Friday, July 6, 2012

What is modern art?

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" (1893)
recently sold for $120 million.
This sentence is art. The cool thing about pretending to be artistic is that one can begin an article in a very informal and random manner and get away with it — by, of course, defending it as one's own understanding and interpretation of something, or even nothing. Stupidity aside, what makes modern art modern?

Einstein & Lenin Paint History

In the modern period, artists increased the palette of what they could paint and sculpt. More was observed. From around 1905, when Albert Einstein announced his theory of relativity, until the 1920s, around Vladimir Lenin’s revolution, art took a big step away from tradition and embraced modernity in numerous ways. For one, the dependence on the patron lessened as the artists of the early 20th century sought to use original mixtures of abstract suggestion and portrayal to bring emotion and imagination into their work.

Express This

The ‘wild beasts’, or Fauves, of the early 1900s took the post-impressionist/expressionist past of painters like Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch and turned the colours upside down.

Henri Matisse's "Music" from 1910.
The sky was green, the trees were blue, cats were purple, and people were also, unimaginatively, green. Unsurprisingly, the public exclaimed at the outrage — they would not tolerate being levelled as the same colour as an oak tree.

Is it a bird?
Moreover, the high-class Parisians were now replaced by masks of “savages” from Africa, such as seen in the works of Henri Matisse and other Fauves.

This “antirealism” was also adopted into sculpture, where details were unimportant and glossed over. For example, Constantin Brâncuşi's “Bird in Space” (1923) does not clearly depict a bird; however, it represents the bird on an elementary level with a few basic shapes and curves.

Simplicity was admired by the ‘world-wide beast’ of the 20th century, known as Picasso. He put his emotional unorthodox means of painting to dominate the spheres of innovation throughout his lifetime. His paintings told his story and those of others. The “Blue Period” was the beginning of his experimentation — he lived in poverty and painted his anguish through extrapolated limbs of characters similar to his ‘Spanish’ predecessor, El Greco.

Paintings from Pablo Picasso's "Blue Period", including "The Old Guitarist" (1903), "La Vie" (1903),
"Madame Soler", (1905), "The Tragedy" (1903) and "Le Gourmet" (1901).

Pablo Picasso created one of the most renowned criticisms of governmental action, “Guernica”. It was a piece that in itself represented human error and negative emotion, where the characters he used to represent one instance could be easily used for another. Throughout his painting, he gave birth to an original artistic style known as Cubism; however, prior to this, he broke major laws of perspective and both aesthetical and symbolic manners of art with his scandalous “Desmoisilles d’Avignon”.

Picasso's paintings, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), and the Cubist social-commentary, "Guernica" (1937).

Cubism destroyed the easiness in art. While attempting to portray something in as many points of observation as possible, the art-work became a freshly opened puzzle (like the one you got for Christmas and pretended to like). Cubism itself developed alongside other artists and split into many forms and sizes.

The Great War: Construct-a-Cube

The chaotic scene seen in a Cubist artwork was applied to European society, where the First World War broke out and called for different political frenzies and the destruction of lives. The chaos of war was preceded by praise of modernity, such as that by Umberto Boccioni in his celebration of power and dynamism through Futurist sculpture. The Futurist recipe for art was motivated by the superiority they saw in development and modernization, as they took to new and wacko themes and depictions.

Boccioni's "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913), and "Development of a Bottle in Space" (1913). He liked space. 

The future was in our hands, and thus, in the Russian Empire (and later the Soviet Union), the movement of Constructivism was prominent. Constructivists wished to re-construct both art and society. They wanted to remove the classic elements that were carried along by humanity to give way to a reflection of technological advance. They primarily used geometrical shapes and constructions to show their impressions of how things are and how they ought to be. For example, Kazimir Malevich an important member of Russian avant-garde, played with non-objective abstract patterns in a movement he saw as Suprematism. His “Black Square” is a bright example (pun intended) of the controversial inartistic talent required to create such a surprisingly original piece of art, which could contain hidden messages and meanings in its basic form.

