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Art History for Dummies

I’m a big art and art history fan. Unfortunately, between college, work, and other commitments I don’t get to create to a decent standard as much as I’d like to but I hope to return to that once the little issue of getting a degree is out of the way. Through time spent looking for work to blatantly plagiarise and actually studying artists’ work for the Leaving Cert., I’ve picked up a decent amount of art history knowledge. If I ever need to give a TED Talk style presentation on something it would be on my favourite art history movements. Although who can tell whether this is because I’m actually a little knowledgeable this field or I’m just incredibly stupid in others.

Regardless, below is a brief outline of not only four of my favourite art movements, but four of the most important and significant art movements in history. Designed to give the art history rookie a decent understanding into art’s biggest movements, you can now be confident that if you ever find yourself in an art gallery, you can charm your way to impressing whatever party you may find yourself with.

Impressionism

Characterised by: Small, visible brushstrokes, use of light, ordinary subject matter, use of and representation of movement

Championed by: Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Impressionism is a 19th Century art movement which came about essentially when a group of artists, tired of the stuffy and outdated standard of art expected in Paris at the time, decided to go in a different direction, in terms of subject matter, technique and style. To make any sort of decent living as an artist at Paris at the time (the place to be for art, what’s changed?) your best bet was to submit a piece of work to the French Salon, Paris’s official art exhibition. However, the selection committee for the Salon were quite particular in what they would display, preferring art done using traditional styles perfected by the old masters and specific subject matter (generally religious or inspired by monarchy in some way). Meaning that anyone who dared to submit anything that varied from this strict set of ideals was fresh outta luck.

Édouard Manet was the artist responsible for bridging the gap between the previous major art movements of romanticism and realism, and the new movement, impression. His piece Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (the luncheon on the grass, pictured below) caused a fair bit of a stir in the art community at the time. Mostly because of the naked prostitute in the forefront (Pro Art History Tip: if there’s a naked woman in a painting from the 19th century, you can be fairly confident she’s a prostitute). This did not sit well with our stuffy friends at the Salon, who when upon seeing this exclaimed “Oh my word, what is this?!” while clutching their pearls (or so I’d like to imagine). It was described as “ugly” and “risqué” in terms of its subject matter (to which I’d say no sh*t Sherlock, that’s the point”). But it did pave the way for true impressionists to make their mark (while Manet was a key figurehead in the impressionist movement, he wasn’t actually an impressionist painter himself).

Claude Monet is the father of Impressionism. His piece Impression Sunrise, featured below, inspired the name of the art movement and truly captures the characteristics of the movement:

Interestingly, a lot of these Impressionist artists were active in Paris at the same time and would often hang out in Parisian bars drinking absinthe (inspiring a Degas piece by the same name). When they all (predictably) were rejected from the Salon, they gave them the ultimate f*ck you by setting up Salon des Refusés, which literally translates to “the exhibition of rejects”, where they could display their work. This went down about as well as you’d expect given the circumstances. Ballers.

Post Impressionism

Characterised By: A more developed use of colour than that of impressionists. Post-impressionists use colour as a way of expressing emotion and are less concerned that things are accurately represented colour-wise. Subject matter is quite ordinary and are not always depicted to scale.

Championed By: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat.

Despite the (ironically) less than creative name, post impressionism is a really interesting point in art history’s timeline. Impressionism marked the moment that art really started to change rapidly. Post-impressionists rejected the limitiations that impression presented but still took influence from it. Post-impressionism artists continued using vivid colours, often thick application of paint, and real-life subject matter, but were more inclined to emphasize geometric forms, distort form for expressive effect, and use unnatural or arbitrary colour.

