History in Art July 27, 2019
The history of Western Art shows us that history is, in fact, in our art. The major art movements reflect the basic ‘feeling’, the prevailing ideas and events, of our times. Art is, after all, inherently visceral in nature. So it’s not surprising that the art of the day can tell us ‘what’s going on’ underneath the surface. Briefly, here are some examples of how art periods have reflected major events in human history.
Prehistoric Art – The Stone Age
Prehistoric art generally refers to the art produced before the development or writing, or prior to 3000 BC. Some of the finest examples are to be found in the cave paintings of Altimira, discovered in Spain in 1868. The beautifully expressive drawings includes depictions of bison, deer, and horses, as well as human hand prints, and other geometric shapes. Since written language likely developed out of a necessity to record historical events, it’s quite plausible that Prehistoric Art precedes even the notion of history. In these pre-agricultural times, man relied completely on animals for his survival. And it appears that the caves where these drawings are found was reserved for ceremonial purposes, and not used as shelter. It’s likely these drawings would have been conceived as ‘magical incantations’, designed, perhaps, to ensure a ‘good hunt’. Cave art provides a stark commentary on life at the time. It was all about ‘day to day’ survival.
Ancient Art – BC to 500 AD
The history of Western Art begins with the art of the Ancient Middle East, considered to be the ‘cradle of civilization’. Geographically, it includes ancient Egypt, as well as the Arabian peninsula, and other Mid-Eastern areas, such as Iran and Turkey. It begins around 3000 BC, with the invention of the first written languages (Sumarian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphs). But it also encompasses the Classical Art produced by the ancient Greeks and Romans during the Bronze Age, from 800 BC to the 7th century. The ancient Romans spread their consistent pattern of artistic development, particularly in pottery, sculpture and architecture, all across Europe. This laid the foundations for what we think of today as ‘Western Art’. Their Classical style has continued to influence artistic development, from the Renaissance right into the Neo-Classical period of the modern era.
Medieval Art – 6th to 15th Century
The fall of the Roman Empire, at the end of the 5th century, saw the widespread emergence of Christianity throughout Europe. For the next 1000 years, through the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic styles, the church played a dominant role in all aspects of Western life. The early part of this period is characterized by ‘decorative arts’, such as tapestries, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and mosaics. Now considered ‘minor arts’, at the time, these types of artworks were held in higher esteem than the paintings and sculpture of the day.
Renaissance Art – 14th to 17th Century
Characterized by an interest in science, logic, and reason, the Renaissance, which began in Florence, Italy, brought a resurgence of interest in Classical art and philosophy. This engendered a new, ‘scientific’ attitude that influenced not only the arts, but science, literature, biology, and politics. It was a time of a flurry of great inventions. Certainly, the invention of the telescope, and the teachings of Copernicus, played a major role in the ‘inquisitive’ spirit of the time, questioning Man’s place in the universe. The development of the idea of perspective, as well as the invention of oil-based pigments, brought about a fundamental change in drawing and painting. And the invention of the printing press and moveable type enabled an era of mass communication, forever changing the nature of social networks. The ensuing increase in literacy brought about vast economic consequences, enabling the growth of a ‘middle class’. The Renaissance is thus considered to be the beginning of the ‘Modern Age’.
Baroque/Rocco Art – 1600-1750
The ornate style known as Baroque was encouraged by the Catholic Church to counter the emerging Protestant influence on the arts. And by the mid-18th century, it had morphed into an even more flamboyant style, known as Rococo. Sometimes stigmatized as overly ornate and complicated, many of the great masters of the period, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Lorenzo Bernini, created stunning iconic artworks.
Neoclassicism – 1750 to 1800
Neoclassicism, pushing to counter the ‘garishness of the Rococo style, was a return to the reasoned simplicity of the Classical antiquity. As such, Neoclassicism, with its emphasis on objectivity and truth, was the artistic result of the Enlightenment. Some of the great neoclassic include Ingres and Jean-Louis David. But in the short span of some 50 years, political events, such as the French and Industrial Revolutions, conspired to move public tastes and sentiment in yet another direction.
Romanticism – 1800 to 1850
Romanticism was characterized by a heightened interest in nature and the emotions. It rejected the stylized purity of the the Neoclassic movement, in favor of the individual feelings of the artist. This period continued a push to a more modern style, and spawned many great iconic masters, such as Delacroix, Turner, Constable, and Goya.
Impressionism – 1848 to 1900
The seeds of modern art begin with the movement known as Impressionism. Rather than capture an objective reality, as was the aim of Realism, the movement that preceded it, Impressionism was an attempt by artists to capture ‘the feel’ of the way that light illuminated a scene, as opposed to the objective ‘look’ of light. Art of this period begins to take on a decidedly individual and subjective thrust, and opens the door to a string of modern art movements, from Fauvism and Expressionism, to Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Art. Some of the most important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists include Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Manet, along with Cezanne, van Gogh, Gaugin, and Seurat.
The Modern Era 1915 – Present
Just as history does not stop, nor is there an end to its defining artistic movements. Certainly, though, one of the defining characteristics of all of the artistic movements of the 20th century is the ‘no holds barred’ approach to what art is and can be. Fauvism, for example,, brought an unbounded experimental approach to the use of color. And just as Einstein’s ideas were beginning to shape our understanding of the physical world, Expressionism and Cubism were making use of an altered geometry to describe the ‘inner world’ of the artist. Just as Freud’s ideas elevated the importance of the ‘dream world’, so, too, Surrealism did the same in the art world.
This brief history of art provides only the most cursory commentary to illustrate how art is a reflection, or often, a reaction, to events in history. Art is more than just a satisfying visual experience. Art is important because it provides a pathway, from where we have been, to where we are going. I expect to keep growing as an artist, and realize that the more in touch I am with the world, the better my art will become.