Constructivism of Malevich's "Black Square" (1915) against O'Keeffe's feminist elements in
"Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills" (1935), "Blue and Green Music" (1921), and "Pineapple Bud" (1939). 

Nearing the end of the early 1900s, art once again took a general turn in a different direction. The culprit was Georgia O’Keeffe who took early 20th century art back to its literal roots. She portrayed things of nature, many landscapes, rocks and even flowers — profoundly resembling the women’s reproductive organ; her art had inner feelings of feminist connotation deeply interweaved in what was being visually depicted.

Throughout the years that followed, the world took many more turns — in the form of art. From American Precisionism to German Expressionism, from Dutch Stijl to Dada, Surrealism and Modernist architecture, art was not a single entity that could be even defined by a single or even more numerous characteristics. The list was, and still is endless, with many interpretations for what makes an artist and what makes a viewer. Modern art can be simplified to be everything that wasn’t, but also as what was, is and will be (postmodernism and hypermodernism). There's a little bit of modern art in everybody — where is yours?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Top 10: Islamic Architecture — Shoulders of Giants

As a religion, Islam was firmly based on the previous two that had risen up in the Middle-East: Judaism and Christianity. Just as Muslims hold Jews and early-Christians as "people of the books", many of the elements of Islamic architectural style have come from (or at least with inspiration by) "architects of the books" — Jewish and early-Christian planners, builders and engineers.

There, however, are notable differences. Islamic architecture may be identified with several notable design elements, which were inherited from the first mosque built by Muhammad in Medina (modern-dan Saudi Arabia), as well as from the other pre-Islamic features adapted from Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and other temples. Islamic buildings aren't limited to mosques, but also schools and other educational and scholarly institutions.

The top 10 principle elements that make up Islamic architectural style include:

1: Large courtyards often merged with a central prayer hall (coined at the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia).

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina "houses" many large couryards.

2: Minarets, which are the towers you see on most mosques and Islamic buildings. Originally, they were torch-lit watchtowers (also useful in case of conflict), like at the Great Mosque of Damascus (modern-day Syria). Today, however, they are normally lit with the green neon lights; the call for prayer is also no longer a purely vocal demonstration, but amplified with speakers (and sometimes pre-recorded).

The 3 minarets of the Great Mosque of Damascus: Qaitbay (built 1488),  Bride (~9–12th c.) & Jesus (9–13th c.) 

3: A mihrab, which is a niche somewhere on an inside-wall. It indicates the direction to, the Muslim holy place, Mecca. The idea for this may have come from the Torah ark of Jewish synagogues (where the Jewish bible's Torah scrolls were kept), or the Haikal in Coptic churches.

Mihrabs in Islamic buildings: Bu Inania (Morocco); Great Mosque of Kairouan (Tunisia); Great Mosque of Damascus. 

4: Domes and cupolas, which are perhaps the more well-known aspects of Islamic architecture. They not only rise above most surrounding structures, but also dominate with their clean, massive, round form.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691), Al Othman Mosque in Kuwait, and the Great Mosque of Kairouan (670 AD).

5: Open halls surrounded by three walls but one left open are known as iwans. Their main function is to intermediate between different sections of the building.

Iwans of the Ulugh Beg Madrassa (Uzbekistan), Qila-i-Kuhna (Delhi), and the iwan remains of Taq-i Kisra (Iran).

6: Arabesque, which is a beautiful, age-old elaborate form of decoration for murals as well as, for example, design elements made from wood. Arabesque employs using repetitive geometric shapes (as to Muslims, images of humans or animals are forbidden — as they may evoke idolatry).

Arabesque patterns on the exterior and interior of Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque (Iran), the Agra Fort (India) and Córdoba.

7: The use of decorative Islamic calligraphy instead of pictures. Images and likenesses of people, animals, plants, etc. were forbidden in mosque architecture — no idolatry. Note that in secular architecture, such pictures were and are indeed present.

Examples of Islamic architectural calligraphy on the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey) and the Old Mosque (Edirne). 

8: Bathing fountains, called wudu, which used by Muslims for ritual cleansing are present at almost every mosque and Islamic religious site. It is required by Muslims to wash themselves before prayer — when handing the Qur'an, at the least.

