Ancient Egyptian art is approximately five thousand years old. It emerged in ancient Egypt from the civilization of the Nile Valley. Their art was expressed in paintings and sculptures. They were highly symbolic and intended to keep the culture alive and prospering. Ancient Egyptian art will typically refer to the two and three-dimensional art that developed from 3000 BC and was used up until almost the 3rd century. It is notable that many artifacts from the era have survived the test of time and it is due to the excellent craftsmanship and materials of the age as well as the extremely dry climate of the area.
A lot of what we know about the Ancient Egyptians comes from their art. From their many pieces of art, sculpture, pottery, and architecture we can learn about what they looked like, the jobs they worked and even the clothes they wore. Over the span of those years, their art changed very little, despite moving through six different eras of rule. Art is an essential aspect of any civilization and once the basic needs of food and shelter have been accounted for, it tends to blossom as a way of expressing community beliefs, religious ideologies and cultural nuances. Much of their artwork emphasized their devotion to their religion. For example, they would fill the tombs of the Pharaohs with paintings and sculptures that would help guide them into the afterlife. Temples particularly were a popular place for art as a sign of worship and reverence to their gods. The first forms of Egyptian art represented animals, human beings and supernatural figures inscribed on rock walls. These early images were fairly crude in relation to later developments but they still reflected the most important value of Egyptian culture and consciousness. This was the concept of balance. Because many of the surviving forms of sculpture and art come in the form of tombs and monuments, we are particularly aware of their focus on life after death as well as the preservation of knowledge.
Egyptian society functioned mainly on the concept of harmony and balance which was known as ma’at. This came into being at the dawn of creation and was the matter that, in their eyes, sustained the universe. All Egyptian art reflects this ideal because it mirrors the world of the gods. The same way these gods provided gifts to humanity, the artwork too was imagined and created to provide a use. Egyptian art was always first and foremost a functional piece. No matter the aesthetic quality of it, its purpose was to serve as a home for a spirit or a god. For example, an amulet would have been designed to be attractive and beautiful but was not the driving force of its creation. It was beautiful because it needed to be worthy of housing a spirit or giving protection to a tomb. All tomb paintings, temple tableaus and even home and palace gardens were created so their aesthetic forms suited their function. In many cases, this function was a reminder of the eternal nature of life and the value of personal and communal stability and balance.
Because of the highly religious nature of Ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the great works of art depict gods, goddesses, and Pharaohs, who were also considered to be divine beings. As mentioned, Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of colour helped to create a sense of order and balance in their art. They used vertical and horizontal reference lines in order to maintain the correct proportions in their work. Political, religious as well as artistic order was emphasized. In order to clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, the artist would draw or paint the figures in sizes that were based on their importance and not necessarily from a logical perspective point. For example, the Pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was standing and his servants, animals and even nature was represented as being smaller.
The Egyptians are famous particularly for their giant works of sculpture. Some examples of this include the Great Sphinx of Giza and the statues of Ramses II at the Abu Simbel Temples. The statues are over 60 feet tall and the Great Sphinx of Gaza is over 240 feet long. Their smaller and more ornate sculptures were made from a variety of rich materials, from alabaster to ivory, wood gilded with gold, limestone and sometimes even solid gold. They would use crushed precious stones to colour and tint the works and would work primarily in blue, black, red, green and gold.
The Ancient Egyptian culture, in general, was actually highly advanced and their art forms reflected that. They were capable of creating statues and monuments on a scale never seen before and they recorded everything on paper made with river reeds, called papyrus. They invented and used a system of writing we know as hieroglyphics and used this as a form of documentation. It is only because of their near fanatical need for knowledge that we know as much about them as we do and the advancements that they made to art and technology lived on for longer than their actual civilization did, which was by no means a small period of time.
Mesopotamia is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” and was a sizable ancient land that roughly corresponds geographically to modern-day Iraq, southwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey, and northeastern Syria. It was the site of a series of early cultural advances, including the first system of writing. With the disappearance of the nomadic lifestyle, there was suddenly enough security and stability for the culture to develop more formal means of religious worship in permanent structures like temples. It also led to an important series of contributions to the history of art, especially to the fields of pottery, sculpture, and metalworking.
