From stick figures in the sand and the earliest animals painted and carved in stone, people worldwide have reacted to the world by making images. The fundamental goal of art, especially in the past, was to convey meaning and express important ideas, revealing what was significant to every society, by arresting images. In recognizing the subject matter of any painting, you have to look at the artist’s intentions, which are regularly connected to social conditions, national or global issues and the demands of the public.
To avoid the pitfalls of judging all art by our own personal experiences and subjective views, we have to learn the background surrounding the artist when the work was created- the social and historical conditions of the time and the philosophical views which affected the way in which the artist viewed the world. (Russell, 1984)
Art is as varied as the life from which it springs and each artist portrays different aspects of the world they know. Briefly, it may be said that artists paint to discover truth and to create order. The creators of art make discoveries about the wonders and beauty of nature and the dignity and nobility of man. They give these concepts an order to help us understand life in a greater depth.
In understanding the history and style of any period of art, we have to comprehend the balance between social and political development of that particular era. Within each and every period, development of style is affected by a response to particular philosophies, social and economic conditions, political and spiritual influences. World Issues have been reflected in art throughout the ages, and this premise is supported by three particular periods of time. This is clearly evident when viewing ancient art, where symbolism was an important part of society.
Also, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where art was a critical form of expression and finally in the modern age of art where even in looking into the works of individual artists, one can get a sense of the feelings and events of the time and the world. Let us now examine theses three periods in detail, to support this hypothesis.
If we are aware of meaning of religious, political, or other symbols, it will better our understanding of the frame of mind of the artist. Each piece of art is unique, a reflection of the artist’s perceptions, insights and experiences. Certain aspects of the world are often exaggerated, or eliminated, while the art reflects both the period and the artists own orientation. Aristotle once said that “Art is the human intelligence playing over the natural scene, ingeniously affecting it toward fulfillment of human purposes.” (Bronowski 64) This wonderful world of creation began in ancient times, when people first created images to express their response to the world around them. Various civilizations in the past painted images preparing to understand life after death.
Another favorite subject was the glorification of gods and rulers. The subject which an artist selects for a painting depends largely upon the time in which he/she lives. A painter painting in the middle ages would probably have picked a religious subject, for that was almost the only kind of topic portrayed at the time. Still, outside factors of current events and different world issues would greatly effect the artists state of mind, and therefore his paintings.
As you look into the ancient past of Egypt, it is quite interesting to note the bureaucracy in the times of 3000 BC, which helps us to understand the art work accomplished in these times. As the Egyptians were united under one central government and ruled by a pharaoh, they were organized by control through a tightly organized bureaucracy. The Pharaoh dominated all facets of the peoples lives.
The people dreamed of afterlife as a reward for their hard work while living, and often depicted afterlife where the spirit could find pleasure wandering unseen among the living. The palace art and architecture of these ancient kingdoms was intended to emphasize a hierarchical ordering of society, form ruler, to subject.
Egypt’s tombs and temples were ornamented with paintings of great distinction. A painting at the tomb of Theber shows floral offerings being made to the hawk god Mentu. This is highly stylized and rich, showing the worshipping of animal gods at the time.
In Greece around the same time period, the mainland and the islands were settled by non-Greek tribes from Asia minor. In Crete, a civilization evolved to rival the wealth and sophistication of surrounding places, like Egypt. In later years, these people named Aninoicens had become quite wealthy from trade with the near east. This point of trade was controversial to what they initially believed in.
The art of these new times were filled with glowing images of floral and fauna , portraying a society that had a love for nature and beauty. Before, their painting would contain feelings of angst and bitterness.
As time progressed, the good times were limited by many wars and hostile grounds. In 1250 BC, during the Trojan war, the minoins developed a new form of monumental art to mark the graves of the numerous dead The size and function of these vases brought them closer to sculpture than most pottery. These monumental vases were painted in abstract, and geometrical patterns with no reference to the naturalness of minoin life. Often portrayed, were scenes depicting a moment in the individuals life, or a burial scene to commemorate the dead.
