Tag: Art History and Movements

What Is Contemporary Art?

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What Is Contemporary Art?

Contemporary just means “art that has been and continues to be created during our lifetimes”. In other words, contemporary to us.

Now, of course, if you are 96-years old and reading this (By the way, congratulations, if this describes you. Way to keep up with the times!), you can expect a certain amount of overlapping between “Contemporary” and “Modern” art in your lifetime. A good rule of thumb is:

• Modern Art: Art from the Impressionists (say, around 1880) up until the 1960’s or 70’s.

• Contemporary Art: Art from the 1960’s or 70’s up until this very minute.

Here at About Art History, 1970 is the cut-off point for two reasons. First, because it was around 1970 that the terms “Postmodern” and “Postmodernism” popped up – meaning, we must assume, that the Art World had had its fill of Modern Art starting right then.

Secondly, 1970 seems to be the last bastion of easily classified artistic movements. If you look at the outline of Modern Art, and compare it to the outline of Contemporary Art, you’ll quickly notice that there are far more entries on the former page. This, in spite of the fact that Contemporary Art enjoys far more working artists making far more art. (It may be that Contemporary artists are mostly working in “movements” that cannot be classified, due to there being around ten artists in any given “movement”, none of which have shot off an email saying that there’s a new “movement” and “could you please tell others?”)

On a more serious note, while it may be hard to classify emergent movements, Contemporary art – collectively – is much more socially conscious than any previous era has been. A whole lot of art from the last 30 years has been connected with one issue or another: feminism, multiculturalism, globalization, bio-engineering and AIDS awareness all come readily to mind as subject matter.

So, there you have it. Contemporary art runs from (roughly) 1970 until now. We won’t have to worry about shifting an arbitrary point on the art timeline for another decade, at least. Go, be of good cheer, and fear not the term “Contemporary Art”.

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Abstract Art: An Universal Language

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Abstract Art: An Universal Language

Those who have followed the course of abstract art over the past 70 or 80 years will have been struck by its persistence. When the Cercle et Carré exhibition was held in April 1930, the Parisian press informed us that such painting was “the mere ghost of an experiment which we thought had died long ago,” and that “all this has nothing new to offer.” In 1955 the same outbursts of weariness and boredom, if not anger, can be heard at any exhibition of abstract art: “about time the joke was buried… same old bag of tricks… poor old public.”

Maybe. But things become entirely different if we are patient enough to take a closer look. Then we see that abstract art has never stopped adding to its range and means of expression, never faltered in its search for greater depth. If the ABC of this language was firmly established in the ‘heroic’ phase by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Delaunay and Malevitch, this does not mean that everything has been said in the same language.

The critics’ ignorance and the public’s sophisticated grumbling were unable to prevent it from branching out into the remotest corners of the western world, where it has won over intelligent collectors and gained a hold, even a considerable hold, in civic museums and galleries. Kandinsky and Mondrian, both of whom lived to a good age, thanks to their long working life were able to show their successors what a range of values can be drawn out of such simple elements; Kandinsky stressing inventiveness and Mondrian the importance of increasing depth.

The other movements or schools which sprang up in such great numbers all over the world in the past hundred years all enjoyed a much shorter span of life. At the moment of writing (1955), abstract painting has flourished for forty years and shows no signs of slackening vitality.

Those critics who began by encouraging it but who now pull a long face at some geometrical composition by Vasarely or some colour-composition by Riopelle, remind me of Zola when, throwing over his former Impressionist friends in 1896, he voiced his disillusionment in a notorious article in the Figaro which does not stand to his credit: “Not a single artist in this group,” wrote the author of L’Œuvre, “has succeeded in translating into paint, with the slightest power of finality, the new formula which is to be observed in snippets on their various canvases… They are all forerunners. The genius is yet to be born… They are all unequal to the task they have set themselves, they can’t talk, they stutter.” At the Jeu de Paume Museum (for example) we can now go and see exactly what stuttering meant. No oracle is needed to predict that fifty years hence some other Jeu de Paume will be showing an astonished public those masterpieces of abstract art that are being painted at the present time and which we are treating with contempt.

