purpose.  Artists had to be useful members of society, no longer the peddlers of decorative fluff, but workers, with a role to play in perfecting the new nation.  The choice of material for this sculpture can be characterised as almost ‘anti-art’, rather than being made of exclusive and expensive traditional materials, bronze or marble say, it is made from plywood, which was cheap and readily available.  This sense of democratisation is carried through to the crafting of the object – it is deliberately simplified, and straightforward.  The process of creation has been demystified, so that any viewer might be able to understand how the sculpture has been put together.  Constructivist art was supposed to be educational, and we see this reflected in the methods of construction.  This piece of sculpture actually went on tour, but not, as one might expect, to museums or galleries, but to factories, and other centres of industrial production, where it was used as an example of different ways of construction.  To this end, the sculpture is designed so that it can be folded flat in on itself, making it highly portable, something that would have been particularly necessary given the relatively flimsy materials it is made from.

Overall the sculpture thus gives a sense of bringing an egalitarian air to art.  Moving away from both the ‘decorative’ bourgeois art of pre-Revolution, and the more obscure ideas of many early twentieth century avant-garde movements, it expresses a sense of purpose and clarity.  Though one might argue that something is lost by this desire to demystify, to simplify, the sculpture, and its creator, seem to work with the idea that knowledge should not be hidden, but instead shared freely with all: the Communist approach expressed in art.  It is new art, for a new society.

Self Portraits: Exploring artist’s use of the Self-Portrait

The self-portrait has an enduring appeal for giving us an insight into how the artist perceives him or herself, or how he wishes to be perceived by viewers.  Here I will consider a number of (largely modern) self-portraits, in a bid to explore the possible uses and aims of the form.  Those included are by no means comprehensive, with some notable absences (I don’t mention a single van Gogh), but have been chosen as I feel they can be interestingly linked, and provide an insight into the varying and developing role of the self-portrait painting.

Rembrandt: Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665-69

How an artist depicts himself relates closely to the common perception of what an artist is, and what constitutes a great artist.  Older portraits, pre-19th century, tend to focus on the artist as a craftsman, and his technical skill.  For instance, Rembrandt’s self-portrait famously depict him in front of the perfect circle, the ultimate expression of an artist’s skill.  Later artists depicts themselves out of the studio setting, as the definition of ‘great artist’ came to be understood as one with a unique view and understanding of the world around him.  So these later portraits often have blank, non-specific backgrounds, and focus on the artist’s expression, not on pointing out his skill.

This general move away from depicting oneself in the studio setting can be traced alongside the desire by some artists to picture themselves as a continuation of the great tradition of painting, maintaining high standards rather than pursuing any new styles.  Ingres, an artist consumed by the desire to relate himself back to the great classical tradition, depicts himself in the typical setting, draped with a sort of cloak, stood before the easel.

Ingres: Self-Portrait at age 24, 1804

The German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner first depicts himself in the studio, with brush and model, a typical subject.  He is depicting himself as a master of his craft, his authority over the viewer expressed through his wild, staring eyes, and his dominance over the picture space.  But here he seems to use this traditional setting to emphasise the radical differences in his style.  He uses this touch of the familiar to shock the viewer, it is a provocative piece.  But we maintain the emphasis on him as a painter, there is little sense of introversion, we are not being presented with an insight into his mind, rather a manifesto of his movement.  This piece is particularly interesting when compared to his later self-portrait ‘Self-portrait of the Artist as a Soldier’, painted after he was invalided out of the First World War.  Now we see all the introversion, his loss of confidence in himself and his artistic vision.  His hand was not really blown off, but it is the hand which would have held his brush, expressing his loss of artistic voice (although we see that his style is little changed, and no less technically skilled).  This is almost painting as therapy; through it Kirchner is able to express his inner turmoil and trauma.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait with a Model, 1910

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait as a Soldier, 1915

This second self-portrait is more typical of the 20th and 21st century approach, when the artist’s world view has become at least as important as his technical skill, and the self-portrait becomes a means of self-exploration.  Munch followed his usual unsettling lines of thought in his self-portrait, his head white, floating in the blackness above the skeletal arm and hand.  We cannot help by search for meaning within the man himself.  He was a deeply troubled man, terrified of feminine control, his family mostly killed by TB, one of his two remaining sisters resident in an asylum.  This is not hard to guess from the portrait, but it remains mysterious and enigmatic, it’s meaning unspecified.  This sense of mystery is often apparent in modern portraits, which sometimes act almost to imbue the artist with a sense of gravitas and mystery, rather than simply being used as a display of wealth and skill as they had been previously.

