This post is a very focused exploration of art and should not be taken as an exhaustive history, thus I will be ignoring some of the rather unusual and fascinating styles out there such as Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and other such avant garde tangents. I’ll do a post on those at a later time. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten the art of three dimensions, namely sculpting and architecture. I have big plans for those.
A visual artist helps us see the world in a new light or escape into the fantastic dreams of the mind. Thus, the visual medium can be a study of internal imaginings or external sights in the world around us. As I explained in my previous blog post, I believe the beginning of art came from a desire to share a story. At one point those campfire tales needed to be more visual.
How does a hunter teach his little boy about hunting mammoths? Hunting trips are too dangerous until the boy becomes a man. Painting a mammoth on the cave is the next best thing.
Paintings frame a moment seen from the view of the artist. It is an internal art, drawing a window into the artist’s mind. The artist is free to think anything he or she wishes, even if that view is unrealistic.
This Egyptian painting has very little to do with perspective, yet the artist did a great job of telling a story.
You don’t have to read hieroglyphics to understand what is going on. It is a Pharaoh’s funeral. The royal court is mourning his death while the Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, overshadows the body. Below, drawn rather small in comparison, peasants or slaves are seen laying out gifts for his trip into the afterlife.
Medieval paintings were far from perfect in capturing reality, yet still some are quite amazing to behold. Take this painting of the siege of Antioch by Sébastien Mamerot.
Unless the houses and cathedrals were on a very high hill, I don’t think the viewer would be able to see them over the wall. But the painting does a great job in showing the cathedrals and houses the Crusaders are fighting for. Realism is cast aside for the sake of propaganda. What amazes me most is that the scene is a miniature, meaning it was painted on something very small and mobile.
The Renaissance was a great time of rediscovering the Latin and Greek styles of art. Realistic sculptures eventually bled into realistic paintings. Artists discovered tricks that could bring two-dimensional painting to life in a realistic way.
Interior of the Dome in Florence
This notion of more realistic proportions continued on into Baroque era. Here we can see how the intense study of perspective created realistic proportions of human anatomy.
Rembrandt, Anatomical Lecture
Notice the subtle attention to detail on the expressions; the physicians are not malicious in dissecting a human, only curious.
This notion of more realistic proportions was even used to bring the fantastic to life. Notice the sense of drama and motion, the damsel in distress, the valiant knight who wins the day, and the evil dragon beneath his sandal.
Rubens, St. George and the Dragon
The Romantic Era featured exaggerated depictions of nature and its connection with true love.
Watteau, The Bird Nester
The nature around them isn’t meant to be viewed as real (notice the lack of bugs and sweat). It is rather an external reflection of how the lovers feel for each other. It tells a story older than time itself. The word twitterpated comes to mind.
And then there was Realism.
Jules Breton, Girl Guarding the Cows
Realism was an interesting move away from the Romantic Era. It ran far from the fantastical musings of young lovers, focusing instead on what can literally be seen by the eye. The idea was not so much the telling of a story but simply an explanation. Here is a girl. She is guarding cows. The end.
Realism was a movement created by painters in response to a new type of visual medium. For hundreds of years oil paint was king in creating internal visions on flat surfaces. A new form would come to quickly usurp it, one that in all its various incarnations, we use to this day. Realism mimicked our reality, as best it could, with the old style of painting it. This new medium uses light to capture and freeze the reality around us.
Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple
Photography is the artist’s view of the outside world. A picture can be distorted with things like Photoshop or lens flare, yet it is still a statement on what is seen. A good painting must have good composition and form. With photography you must grasp composition, form, and timing.
Time is not usually associated with art, but it has a very important role in taking a photo. It is also that single element that evolved photography into something far greater. The spark of genius came when hundreds of thousands of photos were strung together in order to create film. No longer frozen in a single frame, pictures had movement and motion. This also meant that it was no longer stuck forever in place. You couldn’t study it as intimately as a painting. It was a medium constrained by time.
Movies are a celebration of every framed medium that came before. They are the natural progression of these things, the most famous of all the arts. But movies are more than just hyper-photography. Motion pictures are a collage of various artistic disciplines. Even before movies talked, the silent film borrowed techniques from a close relative of hers.