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The Politics of American Art in the Mid-20th Century
Chris Burden: Exposing the museum’s system of power
Looking Back to Move Forward in the Time of a Pandemic
Alchemy as Science: The Surrealist Works of Leonora Carrington
Postcolonial symbolism in the work of Hew Locke
Egon Schiele: Depictions of the female nude as empowering or egotistical?
Windows to the World: Windows in Art
Artemisia Gentileschi: The Long Road to Recognition
Sol LeWitt - Why is this art!?
When museums went online: a guided tour of world galleries’ online online.
Embodying Post-war Angst: Kazuo Shiraga’s Choreographies
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

The Politics of American Art in the Mid-20th Century

20th-century American art exemplifies the repercussions of politics and propaganda which can be read into many art works. From Dorothea Lange’s social criticism in the form of intimate portraits, to Jackson Pollock’s paint splatters becoming symbols of American freedom, to Martha Rosler’s collages literally ‘bringing the war home’, these artists’ works all came to carry the heavy weight of political messages, regardless of whether or not that was their original intention.  

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lange 

Portraits of the Great Depression 

Throughout the Depression of the 1930s, Dorothea Lange captured American history through somber portraits of those suffering from staggering economic loss, showing the harsh realities many were facing. Lange’s Migrant Mother, described by the Museum of Modern Art as ‘the most recognizable image from the Great Depression’, epitomizes the uncertainty, strain, and responsibilities shared among individuals during this time. Lange’s photographs focused typically on a sole, individual subject, leading the viewer to form an intimate rapport and care for the person portrayed and, then, often sympathizing with the devastation of their social conditions. While today there is a detachment from the immediate repercussions of the Great Depression, Lange’s portraits are still incredibly emotive and exemplify the power of image. 

Between 1935 and 1944, the Farm Security Administration hired writers and photographers, including Lange, to document the situation farmers faced as a result of the Depression. Led by Roy Stryker, this cultural work was intended to help in reinvigorating President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. Perhaps not anticipated was Lange’s implicit criticism of the faults of capitalism and in turn the former US President Herbert Hoover’s laissez-faire attitude, which directly impacted the prolonged hardships faced by her subjects, who were on the lowest rungs of the capitalist hierarchy. 

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 1950  https://www.theartstory.org/artist/pollock-jackson/artworks/#pnt_5 

Art as a Cultural Weapon  

While lacking the explicit politics of Lange’s photography, Abstract Expressionism nonetheless became political. Rather than criticize US social conditions, instead it was used by many to highlight artistic and cultural freedom in America in the face of totalitarian repression in the Soviet Union. 

Jackson Pollock famously splattered paint on to the canvas, projecting visual traces of physical and psychological movements from within himself. His style and method rejected the restrictions of Realism and instead presented a spontaneous and freeing method of creating. Cultural leaders held up Pollock’s example of creative freedom to symbolize the ‘free world’ and to criticize the Social Realism associated with communism.  

The Abstract Expressionists were not aiming to create patriotic masterpieces, and yet the powers that be tried to turn them into that. Touring exhibitions such as The New American Painting, during the 1950s, were shown across Europe to reiterate to audiences the superiority of U.S. capitalist, anti-communist society. Similarly, the support of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (an anti-communist advocacy group), which was funded and run by the CIA, promoted Abstract Expressionism further with financial and organizational support for travelling exhibitions. 

Abstraction, unrestrained size, liberal paint application, and powerful emotions evoked by color were all used to emphasize the freedom found in American arts and culture, contrasting with the restraints of Soviet Realism, which became associated with strict perspective, limited scale, and accurate color schemes in order to achieve propagandistic realism. 

Martha Rosler, Roadside Ambush from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home
c. 1967-72 More Images

The Television War

Like Lange, Martha Rosler presented compelling images of American realities, but her subjects were less localizzed and looked to the expansion of a global political consciousness. Her collages visualizzed the relationship between 1960s American households and the ongoing Vietnam War.

Rosler materialized the strangeness of the Vietnam War, often referred to as the ‘living-room war’. Her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home drew from the new television revolution of the 1960s, which coincided with nightly news coverage of the Vietnam War, the first war brought into the living rooms of millions of Americans every day.

Roadside Ambush is an extremely jarring image. The living-room scene, taken from a magazine, nods to the consumerist culture of the 1960s and the importance of keeping up with fashion and interior-design trends found in style magazines. In contrast to the idealized American home, Rosler collages a curled-up figure, taken from a photograph of a battlefield, on to the center of the scene, creating a sense of contrast and disjunction.

Rosler’s collages become political as she brings together two contrasting images of a typical American home and the Vietnam War, a commentary on how many Americans consumed both rather passively and responded to each with a kind of numbness. Advertisements showing trends in interior design were shown just as frequently as brutal images of warfare in Vietnam, eventually evoking a desensitization as the initial shock of seeing violence in Vietnam ebbed as the war continued. Through the medium of collage, Rosler reinitiates the initial shock and attention a viewer experiences in seeing violence by placing it in a normalized environment such as a living room, prompting the viewer to think more actively about what they are seeing.

Is All Art Political?

Lange’s and Rosler’s documentary art appears political due to the nature of their realistic and recognizable subjects, but Pollock’s seemingly random, apolitical paint splatters can still carry the hefty ideology of an entire country whether it wants to or not. Politics becomes available in art in many different ways, whether it is intended by the artist or inferred by the viewer. The role of the viewer becomes particularly significant when assessing the politics in art. While Lange’s and Rosler’s works begin with social and implicitly political subjects, it is the viewer who makes the connections, whether consciously or subconsciously, and recognizes how the images relate to a political situation. While not intentionally or even obviously political, the viewer can still read Pollock’s painting with a political bent when thinking more about his method of creation rather than the resultant image.

Written by Caitlin Sahin, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.

I am currently in my first year at the Courtauld Institute of Art, studying History of Art! I am most interested in Modernism to Contemporary Art and particularly like abstract art. At the moment, I am attempting to learn more about performance and sculptural art.

Chris Burden

Chris Burden: Exposing the museum’s system of power

A pioneer of contemporary art since the 1960s, Chris Burden is one of the most acclaimed and outrageous artists in art history. Mostly known for his Performance Art, he dedicated his life to the exploration of the body’s limits to suffering. Although he was mostly drawn into producing art concerned with pain, Burden also explored other matters, including the value of art and the role of the institution that sustains it. Following other like-minded artists, these ideas generated a movement of Institutional Critique, in which artists still widely engage. 

