BLOG Category: StudentAmbassadorProgram


Exclusive Modernism: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Marcel Duchamp.
The Classical Male Nude and its Damaging Legacy
The male gaze made marble: The Aphrodite of Knidos by the Ancient Greek Praxiteles
The Art of Change: Women on Waves Activist Art Org
The Underwater Museum
The Emotive Landscapes of Wu Guanzhong
The Agnes Martin Experience

Exclusive Modernism: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Marcel Duchamp.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a German artist, poet and pioneer of Performance Art, working in the early 20th century. Often adorned with extravagant found-object costumes she rejected the limitations of traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture. The publisher of The Little Review, Jane Heap, described the Baroness as “the first American dada […] dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada”.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, untitled, 1900, photograph: glass negative, 12.7 x 17.78 cm, George Grantham Bain Collection. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Elsa_von_Freytag-Loringhoven.jpg

‘The Baroness’, as she was known, was a true embodiment of the movement. Why, then, was she not celebrated in her lifetime, ultimately dying in poverty with very limited success of her ground-breaking works? When we look back at Dada, Marcel Duchamp is hailed as the most influential figure of this movement (and the very father of Conceptual Art, a god-like status for the artist), however, the Baroness’ work paralleled his experimentation with the nature of the art object.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, God, 1917, photograph Gelatin silver print, 24.1 x 19.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photographed by Morton Schamberg). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22God%22_by_Baroness_Elsa_von_Freytag-Loringhoven_and_Morton_Schamberg_MET_DP137411.jpg
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, porcelain urinal, 36 x 48 x 61 cm, (Photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, gelatin silver print, College of Art and Design Collection). Duchamp’s original 1917 sculpture photographed by Stieglitz was lost however, a reproduction is housed at the Tate Modern, London. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marcel_Duchamp,_1917,_Fountain,_photograph_by_Alfred_Stieglitz.jpg

From her early sentiments of desire and admiration, the Baroness had a change of heart towards Duchamp in the 1920s. Her poem Graveyard Surrounding Nunnery (1921) starts with the lines “When I was/ Young—foolish—/ I loved Marcel Dushit”. This scathing comment underlines the animosity she felt towards him. In another poem, Café du Dome (1927), published in the year of her death, the Baroness criticised the recognition and success that male figures received for their work while her accomplishments were largely ignored. Again, the Baroness directly refers to Duchamp with the line “Marcelled—”. By converting his name into a verb, she presents the elevation of Duchamp’s status and success within the art world as a common occurrence. Male artists are “Marcelled” into success, while the Baroness’ triumphs are overlooked. In the first line, the Baroness portrays her frustration by replacing the ordinarily used expression “for the love of God” to “For the love of Mike!”, substituting God with a contemporary male name, thus elevating the male figure to a divine status. Later in the poem, the male image is presented as a Christ figure on the cross with suctiondiscs, alluding to nails in his palms and “Topped avec rubberthistlewreath” as the crown of thorns. Significantly, the images which should invoke suffering, in this instance do not: sharp thorns and nails have been replaced with inoffensive rubber. The Baroness uses God imagery to ridicule Duchamp’s status and present him as a false prophet, which subverts the very language she once used to express her admiration, calling him her only God. The poem refers to both the Baroness’ criticism of Duchamp and the gendered exclusiveness of the art world.


Café du Dôme in Paris, a popular site in Paris for artists, literati and eccentrics to frequent at the beginning of the twentieth century.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_-_Cafe_Dome.jpg

Another example of the Baroness’ criticism of Duchamp can be seen in her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1920-22). The abstract portrait is an assemblage of collected found objects: fishing lure, metal cogs, and feathers bursting out of a wine glass in an extravagant display. The overall image of the sculpture is hectic. It is busy with objects that distract the viewer, and the showy exterior potentially conceals a lack of substance referring to the Baroness’ view on Duchamp. Fundamentally, though, there is no value or substance to these objects. Many elaborate elements refer to the sitter, the ostentatious peacock feathers protrude outwards, alluding to Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, which he used in many of his artworks. However, it is possible that the Baroness was presenting Duchamp as a rare bird and praising his creative endeavors, but it is more likely intended to mock the artist. The trinket-like collection of items acts as a physical embodiment of the Baroness’ view that Duchamp’s work is insubstantial, echoing her poems.

