Tag Archive: art_history

In Defense of Art

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Non-Objective Painting, 1919.  Oil on canvas.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Non-Objective Painting, 1919. Oil on canvas.

I’ve seen an image circulating online lately showing a painting from 1907 saying the artist was rejected from art school, then one from 2012 that won a prize. The implication being that the rejected art from 1907 is better than the prizewinning art from 2012. Things like this annoy me. It’s perfectly fine to have personal preferences when it comes to art and what you find enjoyable. But it really bothers me when people say something isn’t good, or isn’t art just because they don’t like it.

Art, and the goals of art, is constantly changing. During the Renaissance they were focused on mastering perspective and capturing the world as true to life as they could because that was the only way they had to record visually what was around them. And it was made possible by the new scientific thinking of the age. Once perspective had been mastered, artists could move on to other projects, like the Impressionists working to capture light. After photography came around paintings did not need to be so true-to-life because there were photographs for that now. Some art worked on questioning what constituted art (Dada for example); some deconstructed art to try and take it down to its bare essentials. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Modern art, but I still appreciate it for what it is.

There’s also the fact that all major art movements have been influenced by the political and social environment they arose from. So perhaps if you don’t like the art, instead of just calling it bad you should take a look at the world around it. Question why you don’t like it instead of just making a snap judgment based on how it looks. Obviously a large part of art is to make you feel, question, and think. Some of it is meant to be unappealing on purpose. That doesn’t mean it’s bad.

And yes, certainly there is a lot of bad art out there. I’m not going to deny that. My point is simply that just because you don’t like or understand something doesn’t mean it’s bad or not art. You can dislike something all you want, but to deny it its place in the art world is doing the piece and yourself a great disservice. Perhaps I sound a bit defensive. But you know what? I am. I’m defensive of art because it’s what I’ve spent the last few years of my life studying, and what I hope to spend my life working with. Art can be an incredibly subjective and emotional thing. And a lot can be learned about a culture or time by looking at its art. So it makes me sad when people make such snap judgments about art or discount it as unimportant. Just think of what a plain, boring place the man-made world would be without art.

(Yes, I realize another aspect of this is that the painting from 1907 is supposedly a painting Hitler did, and that opens a whole other can of worms. But really it was just the judgmental comparison of art from the early 1900s to contemporary art that got to me, since it’s not the first time I’ve seen or heard things like that. Also, it’s important to keep in mind, this was also painted in 1907).


Since I know at least some of my readers make their way over here from my work on the Pizza Lab articles over on Pizza Clubhouse I decided to write some food related posts. I imagine coming here and seeing posts about art is rather disappointing after reading about and looking at pictures of delicious pizza. Hopefully this will be a nice compromise. I’ll start with a look at food in paintings.
A good place to find paintings of food is in Northern Baroque art. I’m not just saying that because it’s some of my favorite art – the Dutch are known for their genre paintings. In the North where the population was more dominantly Protestant, there wasn’t as much of a market for explicitly religious themed art as there was in places like Catholic Italy. Some genre paintings do still have certain subtle Christian iconography, but you have to know what you’re looking for. There are a lot of still lives of flowers, but there’s also a lot with food.

Meat Seller's Stall, Pieter Aertsen, 1551, oil on panel

Meat Seller’s Stall, Pieter Aertsen, 1551, oil on panel

A whole lot of food can be found in Pieter Aertsen’s painting Meat Seller’s Stall. The viewer is greeted with sausages, beef, pork, fowls, cheese, mussels, fish, and of course pretzels. To the modern eye some of this food may not be the most appealing – overall we’re not used to seeing the aces of the food we eat – but it’s still a wonderful painting. The food items are so detailed, you could pick out from the painting what you might want to buy for dinner.
Still-Life with Colander and Artichokes, Clara Peeters, 1613, oil on panel

Still-Life with Colander and Artichokes, Clara Peeters, 1613, oil on panel

Another painting that beautifully captures food is Still-Life with Colander and Artichokes by Clara Peeters. Unfortunately I could not find a good quality image to share, but you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s so detailed it could almost look like a photograph. You half expect the crabs to start sidling away.
Still Life with Parrots, Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1640-45, oil on canvas