Institutional Critique explores the systems that maintain art and its processes. Drawing attention to the industry that sustains their work, artists started questioning the neutrality of galleries and museums towards the art they displayed. Although museums are seen as educational spaces, the fact is that they often have unstated biases, connections to wealth and power, and other blind spots.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971
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Burden earns himself a reputation 

After staging his controversial Shoot performance in 1971, Burden was the artist of the moment. In this daring performance, Burden asked a friend to shoot him with a rifle. The bullet was meant to just slightly scratch his arm, but the plan did not go as expected, and the bullet went a little deeper. He was undoubtedly known to be a risk-taker, but he was not suicidal. The artist explained, in his posthumous 2018 documentary, that his works were all carefully thought out, and he religiously followed a set of rules. But often, these rules were not shared with the viewers or the institution, which produced an enigmatic atmosphere around every artwork he performed.

Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975
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Doomed: The setup

After earning a reputation, Burden was invited to perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1975. In a piece titled Doomed, Burden enacted a passive performance of his potential death. To perform Doomed, the artist asked the museum for two items: an institutional clock hanging in the gallery and a large sheet of glass positioned at 45 degrees to the wall. Burden had planned to lie on the floor under the glass sheet for an undetermined time, with the clock ticking away, marking the passage of time. The piece had its origins in an interview in which Burden was asked about the duration of a performance. Burden simply replied that time did not define the quality of the piece. He subsequently created a time-based performance that included not disclosing the nature of the performance to the museum and not telling the museum that it had total control over the performance length. Time is particularly important to this performance because Burden’s life is not timeless. By handing over the control of this performance to the institution, Burden implicates the museum in his possible death.

Doomed: The Performance

On the day of the performance, an unusual crowd gathered to watch this enigmatic piece. As the viewers walked into the exhibition space, they were confronted with a clock and Burden’s body lying flat under this giant sheet of glass. At the end of the day, when the museum was about to close, the institution was faced with interrupting the piece or letting it go on. The museum decided to let the performance continue for the night, and, to the surprise and worry of everyone, the next day Burden remained in the same position. 

Later in the day, the museum asked a doctor to come and give his feedback on what they should do. The doctor said that Burden could be close to death with urine poisoning, as he had drunk no water nor gone to the bathroom. With this medical advice, the museum staff decided to invade the performance space. Little did the museum staff know that their interruption was exactly the action needed to end the performance. 

After 45 hours and 10 minutes, the institution decided to leave a jug of water near Burden to see how he would react. The artist got up and left the room to get a hammer and an envelope. He used the hammer to smash the clock and inside the sealed envelope were written the intentions of the piece, explaining the three elements (the clock, the glass sheet and his body) and the role of the institution within the performance.

By making the institution an active participant in the artwork, Burden exposed the museum’s boundaries and asked us to rethink how the museum’s galleries are not just neutral receptacles for works of art. The museum must make choices and acknowledge them. Museums and galleries are often perceived as safe, not dangerous spaces, but Burden showed in a dramatic way that the choices a museum makes can have serious consequences. 

Doomed: The Aftermath

In Doomed, Burden truly exceeded his past performances and the expectations of the public. Taking advantage of the fact that the institution did not have any input into the performance, Burden implicated the museum in his actions without its knowledge. This performance was not only a confrontation of power but also a reflection of the bond of trust between the institution and the artists. While embracing the uncertainty of life and death to produce a supercharged piece, Burden handed over the power of his life, which showed how much Burden trusted the museum. Although Institutional Critique’s main intent was to point out issues within the institutions, the performance also suggested that artists did not necessarily want to abolish the museum. Instead, artworks like Doomed point out institutional naivete to inspire significant changes in the art world. The bond between artists and the institutions that sustain art is vital to promote improvements and create a better future for both. 

More on Burden:
Video: Overview of Burden’s works, including Doomed
Video: Chris Burden Documentary trailer (2016)

Written by Tania Teixeira, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.

I am part of the 3rd cohort of the Student Ambassador Program. I’ve got a Bachelor of Fine Art from Cambridge School of Arts (UK), and I am currently enrolled in a Master of Art in Writing at the Royal College of Art (London). I find myself mainly interested in Contemporary Art since the 1960s, and I am passionate about mixing current political or cultural subjects with art criticism. I aspire to be an acclaimed art theorist/critic, and I believe art provides a deeper understanding of the world, and that it is capable of bringing about big changes.

Looking Back to Move Forward in the Time of a Pandemic

Robert Rauschenberg’s Modern Inferno

Opinions are divided as to whether lockdown conditions stimulate or inhibit creativity. We have been here before. In 1348, shortly after Dante Alighieri wrote his epic masterpiece the Commedia, the Black Death swept across Europe and killed half the population of Florence. Fear and uncertainty caused by that pandemic seemed to galvanize visual artists with a sense of greater purpose to illustrate Dante’s Commedia

Dante’s three-part epic poem portrays the journey souls take after death. Essentially a socio-economic commentary on Florentine life, with strong moral undertones and focus on the human condition, its themes can be adapted to any time. Today, in the face of Covid-19, the 700-year-old Commedia resonates strongly. Now is a perfect time to reflect on the work through its visual depictions. Although countless artists have illustrated the work since its medieval publication – Sandro Botticelli, Gustave Doré, and John Flaxman, to name a few – modern artists have shown how its relevance lives on to this day. Perhaps the most progressive modern rendering of Dante’s epic to date is seen through the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008).

Rauschenberg with three transfer drawings in his Front Street studio, New York, 1958
Photograph: Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Rauschenberg’s series of 34 illustrations for Inferno, the first book of the epic, began in early 1958, and by December 1960 he exhibited them in New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. Beginning the series aged 33, he was about the same age as Dante when he began his Commedia “– Midway in our life’s journey.” 

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465, Tempera on panel, Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore
WikiCommons

While the Black Death had not yet occurred in Dante’s time, he nevertheless experienced a restrictive ‘lockdown’, having been a member of Florence’s ‘White Guelfi’ political party, as opposed to the ‘Black Guelfi’ who were more closely bound to the Pope. Fierce rivalries often split these political powers, and when in 1302 the Black Guelphs, in alliance with Pope Boniface VIII, succeeded in expelling the Whites from Florence, Dante was exiled alongside his party members, relocating to Ravenna where he wrote his Commedia.     

In the fall of 1960, Rauschenberg retreated from his studio in New York City to Treasure Island, a small fishing village off the west coast of Florida. Here he could escape the tumultuous New York art scene and focus his creativity to complete his Inferno illustrations. At the time, Rauschenberg was becoming a well-known, albeit controversial, figure in the art world. He chose to illustrate Inferno with the hopes of being taken more seriously as an artist and as a means to practice his new solvent-transfer printing technique, which involved penciling the back of a printed image, often sourced from contemporary editions of Life magazine or Sports Illustrated, so that it registered in reverse on his page. The technique inevitably filled his compositions with contemporary iconography, creating images of a modern-day Inferno, which invite the viewer to question the morals of the human condition of today. 