As we proceed through the times and move to the fifth century, you can see that this era was dominated by the city of Athens when Athenian drama, poetry, philosophy and politics ruled. In times of the Persian wars, naturalness of action in narrative painting and relief carving came together. This emphasized human dignity in free standing sculptures. Life size statues were created for the first time, most of these, including the famous Kouros and Kritos boy, stand with one foot forward, as if they were heading off to war.
Artists put into their pictures our common hopes, ideals, dreams and passions and show us their meaning and value concerning issues surrounding the times. Creators in all the arts make fascinating discoveries about the wonders and the world along with the naturalness, movement and structure of the human form. They give these an order which enables us to see and understand the past and past life with greater depth.
Christianity spread slowly throughout the western world, becoming an official religion of the roman empire in the fourth century. By this time, the empire was falling apart, so there was a stiff and formal style of art called Byzantine. This style lasted for centuries, until conditions were greatly improved.
During the middle ages, extending from 500, to 1500, the church was the source of main stability in western Europe and the monasteries alone kept the artistic culture alive. Beginning in the twelfth century, life for most people became more secure. Towns grew, trade excelled and industry began to prosper. Large, quickly growing towns became centers of wealth, learning and especially art. In northern Europe, a true gothic style developed, best known for the magnificent cathedrals and stain glass windows created in this era.
This high rise in town life, brought with it a spirit of inquiry and invention. A famous painting created in the Byzantine style of this time was ‘The Madonna of Angels’ by Giovanni Anabue. In this painting, it is noted that Mary and Jesus are on a throne surrounded by angels. Although portrayed as lifeless, the figures begin to take on more human characteristics than ever before, for town life increased the knowledge of the artists, coming together and improving their styles.
By the latter half of this civilization, there was a shift to more gracious, enjoyable lifestyles, characterized by courtly art expressing grand splendor. In France at this time, scholarly art took on secular elegance, while in the court of Louis IX. Pressures of a secular society made gothic artists turn towards elegance and fashion- especially in Wells cathedral, which was then erected. This was an architectural masterpiece commissioned by the king, with enlightening Christian murals to symbolize the wealth and good times, and to welcome the prosperous times ahead.
The development of the Flemish school of painting in the fifteenth century marked the end of the great gothic period. This happened just in time for a rebirth in painting – the ever famous Renaissance period. In this period of exploration, invention and discovery, artists traveled to new lands seeking fresh ideas, also studying the world and the heavens. Here, a culture of antiquity was rediscovered.
Artists in this period, with increased knowledge of the world, began to study anatomy, science and mathematics involving perspective and dimension. Art was exciting, particularly in the high Renaissance, yet the times were troubled. Discoveries in science were changing the ways man thought of himself. The growth of wealth and the discovery of new lands had triggered a struggle for r power and many wars resulted.
The challenges which this age brought fourth, fortunately spurred a group of brilliant artists. Younger, Holland and Flanders are some of the many well known artists of this era.
As you can now notice, as we go as far back as the European middle ages and ancient times, art was a valuable form of expression, as it depicted feelings and recorded events which were occurring in various countries. In these times, where very few people were literate, art was an important way an individual could explain stories of the world with great expression.
Ever since the colonial times, there has been a strong tradition of realism in the United States. George Bellows and Ben Shahn were both social realists who painted members of the working class and their problems and pleasures. Painters like these were rejected from the art academy’s and salons because of this supposedly vulgar and improper subject matter. These wealthy, authoritative figures believed that painters should paint to represent nymphs, gods , holy images, or at the least, aristocrats. In one of Shawn’s paintings, titled ‘Mine Disaster’, he represented a scene of a tragedy which occurred close to his home. He depicted a calamitous scene of a gathering of relatives waiting for news of a mining accident. Although he was basically a realist, he included some abstract impressionism in the background to reinforce the sense of desolation and create tenseness, grief and anxiety.
Painting developed later in England than in the other European countries, partly because of the fact that both Henry the eighth and Thomas Cromwell destroyed the works of art in English churches and cathedrals. They believed that there were some hidden meanings, or false biblical references which they could not understand. Contrary to the beliefs of these rulers, many artists believed that art may be the key to existence and that artwork remained one possible way of speaking truth in a world of chaos. After the restoration of the Stuart rulers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people of wealth in England preferred to employ foreign artists.