Munch: Self Portait with a Skeleton Arm, 1895

Exploration of identity is another common theme in modern self-portraits.  Picasso’s self-portrait with ovoid eyes strengthens his Spanish identity at a time when he was one of only a few Spaniards in Paris (particularly among the art scene).  Frida Kahlo has perhaps explored this use of the self-portrait more than any other artist.  The vast majority of her painting are self-portraits, in which she explores her identity as a woman, threatened by her inability to bear children, as an artist, and as an individual.  Although not technically a member of the Surrealist movement (in the European or American form), her work is often called Surrealist due to her exploration of dreams and dreamlike scenarios.

Frida Kahlo: The Two Fridas, 1939

‘The Two Fridas’ explicitly explores her feelings regarding her Mexican identity, after the split between her and her husband Diego Rivera.  The daughter of a Mexican mother and a European father, the piece expresses her feelings of being torn between the two cultural identities.  ‘My Nurse and I’ of 1937, also explores her relationship with her mother, and her Mexican roots, the nurse’s face substituted for a proto-American mask, suggesting the way in which cultural heritage is passed down through the generations, and the strength that it has given her.

Frida Kahlo: My Nurse and I, 1937

Kahlo’s frequent self-portraits highlight another more pragmatic side which has made them popular with artists throughout history: they are cheap.  The model is free, and available whenever the artists wishes.  Kahlo began painting whilst bed-bound, recovering from the bus accident which nearly killed her and robbed her of her ability to mother children.  She was thus the obvious subject for her works.  Taking a short aside further into history, this ready availability seems to have made self-portraits popular amongst female artists.  Largely un-professional, women artists were often constrained by social requirements.  There could be no question of impropriety if the woman were not aiming to paint for material gain, and even better, did not hire models, of either gender.  For instance, Sofonisba Anguissola, active in the 16th and early 17thcenturies,

Sofonisba Anguissola: Self Portrait, 1554

was highly acclaimed during her time, but stuck to portraits, with self-portraits, and portraits of family and close friends making up the majority of her output.  From an aristocratic background, painting such close associates could not raise any suspicions, and she was in fact encouraged by her family to pursue her enthusiasm, albeit at an almost amateur scale.  She did however go on to paint portraits of the Spanish court, including Phillip II and his family.  Modern female artists have not been so restricted, but still return to the self-portrait.  Tracy Emin’s 1998 ‘My Bed’ reads as an auto-biographical piece; a portrait of herself and her feelings seen through the objects with which she surrounded herself.

Tracy Emin: My Bed, 1998

So we see that the self-portrait form is continuing to develop, even to include the abstract forms and installation art of the modern world.  I have considered only a few ideas, any comments or thoughts would be greatly appreciated, it is an area which really fascinates me, and I think will continue to fascinate audiences due to the insight it gives us into the mind and feelings of the artist depicted.

Pablo Picasso: ‘The Charnel House’, 1945

This is a piece I wrote for the art history based public speaking competition ‘Articulation’, which I took part in earlier this year.