Still Life with Parrots, Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1640-45, oil on canvas

In opposition to the everyday food found in the previous paintings, some painters depicted exotic, rare foods. This can be seen in paintings like Still Life with Parrots by Jan Davidsz de Heem. There are melons, citrus fruits, conch, lobster, shrimp, and more. The fancy tableware (which I’ll get to more in depth in another post) emphasizes the expensiveness of the scene, and the parrots emphasize the exotic nature of it all. It’s a beautiful scene meant to show wealth through the food afforded.
The Milkmaid, Jan Vermeer, 1658-60, oil on canvas

The Milkmaid, Jan Vermeer, 1658-60, oil on canvas

Food also makes appearances in paintings where it’s not the main star. This can be seen in paintings like Jan Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid. The subject is most definitely the young girl pouring milk. However the bread in the foreground is rendered in just as much detail, and in fact is in more light than the girl is. The bread is not just a prop, it’s an important part of the scene.

So why was food such a popular subject? For one it was a challenge for painters to test their skills. You had to be a good painter to accurately depict all the different textures of food. Another reason is that food carries with it a lot of meaning culturally. As we’ve seen, certain foods could speak to a person’s wealth. Different foods also carry with them different connotations, so food allowed the painter to imbue a painting with meaning without it being overwhelmingly obvious. Plus, just in general food is appealing to people. Genre paintings were often not commissions, but rather painted and sold on the open market, so they needed subjects that would appeal to a wide audience. If you want people to buy your stuff, lure them in with food.

The Unexpected Moment

Yesterday I had to run over to the library in the Metropolitan Museum of Art because there was something wrong with my account and there’s a book I need to request. Turns out apparently those cards expire. Who knew? Anyway, fixing the problem took all of about a minute, which left me with over an hour until my train home. Since I’d rather be surrounded by beautiful art than standing around Penn Station I decided to wander around for a bit. No real goal in mind – just wasting time mostly. So I was surprised when I found myself standing in front of some (mostly) French paintings feeling well…I’m not entirely sure “awestruck” is the right word, but it’s the best I can think of, so I’ll say I was feeling awestruck. There was just something about these paintings that got to me. Looking at the paintings, looking at the paint itself and the brushstrokes…it was just a powerful moment. It kind of reminded me of why I’m doing what I am, and why I got my degree in art history. I feel like in grad school, when you’re super bogged down with work it can be easy to forget why you decided to do this in the first place. So it was really nice to get that reminder. I’m not sure there’s any real point to this post…except maybe just to say: go out and see some art guys! You never know what impact it may have on you.

The Beach at Deauville, Kees van Dongen, 1945-55, oil on canvas.

The Beach at Deauville, Kees van Dongen, 1945-55, oil on canvas.

Do I Know You?

In my Material Culture class the other day we were discussing the importance of the artist’s biography in traditional art history studies, why we should (or shouldn’t) care about that information, and why that doesn’t seem to be the case for creators of the decorative arts.  The whole thing got me thinking about identity in art.  Personally I think the artist’s biography can be important, depending on what it is you want to learn from the piece (I include decorative arts objects as well).  No matter how hard you try, your life has impacted who you are and what you do, so it’s nearly impossible for it not to have some influence on your work.  But how much does knowing this background affect one’s understanding of a piece?  The artist has left a piece of him-or herself on the canvas (or in the sculpture, photo, chair, whatever medium of choice), so it shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s an important part of what makes the piece what it is.  However, it also shouldn’t be fetishized and become the main focus at the expense of all else, which has been the case for some old-school art historians.

On the flip side, I think the biography of the audience can be just as important as that of the artist.  The history of the artist is important in understanding the creation of a piece, but the history of the audience is important in understanding the piece’s initial and continuing relevance.  I think perhaps this is even truer in the decorative arts, where the pieces may not have a distinct subject to study.

Overall I think it really is a two-way street – art can tell us a lot about the people who created and bought it, but the people who created and bought it can also tell us a lot about the art.  Not artist or work of art is created in a vacuum, and it’s important to take all the outside influences into consideration when studying such things.

I’d be interested to hear from any artists reading this their opinion on the idea.  How much do you feel your biography influences or is necessary to the understanding of your work?