One of the things people assume about you when they learn that you’re an art historian (and one of the things that we jokingly say about ourselves!) is that we make brilliant dinner party conversation. People will throw out their favourite artists (or simply the last one they heard of), and assume that we’re not only familiar with their entire output, but have an insightful and fully-formed opinion on them. But one of the exciting things about art history, whether you choose to officially study it, or simply indulge a passion for it, is discovering new works of art, artists, and even entire movements you’ve never before encountered. But this can be a slightly intimidating experience. It can be difficult to figure your way into a work that feels unfamiliar. There are however a few things that you can look out for to help you find your way into a new work of art which I’ll be exploring in this new series. These suggestions are in no way proscriptive, it’s important that you embrace your own response to the work, but if you’re ever stuck when looking at a new work, these tips might be worth bearing in mind.
The artist’s choice of medium can make a huge difference to the overall effect of the artwork. Often museum labels will help you with this, but it satisfying to be able to identify the materials yourself. Some are really easy to identify, with oil or watercolours perhaps, but this can sometimes be difficult; often the material of sculpture can be hard to pinpoint. But with a little practice you start to gain a familiarity with the materials, and build up a knowledge of what they look like and how they’re used.
Once you have an idea of what the material is, it’s worth thinking about the qualities and constraints of that material. The development of oil painting allowed artists in the Northern Renaissance to create amazingly realistic images, using are fully layered pigments and glazes to bring a vitality to their works unmatched by the frescoes of their Southern cousins. It is thought that these new paints were created in part in response to the damp climate of the North, which made the plaster-based techniques of Italian artists implausible. Centuries later, the vivid colours of the Impressionists were made possible by the development of new, chemical pigments. The bright yellows and blues seen in so many of their works was made possible by these new pigments. Their en plain air techniques were also made possible by the invention of tubes of paint, making the materials far more portable.
Sculpture is perhaps even more dependent on its materials. The physical qualities are of key importance, having a fundamental effect on what one would be able to sculpt. The poor tensile strength of marble is the reason why so many sculptures are supported by ugly props, with bars of the material holding up their arms or legs. This is why so many Greek gods are leaning against a conveniently positioned tree trunk. The opposite quality enables the fantastical creations of the sixteenth century, such as Giambologna’s Mercury ( which positively flaunts the tensile strength of bronze with its outstretched limbs.
The sculpture’s material isn’t just of interest form the point of view of its physical qualities. Many materials also take on a symbolic quality, or accrue connotations that can impact on the meaning of the finished work. In his seminal work The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, Michael Baxandall explored the way in which cultural associations about limewood came to be attached to the sculptures that were carved from it. The special, pseudo-magical qualities that folklore attached to the tree itself impacted on how the sculptures were understood by contemporary viewers. This book also contains Baxandall’s examination of the different woods on a cellular level, and the implications of this for the forms it was sculpted into. Far later, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore would lead the ‘truth to materials’ movement, which sought to exploit the inherent qualities of the material to create sculpted forms that somehow reflected the nature of the material itself.
In painting too, materials could gain their own symbolic meanings. The most famous example of this is the use of lapis lazuli in depictions of the Virgin Mary. The high cost of the pigment, due to it being imported all the way from Afghanistan, where it still only occurred in relatively small quantities, meant that it came to be seen as appropriate for depicting this holy figure.
The price of the material is thus also worth considering. While it is obviously often the case that materials are chosen for their expense, they can also be deliberately inexpensive. For instance, Russian Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko chose cheap, readily available materials such as plywood, in a deliberate attempt to make their art more accessible, and to strip it of the bourgeois connotations of more conventional materials. In other cases, the material may be chosen specifically for such connotations. Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, created for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, made use of Carrara marble (Michelangelo’s David was able made from Carrara marble), placing it in a tradition of nude sculptures dating back through the Renaissance to Roman art, which in turn imitated Greek art. By using this material Quinn makes a bold and positive claim for the beauty and importance of his subject, and forces his viewers to reconsider the negative effects of the bland uniformity of sculpture in the Classical tradition. Quinn himself commented on his choice of material, ‘Marble is the material used to commemorate heroes, and these people seem to me to be a new kind of hero – people who instead of conquering the outside world have conquered their own inner world and gone on to live fulfilled lives. To me, they celebrate the diversity of humanity. Most monuments are commemorating past events; because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity’.
So there are lots of aspects to the choice of material in artworks. These certainly shouldn’t be treated as a tick-list of things to go through, but thinking about material in this way can offer a new perspective on a work of art, and can be an interesting approach to take when you find yourself in front of a brand new (to you, or the world) work of art.
Mark Quin quote excerpted from: http://marcquinn.com/artworks/alison-lapper.
Images unless otherwise stated are sourced from wikicommons.