The Baroness’ view on Duchamp changes throughout decades of working alongside him. Male artists have contributed to the development of Modernism, being recognised for the achievements and developments in their fields, whereas the Baroness and other female artists were, until the recently, almost forgotten in the narrative of Modernism, or more often relegate ed to the male artist’s muse. The Baroness often addresses the exclusivity of the modern art world in her work. The difference in acceptance between Duchamp’s and the Baroness’ artwork reveals a patriarchal society and calls for a reexamination of rejected or lost female artists. 

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1920-22, Found object sculpture peacock feathers, a gear wire, fishing lure and a wine glass, Photograph: platinum silver print, 20.3 x 15.2 cm. (Photographed by Charles Sheeler and published in The Little review Vol. 9, no. 2, page 41).
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Portrait_of_Marcel_Duchamp_by_Baroness_Freytag-Lohringhoven_Charles_Sheeler.jpg

Next: choose to explore to explore further these artists and movements:
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Marcel Duchamp
Dada
Readymade and The Found Object


Sarah Daniels is a recent Fine Art and Art History graduate from Plymouth University and part of the second cohort of Student Ambassadors for The Art Story. She has an interest in the reception of women artists and the depiction of the female form in Modernism and plans to pursue a career in art writing and museum/gallery roles.

The Classical Male Nude and its Damaging Legacy

Wandering the rooms of Europe’s most prestigious art institutions, it would be natural to find numerous striking examples of classical male nudes. Whether you are looking at Michelangelo’s statue of David in the ‎Galleria dell’Accademia or Caravaggio’s painting Victorious Cupid at the Gemäldegalerie, no doubt you will be overcome with admiration for their artistry and magnificence. In that awestruck moment, you might not realise how influential these classical representations of the body have been for the perception of male gender throughout history, nor how damaging.

I would argue that what has traditionally and stereotypically been defined as ‘male’ can be traced through the history of the classical male nude.


Michelangelo’s David, located at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, is the epitome of what comes to mind when thinking about the classical male nude. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo%27s_David-Galleria_dell%27Accademia.jpg

The history of the male nude

The tradition of the nude in Western art originates from Ancient Greece, where the naked male body was celebrated throughout society and in artistic representations. Sculptors chose to honour their gods and warriors with nude statues, applying increasingly realistic human features. Statues became a convenient canvas for sculptors to explore the personality traits and ideal characteristics that the Greeks believed epitomised the male gender. Men, seen as the superior and canonical sex, were associated with power, strength and moral excellence. Gradually, the representation of the male body looking muscular, powerful, alert, balanced, and flawless developed to parallel Greek concepts.

An example of the style of the male nude from antiquity is provided by this Roman recreation of the Greek Polykleitos’ sculpture of Doryphoros (120-50 BCE). Countless male nude sculptures have survived and are housed today in major European art institutions.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doryphoros_MAN_Napoli_Inv6011-2.jpg

Even though the nude was unpopular in the Middle Ages, its classical style was revived during the Renaissance where it was accepted as the ideal representation of the male gender. The male nude quickly became the pinnacle of artistic practice, an important motif for aspiring artists to master and central to grand biblical and historical paintings. In its well-established classical form, the male nude retained its supremacy within high art and was largely unchanged until the 19th century.

Jacques-Louis David’s painting, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), provides an example of the unaltered form of the classical male nude, even by 1814. The muscular and alert figure established in antiquity is visible here in this Neoclassical history painting. Neoclassicism helped to preserve the classical male nude as it reinvigorated antique styles and kept it as a central motif within historical paintings. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Modern_greek_thermopylae.jpg

How has the classical male nude historically damaged the perception of male gender?

With an understanding of the classical definition and representation of the masculine sex, it is obvious that modern society has witnessed little progression towards different perceptions. For instance, even now men continue to be thought of as strong and powerful and are arguably still the superior sex in society. Moreover, the classical depiction of the male body, muscular and flawless, has persisted as the ‘ideal’ form for the male gender.

If you think about 21st century society, isn’t the ideal male body, though starkly different from the average man, still evidently present and indeed coveted? Examples of it are readily found and promoted, not only in the classical sculptures and paintings integrated into western culture, but now in magazines, and advertisements, and on TV programmes and social media platforms.