Written by: Ilyas Hizli

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The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance

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Raphael Angel

They were: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio). These are the very first artists that come to mind when ever the term “Renaissance” is uttered. Towering geniuses of staggering talent, these three.

But, before we go any further, keep three things in mind. First, while the Big Three deserve every bit of lasting fame they enjoy, they were not the only artistic geniuses of the Renaissance. There were many dozens, if not hundreds, of “Renaissance” artists.

Secondly, during this period, the “Renaissance” was happening all over Europe. Venice, in particular, was busy with its own artistic geniuses.

Finally, the “Renaissance”, was a long, drawn-out process. It happened over centuries, not twenty-five to forty years. If little else from this series of articles sticks, please remember this point.

That said (and it had to be said), let’s return to the Big Three. We’re going to play around a bit with that infamous essay question, the one which begins: “Compare and contrast…”

Related Links:

• The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance
• Leonardo Da Vinci
• Michelangelo Buonarratti
• Raphael
• The Majesty of Sistine Chapel
• The High Renaissance in Italy
• Why is it Called High Renaissance?

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Renaissance Painters: Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

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Renaissance Painters: Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

• Trained in Florence.

• Is best known as a painter, but did absolutely everything else as well.

• Studied human anatomy, via dissection (completely illegal, unless one was a physician), and used the knowledge of such to glorify man.

• Believed only in that which he could observe.

• Had a Duke (of Milan) as his first patron.

• Painted beautiful women, most of whom seemed to be enjoying delicious secrets.

• Disliked Michelangelo, but was somewhat of a mentor (albeit unseen) to Raphael.

• Worked in Rome from 1513 to 1516.

• Was commissioned by Pope Leo X.

• As a dinner guest, would monopolize all conversation, enjoy the soup, linger long enough that all would beg him to stay and leave to a loud chorus of “Come back soon!”, whilst misappropriating a wine glass and forgetting his hat.

Related Links:

• The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance
• Leonardo Da Vinci
• Michelangelo Buonarratti
• Raphael
• The Majesty of Sistine Chapel
• The High Renaissance in Italy
• Why is it Called High Renaissance?

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Renaissance Painters: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

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David, Detail of the Head by Michelangelo Buonarroti

• Trained in Florence.

• Is best known as a painter and sculptor, but worked in architecture and wrote poetry as well.

• Studied human anatomy, via dissection (completely illegal, unless one was a physician), and used the knowledge of such to glorify God.

• Believed deeply and devoutly in God.

• Had a Medici (Lorenzo) as his first patron.

• Painted women who looked a lot like men with breasts slapped on.

• Intensely disliked Leonardo, but was somewhat of a reluctant mentor to Raphael.

• Worked in Rome 1496-1501, 1505, 1508-1516 and from 1534 until his death in 1564.

• Was commissioned by Popes Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII, Paul III Farnese, Clement VIII and Pius III.

• As a dinner guest, would participate in conversation just enough to avoid outright rudeness, slurp the soup (probably complaining about its lack of salt to others, after the fact) and leave early, after eating two desserts and squirrelling a third into his napkin-lined pocket.

Related Links:

• The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance
• Leonardo Da Vinci
• Michelangelo Buonarratti
• Raphael
• The Majesty of Sistine Chapel
• The High Renaissance in Italy
• Why is it Called High Renaissance?

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Renaissance Painters: Raphael (1483-1520)

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La Belle Jardiniere by Raphael

• Trained in Umbria, but studied in Florence (where he picked up his draftsmanship and compositional skills by studying Leonardo and Michelangelo’s works).

• Is best known as a painter, but worked in architecture as well.

• Studied human anatomy only to the extent that his figures were proportionately correct.

• Believed in God, but didn’t alienate the Humanists or Neo-Platonists.

• Had, as his first patrons, those who actually wanted either Leonardo or Michelangelo (whose time, respectively, was being monopolized by their patrons), but settled for Raphael.

• Painted beautiful, gentle, calm women in a courteous manner.