Mesopotamian sculpture, for example, includes a wide spread of ceramic arts, varieties of stone sculptures, mosaic art, and monumental architecture. Archaeological excavations show that Mesopotamia was first settled in about 10, 000 BC by unknown tribes of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. Around 7000 BC the culture changed from a primitive, semi-nomadic style of hunting and gathering food, to a more settled type of lifestyle where farming and the rearing of domesticated animals was their primary means of survival. During this period, the formation of settled communities like villages, towns, and cities, led to a series of new activities that the region had not seen before. This included the rapid increase of trade, the construction of boats to transport goods and the growth of religious beliefs and ceremonies. All of this led directly to improvements in the supply of food and ultimately, the rapid rise of population.
There is a common misconception that when dealing with forms of ancient art is that the culture creating the work must have been more primitive than we are today. Joan Aruz, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says emphatically that is certainly not the case, saying that the society was actually highly elite, with sophisticated music, art, and literature. Architecture, art, and literature were some of the core creations that that rose out of the Mesopotamian era. Mesopotamian sculpture featured a highly distinct stylized aesthetic that is achieved through the repetition of lines or dots. Figures are typically presented either from the front or side on, in both sculpture and art. The statues and reliefs produced by Mesopotamian sculptors were highly impressive, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the “portal guardians” which were figures that guarded and watched over doorways. These guardians took the form of animals, real or imaginary, or animals with human heads. In fact, animal-human hybrid forms, or anthropological forms, are a fairly common feature of ancient art throughout the world and not just in Mesopotamia.
Throughout ancient history and before the rise of industry and the machine, the main types of large scale buildings that were made were typically palaces, temples, and royal tombs. Often, two of these or even all three were combined into a singular building. As such, these give us the best window into what the people of the time considered to be their best work. As the Mesopotamian area is virtually devoid of stone; bricks were made from clay and mud and were the primary construction material used. Unfortunately, this does mean that very little survived of Mesopotamian architectural as clay brick is less likely to withstand the pressures of time. Large scale Egyptian and Greek buildings do still stand, however, for the opposite reason. Stone is durable, clay faces the weathers of time with less grace. The most distinctive type of Mesopotamian architecture is the ziggurat, which is a structure shaped like a stepped pyramid. A ziggurat featured little to no interior space, instead of serving mainly as the platform for a temple. The exterior of a ziggurat was often decorated with glazed tiles, murals or mosaics.
There are four key periods in the Mesopotamian era. These consist of the Early Period, the Third Millennium, The Second Millennium and the Fall of Babylon. The Early period featured works made primarily of ceramic pottery, which, to some, was arguably far superior to any type of Greek pottery. The best examples featured geometric designs or plant and animal motifs. In addition, various artifacts and artworks began to be ornamented with precious metals. Interestingly around 3200 BC in Babylonia, we see the earliest known instance of nail art, when men coloured their nails with kohl and ancient cosmetics containing lead sulfide. The Third Millennium saw the rise of free-standing sculpture in stone and wood as well as bronze statuettes, personal jewelry and decorative designs on a variety of artifacts. The Second Millennium saw the innovation of glass working and glazing and there are several examples of multicolored, opaque glass from the region. Egyptian sculpture, as well as Ancient Persian art, would have had an influence on the carving work that came out of this period as they were existing around the same time and in a similar region. Great reliefs were carved in stone, often featuring detailed animals and royal hunting parties but human figures were still relatively rigid and wooden looking. The Fall of Babylon saw the construction of huge temples and ziggurats guarded by stone portal lions, winged bulls or genii. War campaigns were recorded in great detail in limestone slabs and many of these ventures saw them bringing back with the spoils of war, in the form of many different types of art.
This particularly is an era that was inordinately vast and complicated but saw the rise of expert craftsmanship once more. It is unfortunate that many of their physical structures no longer exist but many artifacts, artworks, and sculptures do still exist and give us an insight into one of the leading, ancient civilizations of the time who stood quite uniquely apart from the styles and influence of the Romans and Greeks.
Ancient art is more of an umbrella term that refers to the many different types of art that were produced by the advanced culture of ancient societies. These refer primarily to ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as pre-historic art and doesn’t actually typically fall into this category. This is also referred to as the Stone Age. For the sake of these writings and to create a clear, cohesive image of the timeline of mankind, we are going to cover the Stone Age as part of ancient art, for it was there that the journey really started.