Dante begins the Inferno as a pilgrim lost in a dark wood, a metaphor for the everyman straying from his path in life. Rauschenberg transports this symbol into the modern world by replacing trees with an industrial jungle of cranes and derricks in the lower section of the composition. He mirrors Dante’s gloomy and chaotic atmosphere of the dark wood through harsh etched lines surrounding the machines and staccato pencil strokes throughout. Reference to a modern world recurs throughout Ruaschenberg’s compositions, beyond transfers of industrial machinery. When in Canto XXX for example, Dante condemns Florentine bankers for being motivated by greed, Rauschenberg inserts a transfer of an American Express card, among the first credit cards, introduced in 1958. 

Robert Rauschenberg, Canto I: The Dark Wood of Error, 1958
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Although Rauschenberg’s retreat to Treasure Island was voluntary, not a result of enforced restrictions, that is not to say he was not living in an oppressed state. Like Dante, Rauschenberg lived in an age when homosexuality was both socially and politically condemned. From 1950 to 1953, senators Joseph McCarthy and Kenneth Wherry worked to remove homosexuals from government employment, subjecting them to suspicion and harassment. Having divorced Susan Weil in 1950, Rauschenberg eventually became intimately involved with artist Jasper Johns in 1953 and knew all too well the stigmas imposed by a homophobic culture. 

Rauschenberg’s creative rendering of Canto XV is perhaps a reaction to his oppressed state. In this Canto, Dante is midway through the Inferno when he encounters condemned sodomites.  

Robert Rauschenberg, Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art, 1959–60
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Dante is ambiguous in his writing on the Sodomites, reflecting the reticence surrounding the subject of homosexuality in his day. Rauschenberg mirrors this ambiguity in his illustration with an empty speech bubble beneath a red outline of his own traced foot. The tracing inserts Rauschenberg into the narrative just as Dante the Poet occasionally appears in the text, separate from Dante the Pilgrim, a personal touch that is seldom seen in Commedia illustrations.


Both the speech bubble and the footsteps leading down the composition are suggestive of the language of comic books, as are the indistinct figures throughout. It is worth noting that the comic book industry of 1950s America was subject to conservative censorship; the Comic’s Code of 1954 strictly forbade ‘sex perversion or any inference to the same’. The footsteps moving from top to bottom of the composition are taken from an advert for TRIG deodorant: ‘TRIG keeps a man so odor-free a bloodhound couldn’t find him!’ Furthermore, the transfer of a naked man directly below the traced foot, referencing Dante’s description of the naked blasphemous that lie ‘stretched supine upon the ground’ (XIV,19), is centrally placed and explicitly nude, a further emphasis on the homoerotic context. Another factor to consider is the alternating red-and-white stripe on the left of the composition, depicting the River of Boiling Blood that ‘ran so red’ in Inferno (XIV,73). Art historian and activist Jonathan Katz regards it as an obvious reference to Jasper JohnsFlag, and so a reference to Rauschenberg’s estranged lover. With all these allusions, Rauschenberg’s intention to address the repressed homosexuality in his society is convincing. 

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55
Image on Wikipedia

Although we have only looked at a small fraction of Rauschenberg’s work on Inferno, it is enough to show how Dante’s words retain their relevance in the modern world. Rauschenberg’s work reinforces the idea that creativity has the ability to thrive under restrictive environments. Through fear and the unknown, even anger, it could be argued, creativity is channeled. Today, some feel burdened by lockdown, locked in, physically and metaphorically. Perhaps the secret of allowing creativity to flourish is to somehow escape the sense of restriction by getting stuck into something meaty like the Inferno and letting the creative juices flow.

Go ahead and take this time to view Rauschenberg’s full Inferno series here and use this Commedia resource to read along!


Written by Flora Igoe, Student Ambassador for The Art Story.
Flora is a recent graduate of Trinity College Dublin with a B.A. (Hons) degree in Italian and History of Art and Architecture. She is currently undertaking Ireland’s Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuer’s Fine and Decorative Arts Diploma. 

Alchemy as Science: The Surrealist Works of Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), 1938.
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I think what most drew me to the work of Leonora Carrington was her determination to stand out from the male-dominated Surrealist circle in Europe. She rejected being defined by her association with Max Ernst and worked hard to become a respected artist in her own right. After the dissolution of her relationship with Ernst and a mental breakdown that lead to her institutionalisation, Carrington moved to Mexico City and became a part of the Mexican Surrealist circle in 1943. Her artworks after this year show a shift from displaying personal symbolic elements (e.g. her most-famous Self Portrait – Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937-8) to constructing what Susan Alberth considers to be ‘alternate worlds, both fantastical and believable’. This shift, in my opinion, sparked some of her most wonderful and alluring works that combine Carrington’s fascination with religion and occult beliefs based upon the pre-Enlightenment scientific theories of alchemy. 

The most commonly known form of alchemy is the transmutation of base metals into gold but another strain of it is the pursuit of the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, which can make the elixir of life, rendering the drinker immortal. Many alchemists realised if their experiments were successful, they would be in danger from others who might wish to take the gold or elixir for themselves. As a precaution, then, ‘the alchemists used to describe their theories, materials and operations in enigmatical language, effervescent with allegory, metaphor, allusion and analogy’.

Leonora Carrington, The House Opposite, 1945.
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In 1943 after developing a deep bond with fellow Surrealist, Remedios Varo, Carrington created The House Opposite (1945). What initially drew my interest to this work is the way in which Carrington creates an intimate setting that becomes a locus of mysticism and alchemy through her many fantastical creatures and figures. The stirring of the cauldron in the far right of the composition acts as an example of Carrington’s own unique alchemical symbolism, alluding to the alchemical process of melting base metals in order to produce gold. The table in the centre acts like an altar for the female figure clad in red, making the kitchen a substitute for the laboratory in her alchemical ritual. Many figures in the centre and outskirts of the composition are moving, rushing, to bring food to the priestess. As an ensemble, they act as one cohesive unit in an organised chaos to aid in the enacting of the feminine ritual of food preparation. On the whole this work becomes not only a prime example of alchemical theory in practise, but also a form of transmutation of the role of the domestic female which exposes the spiritual work that domestic nurturing entails. 