But, the stereotype of ‘the ideal male’ has had a damaging influence, where men collectively face pressure to look and act the endorsed way. As clearly established in classical representations, men must look strong and honed, while demonstrating their invulnerability. Undeniably, society unfavourably views and discourages displaying traits outside of the ‘ideal’, such as fragility and feebleness. Ultimately, the legacy of the classical male nude has resulted in restrictions on the diversity of the male figure and a distorted male identity.

What are artists doing to combat this?

The implications of the ideal male nude have yet to be explored thoroughly by art historians. Artists, however, have been challenging its damaging stereotypes since the end of the 19th century with revolutionary depictions of non-idealised male bodies. Forerunners in the fight to counter stereotypes and re-evaluate male identity include Egon Schiele, David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe. These artists shattered the constrictive mould of the classical male nude by creating new styles and highlighting alternative characteristics in their representations of the naked male body.

Egon Schiele, and also Lucian Freud much later in the 20th century, challenged idealisation by experimenting with ‘anti-heroic’ male figures. Painting from strange angles and with intense colours, Schiele contorted and deformed the male body to the point where it became almost frightening and uncomfortable to view.

Schiele’s ‘anti-heroic’ male body can be seen in his Self-Portrait with Splayed Fingers (1911).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Egon_Schiele_-_Self-Portrait_with_Splayed_Fingers_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
With Freud’s non-idealised male nudes, exemplified here in his Naked Man with Rat (1977), the artist explored the reality of fleshy, flawed, and unflattering bodies.
View larger image on Google Images

In the 1960s, David Hockney questioned the tradition of overt ‘masculinity’ in male nudes by patenting a tender and more feminine body. He incorporated untraditional vulnerability and taboo homoeroticism into his brightly coloured scenes of male nudity.

Hockney’s Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964), portraying a man with a graceful figure bending down in the shower, is a typical example of Hockney’s intimate male nudity scenes.
View larger image on Google Images

In his well-known photographs of male genitalia, Robert Mapplethorpe assigned greater sexuality and a new submissiveness to the male body. Displayed in the 1970s, they were extremely controversial during a period when full frontal male nudity was still sensitive, especially in the explicit way that Mapplethorpe championed. His intention was to utilise confrontational depictions of genitalia to demonstrate the inherent, but traditionally hidden, sexuality of the male body.

Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 ½) (1976) is a poignant example of Mapplethorpe’s beautiful black-and-white explicit photography. Modern representations such as Mapplethorpe’s show that the classical male nude of Ancient Greece or the Renaissance has evolved beyond the point of recognition. Artists in the 20th century ensured that there was no longer a stock style to the male body, by showing the infinite possibilities of representation.
View larger image on Google Images

As I have reasoned, by understanding the history of the classical male nude, you can begin to understand society’s stereotypical and somewhat harmful perception of the male gender. The next chapter of its history is being crafted by dissatisfied modern artists who are redefining the representation of men in art with their powerful and revolutionary nude images.


Hi, my name is Katie Price and I’m a Student Ambassador for the second cohort at The Art Story. I’m currently a second-year student at the University of Birmingham studying a joint-honours in history and history of art. Personally, I love the fact that art provides access to the past and a way to understand it, through analysing the processes and products of human creativity from different periods.

The male gaze made marble: The Aphrodite of Knidos by the Ancient Greek Praxiteles

In mid-fourth-century-BCE Athens, a sculptor named Praxiteles created a statue whose artistic and cultural impact has been felt across Western Art for the subsequent two-and-a-half-thousand years. The Aphrodite of Knidos is considered to be the first ever full female nude in ancient Greek art. She stands with one hand holding a towel, the other loosely covering her genitals. Clearly the goddess is preparing to bathe, and the viewer has stumbled into a private moment. In Greek mythology, a mortal who accidentally glimpses such a sight might be turned into a stag and torn apart by his own dogs in punishment. But the viewer here is safe to gaze. Aphrodite’s face is calm, and she has not spotted you. 


