“Everything” you need to know about art history

Bargain Art History

Last weekend I was in a bookstore (it’s a pretty rare occurrence in these strange times…). I was excited to find a book with the enticing title of “Art History: Everything you need to know to master the subject–in one book!”

Of course, the first thing I did was open it up and look at the table of contents.

What do you notice?

And then I took pictures and sent them to Shae so someone else could share in my outrage.

I did not look through and see what the ratio of men to women was. Based on the fact that the table of contents was entirely centered on Europe, I am going to guess the ratio was not great.

“ALL” I need to know about art history and you only write about Europe??? No thank you.

Maybe that’s why it was on the discount shelves.

Actual Art History

I finished the section on the Ancient Near East and moved on to Ancient Egyptian art. One of my favorite authors and book series is Elizabeth Peters and her Amelia Peabody book series. Peters was actually an Egyptologist (her real name was Barbara Mertz) and Amelia and her family were Egyptologists in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

Having read those novels several times, I fancy that I have a tiny bit of Egyptology knolwedge under my belt. Also, watching all those seasons of Stargate seems like it qualifies me to pretend to know something.

(I’m kidding)

I think the most interesting thing I learned was that over the 3000 years that Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted, there was a ton of continuity in the imagery they produced. Here in modern times, our attention span is about 5 minutes. But there are images of kings with similar poses and royal costumes that are 3000 years apart that are very similar.

Egyptians believed in part that this continuity proved that their culture and beliefs were correct. And that the images they created had a power and meaning beyond the image itself. The imagery governed the afterlife and heaven forbid if the king was shown in an image with the wrong tool! His afterlife would be ruined!

What’s Next

I still have to finish Ancient Egypt and then I’ve got Ancient Greece and Rome to look forward to. And I’m not saying that sarcastically! I’m truly enjoying this trip through ancient art and the way that it is presented by Khan Academy is just right for me. The videos and readings are just long enough to get some good information in, and just short enough that I can watch or read one or two here or there.

Which is perfect, since I’m also trying to do a million other projects at the same time!

Global prehistory – what has Suzanne learned so far

My draft title for this post was “Modern Humans are Assholes.” I finished the Global Prehistory unit and I swear that every single article included something about the original artwork being lost (or nearly lost) because modern humans messed it up. Unfortunately, that was my biggest takeaway from this unit. I’m also not really feeling too kindly towards my contemporary humans during this pandemic, so you’ll have to excuse my pessism.

I do think it’s funny to say “prehistory” because….if something is before “history”…..isn’t it also history??? But as you probably know, prehistory simply means the time before written records. This particular overview looks at art made between 30,000 and 500 BCE.

(As a reminder, I’m following the AP Art History track on Khan Academy. The content comes originally from smARThistory.org and I find it easier to link to the information on their site.)

Not only are modern humans are destructive, we can be tricked by fakes and fall victim to confirmation bias. And of course, racism rears its ugly head in the stories about what historians have decided must be true. I was glad that this section took a global view of prehistory, as opposed to focusing on ancient western art.

While people can (and will) speculate about what certain paintings or sculptures signify, it is impossible to know for sure what anything means. I find it fascinating what historians and archeologists CAN discern, based on what they know from other objects they have found.

While I enjoyed all of this unit, my favorite artwork was the Tlatilco Figurines from Central Mexico. These small ceramic figurines date from around 1200-400 B.C.E. Most of them depict women in everyday activities and include a lot of humor. They are small and quite intricate. My favorite is this one of a woman kissing a dog:

Tlatilco figurine of a woman kissing a dog
Original photo can be found here: https://flic.kr/p/rkqJqE

I highly recommend doing an image search for Tlatilco figurines to see more figurines. It has occurred to me that I should be making an art journal page with some of these figurines as inspiration. If I do, I will come back and add it!

The next unit in this course is titled Ancient Mediterranean: 3500 B.C.E.-300 C.E. I’ll be back in two weeks with another update on what I’m learning from the past. I have a suspicion I still won’t be feeling too kindly towards modern humans.

Reference: Dr. Rex Koontz, “Tlatilco Figurines,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed February 1, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/tlatilco-figurines/.

Art History, Reconstructed

As Suzanne mentioned in her art history post, a lot of people get turned off when they hear the words Art History. I mean, it does conjure up images of survey classes where there are so many names and dates and slides it leaves you crossed eyed. I remember those classes and the hideous amount of dates you need to memorize- if you don’t REALLY LOVE art history it is not that fun.

Back story: I have a minor in Art History and have slept sat through many, many slide lectures. But, I will say this: once you get past intro level surveys, it does get more interesting. Specialist and topic specific classes are infinitely more inspiring. I had a focus on Islamic art and architecture, pre-Christian art and once took an entire class on Iznik pottery of the Ottoman Empire- riveting!