Leonora Carrington, AB EO QUOD, 1956.
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The priestess figure is one that recurs in Carrington’s body of work during her time in Mexico and acts as the catalyst for the alchemical ritual present in the compositions. A later artwork of Carrington’s with similar influences is her painting of 1956, AB EO QUOD. She implements the contrasting and complementary iconography of Mexican Catholicism and Greek mythology to depict alchemical transmutation in a domestic setting. The wine and bread on the table are representative of the Eucharist, a cleansing ritual in Catholic culture, as well as a transformative process that brings one closer to God. The religious tone is offset by the inclusion of a pomegranate, indicative of the Greek underworld and the goddess Persephone whose desire for pomegranate seeds led to her demise. Simultaneously, the Catholic ritual of mass is juxtaposed by the alchemical process apparent in the work, beginning with the white rose on the ceiling dripping onto the large white egg on the table, a symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone and metamorphosis. Furthermore, the fantastical creatures painted on the walls and the moths hatching and flying from their cocoons contribute to the themes of transformation and metamorphosis.

Carrington’s choice in giving priority to the role of the female alchemist and celebrating the spiritual work of domestic nurturing gives her a unique perspective among the predominantly male Surrealist group. To me, her art was its own Philosopher’s Stone, becoming her elixir of life as through her art she will continue to live on. 


Artists and movements on The Art Story that connect to similar topics and are interesting to explore:
Leonora Carrington
Max Ernst
Remedios Varo
Surrealism

I’m Isabella Hill and I’m part of the third cohort of students working on the Student Ambassador Project here at The Art Story! I’m an MA student studying Art History at the University of Birmingham, focusing my dissertation on the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, having written my undergraduate dissertation on the series Pygmalion and Galatea by Edward Burne-Jones.

Postcolonial symbolism in the work of Hew Locke

Edinburgh-born artist Hew Locke grew up in Guyana.  His work builds upon his own heritage and experience to provide insight into the themes of colonial and post-colonial power.  Part of European colonial competition since the sixteenth century, Guyana fell under British control in 1814.  Locke witnessed the birth of independent Guyana in 1966, and his work explores the ways in which artists created and expressed nationhood.

Locke employs a variety of symbols in his work to explore colonialism and its legacy as well as themes of cultural identity.  He uses modern materials in a range of media (painting, photography, sculpture, installation) to consider the impact of a wide array of historical phenomena.  His work alludes to the European ‘age of discovery’ as well as the roots, height, and downfall of British imperialism.  He identifies with the Windrush generation, commenting on the mass migration of people from the Caribbean to Britain in the wake of the second world war, and considers their ongoing struggles with national identity.  The layering of materials in his work reflects the complex variety of past and present realities he explores.

HINTERLAND

Hew Locke, Hinterland, (2013)
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Locke has layered paint over a photograph of the statue of Queen Victoria in his hometown of Georgetown in Guyana.  During the socialist uprising of 1970, the statue was dumped in the Georgetown Botanical Gardens before being restored in 1990.  The painted images of skeletons and oppressed peoples over the monument symbolise the exploitation of native peoples under empire.  Queen Victoria’s statue becomes a symbol of the oppressive and exploitative nature of colonialism.

This work also provides a fascinating insight into how Guyana relates to its own past and nationhood.  The act of dumping the statue represents the casting off of more than a century of oppression; however, its restoration shows how British imperialism forms an inescapable part of Guyana’s nationhood and cultural identity.  Perhaps the faded, almost ghostly figures indicate that, despite this statue’s restoration, the past cannot be forgotten or ignored.

SOUVENIR

Hew Locke, Souvenir (series), 2019
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This series is made up of a collection of busts of Queen Victoria and her family, like those displayed in middle class Victorian homes.  Thus, they represent British cultural identity and symbolise imperial pride.

Locke ornaments these busts with a collage of lace, metal, and various symbols of colonialism.  He includes military badges and medals from the Benin campaign and the Ugandan and Zulu wars.  These bloodthirsty wars of the late nineteenth century destroyed African kingdoms and cultural traditions in the name of British imperial domination.  By draping these busts with medals, Locke illustrates the heavy burden of history and the atrocities enacted in the name of British imperialism.

Not only do these busts symbolise the formation of British identity, and the warlike nature of colonialism, they also symbolise the loss of native cultures.  Cowrie shells can also be found in the collage.  In the past, these shells were used throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa as a form of currency.  These are juxtaposed with English coins, stamped with the image of the royal family, to show how native cultures were stamped out and replaced by symbols of British imperialism.

FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA

Hew Locke, For Those in Peril on the Sea, 2011
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Timeless and universal, boats can be extremely evocative.  They symbolise travel, trade, and warfare and are employed by Locke to explore themes of globalisation and colonialism.  This haunting installation comprises 70 miniature boats hanging from the ceiling, filling an entire room.  The procession of ships travels through the air, noticeably bereft of sailors and passengers.

A mixture of contemporary and historical boats, this installation symbolises the timeless nature of sea travel.  Boats become symbols of hope, danger, happiness, and despair.  Thus, these pieces constitute a memorial for all of the lives touched by global sea travel and its consequences.

SEA POWER

Hew Locke, Sea Power, 2014
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Another large-scale installation, made up of cord and plastic beads glued to the wall, Locke’s Sea Power is truly awe-inspiring.

This piece uses the symbolism of boats to reflect on the very roots of colonialism, the so-called European ‘Age of Discovery’.  It draws on ancient and Renaissance imagery as well as images of contemporary shipping and oil refineries.  The skeletal imagery illustrates the exploitation, warfare, and suffering made possible by European discovery and sea travel.  The legacy of imperialism, in the form of globalisation and consumerism, or ‘neo-colonialism,’ is also visible.  Thus, in this piece, Locke utilises the symbol of the boat to point to the centrality of sea travel in colonialism and its ongoing legacy.

Royalty and boats are only two of many symbols employed by Locke to explore themes of colonialism and national identities.  The juxtaposition of modern materials and historical subject matter sheds light on the ongoing legacies of European colonialism.  Such symbols are so important to his work that his own website is categorised in this way.

Locke’s Official Website

Artists and topics on the Art Story that connect to similar topics and are interesting to explore:

This blog post was written by Lucy Green, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.


I graduated with a history degree from the University of Birmingham in June 2020, specialising in seventeenth-century Anglo-Ottoman relations and the European ‘Age of Discovery’.  I have a strong passion for history and art and hope to complete a Master’s degree in museum studies to pursue a career in heritage.
I am particularly interested in seeing how art speaks to historical movements and themes.  The exhibition Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing, held at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery in Spring 2019 spurred my interest in this artist and spoke to my historical interests in colonialism and its lasting legacy.

Egon Schiele: Depictions of the female nude as empowering or egotistical?