The Charnel House, painted by Pablo Picasso between February and May, 1945, and perhaps his most disturbing painting.  He did not name the piece himself, simply calling it ‘my painting’ or ‘the massacre’.  Its title was given by a public still reeling from the events that inspired its creation, and Picasso refused to go against this by renaming it.  The large scale of the painting belies the perversely humble subject matter.  Picasso had watched a short documentary detailing one event in Spain during the course of the war, the story of a Spanish Republican family killed in their kitchen. It was also at this time that the first photographs of concentration camps were being released to the Western media.  It is this macabre mixture of brutality and domesticity that creates the underlying tension of the piece.  He has returned to a style most closely associated with his epic piece Guernica, as here he is also reflecting the black and white of contemporary photography, although this time not newspapers, but the film reel of the documentary.  This gives the painting a stark sense of contemporary documentation – Picasso revives the history painting genre in such a way that the viewer cannot help but be drawn into an emotional stake in the events.  Picasso’s use of colour bravely strips the piece back to the elemental.  This is reminiscent of the Analytical Cubist treatment of colour; he forces us to consider the forms, giving us no distraction with bright colours.  He also removes the emotive possibilities of colour; we understand the scene for what it is, not how we are made to perceive it.  We should perhaps also take into account the spiritual significance, black representing evil, white purity and innocence.  Picasso thus demonstrates the interplay between good and evil by placing these colours adjacent, the grey perhaps representing how ambiguous this interplay can sometimes seem.  This monochrome colour scheme makes objects easier and simultaneously harder to understand: they are laid bare in front of us, but they barely seem to make sense.  We can see parts of feet, hands, a pupiless eye stares at us from the bottom right corner.  Then in the background, or perhaps above these objects, we see a table, with a still life.  Picasso has applied a mixture of both Analytical and Synthetic Cubism to the piece, with the table being viewed from several different angles, confusing but almost reassuring, we are drawn away from the atrocity by contemplation of this form.  But it seems also to act as a message for how we should view the painting, we must examine what has happened as strictly as we try to understand the composition of the table.  Synthetic Cubism is applied through the layers of colour and line, with the whole family almost seeming to blend together in the foreground of the painting.  This too could read as an aid to understanding, we must view the massacre as part of a build up of events and circumstances.  Thus the idea is first introduced that this is a universal image, one that had occurred before, and would be repeated.  The piece contrasts most clearly with Guernica in that it is quite clear that we view this after the event, it has not got quite the same sense of violence in action.  The mouth of the woman, depicted by a simplified set of lips, with the teeth protruding in what might in other circumstances be interpreted as a snarl, and the compositional arrangement that means that we view her head upside down, with her hair hanging down, clearly demonstrates the deaths are in the past tense.  This is contrasted by the depiction of the child, whose presence is deeply imbued with pathos.  While the mother’s fate is all too clearly expressed, the child could only be sleeping, hands drawn up to the chest, and with a serene expression achieved by the depiction of simple oval eyes, closed, although facing the viewer.  Moving towards the right of the painting, it becomes almost impossible to discern where one family member ends and the other begins.  The bound hands of then male figure embodies and makes explicit the idea of the family as victims, innocent and without the power to defend themselves.   The interplay of the harlequin pattern, particularly beneath the tied hands, suggests that Picasso has tried to include a depiction of his own sorrow and sense of loss in the painting.  Picasso lost many friends during the war, and was deeply affected by the afflictions of his fellow countrymen, and in the harlequin, so often symbolic of his own character, we can see his subtle homage to the suffering of his friends, symbolically placing himself alongside them, at a time when he was unable to really help.  He remained neutral throughout both the First and the Second World Wars, resident in France rather than his own country, but the year before the work commenced on The Charnel House Picasso joined the French Communist Party, and remained a member until his death in 1973.  In this piece he makes a tacit, but powerful statement against Fascism.  So it is with a deep sense of personal involvement that Picasso is able to create a piece in which he so strongly conveys emotions to the viewer.  Still Life, often used in the Renaissance to depict dead animals, draws unsettling comparisons between the household objects, and the dead family who own them.  They themselves have become objects in their house, but through an atrocious act of violence and brutality.  Picasso said he left this part of the painting unfinished deliberately, as to finish it would be the same as to end it, or to kill it.  Thus he has stopped himself from the final moment of creation that he saw as the end of a painting, its death.  He has not followed the example of the perpetrators of the crime he depicts.  Progressing again towards the right of the panting, Picasso has furthered the sense of confusion of space through his depiction of the corner of the room.  It is difficult to tell whether or not this recedes or protrudes within the picture place, so we are unable to console ourselves even with a set measure of space.  Thus Picasso creates a sense of awkwardness that pervades the painting, confronting the viewer with the ugly truth of human nature.  What is striking is how little he has needed to represent in order to convey such a deep and universal message.  We do not need to know about the documentary, or the historical events.  Picasso has been able to present a basic, rhetorical question of man’s brutality towards his fellow human.  He forces the viewer to contemplate this on a more universal level than in any other of his paintings.  Apart from the contemplation of the table, which still acts to educate the viewer’s understanding of the painting, he offers no relief.  By uniting colour, composition and subject matter for one cause, Picasso has created a piece distinctly born of his own emotional responses, and the events of his age, but which remains disturbingly relevant in our own time, and, as no answers are given to the question he poses, will continue to be so in the future.

First Impressions: Robert Polhill Bevan ‘Showing At Tattersalls’, c1919


This pleasing composition has two groups at the sides of the painting, which lead out towards the viewer, creating between them a space for the viewer, psychologically inviting them into the painting.  This could be seen as typical of the Camden Town Group’s desire to create paintings for the people, which they could empathise with or in a sense participate in.  The piece is made up of smooth planes and dark, thick outlines around the figures and objects.  Figures are not particularly detailed, largely obscured by their long coats and hats.  Where we so see their faces, they present cartoon-like but serious expressions, deftly represented.  There is individualisation, as the two men we see most of are quite different, the man on the right thinner and longer nosed, whilst his equivalent on the left is broader and fuller.  This gives us a greater sense of being in the scene, and evokes the mood.  Details in the painting are appropriate to the scene, not over emphasised or simplified.  The horses however are near perfect in their anatomical details.  Long brushstrokes on the trotting bay align with muscles and their movement, so Bevan effectively gets across a sense of the horse’s musculature, without having to go into an unrealistic and uncharacteristic level of detail.  Some of the angles on the horses are perhaps a little too sharp, but this minor issue can easily be accepted within the bounds of Bevan’s personal style.  The horses’ legs are depicted highly realistically, each tendon seems to be understood, and the hooves are similarly well executed, and realistic to the angle of the legs, which show us, one side together, the apart, that the horse is trotting, demonstrating its movements to the prospective buyers who look on.  Tattersalls was one of the most important horse sales in Britain at the time, where the elite of the racing world went to trade horses and search for the next Grand National winners.  In the level of care he has paid to the horses, Bevan concisely puts across the sheer strength, and indeed huge monetary value of these fine animals.