Arguably the most famous post-impressionist (and my personal favourite artist) was Vincent Van Gogh, whose huge arsenal of work is recognisable worldwide. Van Gogh famously suffered with mental illness during his lifetime and this is evident in his work, which can border on sinister at times. If you can deal with science-fiction, I’d recommend the Van Gogh episode of Doctor Who (Episode title “Vincent and the Doctor”, season 5), which does an excellent job of portraying Van Gogh’s inner turmoil and why his work remains so influential today. Also, if you’re ever in Amsterdam, do yourself the biggest favour and go to the Van Gogh museum. Splurge and get the audio guide. It’s an incredibly enriching and educating experience. I had a moment in that gallery, I’m not going to lie.

If you don’t have time to watch that Doctor Who Episode in its entirety, at least watch this clip from it (although why they didn’t film this scene in the freaking Van Gogh museum remains a mystery to me):



Vincent Van Gogh “Wheat field with Crows”

Georges Seurat “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”

Cubism

Characterised By: Subject matter that is rounded, reassembled and almost 3D looking.

Championed By: Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso

Cubism followed post-impressionism and is considered one of the most influential art movements of the 20th Century. In Cubist artwork, objects are analysed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from a single viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Cubism was a turning point in the art world, leading to multiple diverse art movements that would have been unprecedented before.

The most famous artist of this movement was Pablo Picasso. Some people (who are wrong) may put forward the (incorrect) viewpoint that Pablo Picasso wasn’t a very talented artist. These people are (you guessed it) wrong, and if you hear anyone verbalising such an opinion you are responsible to hit them with the FACTS. Pablo Picasso was an incredibly gifted artist, and this included his technical skills. Even as a child he could paint images so realistic you’d think they were a photograph. But he (and pretty much all the other artists I mention here) didn’t limited in the way they created and wanted to branch out in different directions. Some people may look at a piece of art and say that it required no technical skill to complete (which I can place a firm bet that if they tried to do so they’d fail – not because they’re untalented but because we’re talking about the greatest artists of all time here) but that isn’t the point. The point is that these artists we the first people to create art in this style. It’s easy to say it’s nothing special now, after 100 years of looking at this style. But truth be told movements like cubism were nothing short of ground breaking.

Pablo Picasso “Three Musicians”

Pop Art

Characterised By: Influence of mass culture – comic books, advertising, cultural figures and mundane cultural objects.

Championed By: Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Robert Rauschenberg

Pop Art is an art movement that took place throughout the mid to late 1950’s that uses elements of popular culture as inspiration. Pop Art is widely recognisable and remains a popular movement in not just art but fashion, TV and social media. Pop Artists often use their work to express certain beliefs (sometimes political), which differentiates it from movements previously discussed here. Its use of recognisable images and people really shifted the direction that modern art was heading in.

Andy Warhol “Campbell’s Soup Cans”

R Crumb     Uncredited and Undated Photograph


“My generation comes from a world that has been molded by crass TV programs, movies, comic books, popular music, advertisements and commercials. My brain is a huge garbage dump of all this stuff and it is this, mainly, that my work comes out of, for better or for worse. I hope that whatever synthesis I make of all this crap contains something worthwhile, that it’s something other than just more smarmy entertainment—or at least, that it’s genuine high quality entertainment. I also hope that perhaps it’s revealing of something, maybe. On the other hand, I want to avoid becoming pretentious in the eagerness to give my work deep meanings! I have an enormous ego and must resist the urge to come on like a know-it-all. Some of the imagery in my work is sorta scary because I’m basically a fearful, pessimistic person. I’m always seeing the predatory nature of the universe, which can harm you or kill you very easily and very quickly, no matter how well you watch your step. The way I see it, we are all just so much chopped liver. We have this great gift of human intelligence to help us pick our way through this treacherous tangle, but unfortunately we don’t seem to value it very much. Most of us are not brought up in environments that encourage us to appreciate and cultivate our intelligence. To me, human society appears mostly to be a living nightmare of ignorant, depraved behavior. We’re all depraved, me included. I can’t help it if my work reflects this sordid view of the world. Also, I feel that I have to counteract all the lame, hero-worshipping crap that is dished out by the mass-media in a never-ending deluge.” R Crumb