I feel fortunate in my fundamental art history education because it allowed me to understand huge chunks of world history at the same time. However, there are huge gaps in my art history knowledge simply because it is such a vast subject. Also, some subjects were either not offered, not widely talked about or just outright ignored in the field. This is where I’m headed.

The Obvious Choice

Women in the arts have always been sorely underrepresented, but I am going one further. There are quite a few woman who were extremely talented in their own right, yet lived in the shadow of their famous male husbands and partners. Lee Krasner and Frida Khalo are two well known examples, and I’m going to dig into that a bit more. It also ties in with a Big Idea I’ve had for quite a few years (decades really), but I’ll save that for another day. Here’s my short list so far:

  • Elizabeth Siddall
  • Gabriele Münter
  • Margaret Keane
  • Lee Miller
  • Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun
  • Judith Leyster
  • Jo Hopper
  • Elaine de Kooning
  • Tirzah Garwood
  • Elizabeth Catlett
  • Gwen Knight

And some seriously overlooked women that really should be in the Renaissance, Late Classical, Art Deco/Nouveau and Romantic canons:

  • Artemisia Gentileschi
  • Hannah Höch
  • Sofonisba Anguissola
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Sonia Delaunay
  • Margaret & Frances Macdonald
  • Elisabeth Sonrel

I’ll also be exploring some influential women in applied arts fields, like Gunta Stöltz who modernized weaving at the Bauhaus school’s weaving workshop. You know, real specific niche art history you can get lost in- my favorite!

I’m Still A Sculptor At Heart

Speaking of niche, next month is Black History Month and I’m going to share some things that I’ve already been researching- black women sculptors of the Harlem Renaissance. I’ll also talk about one of the most influential metal sculptors on my younger self, Mel Edwards.

Art History One-Oh-One

One of the ways in which I (Suzanne) feel disadvantaged as an artist is not having a solid grounding in art history and so part of my Make Your Own MFA program includes art history, from the prehistoric to the modern and contemporary. I can already hear some of you groaning as you remember bad art history classes, wondering why someone would subject themselves to something like this.

image of a blurred dictionary page with the text "art history 101" in script on it

Why

Well, for one thing, I’m stubborn, and I decided I needed to know this, so I’m going to do it. More seriously, though, I think it’s important to know the language, so to speak, and to have a grounding in where the things I’m working on have come from. I know I’m not making art out of thin air, everything I do is influenced by something else.

I also just really like learning things.

Guidelines

I’ve got some loose guidelines in mind as I approach my study of art history:

  • Broad overview of everything, from prehistoric times to contemporary
  • Learn about women (or those who identify as such) and not just the white men
  • Diversity: not just western art, and not just from a western perspective
  • I don’t have to be able to pass anexam, I just need to have been exposed to the ideas and art
  • If I find something really interesting, I will follow the idea to wherever it leads me
  • If I’m really really bored, I can move on to whatever is next

SmARThistory

As you can imagine, there are an infinite number of resources available online. I had decided to follow the art history curriculum from Smarthistory.org, when I discovered that Khan Academy had taken the Smarthistory curriculum and packaged it into a nicer format. So that’s what I’m using. I picked the AP Art History course, just because it made me feel fancy to do an AP class. Even though I’m nearly 50, and not in high school. Or a freshman in college.

I am finally through the first section — aptly called “Getting Started. ” It is an overview of terminology for both artmaking and art history. There’s also a section with an introduction to the 5 main religions of the world, presumably because a lot of the work that will be studied is going to be religious. Yay.

Hating Art History

One of the videos in the beginning is by Sarah Urist Green, in which she talks about why people hate art history. In her opinion, art history is complex and interesting, but in order to teach it, we end up simplifying it and take out all of the cool stuff. And most people give up before they get to the interesting bits or are disillusioned when they find out how much simplification they were fed. Or don’t want to believe the actual story because it doesn’t fit with the fantasy in their head. (Gee, sounds like regular not-art history, too…..)

The video is actually on YouTube, too, if you’d like to watch:

I am hopeful that the resources that are available through Khan Academy and Smarthistory.org as well as the independent work that I’m sure I’ll do as I try to follow up on the things that I find fascinating will help me find the cool stuff. I’ll try to share the most interesting bits here and I’m sure that the things I’m learning will make their way in to my own art practice.

Enjoying Art History

I’ll be honest, I started to get a bit bogged down in the section about the major world religions, but now that I’m ready to move on, I’m energized again. I hope I can keep that energy up and enjoy my trip through art history!

Have you ever taken an art history class? What historical periods interest you the most? Let me know in a comment or on Instagram if that’s where you came from!