The Aphrodite of Knidos entered legend almost at the moment of her creation. First-century-AD Roman writer Pliny the Elder described how the city of Cos, to whom Praxiteles originally offered the statue, was horrified at her nakedness and turned it down. Knidos, to whom Praxiteles then offered her, was canny enough to accept. She soon became a major tourism draw to the city where she was publicly displayed. Reports then circulated that she was modelled after Praxiteles’ rumoured mistress, the famous courtesan Phryne. In the second century BCE, poems were popularly written about it, such as this one by Antipater of Sidon, which imagined the goddess mortified at its lifelikeness:

‘As Venus looked upon the Venus on Knidos she said: “Alas! How came Praxiteles to see me bare?”

 In a later story the statue even gains a death toll. According to legend, a young man had fallen in love with it, but, after the humiliation of being discovered attempting to physically consummate his love with the marble, threw himself off a cliff.


Thus, the context of production and historical reception of the Aphrodite has been deeply eroticised, ever driven by the male reaction to the female nude. In Classical Athenian society, women were barely allowed out of the home, let alone displayed so brazenly naked in public art. Furthermore, the shock that this statue created in the fourth century BCE stemmed also from its departure from established artistic traditions. As far as we know, the Aphrodite of Knidos stands as the first ever female nude sculpture in classical art, despite a long tradition of heroic male nudes. Compare her, for example, to the demure korai,which stand on the Athenian acropolis. Praxiteles was also one of the first ever Greek artists to make free-standing sculptures from marble, moving on from the traditional cast bronze. The realistic flesh-like qualities of marble made the sculpture’s exposed breasts and curves yet more shocking to its audience.

Four caryatids at the Erechtheum, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b5/Four_Caryatids_erechtheum_Acropolis_Athens.jpg/442px-Four_Caryatids_erechtheum_Acropolis_Athens.jpg

This statue began a long tradition of female nudes in Western art. Even aside from the many straight copies of the statue, her influence can be seen in later works. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c.1484-86) clearly borrows the modest gestures and contrapposto grace of the Knidos. Later artists begin to deconstruct Praxiteles’ model of passive subject and active viewer. Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534) recalls the statue, but in a reclining position. This Venus, however, stares the viewer boldly in the face, and the hand on her genitals seems to touch more than hide. The slight smile of Titian’s model aims for a more intimate viewer relationship, as the painting was made for a single patron’s private collection. This painting has a mirror image in Manet’s Olympia (1863), though the model’s stiff pose and tense hand makes for a less comfortable image of Parisian prostitution. The uproar when it was first publicly exhibited in 1865 at the Paris Salon clearly proved that the shock of the female nude had not yet subsided.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Birth of Venus,
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6a/Birth_of_Venus.jpg/800px-Birth_of_Venus.jpg
Titian (1490-1576), Venus of Urbino, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bb/Tiziano_-_Venere_di_Urbino_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/800px-Tiziano_-_Venere_di_Urbino_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6a/Manet%2C_Edouard_-_Olympia%2C_1863.jpg/800px-Manet%2C_Edouard_-_Olympia%2C_1863.jpg

The Venus Pudica, or modest Venus trope, that is seen again and again throughout Western art, can thus largely be traced back to this one statue. Yet all the artworks mentioned have in common a male artist displaying the female body with varying degrees of agency. The Aphrodite of Knidos is an artwork of wonderful grace and sensitivity. Its audience, however, has to contend with its role as an active—voyeuristic—viewer of an idealised and passive subject.   



I’m Teresa Macnab, and I am acting as a Student Ambassador for the second cohort @ The Art Story this summer. I have just graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in Classics, during which I took as many art history modules as possible! I’m interested in the interaction between literary and art history to tell stories, particularly in the ancient world.

The Art of Change: Women on Waves Activist Art Org

Activist art is a combination of strategic actions for social change and the ability of art to move our hearts, provoke deep thoughts, and start looking at the world differently. The trend of activist art began to take shape in the 1990s, but it does not have a single origin. One can look to Ricardo Dominguez, an American artist and professor at the University of California in San Diego, and the meetings between the Zapatistas and American artists of Mexican origin (Chicano) in 1997 in east Los Angeles, for early examples.

Although activist art has been discussed in art discourse since the 1990s, it still lacks a clear definition. It is a manifestation of global artistic initiatives that come from different backgrounds, theories, and social motives, and, consequently, it is defined by many different terms: Socially Engaged Art, Committed Art, Community Art, Dialogic Art, Intervention Art, Relational Art, Artivism, etc.