Between approximately 5000BC and 300AD “advanced” civilizations emerged. An “advanced” Civilization is generally considered one with written language and they thrived in regions like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Mexico and Asia, amongst many others. Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia which is now more commonly known as the area which houses Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Northern Saudi Arabia and parts of Syria and Turkey. Art played an important role in these growing societies by providing a means of enforcing religious and political order. For example, one of the most famous works of art from Mesopotamia, which, as a land, was often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” is the Code of Hammurabi. This was a set of laws carved in stone and adorned with an image of King Hammurabi and the Mesopotamian god Shabash. It was created to govern and exemplify the importance of the law in the land. Similarly, the art of ancient Egypt includes symbolic imagery alongside text, which is referred to as hieroglyphs, that tell the stories of rulers, gods and goddesses. Although prehistoric humans made art as far back as 40,000 years ago, ancient art is considered to be the foundation of all of art history with many of its techniques, forms and subject matter continuing to be explored by the art of today. Art reflected the culture it came from and can give us so much insight into civilizations and cultures long dead.
In the next few weeks we will explore the different ages associated with Ancient Art in much more depth, but for now, let’s look at what they are briefly about.
Stone Age 30 000 B.C – 2500 B.C
The first Ice Age ended around 10 000 – 8000 BC and the first permanent settlements started popping up. Which meant that life was not necessarily about surviving the deadly cold anymore. There were obviously still great dangers but humanity was in a critical phase of development. Life was about the survival of the human race more than anything else so most pictorial depictions and artifacts that come out of this era feature fertility icons, goddesses associated with women and birth, the hunt and the group. Natural resources were always utilized and many things involved stone in some way. Cave paintings, etchings and sculpture were the primary mediums.
Mesopotamian 3500 BC – 539 B.C
The Mesopotamian era was largely associated with the emergence of ‘advanced’ civilization, although there is some evidence to consider that the first attempts at writing and language started in the Stone Age. Warrior art was key here and many things were carved or narrated into stone. There are three key things to consider here in Mesopotamian art. First was the impact of the socio-political organization systems of the Sumerian city-states, and of the Kingdoms and Empires that succeeded them. The second was the role of organized religion in the affairs of the state and the third was the influence of the natural environment. Each of these three concepts influenced the art that was made and was usually a response to things that had occurred within those bounds.
Egyptian 3100 B.C – 30 B.C
The ancient Egyptians heavily revered the gods and represented them in any way they could. Monstrous temples and monuments were built in awe of the gods and a common theme that ran throughout their art was the thought of an afterlife. Tombs were ordained with priceless jewels and painted with ornate images and hieroglyphs. Egyptian Art reached a high level of painting and sculpture and was both highly stylized and very symbolic. One could stare at a wall of Egyptian art for years and still never fully understand the intricacies of the symbolism.
Ancient Greece 850 B.C – 31 B.C
The case for art reflecting culture is nowhere truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle into their culture. This was the principle of arete. To the Greeks, this meant excellence and the ability to reach one’s full potential. Ancient Greek art emphasized the importance and accomplishments of human beings. Even though much of Greek art was meant to honour the gods, those very gods were often created in the image of humans.
Roman 500 B.C – 476 A.D
The ancient Roman way of art was to capture the beauty of life. In many ways they were Realists and it is here too that scholars writing worldly philosophies and epic novels found their place. Their art was practical in many ways and exhibited the gentle quality of man and nature but also the fury and majesty of the gods. It also encompasses a massive spectrum of work, ranging from marble, silver and bronze sculpture to painting, mosaic work and terracotta pots.
Indian, Chinese and Japanese 653 B.C – 1900 A.D
Works from these regions typically took on a serene, almost meditative quality and much of it was about self-introspection. Many of the developments of Eastern art parallel those of Western movements, in fact, in general, they made the developments a few centuries earlier. Much like the Western world, Eastern art was a melting pot of various cultures and societies and they borrowed and took influence from these many cultures and religions. From Buddhist art to works coming out of Korea, Thailand and India, there is an abundance of history present here.
Byzantine and Islamic 476 A.D – 1453 A.D
This emerged primarily from the depths of the Roman decline and the Byzantine Empire flourished under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great. They borrowed heavily on Greek art and culture and decorated the capital city with elaborate Greek statues, exquisite gold and marble art and mosaics that glorified the Christian religion. Their focus lay in these heavenly mosaic works but also in the impeccable, finely detailed designs on their architecture. They embellished everything with rich, gold mosaics and this carried across both Byzantine and Islamic culture.