• Idolized Leonardo and managed to get along with Michelangelo (no mean feat, that).

• Worked in Rome from 1508 until his death in 1520.

• Was commissioned by Popes Julius II and Leo X.

• As a dinner guest, would bring a hostess gift, engage everyone at the table in delightful conversation, praise the soup, stay exactly the perfect amount of time and send flowers the next day.

Related Links:

• The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance
• Leonardo Da Vinci
• Michelangelo Buonarratti
• Raphael
• The Majesty of Sistine Chapel
• The High Renaissance in Italy
• Why is it Called High Renaissance?

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Why is it called the “High” Renaissance?

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Why is it called the "High" Renaissance?

Simply put, this period represented a culmination. The tentative artistic explorations of the Proto-Renaissance, which caught hold and flowered during the Early Renaissance, burst into full bloom during the High Renaissance. Artists no longer pondered the art of antiquity. They now had the tools, technology, training and confidence to go their own way, secure in the knowledge that what they were doing was as good – or better – than anything that had been done before.

Additionally, the High Renaissance represented a convergence of talent – an almost obscene wealth of talent – concentrated in the same area during the same small window of time. Astounding, truly, considering what the odds against this have to have been.

How long did the High Renaissance last?

Not long at all, in the grand scheme of things. Leonardo began producing his important works in the 1480’s, so most art historians agree that the 1480’s were the start of the High Renaissance. Raphael died in 1520. One could argue that either Raphael’s death or the Sack of Rome, in 1527, marked the end of the High Renaissance. No matter how it’s figured, though, the High Renaissance was of no more than forty years’ duration.

Where did the High Renaissance occur?

A little bit in Milan (per early Leonardo), a little bit in Florence (per early Michelangelo), smaller bits scattered here and there throughout northern and central Italy and a whole lot in Rome. Rome, you see, was the place to which one fled when a Duchy was under attack, a Republic was being reorganized or one simply grew tired of wandering.

Another attractive feature Rome offered artists, at this time, was a series of ambitious Popes. Each of these Popes, in turn, outspent the previous Pope on elaborate works of art. In fact, if this string of Holy Fathers agreed on any one secular policy, it was that Rome needed better art. By the end of the 15th-century, Popes were coming from the sorts of wealthy, powerful families that were accustomed to underwriting public art and employing their own private artists. Now, a Pope had (still has, in fact) a great deal of clout. If one was an artist, and the Pope “requested” one’s presence in Rome, one certainly packed off to Rome. (Not to mention the fact that these Holy “requests” were often delivered by armed emissaries.)

In any case, we’ve already seen it demonstrated that artists tend to go where arts funding is found. Between Papal requests and the money being in Rome, the Big Three Names of the High Renaissance each found themselves in Rome being creative, at certain points.

Related Links:

• The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance
• Leonardo Da Vinci
• Michelangelo Buonarratti
• Raphael
• The Majesty of Sistine Chapel
• The High Renaissance in Italy
• Why is it Called High Renaissance?

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The High Renaissance in Italy

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Primavera by Sandro Boticelli

Wonderful Florence met the end of its Renaissance heyday in the 1490s for several reasons. First, Lorenzo de Medici – arguably the greatest of the Medici – died in 1492. This brought a close to what is often referred to as the “Laurentian Age” in Florence.

Of equal importance, a rabidly religious monk named Savonarola was busy in Florence decrying the decadence of its art which, in his opinion, had caused moral decay and would, quite possibly, bring the Apocalypse upon the Florentines. As is always the sad case in instances such as these, many were willing to listen to Savonarola. The powerful Medici were expelled, fleeing to Rome. Savonarola inspired, for a time, great religious fervor in the townspeople, to the point of organizing the first “bonfire of the vanities”, wherein “sacrilegious” items were burned in public. Loyalty being fickle, Savonarola himself suffered a similar fate in 1498. The damage to Florence’s profile in the arts, however, had already been irreparably done.

Finally, the Florentine scene had made it incredibly chic for Those in Power (elsewhere) to acquire their own, personal artistic geniuses. Have you ever heard the phrase “keeping up with the Jones-es”? On a grand scale, at this time, many were keen to “keep up with” the Medici. The ranks of the Florentine artists were plundered, lured to other locations by promises of wealth and fame.