This trend is one of the key practices of contemporary art, as activist art projects aim to prove the inextricable relationship between art and everyday life. Artists involved in this practice do not have a common style like Surrealism, Cubism, or Pointillism, or a similar medium such as sculpture, film, music, or performance, but many of the artists describe their art as inter-human exchange.  Following this idea, the only link that connects activist artists is that people are integral to the artworks.  

Rebecca Gomperts, head of Women on Waves. Copyright Free Image

One example of this practice is an activist organisation, Women on Waves, started by Rebecca Gomperts, who wanted to call attention to women’s situations in countries that outlaw abortion. In her opinion, the inability for women to make the choice to end a pregnancy with medical support leads to unsafe operations that very often end with health problems or even death. The aim was to create a fully-equipped boat of medical supplies where every woman would be provided with the required sexual health-services, including a consultation with a specialist or even an early medical abortion pill.

Logo of Women on Web organisation

Since 2005, the organisation also works online as Women on Web and provides information about safe abortions, pregnancy, birth, health and sex. Women are still able to receive legal abortion pills through contact with a specialist.

The grant that funded Women on Waves came from the Mondriaan Fund, a Dutch non-profit organisation for visual art that helps artists. Rebecca Gomperts earned a degree in art at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam before going on to attend medical school. Women on Waves used what is referred to as the “A-Portable”, a specially rigged boat designed by artist and sculptor Atelier van Lieshout, as a mobile gynaecological clinic, which also functions as an art installation and was exhibited in Portugal at the Ute Meta Bauer’s Women Building exhibition and in Amsterdam at the Mediamatic art space.

The purpose of creating this organisation as a part of the art world wasn’t just to draw attention to the matter of women’s rights, but to actually make changes and give people choices. Women on Waves was created as an art project in order to raise the money to start the campaign. “We’ve always been interested in the link between activism and art,” says Kinja Manders, project manager for Women on Waves, “and in finding creative and conceptual solutions that are on the edge.”

Artistic activism combines two very different concepts. Art is supposed to have an emotional impact on us, as well as a certain affect, while activism aims to change something and achieve a desired effect. The Women on Waves organisation shows how different artistic activism is compared to traditional ways of creating art. It shows that art can be everything, even a fight to have a legal and safe abortion, and that activism can be designed and exhibited.



Written by Zofia Nowakowska, Student Ambassador for The Art Story. I recently, graduated with a BA Fine Art from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. I’m passionate about conceptual and socially-engaged art, and my research focuses on the impact of digitalisation on the art world.

The Underwater Museum

“It is named a museum for a simple reason. Every day we dredge, pollute and overfish our oceans, while museums are places of preservation, of conservation, and of education. They are places where we keep objects that have great value to us. Our oceans are sacred.” Jason deCaires Taylor

When most people think of a museum they think of a grand building in a thriving city, full of treasures from the past. The museum spoken about here resides not in a bustling city but on the seabed of sunny Caribbean island of Grenada.

In 2006, the artist Jason deCaires Taylor made the bold decision to take his 75 sculptures underwater to form an ‘ocean floor empire’.  By moving the artwork away from the traditional modes of exhibition, he created an entirely new art-viewing experience for the viewer — one in which they have to physically dive to the ocean floor or take a trip on a glass bottomed boat.

What is most special about these sculptures is not just their submerged location, but that the sculptures themselves act as artificial coral reefs, encouraging the growth of marine life. The artist crafted them from a long-lasting and pH neutral cement that acts as a stable platform on which coral and algae can grow.  This underwater sculpture park was made with the rejuvenation of the coral reefs in mind. Not only do they stimulate growth and re-population, they also draw visitors away from the natural coral reefs, protecting them from any harm that may be inflicted upon them by inexperienced divers.


Inertia, 2011. Jason deCaires Taylor, The Underwater Museum. https://www.flickr.com/photos/78134895@N03/12770648143

Taylor’s work is a social commentary on environmental concerns, as portrayed in his work titled Inertia (2011). He depicts a man lounging on a couch watching TV surrounded by waste and junk food. Taylor here criticises the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans and exposes how this issue is rooted in our consumption habits. The presence of the plastic bottle and fast food shows how, as a society, we are in the habit of developing an unnecessary amount of waste and a certain of percentage of that waste end up in the oceans. It makes us think about the refuse we produce and how we can alter our consumption habits in order to better protect our planet.