The brick flooring takes on an almost pattern like appearance as it recedes into space at an angle.  Its soft peachy pink is a pleasing colour, but the dark lines marking the division of bricks seem almost too even, and it is not quite clear how the figures and animals fit into this perspective.  However shadows are naturalistically depicted, they are coloured, and seem to reflect the shapes that cast them.  The backdrop is a simple yellowish building that can easily be imagined as stables.  Backdrop is quite an appropriate term, as it seems that it acts as a stage setting for the horses to be displayed against, while the audience, the buyers, are set back closer to the viewer, who takes on the position of part of this audience.  The chestnut horse is distinctly outlined in black against the red door behind it.  This simple scene uses a subtle palette, and crisp depictions to evocatively portray a world that is now much changed.  Robert Polhill Bevan has created a charmingly simple piece, whilst still maintaining an appropriate level of realism so as to allow the viewer to almost step into the painting.  The painting is bereft of unnecessary details, and in this it vividly conjures the mood and energy of this elite world for the everyday viewer.

First Impressions: Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself, 1982

Ostensibly blurring the line between Peter Blake’s art making and his obsessive collecting, the piece is a collage of artefacts of significance to the artist.  The composition is jigsaw like, the different elements have been placed together seemingly just because they fit neatly side by side one another.  There is little sense of an overall palette other than what one would expect of a collection of old photographs, posters, and other largely paper-based objects: black, white and off-cream recur throughout the piece.  A line of shards of pottery act as a frame along the top of the piece, but this could equally simply be the continuation of the desire to fill the space as completely as possible.  This space at the top is too small for most standard photograph shapes and sizes, and we should perhaps also consider that black and white photographs might be hard to see in this relatively dim space just below the frame.  The case itself is interesting: it looks quite worn, with various nicks and dents, wood painted black.  It is a case, not a frame, the glass cover and its depth highlights its unsuitability for a conventional painting.  It is interesting to wonder which came first: the case, or the objects.  If it were the case, the objects might lose some of their significance, simply chosen to fill a certain space.  Vice versa, their importance would be heightened, they were chosen for their significance to the artist, and their housing carefully chosen.  I can’t help but think the case may have come fist.  Largely arranged in horizontal bands, the objects seem to come from a wide variety of backgrounds, “Hallo” emblazoned on the box of a small water pistol, signed photographs of each of the Beatles, postcards of flowers, and an old five pound note only a small selection.  But the idea that each of these tells us something about the artist might be deceptive.  Certainly all of them did not naturally come into his collection, they are not necessarily artefacts from his own life.  Some (if not most) were bought in the condition in which they go into the piece.  Blake is an obsessive collector, visiting flea markets and second-hand shops seemingly wherever he goes.  So the idea that this tells the story of his life, or the people he has met, has to be seen in line with this knowledge.  It is an interesting exploration of how we see the artist’s involvement in the process of modern art-making.  Blake has chosen all these pieces, they must tell us something about his character, as he saw some merit and interest in them.  So it becomes a question of whether we see the art-making process as the act of an artist imbuing a creation with his thoughts, feelings, collected life experience and experiences, or from a point of view whereby the artist’s choices are based on a desire to stimulate the viewer’s interest, and to offer them a view of a world different to their own (whether or not it is that of the artist becoming irrelevant).  Blake could be said in this piece to offer the view many different worlds, periods and sub-cultures.  Perhaps it is telling that included among the objects is a Marcel Duchamp autograph, with Peter Blake’s name next to it (the only form of signature on the piece).  Perhaps Blake finds ready-mades which come to tell us something about his interests at that time in his life.  He creates a postcard to himself form his own past, using the postcards of others, from the past.  I will not claim he has created a piece I find aesthetically pleasing, but the explorations of the meanings in modern art does make for a thought provoking piece, with more to offer than it might first seem.  He (deliberately or not) brings us to question what we think an artist should offer the viewer in today’s society, and whether they should continue the Romantic tradition of artists as giving their audience a view of the world through their own eyes and wisdom, or if it is simply enough for them to present us a view of the world, and leave us to draw our own conclusions.  I for one can still not quite decide which Peter Blake would seem to fit himself into.