In the middle of the 19th century, around 50 years after Romanticism came about, artists in Europe adopted a new style of art making. This was called Realism. It was characterized by an unprecedented attention to everyday subject matter and it is an art movement that transformed the western art world. Realism emerged in France in the 1850s on the heels of the 1848 French Revolution, which was an event that established the “right to work” in the country. It introduced the idea that the average, everyday working class person was considered a worthy artistic subject. As was the ordinary, day to day working scenes of the contemporary French lifestyle. Some artists associated with the movement were Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, John Sargent and Honore Daumier. The style was later taken up and adapted by French Impressionists like Edgar Degas.
Artists who worked in the Realist style rejected the standards that Romanticism put forth. Romanticism was a genre defined by emotion and drama and featured mythological figures and awe-inspiring scenes of nature. Either way, Romanticism glorified the subject matter, which is a trait that the Realists threw away. They valued the image as a whole, a representation of the real and the raw. There was no drama, no mysticism and the only emotion that was present was the gritty reality of the working class.
One of the key concepts to remember here is that Realism is all about class. It is important to remember that throughout history, the middle class didn’t always exist. There was the aristocracy (the rich landowners with powdered faces and fancy wigs) and then there was everyone else, usually the ones working their lives away on land owned by the aristocracy. The 19th century saw the rise of the middle class, thanks to industrialization, a peasant could, over time, become a wealthy merchant and start living a little more comfortably. Society was changing, social structures were being transformed and Realism reflected these changes.
Realism directly inspired prominent contemporary art movements like Photorealism and Hyper-realism. It was a revolution to painting and expanded the conceptions of what constituted art. Up until this point, art was about highlighting great and important things. Historic moments, kings and queens, biblical stories and the occasional merchant’s wife. The subject matter was portrayed as being worthy of reverence. The choice from the Realists to bring everyday life into their canvases was a desire to merge art and life, ordinary, everyday life. It is quite broadly considered the beginning of modern art and it is because of this urge to paint the ordinary and the conviction that it was worth something.
There was a larger, overreaching concern for Realism and it was more than laying the subject bare on the canvas. It concerned itself with how life was structured socially, economically, politically and culturally in the mid-19th century. This is what led to the unflinching, sometimes “ugly” portrayals of life’s unpleasant truths. They also tended to use dark, earthy palette tones that also confronted the ideals of high art and beauty.
The invention and subsequent explosion of newspaper printing and mass media that came with the Industrial Revolution brought with it a new mode of publicity for artists. Realism brought in a new conception of the artist as a self-publicist. Many artists purposefully danced along the line of controversy and used this new media to enhance their celebrity status. It is something that is still very much done today.
Art Realism in France was an outcome of a nationwide desire for democracy. Simultaneously, England’s version of art realism depicted the rebuttal of Victorian materialism and the classicism that came with it. Much like Romanticism, Realism was not subject to fine art alone. Many authors, particularly, but even some musicians, adopted the style as a means to portray their own art through a cleaner lens. Through both art and literature, there are still some core concepts that separate the movement from other genres of art. The language used was transparent and this was true for literature and painting. There was no attempt to hide behind hidden meanings and flowery words and imagery. There was a certain verisimilitude in Realism. Verisimilitude is just an over the top word for “truthfulness”. Realist literature and art were famous for the way it tried to create a world that seemed real or true. Realist artists and writers wanted us to believe we were watching real life unfold on the page or canvas. There was an emphasis on the individual or the “character”. Even through art, the characters were portrayed in extreme detail. In writing, this meant that there was an emphasis on describing, analyzing and dramatizing personality. Its good to remember that when Realism was emerging, psychology as a discipline was also emerging.
In many ways, Realism was almost a direct contradiction to Romanticism. As we spoke about in the previous post, the Romanticists had a particular interest in the mythological figure and the individual independent from society. The Realists chose to focus on social networks and the individuals place within these social networks as opposed to a single grand hero. This quote by Emile Zemo sums up the overarching themes of Realism very well. “It is not a question, here, of searching for an ‘absolute’ of beauty. The artist is neither painting history nor his soul… And it is because of this that he should neither be judged as a moralist nor as a literary man. He should be judged simply as a painter.”