The Neoclassical period began in 1789. It combined a new scientific approach and appealed to the intellectual who believed in power of reason to uplift society. This movement became associated with republican ideas of revolution and was said to belong to the age of “reason and revolution”.( Russel 25) Flowing this period, in the early eighteenth century, a period labeled Romanticism evolved. In this period, confidence in reason and artificiality of court life was characterized by a great value of emotion.
Often there was an incorporated fascination with untamed nature, picturesque or exotic themes. For the most part, times were good, life was simple and wild imagery in art reelected a carefree nature. Realism and social protest occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century; the inception of the industrial revolution encouraged a capitalist economy. The paintings of this time involved social criticism of many political figures, judicial and police systems, to rebel against the changing ways.
Again, the realistic portrayals of daily life were rejected by the authoritative standards of the academy- especially the honorary ‘Salon of Paris’. This brought about an artistic rebellion called impressionism, where artists painted directly against the standards of the salon. Suitably, they called themselves impressionists. These artists wanted to portray the immediacy of a moment and in doing so, capture the truth of the times and the lives they lived. There were four main influences on these artists, these were the newly introduced camera, the art of past artists, the afresh obtained, imported Japanese woodcuts and new scientific discoveries in light and color. With the introduction of the camera, artists were no longer needed to transcribe reality, therefore they were forced to find new outlets of artistic expression.
With Japanese art to study from, there were new and exciting techniques to try and replicate. Through this age of revolution, a growing movement towards freedom for personal expression in subject matter, techniques and style of art were signaled.
These periods of expression were merely buildups to the advanced movements and rapid changes of the art in the twentieth century. Even before the triggering point of the times- being the first world war, many post war artists became engrossed in highly personalized interpretations- antibiotics, computerization, electronic transistors and the prospects of an atomic world. A brief feminist movement became a passionate cause for some, combining feelings with a response to the real world. Still, the world was preparing for the technological breakthroughs to come.
Out of the mystification of changing needs and changing material, art of the twentieth century, through creative minds, brought measures of logic into play. Following a brief euphoria of World war one, arts in the depression became more socially conscious, realistic and nationalistic. Realism derived from traditional American art, which was basically expressionism with strong emotional overtones, focusing on feelings involved in such somber times. It was said that “The future of art no longer seems to lie with creation of enduring masterpieces, but with defining alternative cultural strategies.”(McHall, 206)
Up until the twentieth century, painting in Canada was solely dominated by French and English styles. This was until 1910, when the group of seven set out to develop a nationalistic style by expressing true Canadian spirit in their paintings. The portrayal of landscapes made Canadians aware of the magnificence of their own country and fostered a pride in a particular comeliness.
During World War II, a number of European painters ventured to the United States, where they had a profound effect on young painters. After the war, a group of these artists initialed a movement that became famous throughout the world and served as a model for artists everywhere. This was called abstract expressionism. The artists produced works which were noticeably larger in size, energetic in effect and incredibly individualistic in character. Initially, these paintings illustrated war scenes and images commemorating the soldiers who had perished, but following the war, the paintings were continued to be produced, with a change in subject matter. These works convey the strength and confidence of a powerful country, but they were also private statements proclaiming the “importance of the individual in the face of pressures for conformity and depersonalization.”(comptons ’96) With this strong movement, the United states became the center of the western art world for the first time in history.
When looking into the lives of individual artists, you can see how events which effected them and the emotions projected by various events were revealed through paint. Picasso is an incredibly interesting painter to study, for he had an adventurous life involving strong emotion. Picasso played an important role in some of the many different movements of the early twentieth century.
He formed a style called his ‘blue’ period between 1901 and 1904 where he illustrated elements of melancholy, dominated by subjects of vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes, poverty stricken and deprived people. He abandoned all rules of linear perspective and overlapped planes even as he went through his rose period, where his subject matter contained mostly dancers, acrobats and harlequins.
Through many more years, he experimented with increasingly analytical and geometric forms while continuing to develop a unique cubist technique, making paintings less “rigorous and austere”(cd rom). His masterpiece , “Guernica”, was his moving vision of the Spanish civil war. It was his response to the 1937 bombing by the fascist forces of the small Basque town.