The good news is that, even though Florence was left with not much talent, it had already trained the talent that went elsewhere. In one of those ironic twists of fate, nearly all of the “greats” (excepting the Venetians, which is another topic entirely) of the High Renaissance were either trained in or influenced by the Florentine School.

Bidding Florence both huge thanks and a fond farewell, then, let’s get right down to defining the who-s, what-s and when-s of the “High” Renaissance.

Related Links:

• The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance
• Leonardo Da Vinci
• Michelangelo Buonarratti
• Raphael
• The Majesty of Sistine Chapel
• The High Renaissance in Italy
• Why is it Called High Renaissance?

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The Spirit of the Renaissance

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Flora, Detail from the Primavera, c.1478

In the summer of 1508 Leonardo returned to Milan, which was to be his headquarters for the next five years. His chief patron was still Charles d’Amboise, Lord of Chaumont, who remained governor of Milan till his death in 1511. Early in his life d’Amboise had been touched by the spirit of the Renaissance, and in Milan he tried to revive or maintain the civilisation of the Sforzas. Of this civilisation Leonardo had been the greatest glory, and we know that d’Amboise treated him with the utmost consideration. As with the Sforzas he was not simply court painter, but architect, engineer and general artistic adviser. A few designs for architecture, dating from about this period, are in the Codice Atlantico and at Windsor.

Among them are plans and elevations of a town house with classical orders and various suggestions for wells and fountains. The British Museum MS. of 1508 also contains his longest writings on architecture, a study of fissures in walls and vaults, which suggest that he was employed in restoring and conserving as well as building. One day he would be deciding on the form of the choir stalls in the Duomo; another, acting as military engineer in the war against Venice; another, arranging pageants for the entry of Louis XII into Milan. It was a variety of employment which Leonardo enjoyed, but which has left posterity the poorer.

In these years he also travelled extensively, and although we have many clues as to the course of these journeys we have no hint as to their purpose. They do not seem to be connected with any recorded commission, and it is possible that they were undertaken solely in order to make those observations of nature which were one of the chief interests of his later years. MS. F, dated 22 September 1508 and entitled Di mondo ed acque, is the first of a series containing notes on geology, botany, atmosphere and kindred subjects. Although Leonardo’s approach has become more scientific, he still sees with the eye of a painter. His notes on botany describe the ramifications of a tree and the disposition of its leaves, in much the same spirit as Ruskin in the fifth book of Modern Painters. Many pages of MS. G are concerned with light striking on trees, the various greens of transparent leaves, and the blue sheen which they reflect from the sky.

The same book contains valuable notes of what Leonardo called la prospettiva di colore, the modification of colour by atmosphere; in fact, such observations seem to have been one of the chief motives of his mountaineering expeditions. A drawing of the Alps at Windsor, 1 one of a beautiful series in red chalk on red paper, contains an elaborate note of the colour of mountain flowers when seen through a great gulf of intervening air at a considerable height. There are also notes on the colour of smoke and mist which remind us of Goethe, and only his dislike of formulas prevented him from anticipating Goethe’s principle of translucency. In these writings Leonardo anticipated the impressionist doctrine that everything is more or less reflected in everything else and that there are no such things as black shadows. Meanwhile, his paintings were growing more and more shadowy, so that his last work, the equivocal St John in the Louvre, only just emerges from a welter of darkness.

During these expeditions into the mountains he became interested in problems of geology, and in particular the question of why shells and fossilised marine life can be found high up in mountains many miles inland. The thoroughness, tenacity and candour with which in several pages of the Trivulzian MS. he deals with this problem is an admirable example of his mind at work. He never for a moment admits the idea of a special creation, and he advances decisive arguments against the idea that the shells were carried there by the Flood. Ultimately he assumes that the country has been covered by the sea and sets to work to discover how this can have taken place. Thus his geological observations, taken in conjunction with his studies of embryology and comparative anatomy, show him ready to entertain the whole idea of evolution with a scientific open-mindedness in advance of many distinguished scientists of the nineteenth century.

