By Chet Yarbrough
By Peter Whitfield
Narrated by Sebastian Comberti
Peter Whitfield offers a whirlwind
tour of “The History of Western Art”. He begins with cave paintings and ends with performance art by an “artist” locked in a library with a wild animal. The distressing thought is that “art is anything you can get away with.”
In slightly more than five hours of narration, a listener traverses 30,000 years (some say 40,000 years) of art history. Whitfield is a poet and critic. “The History of Art” is an intelligent introduction to a mystifying, fascinating, and intimidating subject.
The journey begins with France’s Neolithic Lascaux cave paintings created between 18000
and 10000 b.c. (Youtube tour of Lascaux caves: http://youtu.be/UnSq0c7jM-A ) This is among the earliest known records of representational art. Whitfield jumps from the Stone Age to Egyptian art (3100 b.c.) that focuses on the afterlife. Twenty six hundred years after the pyramids, art flourishes in the Minoan civilization of Crete, off the coast of Greece. One looks at some Minoan wall paintings and cannot help being reminded of Egyptian art. The slender figures are reminiscent of images on ancient Egyptian frescos. Wall paintings of human forms jumping over bull’s horns at the Knossos ruins in Crete show another form of representational art. (Youtube video of the reconstruction of Knossos: http://youtu.be/4XJd88cTRsU).
Whitfield describes the growth of architectural art with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns of Greece that provide balance and proportion to monuments like the Parthenon in Athens. (Youtube video of Athen’s Acropolis:http://youtu.be/xP-FsX0QW88.)
Rome picks up where Greece leaves off but Rome’s art perfects realism in representational art.
The arch is a Roman contribution to architecture. Coliseums are built to stage athletic events and Christian persecutions. (Youtube video of the Roman Colosseum construction and use: http://youtu.be/OOylD1KC6kc . ) Statues of great leaders are sculpted in idealized forms reminiscent of ancient Greece.
The next leap in Whitfield’s history is to the Middle Ages.
Architecturally, cathedrals are designed to shock and awe observers with an “other worldly” vision of God and heaven. (Youtube video tour of Notre Dame in Paris: http://youtu.be/O61ng_QqC4I.)
St. Sernin and Notre Dame illustrate how architectural design moves from the practical construction characteristics of a Roman aqueduct to an ethereal and spiritual experience of a multi-chambered, high ceiling cathedral.
The early Renaissance peeks through the Middle Ages with Cimabue and Giotto creations. Rather than stick figure symbols of saints, common in the Middle Ages, Cimabue and Giotto create more realistic and emotive human forms. (Youtube video of Giotto’s works: http://youtu.be/O61ng_QqC4I.)
The Early Renaissance (1400s) arrives with Brunelleschi, and Donatello. The classic art forms of Greece and Rome are re-discovered. Human figures become more classic, ideally formed but more natural looking. Da Vinci begins detailing human anatomy. (Youtube history of Da Vinci: http://youtu.be/Pir_H7kf_JU. ) The High Renaissance (1500s) reaches a pinnacle with Michelangelo. Whitfield wonders–if Girogio Vassari, the first art historian, believes Michelangelo reaches the pinnacle of art, what artist could improve on the achievement. (Youtube history of Michelangelo: http://youtu.be/t9owI8k7x1E.)
Whitfield digresses with an explanation of why the art Renaissance begins in Italy. He notes that the Renaissance flourishes in Italy because of the rise of Nobles and a secular class; particularly Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici in Italy. But, also the Roman Catholic church which uses its wealth to support promising artists. Popes offer a “canvas” for great art with cathedral building and beautifully maintained landscapes.
However, Whitfield acknowledges that Renaissance art also flourishes, though slightly later, in France and Germany with Durer, Bruegel, Bosch, and Jan van Eyck. (Youtube video of Albrecht Durer’s work: http://youtu.be/3uBSzOHT87w . ) Whitfield believes the two art movements rose independently. He notes that less skin is shown in northern artist’s work which suggests an independent renaissance of classic art. (One wonders if skin exposure is simply because of climate difference.)
Curiously, Whitfield suggests after the Renaissance, art is classified by its decade rather than categories like Classic, Romanesque, Gothic, etc., but ironically Whitfield continues to give future art works categories. Whitfield’s next category is Mannerism.
Mannerism moves away from perfect forms and begins to trick the eye of the observer. Distortion is used to elicit reaction in the observer. Artists break the rules of perfect human form. Tintoretto and El Greco are two of the better known rule breakers in the mid-1500s. (Youtube video of El Greco Paintings: http://youtu.be/dhj93Qq1fVM.)
Next is the Baroque period of art with Rembrandt (Youtube video of Rembrandt works: http://youtu.be/ekpSExdM3Zk) and Carravaggio (Youtube video of Carravagiggio works:http://youtu.be/WXwbhssHTKk ). One begins to see a softening of image but with more attention to light and color that enriches the appearance of the painter’s subject. Some argue that religion becomes more important in art of this period because of the burgeoning rift between Catholics and Protestants.
The age of revolution is Whitfield’s next era of art history. Romanticism plays out in the French and American revolutions. Imagination becomes an important element of art. Delacroix, and Turner romanticized war in their paintings.
Whitfield jumps to Impressionism which seems right when one looks at Turner’s paintings which seem somewhat impressionistic even though they pre-date Impressionism. The effect of light becomes a preeminent concern of artists like
Monet, Renoir, and Degas. This leads to the category of Post-Impressionism that dislikes artist’s over-emphasis on light. They return to importance of subject without abandoning the importance of light. The new leaders are Van Gogh, and Cezanne. (Youtube video of Van Gogh self portraits: http://youtu.be/O5tKG39G6Qk.)
Moving into the 20th century, Whitfield picks Matisse and Kandinsky as representatives of Expressionism. (Youtube video of Kandinsky’s works: http://youtu.be/H62BRsqEruE. ) Abstraction becomes more and more prevalent with Cubism, and Futurism led by Braque and Picasso. Then there is the jump to dreams with Dada and Surrealism,
practiced by Dali, Magritte, and de Chirico. (Youtube video of de Chirico’s works: http://youtu.be/D3GjVlnQm1A. ) Whitfield notes that Dali’s self-promotional exhibitionism turns off many of his contemporaries. Other Surrealist artists are internally motivated by their imagination without outward concern for acceptance or rejection by the public.
Finally, Whitfield notes that abstract art breaks with representation with artists like Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Warhol. (Youtube video narrated by Jackson Pollock descibing how he works: http://youtu.be/CrVE-WQBcYQ. ) Art represents itself, not as an image of something else but as an unrepresentative image, a thing unto itself. Art becomes what an artist and observer is moved by.
At the end, one wonders whether art is entering a new dark age where the value of art is degraded by technology that makes too much of medium as message. Art needs to be more than a transaction between willing seller and buyer.