Wudu fountain (modernized) at the Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem), and bathing ritual at Badshahi Mosque (Pakistan).

9: The use of eye-catching, bright color. This one's a bit simpler, but still an essential part of Islamic architecture (and art too).

Bright color in Islamic mosques: Shah (Iran), Selimiye (Turkey), Nasir al-Mulk, Lotf Allah (Iran); and Hafez's Tomb.

10: A focus both on the interior space of a building and the exterior. This has been seen althroughout the images above, where great attention to both detail and the greater grandeur has been paid on the inside and outside of Islamic buildings.

Bonus: Byzantine architecture had a great influence on early Islamic architecture with its characteristic round arches, vaults and domes.

Byzantine architecture at: Pammakaristos Church (Constantinople), Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (Italy) and Hagia Irene.

Did I miss anything?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Akhenaten – An Ancient Egyptian Liberal

Pharoah Akhenaten ruled in Dynasty XVIII,
about 3400 years ago, and was quite the liberal.
Comic books of ancient Egypt, these works depict the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. A liberal for his time (almost 3400 years ago), Akhenaten was married to the half-sister of Tutankhamen.

King Tut is today's most famous pharaoh, but according to ancient art expert Sam Merrin of the Merrin Gallery, it's because of the pristine condition of his surviving tomb, which was discovered by archeologists in 1922. For his time, Tutankhamun wasn't anything special, and ruled ancient Egypt only for nine years.

However, what's special about Akhenaten is that he was the first pharaoh to denounce polytheism. The most evident characteristic that typifies these artworks to his new, monotheistic reign is that both are presented in a modern, state-of-the-art manner.

Let's elaborate.

Akhenaten's figure is made to be cartoon-like. His outline is clearly defined through engraved lines, much like in many of today's comic books (with black ink).

Sunk relief of Akhenaten, where he is presented
in a comical manner.
More importantly, this is an early example of where the artist's own free expression and interpretation can shine through in such a divine context – a pharaonic legacy to be carried into the after-life. Although, one can argue this was common in pre-historic art, it was was very new for the time in lands governed by kings – like ancient Egypt. Making fun at authorities was punishable by death, and a cursed after-life.

The pharaoh himself is physically elongated and certain comical features are exceptionally defined. His body appears feminine in contrast to his predecessors: hulking embodiments of pharaonic male-mass.

These were idealized and made to appear godly, and overall stiff in appearance and also in the sense that they adhered to rigid social norms.

The liberal, pharaoh Akhenaten is also known as Akhenaton or Ikhnaton.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Technological Innovation in Ancient Greece – Architecture

Temple of Artemis on the island of Corfu.
When designing and engineering buildings, the ancient Greek architects faced several problems when trying to build higher and larger. For example, if we take a look at the pediment (the triangular upper-part on the façade of an ancient Greek temple), it is not simple to engineer such a feat without breaking the laws of physics—in other words, making it collapse under it's own weight.

Considering the the Temple of Artemis at Corfu as a case study, let's explore why. Although it is a relatively small temple, it is subject to the same laws as the bigger ones (such as the Parthenon).

The roof of the temple is to be slanted, and tiled on both sides, and thus a wooden structure is built to support it from beneath. The beams making up this structure would be placed on top the horizontal entablature (the decorated lintel), which is held up by the columns.

However, if the weight directly above the middle of the façade were to exceed it's limitations, the entablature could crack. Therefore, the structure has to be as light as possible.

Although a relatively small temple, it's still pretty big
when compared to a (pretty big) human.
The architects took this into consideration, so for the pediment they used a wooden frame and filled it with a light stone, such as limestone. The wooden frame held up the roof, and needed to be protected from rain (although a rarity) just like the inside of the temple–therefore, we see that filling up the pediment had other practical reasons too. Such innovations enabled the Greeks to decorate the façades of their temples to the fullest of potential, as they used light and generally waterproof materials.