Egon Schiele’s life and work came to a sudden halt in 1918 when he and his pregnant wife Edith died from the Spanish flu epidemic, which raged through Europe. Although Schiele was only active for a limited number of years, his work is brimming with a plethora of vibrant paintings and drawings – the large majority of which depict the nude female form, often eroticised.

Love Act, study, 1915, coloured pencil on paper,

Schiele’s style has been criticised as grotesque and corpse-like, with his frequent use of a sickly colour palette and harsh rendering of human flesh. In addition, his female sitters were repeatedly positioned in explicit and revealing poses – their anatomy thus becoming the focus of the works. This tangled merging of the grotesque and erotic continues to intrigue us: are Schiele’s portrayals of the female form radical, allowing women to reclaim their bodies and embrace their sexuality in a time of strict female oppression, or are they the subject of Schiele’s own misogynistic desires?

Standing Nude with Orange Drapery: Study of Nude with Arms Raised, 1914, watercolour, gouache and graphite on paper

Schiele was classically trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he developed traditional artistic skills and was introduced to life drawing. This subject would be his obsession throughout his lifetime. As a modern artist, Schiele wanted to challenge the tradition of art, and he saw the Academy as being stuck in its ways, while the rest of society was progressing. The city around him was ripe with change. Schiele would have been aware of the work of Sigmund Freud, also living in Vienna, who introduced psychoanalysis and made advances in the study of psychology. Additionally in Vienna was Gustav Klimt, Schiele’s mentor. Klimt’s influence is clear as the sexualised female form was his focus as well.

Gustav Klimt, Reclining Nude with Drapery, 1912-13

Schiele’s nude drawings are more than mere studies and are often infused with a desire and sexuality which is hard to ignore. In many cases, Schiele’s female nudes are depicted with spread legs and unapologetic attention to their anatomy; at times he presents them in acts of sex and masturbation. Schiele portrays the female subject as much more than a passive muse; often the women’s gaze confrontationally meets that of the viewer. For example, his Seated Female Nude stares out from the canvas, her body cross-legged and folded over itself. She is not depicted as a submissive nude, but as a woman with her own agency.

Egon Schiele, Reclining Nude with Boots, 1918, charcoal on paper.
Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, 1914
 

Revealing the power and personality of the Modern Woman

Schiele’s female figures present themselves unabashedly towards the viewer, nothing like the academic nude which was repeatedly disguised as a passive portrayal of the goddess Venus. Many of his female nudes appear in an unarticulated space, their bodies placed on a blank canvas with no scenic context. This non-space calls attention to their nudity, and the fact that they are not a Venus, and that therefore the viewer cannot consume the female bodies behind the guise of mythology. Schiele’s images are honest in their raw emotion and the sexual desire which suffuses them. However, it was Schiele who posed these women. The revealing and explicit positions were largely of his choice, not the models’, which complicates the idea of their agency.

Lying Female Nude Torso, 1910, black chalk, gouache and watercolour
Woman with Black Stockings (Woman in Red Garters), 1913, gouache, watercolour and pencil

Schiele as user and abuser of the female form

Depictions of Schiele’s sister Gertrude are common, as well as those of Wally Neuzil, his lover and loyal companion, but they are few compared to those of the many more unnamed women who posed for him. Schiele’s female subject mostly has no identity, she is simply ‘nude’ or ‘woman’. With countless of Schiele’s nudes, such as Lying Female Nude Torso and Standing Nude in Red Jacket, the women have no head or face at all. This disembodying of the female figure arguably acts as another way in which Schiele takes away their identity and uses the female form as a subject of his own artistic and sexual desire. Schiele does not idealise these women, and he does not alter their bodies to please the eye of a man. They are instead gritty portrayals of the human body. He often pays close attention to the female anatomy; the vulvas of many of the women are pronounced and are sometimes the only aspect of the artworks containing colour. This could be argued as sexualising the bodies into objects for male consumption; however, the female body is shown for what it really is, with all its parts. Do we only view these images of the female nude as sexual due to the societal notion that a woman’s body is inherently sexual? Significantly, Schiele does not shy away from depicting himself in the same way as he depicts women – as unselfconsciously nude. But is this enough to enable us to classify his female nudes as empowering?

The choice is yours

Schiele’s female nudes present an entanglement of human desire and consumption of the female form. In some respects the female subject is given power and agency, she confronts the viewer, and her body is not idealised for the male gaze, making Schiele’s depictions of the female nude empowering, particularly for the early 20th century. However, there are fundamental issues with how women have been represented by the artist. Ultimately, Schiele’s female nudes are not about the women but about Schiele himself and his relationship with them. This detracts from the empowerment which at first appears to be engrained into his depictions. Whether you believe that Schiele’s portrayal of the female body is empowering or egotistical, these incredible artworks will continue to entice viewers due to their gritty and grotesque style, while seeming to also hide an insight into the mind of the modernist artist.

Written by Sarah Daniels for the second cohort of Student Ambassadors for The Art Story.

I have recently graduated from Plymouth University with a degree in Fine Art and Art History. I am interested in representations of the self, reception of women artists and depictions of the female form in Modernism. As well as many other aspects of the art world and history!

Windows to the World: Windows in Art

Having lived only in urban cities such as Singapore and London, I find myself fascinated by windows. They come in varied sizes and styles and are ubiquitous aspects of every building that makes up our cities and everyday life. They allow us to engage visually with the world from the comforts of our homes while protecting us from the elements. More than just architectural decoration, they determine the way light enters and fills personal sanctuaries such as homes and churches, playing a significant role in determining the atmosphere of a place. The contrast between their everyday, ordinary status and the versatility they possess as artistic subjects and motifs translates to my intrigue with them when they emerge in works of art.

Windows have lent themselves to artistic expression in multiple ways. Artists have used windows as a framing device to direct our gaze to a particular scene or subject, letting us understand the beauty they saw in a particular scene, or as a way to introduce light to an interior. The former can be exemplified by Pierre Bonnard’s House in the Courtyard (1895-96), while the latter can be easily observed in Adolph Menzel’s The Balcony Room (1845).

House in the Courtyard (1895-96) by Pierre Bonnard (Left) Click for larger image
The Balcony Room (1845) by Adolph Menzel (Right) Copyright – fair use

Other times, the window becomes a motif with symbolic associations of illumination and hope, or, conversely, a symbol of urban decay and destruction, as seen in the works of Chinese contemporary artist Yuan Yuan. In short, this ubiquitous motif of our everyday lives has been used in art to frame the most beautiful sceneries, illuminate otherwise dark interiors, and as a poignant symbol of urban life, as we shall see in the following examples.


Starting from the place closest to us, the interiors of our homes have served as a great source of inspiration for many artists, and windows have functioned as the focal point on many occasions. One of my favorites would have to be Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900).

Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900)
oil on canvas, 70 x 59cm
Copyright – fair use

At first glance, our attention is drawn to the brightest, and perhaps only, source of light in the empty, unfurnished room — the window. Yet, the limited view outside tells us very little about the surroundings of this mysterious room we have entered. The entire view consists of a small portion of a tiled roof and a gray expanse of concrete of a neighboring building. The proximity of the window to the neighboring building makes it appear near impossible for the door on the right, whose knob and keyhole is almost invisible, to open up to another space. The windows, bare without curtains, allow sunlight to filter through in clear rays,which make visible the dust motes dancing in the air. We follow the sunbeams diagonally with our gaze, ending at the silhouette of the window frame on the ground. Otherwise, the floor is unblemished and smooth to the point of abstraction, with no indication of texture. The room as a whole seems like a vacuum, enclosed and inscrutable, rousing our curiosity at what lies beyond. The beauty of this painting, for me, lies in how the window illuminates the muted interior without disturbing its tranquility, while providing us with steady reassurance of the presence of the greater world beyond the room.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Henri Matisse’s vividly colored interiors, which have incorporated windows on numerous occasions. Some of these works were made during his time at Collioure, on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, a place which soothed his depression with its vitality and vivid colors. Here, windows take on a metaphorical symbolism as windows to the soul, reflecting the emotional intensity with which the artist responded to the landscape before him.

Open Window, Collioure (1905)
oil on canvas, 55.3 x 46cm
Click for larger image

Open Window, Collioure is one such example which promises an escape from the banality of our everyday life. With the casements of the balcony thrown wide open, Matisse beckons us towards the window which looks out onto the idyllic scene of a small fishing port. All four sides of the window are present, presenting the window as an entity in the composition. In contrast with the implied rapidity of the textured brushstrokes, the composition is actually highly orchestrated. We may observe several pairs of complementary colors, such as the warm orange and reds of the flowers, pots and walls alongside the cool blues of the wall and harbor, and the swaths of green and fuchsia opposite each other on the wall nearest to us, echoed in the window panes of the casements. These strategically placed colors guide our eyes across the canvas in a zigzag motion from the walls to the window. While the thick brushstrokes and bright colors appear energetic and convey excitement, the repetition of geometric frames within the painting emphasizes their verticality and gives the painting a sense of structure. These contrasting elements – along with the depiction of an unobstructed view and his bold color palette, come together to form a psychological mirror, which reflects the liberation and contentment Matisse felt while staying on the Mediterranean coast, which the window was a portal to.

Moving forward to the present, windows have become a symbol synonymous with our built environment and have been used by artists to comment on urban decay. Fragments (2012) by Chinese contemporary artist Yuan Yuan comprises a triptych of three window panes sealed shut, frosted and broken, with the paintwork of its wooden frame peeling.

Fragments 《碎片》(2012) oil on canvas, 132 x 150c,

Click for larger image – refer to pg 105/123

The patchwork of different textures and patterns of the window panes suggests human intervention before we, together with the artist, stumbled upon this particular window. Inspired by his time at Guizhou province, the window resembles the stained glass of churches — the result of dwellers filling the panes with scrap material to keep the rain out. As much as these windows protect the dwellers from the elements, they also prevent us from viewing the interior, imbuing the painting with a sense of secrecy. The clumsy attempts to mend the broken window also bring to mind the process of ageing that accompanies the passing of time, further emphasized by the life-sized windows which allows us to observe microscopic details of every element, as if we were peering through an actual window. While the window panes may be a patchwork of varied colors, on looking closer, they reveal mosaic-like patterns which reflect the concept of ‘repetition’ — a frequent occurrence in Yuan’s work.

A close-up of the work reveals Yuan’s skillful depiction of mosaic-like patterns on the glass panels

This concept of repetition is particularly pertinent, as Yuan believes it to be synonymous with the general principle of modern society, “a principle that consumes us and assimilates our living space”. The monotony and bleakness of our urban lives is thus manifest in this simple structure of a window that bears residual traces of human activity and histories despite the painting being devoid of man.

In its repeated appearances in art, this ubiquitous everyday element has come to be a poignant symbol used by artists in a variety of ways. Windows allow for illumination, but can also be sources of mystery by leaving us curious about what lies beyond them. Their transparency supports our attempts to engage with the world beyond our four walls, visually and emotionally, sometimes acting as a mirror to an artist’s emotional state. With the versatility of their appearances in works of art, it would not be an overstatement to say that the windows in art are windows to the world.

Next: for more works that draw on windows as a motif or theme, see the works of

  1. Robert Delaunay’s Simultaneous Windows (2nd Motif, 1st Part) 1912
  2. Agnes Martin‘s Window 1957 (also check out this blog post on Agnes Martin by Hannah Kettles, a fellow Student Ambassador)
  3. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Loverboy) 1989
  4. Banksy’s Window on the West Bank (2005)

I’m Constance Koh, 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 this blog post.

Artemisia Gentileschi: The Long Road to Recognition

She’s described as the most celebrated female artist of the 17th-century but Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) struggled to carry this accolade through to the modern era. Though she is greatly revered by today’s artistic establishment, her journey towards acceptance has not been uncomplicated. Undeniably due to her gender, her legacy has faced many obstacles which delayed recognition for her artistic talent and contribution to art.

In recent decades, there have been strides towards acknowledging her place in art history thanks to feminist scholars, a growing literature, and retrospective exhibitions. But I would argue that the struggle for appropriate recognition is not over.

This blog will explore Artemisia Gentileschi’s road to discovery and recognition. She is, after decades of consideration, tantalisingly close to her rightful place in the history of art.

Artemisia Gentileschi in her Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17). Gentileschi was born in 1593 in Rome as the eldest child of Prudenzia Montoni and the painter Orazio Gentileschi. After demonstrating a talent for painting at a young age, Gentileschi trained under her father in his workshop.

Gentileschi’s Initial Omission

Despite acclaim during her lifetime, Gentileschi suffered a great artistic injustice when she was omitted from art-historical accounts following her death. This was a sad reality that befell many female artists in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, including Sofonisba Anguissola and Judith Leyster. Gentileschi’s artistic vocation was only rediscovered in the early 1900s by the Caravaggesque scholar Roberto Longhi.

Once rediscovered, she did not easily gain admittance into the art-historical canon. Gentileschi initially sparked little interest among scholars, and many of her works were wrongly attributed to the legendary Italian artist Caravaggio or her father, Orazio Gentileschi.

