Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Megan's Guide to Art History

Was to the Thyseen Museum on Sunday in Madrid. I chose it because my guide book described it as a lesson in art history. And indeed it was. So what follows is my general outline of the history of art.

It started in medieval times with religious paintings of important figures in Christianity in medieval clothing. Then sometime in the late 1400's portraits became a thing, dark ones. The religious painters found some colours other than reds and golds - blue, for example - and the portrait guys followed suit.

Then, sometime in the 1600's, the Dutch and the Italians started painting landscapes and buildingscapes, usually in darker colours. The portraits continued, with rich people in more elaborate dress, sometimes posed to emulate someone in mythology.

In the late 1700's someone (Dutch again, I think) thought it would be cool to paint some fruit really, really well. Then the French painters said "Moi aussi!" This is when I noticed the effects of light were becoming more interesting and realistic - paintings appeared to have depth. The portraits continued, new and improved with lighting.

Some people started painting sentimental pictures of peasants. In the late 1800's the French stepped away from fruit for a while (although not completely) and so began the Impressionists and their ilk (post-impressionists, colourists, fauvists, etc. - I've read all sorts of terms but can't place them all). This is the art that I like the best. I'm very impressed by how a blotch of this colour here and this colour there, placed seemingly haphazardly, can form an amazing picture. I also really like how the light is captured in thse paintings (I have a thing for light, it seems).

In the early 1900's it all went weird. You go from Cubism with some recognizable shapes to what I would call abstract painting. I just don't get this stuff. Now, maybe these paintings are making reference to other periods in art history and because I don't know art well enough, I don't "get" them as a consequence. This idea occurred to me after Rob, the master of ceremonies at Vaughan Town, explained to me that post-modern art is art that refers to other art).

This would be analogous to, say, comedic television in the 1990's and on. The Simpsons, for example, is only truly funny if you understand all the numerous historical pop-culture references that it makes. Ditto for Family Guy (television history references) and the now-cancelled Futurama (science and science fiction references).

If a person from another time were to watch those shows, they would probably not find them very funny, whereas early television comedy, say "I Love Lucy", was more slapstick and probably more generally accessible, I think. Television had to wait a few decades to have enough material to be self-referential.

So in the same way that I don't know medieval symbology or religious lore well enough to get stained glass windows in cathedrals, perhaps I don't know art well enough to get post 1900's art.

On a final art note: I'm surprised how bothered people are today by women in skimpy tops, because if art of the 1400-1500's is accurate, women were falling out of their tops completely in those times. I learned on my first European trip that in museums the proper word to describe such clothing is "flimsy."

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