Archive | September, 2010

Telling A Story

28 Sep

It may be difficult to think of art as telling a story.  The advent of the “moving picture” made it much harder for the brain to imagine a complete narrative from one single image , but for millenia this was the case.  Heroes, lovers, battles and fables were all told through art.  Many scholars believe the first cave paintings were done to commemorate a hunt, to tell its story, as it were.

Full view of Trajan's Column in Rome

The Greeks were experts at telling their stories through art.  Greek vases are covered with the deeds of the great heroes of Greek mythology.  The greatest at it, though, were quite possibly the Romans.  They didn’t relegate their heroes to mere household pottery.  Oh no, they told their stories in grand fashion.  All the better to glorify Rome and more importantly their immortal emperors, after all.  Probably the best and most obvious example of this is Trajan’s Column.  Erected in 112 A.D. and standing at 182 feet tall, it’s an impressive mausoleum in its own right (the emperor’s ashes are located in its base) but the emperor’s eternal glory wasn’t guaranteed by a nice plaque or even a statue, but rather by a 625 foot winding band that depicts Trajan’s victory of the Dacians.

Detail of a ritual sacrifice being prepared

This is an extreme example, however.  Even one picture can tell you all you need to know about a story.  Probably my favorite is Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Begère from 1882.  The one scene depicted tells you all you need to know.  For me it’s not the composition, the colors, the busyness of the bar reflected in the mirror but the look on the barmaid’s face that tells you everything you need to know.   You start trying to figure out who this girl is, why she’s working there, and what exactly happened to make her seem so melancholy in the middle of such a great party.  There’s a feel for narrative and sympathy for the character normally found in great novels, plays, or films that’s been created by oil paints on one single canvas.  What makes it even more interesting is that every viewer is free to create his or her own story based on the scene Manet has laid out for us.

Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Begere

The performing arts, literature, and now cinema are all meant to tell stories, but the visual arts do this in their own unique way.  The only downside is that often a bit of background knowledge is needed to truly appreciate the stories depicted.  In Western art a basic knowledge of Greek & Roman mythology and the Bible will take care of a good percentage, but there’s much more from other sources.  Even without this knowledge, however, simply trying to figure out what the story is based on the clues given will give you a good enough idea and often time make you connect with a work of art even more.

The Five Reasons for Art

23 Sep

There is little in art more annoying than someone who starts discussing a work by saying “This is just a fabulous example of the post-war, anti-impressionist, pro-absinthe movement!”  I may exaggerate a bit there.  Many artistic movements in history have been pro mind-altering drugs.  But my point is, does such a description really help you understand the work?  You may know the names of artists and movements, but do you really comprehend art?  For that it helps to take a step back and start from the very beginning.  And I mean the very beginning – cavemen painting the walls at Lascaux, Bronze Age man creating crude clay statues of his gods beginning.   To understand the most avante-garde Twentieth Century painting, you have to start back when man first created what we call art.  The question that emerges is strikingly simple yet often overlooked – Why did human beings start making art in the first place?

I should start by saying I’m not a career anthropologist.  Such an academic would be able to go into much further detail on the originis of artistic expression than I am able to, but one doesn’t particularly need much detail in order to be able to appreciate art.  The first and most important step is to see art as a means of communication.  Think about it.  Written language began as a series of pictures.  Early man wanted to record his thoughts and ideas in some way, to share them with others.  Once this idea took hold it became part of virtually every part of life.  Great public monuments, the walls of homes, even the human body itself became a means of expression.  The amazing thing is that once writing became more than pictograms and humans had a systemized way of expressing themselves these visual communications became even more complex and revered.

Sorry, I can’t help but get a bit emotional when I talk about this stuff.  It just amazes me that a couple of apes could somehow create works such as the Sistine Chapel or Picasso’s Guernica.   I’m not trying to suggest every visit to an art museum should be like a religious experience, and that you should take your shoes off when entering the Great Temple of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (I’d like to see a museum try that sometime.  Leave your shoes, but please take your wallet.  You’ll need it at the gift shop.)  I’m hoping that after reading this you’ll simply find art more interesting.  To assist in this, and to understand what exactly artists are trying to communicate, I’ve come up with five basic premises behind every single work of art.  Each piece is meant to do at least one of the following: tell a story, share an idea, please the gods, show social status, or be aesthetically pleasing.  I refer to these as the Five Reasons for Art, and I promise that I’ve never found a work that doesn’t fit at least one of them.  Most pieces of art were actually created with several of these themes in mind; that’s what makes art so incredibly exhilarating and endlessly beguiling.

In order to make things easier I’ll write about each of these seperately.  Not because they’re so complicated, but because the more you separate one from another the clearer they become in a work of art.  Besides, this has already gone on long enough.  I’m guessing you’ve figured out by now why people don’t like going to art museums with me.