Not only that, they used vivid colors—but just like all of the other ancient Greek buildings we see today, the Temple of Artemis at Corfu, all that remains is it's large, monotonous pediment. The original coloring has gone, and in many cases it's very difficult to reconstruct.

But good riddance! Right?

That's all for ancient Greece folks. But if you would like to read more about art history, you should take a look at our 'Art History 101'.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The History of Art (in 1 Painting)

A painting by Théodore Géricault in 1819 sums up centuries, if not millennia of art. In concept, this old painting is deadly similar to the viral 'history of dance in one video' (watch it if you haven't seen it), but it's pretty clear which came first (i.e. the painting, not the video). Although “Art History X” should help you discover that this doesn't matter—there's no competition or copyright, as art has always been eclectic.

The painting, called “The Raft of the Medusa”, is a historical piece, an interpretation of the events following a 1816 shipwreck—a barbaric struggle for life. You can read more about it here, although all you really need to know is that it was a tragedy (and that the French government's reaction was more than sub-par). More importantly, it's contribution to (and borrowing from) the history of art is easy to see even without seeing the painting. Try it! (If applicable.)

Classical male bodies depicted in “The Creation of Adam”,
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Michelangelo ca. 1511.
Prior to beginning his masterpiece, the French artist Géricault, with his passionately innovative scientific interest, studied his theme from many angles. Much like today's actors (or yesterday's), he visited morgues to get a clearer picture of what happens to the human body, flesh and skin under several extremes. Additionally, he observed how people at insane asylums behave, and why—what makes them tick (pun intended).

Géricault also observed many healthy and Classical human bodies, such as those on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo; as well as some of those who had survived the tragedy. Such an interest in Classical Greek style was typical from artists in the Romantic and Neoclassical period.

Dramatic lighting used to select subject-matter,
in “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio ca. 1600.
As for other, global artistic trademarks, Géricault also took the dramatic and selective lighting from Caravaggio of the Baroque period, as well as the composition of figures from Giotto. Additionally to the composition, he used monochromatic tones throughout the painting, taking away from the emphasis on color and thus reducing any hint of dynamism or joy.

The considerably large painting also serves as a news reportage on government failure – presented through a strong medium of social critique, as we all know what they say about pictures and words. It is a clear representation of how Géricault felt about this incident, as we are visually presented with a social commentary that has lasted through the ages (unlike many things in history).

Moreover, the layout of the painting can be closely correlated to the “Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West in 1771, as well as a similarity of mood and setting like in the painting “Watson and the Shark” by John Copley in the same period. Moreover, there is a (somewhat theoretical) belief that the skies of the painting were altered after Géricault had seen the exhibitions of British landscape specialists Constable & Turner.

Look at those skies! Dramatic clouds and lighting in Constable's “Wivenhoe Park”,
and Turner's “Junction of the Thames”, “Rotterdam Ferry-Boat” and “Venice”.

Géricault's work consists of many other top-of-the-range components, such as shading of Leonardo da Vinci exemplified in his “Madonna of the Rocks”, it is a well-appointed collection of the most typecast elements from the Baroque. Personally, I think it is the best representation of the main emotions evoked around the dreadful events, and is truly and luxuriously eclectic. So finally, here it is:

“Le Radeau de la Méduse” by T. Géricault. See it at the Louvre in Paris.

Overall, this single painting covers so many periods of art that it's aptly identified as 'Art History 101' by artist and pedagogue Paula Benveniste.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Art History Weekly/Monthly

What to see. Why. And where to see it.

Other than it's name, Art
History X shares nothing
else with this (good) movie.
Welcome to Art History X, a resource for budding art historians, enthusiasts and even collectors. We post weekly analyses on artworks of all caliber's — ancient, classical and contemporary — from the dawn of time and the birth of art, until the present day.

In no particular order we will look at art from pre-historic times, following with that of other notable traditions: Near Eastern (Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Etruscan, Byzantine), ancient Egyptian, Classical (ancient Greek & Roman), and the Englightenment. But to keep things fun, we may occasionally post off-topic things relating to history and art news.

To be updated of new articles, you may subscribe to the Art History X newsfeed (don't worry it's free).