In the 1990s, this work, Danae (1612), was attributed to Gentileschi due to its stylistic similarities with other works already accredited to her. But it was originally considered to be part of her father’s output. Orazio was a popular artist who worked internationally, and his style was greatly influenced by his friend Caravaggio.
This version of Danaë (1623) is accredited to Orazio Gentileschi. Note its obvious differences from Artemisia’s version: its idealisation versus Artemisia’s realism.

Her Stylistic Oversight

It was a combination of stylistic similarities to Caravaggio and Orazio, and a tendency in the 1900s to deny female artistry, that led to many of her works being misattributed. Certainly, Gentileschi’s paintings include Baroque characteristics such as chiaroscuro, drama, and emotion, which are typical of Caravaggio’s and Orazio’s style, but they also demonstrated a remarkable skill, which was believed to be exceptional to great masters.

Examining the paintings now accredited to Gentileschi, it’s perplexing that many were firstly attributed to canonical male artists. They clearly show she had a style unique from the artists who previously gained recognition for her work, one that was long overlooked.

Firstly, her choice and treatment of subject matter was quite different from other 17th-century artists. Though, like some, Gentileschi completed examples of widely popular biblical and mythological stories, she specifically favoured stories with strong female characters. She subverted the typical male portrayal of these female characters, timid and overtly sexual, by giving them power and agency. In her Susanna and the Elders (1610), Gentileschi replaced the typical shy and coy representation of Susanna with a model full of protestation and defence.
Secondly, her colour palette and formal decisions also highlight her stylistic independence. As exemplified in this painting, Esther before Ahasuerus (1628–30), her works featured less commitment to the Baroque chiaroscuro that made Caravaggio’s art so distinctive. Also visible is her penchant for jewel-toned hues and realistic flesh colours, a direct contrast to Orazio’s mundane colour palette and idealised figures, seen in his painting Danaë. (Above)

Feminist art historians since the 1970s have been committed to establishing Gentileschi’s style as part of the canon. The amount of works attributed to her have steadily increased and are greatly admired by scholars. But her art still remains somewhat tied to Caravaggio and her father. It’s common to see her artworks described as ‘inspired by’ or ‘indebted to’ her contemporaries rather than as products of her own individual genius. In fact, a February newspaper headline in The Guardian referred to Gentileschi specifically as ‘the female Caravaggio’. It sadly demonstrates that, even in 2020, she has not received full stylistic independence and, although undoubtedly intended as a compliment, she is measured by male artistic standards.


Reductive Biographical Readings

Undeniably, Gentileschi has emerged from behind the dark smoke of obscurity in recent years. But the sensationalism of one biographical event, a traumatic rape in 1611, has severely limited her potential. This event has become the hallmark of her character and the main axis on which her art is viewed.

Ultimately, because Gentileschi painted numerous scenes of violence and abuse, feminist readings in the 1970s interpreted these works as products of her sexual assault. Paintings such as Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620), which depict women punishing men, were and still are read as semi-autobiographical manifestations of Gentileschi’s desire for revenge on her own attacker. Branded popularly as her ‘revenge works’, they have been seen less as demonstrations of her notable artistic ability and more as feminist images that are tied to her biography and gender.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (1610–15) tells the biblical story of Salome who is convinced by her vengeful mother Herodias to have John the Baptist beheaded for wrongdoings against her. It is seen as one of Gentileschi’s well-known ‘revenge works’. She has become infamous and recognisable for these dramatic and violent artworks, characterised by blood and gore. Art historians now look for links to retribution in many of her paintings, neglecting alternative readings.

In the 1980s, feminist scholars Mary Garrard and Griselda Pollock promoted alternative readings of Gentileschi’s ‘revenge works’, in an effort to expand and reveal her diverse artistic identity.

To illustrate, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620), Gentileschi’s most famous ‘revenge work’, and possibly her most famous artwork in general, has been recurrently interpreted as a product of her rape. Art historians have envisioned Artemisia in the guise of Judith, enacting her violent revenge on her rapist Agostino Tassi, who, assuming the character of Holofernes, meets his untimely death by sword. Pollock proposed something different from this stock reading, suggesting that, instead of having a personal connection, it was intended powerfully as a story of courage and collaboration between two women who conspire to commit murder.
It’s often forgotten that biblical stories like Judith were popular subjects within Baroque art and male artists like Caravaggio completed their own versions. His Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) is strikingly similar in terms of its violence and gore but it is viewed as a feat of artistic mastery rather than being personally motivated. Gentileschi’s artworks are scarcely interpreted this way, with scholars frequently looking for ties to her gender and sexual assault. As Gentileschi herself remarked on the difficulty of being a woman, ‘if I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way’.

The centrality of Gentileschi’s sexual assault to her artistic character has meant that works outside of the ‘revenge’ category are scarcely considered, even though these works encompass more than three quarters of her identified output.

Little attention is paid to her artworks with seemingly less dramatic subjects such as the Birth of John the Baptist (1635), the Madonna and Child (1613) and the Adoration of the Magi (1636–37) as seen above. During her lifetime, these works were significant commissions, which helped her to establish her position as a sought-after female artist in the 17th-century. But, since they don’t fit her typical style or dominant reading, their possible meanings and importance have been less explored.
This artwork, David and Goliath (1630), was recently attributed to Gentileschi, now that her style and presence in the canon is more greatly known, but it was previously attributed to a student in Orazio’s workshop. It exemplifies the different subjects that Gentileschi did complete, but is not commonly recognised for. Perhaps it wasn’t initially accredited to her because the subject was not seen as traditionally ‘Artemisia’.

Female Artists in the Age of #metoo

As a result of the modern climate, numerous news headlines have labelled Gentileschi a ‘#metoo Baroque heroine’. This label effaces the important work accomplished by Pollock, Garrard, and other scholars, who offer less biographical interpretations of her work. Associating her with the #metoo movement perpetrates the reductive readings of her artistic character being mostly shaped by her sexual assault. Her art is not just a product of her rape, or even a product of other artists, but it’s continually viewed that way, overshadowing other readings and aspects of her impressive career.

While modern scholars do promote significant facts – such as Gentileschi being the first female accepted into the Academia delle Arti del Disegno, or the fact that she worked internationally for Cosimo II de’ Medici and Charles I of England – they are realistically lesser known, but are and should be integral to her legacy.

The majority of the work has been done; Gentileschi today is widely celebrated in art history, but her diverse and unique contribution is still being somewhat overlooked. Until her talent and oeuvre are wholly appreciated, the step to complete recognition could still be a giant leap.

This October the National Gallery in London is opening the first UK solo exhibition on Artemisia Gentileschi. Watch this video to find out more information about Gentileschi and also the upcoming exhibition.

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.

Sol LeWitt – Why is this art!?