This was a great emotional/political statement, which combined violent distortion of images, with a restrained subtlety of colour. Between two marriages, he also had a mistress named Francoise Gilot. His meetings with Gilot inspired Picasso to create a charming series of paintings featuring mythology and including representations of fauns, nymphs and pipers- quite different from his usual style.
As Picasso remained in France throughout World war II, he was forbidden to show his work, and he joined the French communist party. A number of his paintings then expressed the horror of the war ( The Charnel House 1945) and following this sequence, he responded to the Korean war by Painting ‘War and Peace’-1952, and ‘Massacre in Korea’-1951. It is very obvious to see that the worldwide events which took place in Picasso’s life time greatly effected his subject matter and his feelings.
The second world war was a watershed for art, while Nazi occupation of Paris helped to break down the dam to be the home of modern art. Artists fled to the United States to escape the fascism. The success of the United States in the cold war was measured by the fact that within a decade of the end of World war II, the United States enjoyed a cultural reputation, fitting into a higher global power status.
The Soviet Union at this time was committed to crude socialist realism, suppressing other kinds of art like abstract expressionism. In turn, the United States embodied all the U.S.S.R denied.
A trend that arose in the late 1950’s was a reaction against abstract expressionism, it was labeled popart. Rather than avoiding references to mass culture, pop artists accepted and used them. Popular subject matter were soft drink bottles, hamburgers, gas stations, comic strips, billboards and airplanes. In using these popular images, artists celebrated the technological culture and revealed it’s insolence and cheapness. Andy Warhol is probably the most famous pop artist.
In his work he clearly illustrates the influence of machine production. Often his repeated portraits of identical images were based on photographs that had been enlarged by mechanical means. This style provides a multiplicity of views and moods of attractive women ( in most cases). This style was supposed to represent a wild zest for life which these women possessed. ” This was also meant to give the art a sense of abiding and fascinating tension.”(Bronowski 14)
In modern times, nationalist art became an important topic as well as internationalism in the art world. At any given time, in major cities worldwide, work from many nations are on show. Even though we except the fact that the global art scene consists of a network of cosmopolitan cities, it is becoming increasingly obvious that art recognizes no boundaries in present day. Robert Motherwell stated in 1966 that “Art is not national, to be merely an American or French painter is to be nothing; to fall to overcome ones initial environment is never to reach the human.” Even in the early part of this century, but progressing through the years, artists saw themselves as internationally linked by aesthetic and conceptual issues with universal readings.
Globalization in this case is revealed as a preferable substitute to nationalism. It is actually dangerously misleading to label art of the past or present into national packages. In today’s world it is difficult for post colonial nations to maintain identity and integrity in the global art world. There is no guarantee that national art will flourish in the world and raise profile, it depends on the initial economic support. There have been small national successes, for instance in Haiti, murals were painted on the city walls to celebrate “new Haiti” in 1986. This event bore witness to national solidarity in the face of oppression. It brought future hopes and a vehicle for communication for a country where 90% are illiterate.(Buck, 1991)
The modern age of reason promised to resolve all problems through the application of science. Art of this time echoed a preoccupation with technology and environment.
Today, many artists feel liberated from tradition and rules and feel free to follow any exploration, but as these artists are witness to many global events, tragedies and breakthroughs, these are often reflected in their works. Fad and fashion are nurtured by mass media and artists struggle to do anything to capture attention. Enormous diversity characterizes present day painting. This diversity is characteristic of modern life, and each style reflects, questions, or analyses some aspects of contemporary society.
“Through painting, the artist expresses ideas and emotions, as well as a version of the reality he or she perceives, in a two dimensional visual form.”(cd rom) Some artists paint concrete forms with which viewers are generally familiar with and some try to create entirely abstract relationships.
The way a painting is constructed does not change the fact that as life goes on, and world events weather negative or beneficial occur, these events are reflected through the universal language of art. To study the paintings of any age is to look in the diverse interpretations of the era in which they were produced. Through painting, artists can give expressions of their own ideas and emotions corresponding to personal, national or global topics.
As painting depicts the lives we live, it can also quite clearly be stated that an appreciation of painting and all art forms, can also deepen and enrich the lives we live.