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.

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