Romanticism is an art movement that spread across Europe and the United States. It’s an art movement that challenged the ideals held onto so tightly during the Enlightenment era. The artists emphasized their sense of emotions, and these were just as important as reason and order. They honed in on emotion as a way of experiencing the world. It celebrated the individual imagination and intuition in the everlasting search for individual rights and liberty and it fueled many avant-garde movements well into the 20th century. It originated in Germany then spread to England and the rest of Europe. The Enlightenment era or the “Age of Reason” was a period that glorified rational thinking, secularism and scientific progress. This was the time of true revolution in the industrial world with the first operational steam engine being built in 1712. However, at the turn of the 19th century, not everyone believed that science and reason could possibly explain everything. The romanticists looked beyond reason and sought inspiration in intuition and imagination. Being emotionally engaged was the ultimate aim of their artwork. It also borrowed heavily from religious imagery and stories and found inspiration in them in the same way that they found inspiration in mythology and folklore. Recurring themes of human vulnerability and isolation were often portrayed in the genre. Romanticism was, in a lot of senses, the direct opposite of rationality. It was about passion, intuition and the mysterious.
Romanticism found a home in many expressions of creative pursuits, including literature, music, art, and architecture. They valued originality, inspiration, and imagination which produced many different styles within the same genre. In many ways, it was a contrast to Neo-Classicism which was quite sober and grim. The genre rose up out of the Industrial Revolution as a means of combating the rise of machines and industry. Additionally, in an effort to stem the tide of increasing industrialization, many of the Romanticists emphasized the individual’s connection to nature and an idealized past. In part, gaining inspiration from the French Revolution, Romanticism embraced the struggles for freedom and equality as well as the promotion of justice. Painters used current events and atrocities to shed light on these injustices in dramatic compositions and over the top scenes that played the drama out on canvas.
With this in mind, when thinking of Romanticism and Romantic art, don’t think of terms like love or romance itself. In the context of art, its a reference to the strength of emotions in general. Up until this moment in Art History, most artworks were created with beauty at its heart. Romantic art was “Gothic”. It was dark, macabre and grotesque. Fine art had been taught as a discipline while romantic art, on the other hand, was there to fascinate and horrify. Some of their paintings were the most horrific to be seen in the West at the time. For example, Saturn Devours his Children by Francisco de Goya was an image that evoked real horror in the enlightened viewer. The artist’s deep troubles and personal struggles came out in his paintings. The stereotype in our popular culture of the artist or the intellectual as a self-tortured, lonely soul with a “nobody understands me” attitude very much originated out of the romantic period.
They embraced the individual and subjective to counteract the insistence for logic. They explored various emotional and psychological states as well as moods. As French poet, Charles Baudelaire, described it, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” The romantic artist was considered a ‘hero’ of art, unburdened by academic taste. In many countries, Romantic painters turned their attention to nature and ‘plein air’ painting, much like the Impressionists. Works were usually based on close inspection of the landscape and the sky and when human figures were involved they were usually at one with nature. The unpredictability and power of nature were often emphasized and was meant to evoke a feeling of the sublime, which speaks about the feeling of awe that arises when one is faced with something greater than themselves. It emphasized local folklore, traditions, and landscapes and was closely bound up with the emergence of a new nationalism that was sweeping across many countries after the American Revolution.
There are some core concepts to keep in mind when trying to differentiate Romanticism from other art genres. The skies are typically quite dramatic with an imminent sense of danger or fear of the unknown. The focus on nature, as we have spoken about, but perhaps with a dark or mysterious ambiance in both a literal or a figurative sense. There will be a dramatic scene of man or nature with undertones of nature’s triumph over man. The brushstrokes are usually visible with an overall sense of softness to the quality of the edges. Sometimes the imagery can be quite Gothic and occasionally horrific where the faces express feelings such as intense pain, anguish, anger or fear. Romanticism is a genre that still holds a place in our own world today. It embodied a disdain for a dehumanized and mechanical world and held onto the nostalgia of a simpler life, which we see in our lives today even. And people still make art about escaping technology, it’s just depicted in different ways.