This study of geology is sometimes quoted as evidence of Leonardo’s drift away from art to science; but I need hardly repeat that Leonardo’s researches, however austere, became fused with the texture of his imagination. His study of the earth’s bones is no exception. He had always been interested in rock formations, and to about the years 1508-10 belong a series of drawings at Windsor which show him studying outcrops and disturbed stratification, where the rock has broken through the comfortable humus, and reveals the ancient, grim foundations on which living things have their precarious existence.

This sense of the world as a planet, seen from a point of distance at which human life is no longer visible, is given final expression in the background of the Virgin and St Anne, now in the Louvre. There are no documents for this work, but the studies for it which have come down to us, no less than the whole character of the composition, suggests a date after Leonardo’s return to Milan and perhaps as late as is 1510. Only the vast and delicate landscape was coloured by Leonardo’s own hand. The painting of the heads is insensitive and without the fine texture of the Mona Lisa.

Parts of it are unfinished–the drapery covering the Virgin’s legs, for example, which is no more than an outline. Yet we know how subtle, musical and close-knit this passage could have been from drawings in the Louvre and at Windsor, showing the elaborate preparations he made for all his work, although when the time came to use these studies in a picture his inborn distaste for finality forced him to leave it unfinished. Even more interesting than these drapery studies is Leonardo’s own drawing for the St Anne’s head. The differences between it and the head in the painting are no doubt partly due to Leonardo himself.

It was he, for instance, who changed the head-dress in order to give a sharper accent to the pyramidal group, and he may have done something to make her type more regular. But the difference must also be due to the head being painted by a pupil and is an example of a well-known truth, that a great man’s pupils are plus royaliste que le roi. The conventionally Leonardesque expression of the painted St Anne has a certain charm and an artificial air of mystery, but the human mystery of the drawing is deeper and more subtle.

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The Fifteenth Century European Art & Painters

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The history, the principles, the motives, the methods of that mode of art which expresses itself in pictorial form are involved in more error and misrepresentation than happens in the case of any of its allies. For this the nineteenth century, and particularly the Teutonic nineteenth century, with its inability to understand art in any form save that of music, is chiefly responsible.

Every effort has been made to isolate it as an independent form of art, to confine it to “easel painting” on panel or canvas, or to wall decorations conceived after the same fashion and on the same lines, to reduce it to certain schools and individuals and localities; in a word, to make it a highly specialised form of personal expression, like lyric poetry or theological heresy. This is to miss its essential character and deny its primary function.

Painting is the use of colour and the composition of lines and forms for sheer joy in this particular kind of beauty; for the honouring of the most honourable things; for the stimulating of high and fine human emotion; for the symbolical (and therefore sacramental) expression of spiritual adventures and experiences that so far transcend the limitations of the material that they are not susceptible of intellectual manifestation. Painting is primarily and in its highest estate an ally and an aid of architecture, as are also sculpture and (in a less intimate degree) music, poetry, and the drama, all working together for the building up, under the inspiration of religion, of a great stimulus and a great expression.

As a thing by itself it fails of half its power, but, like all the arts, it can be used in this way, though indifferently and only within certain limitations. To say, therefore, that painting as an art began with Giotto or Cimabue or Duccio, is absurd; there was great painting long before them, and some of it reached heights even they could not attain. Of course most of it is gone, vanishing with the destroyed or remodelled buildings, where it worked intimately with architecture, scraped off by “restorers,” whitewashed by iconoclasts, done over by easel painters, so it is hard to judge it justly, but a few fragments remain in France and Italy that give some idea of its original power and beauty.

Similarly, illumination is not a handicraft or an industrial art; it was frequently great art of a very distinguished quality, and so was the painting of carving and sculpture, an art not disdained by the Van Eycks themselves. From the earliest beginnings of the Middle Ages there was great painting, and the Duccios and Massaccios and Memlings only added to it certain different, and not always admirable, qualities, while devising novel methods that made possible novel modes of expression.

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