Jason deCaires Taylor, The Underwater Museum. https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-owvqx

Taylor also intends with these works was to merge art and nature; creating something that can be both at the same time. One viewer understood this intention, posting on social media, ‘how magnificent the way nature, life merges with your creations, becoming more beautiful every passing year.’   The sculptures possess an air of shifting permanence, in that they stay fixed in place at the bottom of the ocean but are slowly transformed by the organisms living on them.

Even though taking his works underwater creates something new and exciting in the world of art, it does come with its issues. The most obvious one being that to view these sculptures one must spend a considerable amount of money — on renting scuba gear and traveling to a remote and expensive tropical island — much more money than one would spend visiting a traditional gallery or museum; the cost adds an air of exclusivity around the work and prevents some from experiencing it.

Although these works may have their issues, it is undeniable that they are not only beautiful sculptures but also serve an actual function within the real world.

Environmental Art developed alongside rising global concerns surrounding the state of the environment’s health and our impacts as humans upon it. Taylor’s work exposes our negative impact on the coral reefs and how we, as a collective, can help restore the ocean’s reefs. While creating artificial eco systems that are repopulating the ocean’s reefs, Taylor’s work also comments on race, politics, and other social issues.

We live in a time where our positive impact on the environment is more crucial than ever; I therefore think pieces like the ones Taylor creates could not be more necessary and relevant. He uses the power of art to raise awareness of the issues our oceans face and draws visitors into the environment in which he is trying to save; spurring them into action. His work leaves you with an admiration of art and the natural world and I truly believe this combination of art and activism is the key to making a difference.



My name is Hannah Stokoe and I am part of the second cohort of Student Ambassadors at the Art Story. I am a postgraduate in Art History with a passion for heritage and museology – I am most interested in the recent measures taken in the museum and heritage sector, to keep our institutions up to date and culturally relevant. An example of this is decolonisation in Museums, a topic that is close to my heart and hopefully one that I can actively participate in as my career develops.

The Emotive Landscapes of Wu Guanzhong

Individualism and subjectivity are central to art, and art is the product of an artist’s unique expression of human emotions. This was Wu Guanzhong’s belief, which he carried with him throughout his artistic career. Throughout his practice, he explored multiple mediums and subject matters (ranging from nude paintings to landscapes), but landscapes form a large part of his oeuvre and became the predominant subject matter through which he demonstrated his belief.

The dynamic quality and tendency of natural landscapes to evolve over time lends itself well as an endless source of inspiration to Wu’s practice. As Wu said, “Sketching from life is drawing and composing and creating” (See: 2010 video including an interview with Wu).  Thus, the process should be organic, led by emotions, followed by observation. A work which exemplifies the creative product of this process is Running Stream (1988). Trees emerge from bold, organic strokes of black ink, standing firmly in the foreground; their leaves are rendered in wispy brushstrokes, as if blown by the wind. Faint washes of ink wind around the trees to become the running stream that sweeps across the entire landscape. Further back, a misty grey surrounds distant trees, and amongst them, flowers are represented by Wu’s signature dots of colors. His dynamic strokes capture the movement of the landscape, whilst preserving the calm that accompanies a natural retreat. Instead of just capturing how a stream might look, Wu emphasized the movement of the stream and the feelings of the observer – calm and pensive when faced with the beauty of the landscape. Wu brings a unique subjectivity to his interpretation of such scenes to create his poetic landscapes.

The significance of his landscapes intensifies with the knowledge of his experience during China’s Cultural Revolution. Much like how restrictions now form a large part of our lives, Wu Guanzhong lived in a time of restrictions under the Communist Party. Penalized for deviating from state-supported, Social Realist subjects, he was banned from painting for seven years and later bound to strict rules that only allowed him to paint once a week. Still, Wu rejected the notion of art as a servant to politics. Instead, he insisted that emotions came first in the art-making process, which then determined the content of the work. After destroying his figural works which risked being labelled as counter-revolutionary by the Red Guards, Wu dedicated himself to landscapes, a way for him to continue art-making despite unfavorable circumstances.