It takes a lot to draw the entire world into a war and with an event that impacts most of society, there is bound to be some ripple effects. So it’s no surprise that war has the power to influence the arts in dramatic ways. One of the key turning points was the First World War, which started in 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In 1918 when the war ended, 9 million people were killed from over 25 different countries. Many people blamed the war on aggressive nationalism, the greed of colonialism and the quick rise of industrial technology. These ideals had been celebrated by artistic groups like the Futurists but after the war, art became more focused on the savage brutality that arose from it. War is the most destructive activity known to mankind and it purpose is to use violence to compel their opponents to submit and surrender. In order to understand it, artists have throughout history, used colour, textures and patterns to depict wartime ideologies, practices, values and symbols. In Germany, former soldiers dedicated themselves to presenting what they called the true nature of war in a work called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. Instead of glorifying war, these works represented a dark, destructive and savage experience. Many artists dealt with World War I by focusing on the destruction that arose from it. But artists like Duchamp and the Dadaists explored the concept that the war was caused by the emphasis of reason and logic over emotions and humanity. Their response was to reject any sense of reason. Dada art was irrational and absurd, distrustful of tradition and devoted to artistic and political anarchy. Participants in war have even used the flotsam of battle as mediums for expression, carving into bullets, shell casings and bones. These often produced unsettling accounts of the calamity that overwhelmed them. Tools of cruelty turned to testaments of compassion. Art can be more effective than news reports in drawing international attention to the plight of ordinary people at war. “When you face an art form, it is not easy to escape death,” said the director of Sarajevo based Obala Art Centre, Izeta Gradevic.
The declaration of war typically triggers practical difficulties for artists. At the very least, it brings about a wariness for the economy that relegates the arts to a minor role in society. Economic sanctions would also often severely limit the availability of supplies. During the second Sino-Japanese War, for example, Japanese artists faced restrictions not only of paint but of materials such as silk, gold and mineral pigments. However, everything from excitable patriotism to down to earth curiosity has led millions of artists into the heart of darkness. Like their countrymen, many artists, writers and intellectuals initially welcomed the war for a range of reasons. Some because of their own nationalist sentiments, others a sense of patriotic duty while others had a desire to experience an ‘adventure’ they assumed would be over in a few months, if not weeks. We know now just how naive that mindset was. Others welcomed it over a mistaken belief that after what they saw as a necessary and final conflict, oppressive political systems would disappear and a more peaceful, spiritual and anti-materialist era would begin.
Some artists, like George Grosz, had long rejected militarism and the war in general but were conscripted into service anyway. Others voluntarily enlisted to gain some control over where they were placed while others enlisted enthusiastically to show their pride or be involved. There was a melting pot of mixed emotions when it came to art and the war but because there were such a large number of artists who experienced combat firsthand, either as soldiers, medics or war artists, many produced work either at the front of the lines or based on their experiences engaging in or witnessing combat. In response to the unprecedented turmoil and trauma resulting from the war, many artists reactions changed dramatically over a short period of time as feelings of strong nationalism, enthusiasm for combat and fame or even a first optimism for a better, more democratic future, morphed into despair, feelings of loss and betrayal and rage. These feelings were directed not only at the institutions deemed responsible but also at their complicity.
Some artists that got involved in the war effort were official appointees, sent by their governments to create a record of what was happening or to offer visual products to aid morale. Voluntarily engaging in active war service could allow artists to circumvent some of the restrictions created in wartime. In fact, governments often provided willing support to artists who threw themselves into the war effort, though many suffered severe injuries and even death on the front lines. As the New York literary journal The Knickerbocker tolled out at the start of the American Civil War, “ARTISTS! Remember that your elegant brushes are recording the history of a nation.”
This required artists to serve the interests of the collective. However, many struggled to resolve the tension between artistic freedom and censorship. Was their art supposed to bolster recruitment or demonize the enemy? Were they expected to be “official war artists” (as British artists were called during the First World War) or “official recorders” (as they were renamed during the first Gulf War)?
We must also not forget the fair amount of media-based work that arose out of the war, be that from posters and commissioned works by the government or other organizations to support the war efforts and charities. A large amount of propaganda also rose out of these needs. Most of the highly controversial works were actually created independently and produced and distributed as periodicals, postcards and posters in order to either boost morale or demean the enemy. Or both. Because of the industrial revolution, prints could be distributed widely and at a much lower cost than unique artworks, and these were especially effective at influencing public opinion.
The reality of war, however, is that at its core, art that focused around it meant that they had to convey the visceral horrors of battle. The search for an appropriate language to express the chaos and carnage that resulted from modern industrial warfare led to a re-evaluation of subject matter, technique, materials and styles. Artists also had to consider their responsibility as cultural producers. While some figures fell into more modernist approaches that drew from avant-garde experimentation, others embraced more traditional, figurative styles. There were even those who bridged the gap and moved between the styles for a variety of reasons. One of the more unique art forms to arise out of the wars were medical illustrations. Sketches and photography made during conflict could be used to diagnose pathologies, aid surgical practice and assess the progress of a disease and its treatment, as well as highlight the brutality that victims suffered.