Just as Pablo Picasso challenged realistic forms of presenting a human and Vincent van Gogh revolutionized colour, Sol LeWitt pushed the boundaries and definition of what constitutes art. His art focused on the concept of art rather than the physical craft of making art objects. Working as a night receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art let him become friends with future art critic Lucy Lippard and artists Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman. And he was introduced to the work of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, who influenced his later career. Admiring their art made the young LeWitt think that an idea behind an artwork was more significant than its material form.

In 1967, in his essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, LeWitt claimed, “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand, and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” Abandoning the belief that the role of an artist is to be a craftsman, he decided to approach art from a different angle. He was guided by the idea that creative thoughts in the head are more important than products made by hand. “The idea,” he said, “becomes the machine that makes the art”.

If art is a creative human activity that stimulates emotionally and intellectually, then Sol LeWitt’s works are most certainly art. They make us question the things we’ve been taught by history and allow us to experience colours, spaces, and structures differently. All famous artists have been remembered because they were creating something new and very often incomprehensible to their contemporaries.

LeWitt’s Wall Drawings – They look easy, but they are not.

Detail Of Sol LeWitt’s 1971 Wall Drawing #65 At The National Gallery Of Art (Washington, DC)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/takomabibelot/2120881191

The creative works of this artist can be compared to the work of an architect or composer. They give rise to magnificent structures and songs, but without workers and musicians, these great ideas could not be experienced by an audience. Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings could not be admired by the audience if it weren’t for other artists and museum staff who install them. The Wall Drawings are site-specific installations that begin as instructions written by LeWitt and are then executed by others. In consequence, every mural will be different as it will be prepared in a different place by different people. While the drawings often appear simple, preparations take up to a few months, and the process involves many precise calculations, planning, and specialised equipment. 

Watch this video to see how the Wall Drawings are created.


Sol LeWitt designed more than 1,250 Wall Drawings that raise a lot of controversies. Whenever museums and collectors acquire a Wall Drawing, they receive a certificate with LeWitt’s instructions for the creation of the mural, but many questions arise: What is the actual work of art here? Is it the painting on a wall? The piece of paper with instructions? Or is it the intangible idea itself? Adding to the complexity, the drawings on the walls are ephemeral: most of them are exhibited only temporarily in a gallery or museum and then simply painted over, but the intangible idea of the drawing remains immutable. That is also why LeWitt’s art is so different. Very often, the way we view artists’ works change when curators present them with a different narrative. The reading of the Wall Drawings will always remain the same because their feature is that they will always be drawn or painted in a different way by someone else. 

Wall drawing by Sol LeWitt.

According to the artist, Conceptual Art is “made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions”. I look at LeWitt’s Conceptual Art as another step in art history. From idealized ancient sculptures, breath-taking paintings in the vaults of basilicas, and inspirational political posters and collages, Sol LeWitt asks us to rethink everything we know about art, not only as the end product of many years of painting and sculpting practice, but also as ideas, philosophies, and beliefs.

View of the Gallery 2 of the Centre Pompidou-Metz during the 2012 Sol LeWitt retrospective exhibition, Wall drawings from 1968 to 2007, Metz, France
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sol_LeWitt_wall_drawing,_Metz.jpg

If you would like to learn more about Sol LeWitt’s life and his other artworks, you can read it on The Art Story website.

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.

When museums went online: a guided tour of world galleries’ online online.

As buildings around the world started to lock their doors last March, and the public turned to the internet to provide yoga classes, at-home gigs, and sour dough recipes, many art galleries also started finding ways to share their collections virtually. Suddenly we had the opportunity to explore collections from museums across the world from our own homes. Here I share a list of some of my favourite lockdown finds, to which I expect to return, even as galleries re-open. The list is skewed towards the larger international museums with the resources to produce such high quality content. Furthermore, it is highly digested, so I recommend falling down your own rabbit hole of online culture.

Offering #1: Virtual Tours

View from the Rijksmuseum – https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/masterpieces-up-close

Through the Google Arts and Culture programme, some major museums now offer virtual tours of their collections. I find the street-view style interface tricky to navigate, however, and the artworks difficult to connect with. Some have launched their own interactive virtual tours with more success. The Rijksmuseum’s Masterpieces Up Close project is limited to the most famous of its paintings, but is nonetheless impressive. Virtual visitors click and drag their way through the museum, stopping to listen to audio-guide style descriptions of the collection. Highlights include Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (c. 1660), and a brilliant presentation on Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642). Some of the sound effects may be more creepy than immersive, but there is a genuine pleasure in being able to explore a museum at one’s own pace again.

Also worth a look is the British Museum’s virtual offering. The graphics encourage random picking and choosing of objects, but the thoughtful links to other objects and colour-coded themes keep the visitor moving seamlessly.

Offering #2: YouTube Curator Presentations

A great place to start is London’s National Gallery’s channel. Not only does it have an impressive back catalogue of educational offerings, but the gallery’s team has been busy uploading quality content since the beginning of lockdown. Their series ‘A curated look at…’ is a particular highlight. For around 15 minutes, a curator will discuss several of the gallery’s pictures on one theme, while the camera zooms in on the brushwork.

Another lovely series is the ‘Five minute meditations’. As the title suggests, these are quick guided meditations that begin with breath control à la the popular Headspace app. They then move into a mindful examination of a work of art, encouraging you to lose yourself in the paintwork. Mindfulness may or may not be your thing, but I do encourage you to full-screen the video and pull on some headphones for these. In this video, based on JMW Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)’, the camera pulls out details that I had never noticed, taking the viewer nose to nose with the canvas.  

If you have half an hour to spare, years’ worth of recorded lectures are also available from the national gallery. These sit the viewer in front of one of the gallery’s most popular paintings, always well-presented by top art historians.

The Met Museum in New York has also gone back to its archives to engage a lockdown audience.  The series From the Vaults ranges from a silent 1928 behind-the-scenes film to 1980s documentaries. They are well worth a browse.

Offering #3: Online Exhibitions

More victims of lockdown were the temporary exhibitions, which galleries were forced to close. The curators of the Ashmolean Museum’s Young Rembrandt exhibition in Oxford, England, were quick to respond. Here, curator An Van Camp introduces the collection, alongside an excellent online guide.

Unmissable too is the National Gallery of Victoria’s virtual rendering of its recent Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Linesexhibition. Their bold graphic art lends itself well to the virtual space, and the program is easy to navigate.

Honorary Mentions:

Though I do not think that any of these resources can fully replace the physical experience of wandering a gallery and getting nose to nose with the artwork, I expect that museums will continue to explore these virtual display cases. They are a great opportunity to expand their worldwide presence, not to mention improving art access and education. I am now looking forward to returning to these galleries with new insight found while lockdown culture surfing.


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.