Yearning for hometown, 1998
In the late 1990s, Wu, then in his 70s, painted many works corresponding to memories of his childhood and hometown.
Copyright – Fair Use

With the expression of emotions as the connecting thread throughout his oeuvre, Wu was never bound by geographical or cultural boundaries; he melded Western abstraction with Chinese ink aesthetics, painted Europe with ink techniques, and captured historic towns in China with oil paint. Two personal favorites which exemplify his fusion of East and West are Yearning for hometown (1998) and Childhood (2003), both set in China. The former depicts a water town, not unlike Yixing where Wu grew up, with clustered houses reduced to semi-abstract structures, trees by river banks growing from calligraphic lines, and scattered patches of green, red and yellow for foliage. The bright, lively colors are reminiscent of flowers growing in spring. These elements evoke the pleasant memories Wu had of his hometown and convey the nostalgia he has for the place. In Childhood, the houses are represented by geometric forms with soft edges, only vaguely distinct from the murky grey of the stream that washes down the middle. He utilizes abstraction to convey the familiarity of a distant memory, recognizable yet blurry, expressing the wistfulness he feels for the past.

Beyond his native China, Wu had a deep attachment to Paris, where he studied between 1947 and 1950 before returning to China. Inspired by European artists such as Impressionist Maurice Utrillo, Wu adopted a viewpoint similar to Utrillo’s La Rue Norvins à Montmartre in his 1989 painting Montmartre of Paris (V), and captured the neighborhood in expressive strokes and a semi-abstract style when he returned to Paris that year for a commission. Wu painted Montmartre because he felt that it was “the hometown of his artistry” and “the Mecca of artists around the world”. The colors in Montmartre of Paris (V) are reminiscent of the color scheme of Chinese ink paintings with white, grey, and black. With his mastery of both mediums, the differences between Chinese ink-and-wash and Western oil painting were not barriers, but rather, tools of his intercultural artistic expression.

Wu Guanzhong’s emotive landscapes, ranging from the mountains and water towns of China to cities of Europe, are testaments of his firm belief that art making was a subjective process in which emotions held a central role. His landscapes speak of his life story and artistic practice, which transcends geographical borders and pushes cultural boundaries.



Hi there! I’m Constance, a student ambassador for The Art Story. I’m currently an intercollegiate student at UCL and SOAS studying Asian, African and European art history, with an interest in genre paintings and contemporary Asian art (amongst many others, the list goes on!). I believe art has immense potential to move and connect people, and contributing to a collective effort to make art more accessible is why I’m here! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this little piece of work from me, and do keep a look out for more here on The Art Story!

The Agnes Martin Experience

As a recent graduate of art history,  there are few things in the world I feel certain about. General life queries aside, I’m struck by the feeling that learning about something in depth can amount to more questions than answers. For example, when asked recently something as easy as my favourite artist, threeyears ago it would have been a simple response (Gustav Klimt), yet now, several nights in the library and many 9am seminars later,  I wouldn’t know where to begin. This uncertainty is irritating but not all bad, it shows an openness to new things and a knowledge that art is not something easily categorizable into ‘favourite’, ‘least favourite’, ‘modern’, ‘historic’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. One thing that I am confident in,however, is that of all the images that have titled my lecture slides and library books, it is consistently the most aesthetically simple pieces that ‘do’ the most for me. This post is designed to delve into some of the work of American-Canadian artist Agnes Martin and understand how, by changing the way we as viewers look at art, there is much to consider in the most uncomplicated of works.

Similar to the Abstract Expressionists, as Martin also often labelled herself, her work has a distinct reduction of ‘visual language’. By this, it is to say that her work consists not so much of pictures of  things, like we may be more accustomed to seeing in traditional works of landscape and portraiture, but instead it’s comprised only of the minimal components that ‘make’ a picture. For instance,  her large canvasses are most often covered in repeated lines  and blocks of colour. A question often raised by viewers is the extent to which something of such seemingly basic composition can be considered art, and a judgement often cast is that works of Martin’s ilk (see Jackson Pollock, Eva Hesse, and Mark Rothko, the latter of whom I shall discuss in more depth later on) can be aesthetically pleasing but serve a similar purpose to decorative wallpaper. However, my belief is that these opinions are due to the fact that we as a collective audience are used to assessing works of art as something objective, as we may a storybook where we are mere recipients of information and therefore very separate from the piece itself. Yet now as we metaphorically stand before an Agnes Martin piece, in order to try to fully understand the work (take Friendship 1963 below for reference) we must change that and properly involve ourselves in the work by asking not ‘what can I see?’ but ‘what can I feel?’ and ‘what does this piece do to me?’.