There has also been a significant shift in the theme and mood of war art over the past two centuries. Prior to the twentieth century, war artists were more likely to depict heroic tales rich in religious imagery. 19th-century British paintings revelled in depicting the sumptuous battlefield landscapes with squads of men swathed across the hills. In France, artists revered the deeds of Napolean Bonaparte and his army. Figureheads were idealized and turned into monumental heroes in art. However, artistic bitterness escalated during World War I. War was described as unspeakable, godless and hopeless. Some artists even developed an overarching narrative for the young men at war. It began with an innocent young man, head high with feelings of honour and national pride and ending with disillusionment and sorrow. To paraphrase the essayist Elaine Scarry, “to see pain in war art is to have certainty — to see heroics is to have doubt.”
From World War II a new kind of art was required. It represented “authentic” combat experience that assaulted the senses of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. It saw artists visually representing the sounds of grenades detonating, the smell of explosives, the metallic taste of blood and the sight of human bone and tissue strewn across the battlefield.
In these instances, art is intrinsically political. Arno Breker, often referred to as Hitler’s favourite sculptor, once declared that art has nothing to do with politics, for good art is above politics. But that shakes all accountability from a man’s shoulders who’s work inspired many to join the Nazi armies. Art can create a narrative for war, a way of telling those still at home about the horrors going on, of moving outside of government propaganda. But even when not showing the human body in its most vulnerable state, war art contemplates the victors and the defeated, the landscapes in which they moved, imagined pasts, presents and futures. The dead also lives on in the hand of the artist and the eye of the witness. War art asks people to look closely, rather than looking away.
Cubism was one of the most influential visual art styles of the early twentieth century. It was created by Pablo Piccaso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1907 and 1914. The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Cubism after seeing the landscapes that Braque had painted in 1908. The work itself was highly abstracted and he called the geometric forms in the work “cubes”. It drew influences from many non-Western sources like African art and Primitivism, which is an art style that draws heavily on idealizing or emulating the “primitive” experience. Beginning around the 19th century, the influx of tribal arts of Africa, Oceania and Native Americans into Europe offered artists a new visual vocabulary to explore. Primitive art’s use of simpler shapes and more abstract figures differ significantly from traditional styles of European representation and it’s easy to see how the Cubists drew on these styles in their work. The stylization and distortion of Picasso’s ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in 1907 came heavily inspired by African Art, for example, and served as one of the leading paintings of the Cubist movement.
The Cubist painters rejected the concept that art should somehow copy nature, or that an artists aim was to represent their subject matter as beautifully as possible. They wanted instead to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas and in that, rejected traditional techniques of perspective, modelling and foreshortening. They reduced their subject matter into flat, geometric forms, fracturing them then realigning them on a shallow, relief-like space. They often also used multiple and contradictory viewpoints. By breaking down objects and figures into distinct areas, or planes, the artist’s intention was to show these varying viewpoints at the same time to suggest three-dimensional form. This often resulted more in an emphasis on the flat surface than it did with creating the illusion of depth, but it did serve the Cubists well. Cubism was partly influenced by the late work of artist Paul Cezanne, in which he can be seen to be painting things from slightly different points of view. Picasso was also inspired by African tribal masks which are highly stylized and somewhat unrealistic, with strong, bold forms and lines.
Cubism was highly influential and presented a very new reality in paintings. It was also divided up into two distinct eras. The movement’s development from 1910 to 1912 is often referred to as Analytical Cubism. During this period, the work of Picasso and Braque became so similar that their paintings were almost indistinguishable. The mode of Analytical paintings shows how the form was broken down and analyzed by both artists. They simplified their colour schemes to a nearly monochromatic scale in order not to distract the viewer from the primary goal, which was the structure of form itself. The monochromatic colour scheme suited the complexity of the subject, which had now been reduced to overlapping opaque and transparent planes. Forms are usually quite compact and dense in the middle of an Analytical painting, getting bigger as they move toward the edges of the canvas. In their work from this period, Picasso and Braque frequently combined representational designs with letters; their favourite designs were made with musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers and the human face and figure.