Friendship, 1963.
Spanning just over 6ft on each side, Friendship is one of three images that Martin made of gold leaf and gesso.

I’m aware I may have lost some of you already. Asking an audience to actively ‘engage’ with something hanging on a wall takes a large leap outside of many people’s comfort zones, perhaps it feels a little new-age or ‘arty farty’ as my parents call it. It’s understandable, many people go to a gallery to be told stories by the paintings, where history is readily accessible in frames to look at and digest; there is a comfort in the fact this kind of art delivers a particular message. However, with work such as Martin’s, we ourselves become far more involved than we had perhaps bargained for. Instead of looking for information or a character’s narrative in the works,  we should experience the piece first hand for ourselves. As we scan our eyes across the rows from left to right and back again, our experiences are likely to vary. For instance, for me, the process is a physical one as my eyes engage in a repetitive motion row after row after row, it becomes almost hypnotic. For others, this may be more mental as they perhaps allow themselves to make their own associations between the repetition and the proximity of the blocks, the sparkling gold leaf and the title. Maybe this makes you feel something about your friendships? Maybe it doesn’t. Ultimately, the simplicity and openness of Martin’s work gives the viewer space and time to consider the piece for themselves rather than dictate a scene or story directly to each member of the audience. 

 Upon the reduction of visual language, what I personally experience is a heightened interest in the components I can recognise here. Take another example below, though Martin did not design On a Clear Day to communicate a particular message for a viewer, I am particularly drawn to think more about the decisions made regarding the background colour, the making of the grid, the scale of the canvas. As we envisage the work’s making (how did Martin draw these lines? What was the sky like when she chose the colour of this background?), it is worth noting that there is a shift in the emphasis of what the actual “art” here is. We should begin to ask, is art only ever what is on the canvas, or does it consist of something more than that? From what was once a total interest inwhat hangs on the wall, we now begin to think more seriously about how it came to be, and then, as we consider and interpret, we ourselves become integral to the creation of a meaning to the work. This merging of art and its audience is something that Martin herself craved; she said, ‘the value of art is in the observer’.

On A Clear Day, 1973.
This piece was one of thirty individual screen prints. Shortly after this series was finished Martin returned to painting.

This ability for Martin’s works to make a viewer authentically feel something rather than search for representation of feelings in characters’ faces is what makes Martin an ‘Abstract Expressionist’. Another example of this can be seen if we take, for instance, the Mark Rothko painting below:

Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, 1947.
This piece is very typical of Rothko’s later style as he experimented more in darker palettes.
Copyright – Fair Use

The 8ft 4in canvas towers above its audience, with deep hues of black and red. We, as viewers, can stand in front of these expansive pieces and know the shadow they cast, the depth of the colours,  their sublime quality. Some may feel overwhelmed, or impressed, or perhaps disinterested, but nonetheless it invokes something that we ourselves truly feel. In a similar sense to Martin, we are invited by the simplicity of the piece to engage with it directly as we would any object occupying a space that we are also in. Martin’s  geometries may transfix us, Rothko’s hues may dwarf us, either could make us turn our heads to the side in an attempt to deduce some form of image, but importantly, in some shape or form, we end up interacting with the canvas as a feature of the real world. 

Some sceptics may claim that the landscapes of John Constable and the portraits of Hans Holbein will always inform or educate a viewer more than plain blocks of paint. While this may be true, I implore you to consider that learning and experiencing are not in fact mutually exclusive but too often considered so. Once we become practised in the alternative way of looking that Martin’s work requires, where we become an important part of the chain in the total making of the art,  we may look at more traditional paintings with fresh eyes and be better equipped to experience a Constable or a Holbein piece than we ever have before. 


Hannah Kettles
Hannah is an art history graduate from the University of Nottingham (UK), she has focused predominantly on post-WWII art throughout her degree and has a keen interest in Abstract Expressionism. Hannah is one of five members of our first cohort of the 2020 Art Story Student Ambassador Programme.