Interest in this subject matter continued after 1912, during the phase generally known as Synthetic Cubism. Artworks in this phase aimed to emphasize the combination or synthesis of forms in the painting. Colour played a strong role in these works and shapes that remain fragmented and flat are larger and more decorative. This was in comparison to areas where smooth and rough surfaces would be contrasted with one another. Materials like newspaper and tobacco wrappers are pasted on the canvas in combination with painted areas. This technique, known as collage, further emphasized the differences in texture and, at the same time, asked the question of what is real and what is an illusion.
While Picasso and Braque are credited with creating this new visual language, it was adopted and further developed by many painters, from Marcel Duchamp to Jean Metzinger. Though primarily associated with painting, Cubism also had a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture and architecture. Cubism opened up almost infinite new possibilities on how the real world could be represented and was the starting point for many later abstract styles.
Picasso once said, “A head is a matter of eyes, nose and mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.” And this particularly emphasizes his lack of interest in showing things as they are, but how they could be, which is easily the most important aspect of abstract art.
Surrealism was a visual and literary movement that flourished in Europe between the first and second World Wars. Surrealism grew primarily out of the earlier Dada movement, which, before World War 1, produced works of anti-art that deliberately seemed to defy reasonable assumptions of what art was. The Surrealists’ emphasis was on what art was capable of unlocking and the positive associations of this. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism was not founded by Salvador Dali, though because of his outlandish nature he is easily the most well known Surrealist artist. In fact, it was Andre Breton, a poet, and art critic, who published The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Surrealism was a means of reuniting the unconscious and unconscious realms of experience so that the worlds of dream and fantasy could be joined by the everyday, rational world.
The Surrealists sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. They despised rationality and literary realism and were powerfully influenced by psychoanalysis. The Surrealists believed the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighing it down with taboos. Influenced by people like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, the Impressionists hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in everyday life and spur on a new thought revolution. Their emphasis on the power of personal imagination puts them within the same realm as traditional Romanticism, but unlike their forebearers, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life.
The Surrealist impulse to tap into the unconscious mind is what led to their bizarre, otherworldly images and paintings. This combined with their interest in myth and primitivism went on to shape many later movements and the style remains highly influential today. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud placed a substantial amount of value on the importance of dreams and the subconscious mind as a form of recognizing and understanding human emotions and desires. He exposed the complexity of sexuality, desire, and violence, both repressed and not, and this was a major theoretical platform for Surrealism.
Surrealism has been defined as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.” This was said by Andre Breton and essentially what he was proposing was that artists are capable of erasing reason and rationality by accessing their unconscious mind. In practice, these techniques became known as automatism or automatic writing, which allowed artists to forgo conscious thought and embrace the aspect of chance when creating their art.
The imagery used by the Surrealists is probably the most recognizable element of the movement yet it still somehow remains one of the most elusive aspects to categorize or define. Each artist relied on their own recurring symbols or motifs, arising from their dreams or subconscious minds. At its most basic, the imagery used is often outlandish, out of place, confusing and uncanny. It is meant to jolt the viewer out of their own preconceived assumptions. Nature seems to be the most frequently tapped into subject matter. For example, Max Ernst was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego. Salvador Dali’s work often included ants or eggs and Joan Miro relied strongly on vague, biomorphic imagery.
The world of Surrealism was rife with exaggerated actions and fantastical behaviors. The artists themselves often lived their artworks and a notable example of this is Salvador Dali. During the 1936 International Surrealist Exposition held in London, Dali addressed his audience costumed head-to-toe in an old fashioned diving suit. He had two dogs on leashes in one hand and a billiard cue in the other. Mid-lecture, constrained by the scuba mask, the Spanish artist began to suffocate and flailed about for help, brandishing his arms. The audience however simply assumed this was all a part of the performance. The Surrealist poet David Gascoyne eventually rescued Dali. As art legend would have it, upon his recovery Dali simply stated, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind.” He then finished his speech and to no-one’s surprise, his accompanying slides were all presented upside down. This story truly outlines the most absurd and even clownish elements of the Surrealist movement, though Dali very much epitomized them. He was considered something of a joke figure by even the movement itself. The movement was actually a lot more serious and far-reaching than is widely known, spanning various disciplines, styles, and geographies from 1924 until its end in 1966.
It has always been considered the realm of play and artists today even refer to is as an inspiration for the creation of more fantastical and wonderful artworks that rely heavily on symbolism and conceptualism.