I have been trying to write this blog for weeks now. And I feel so stink for not having published it yet. This is a challenging blog post for me but one that I find is really important for you to understand, and that I need you to understand before we move forward. It is something that loads of artists don’t understand, and what some people (mainly advertisers) spend years trying to perfect the art of. For you to be able to understand art you need to understand what is contained in an artwork. The simple signs in it, and the messages contained in the seemingly odd elements of an artwork, and how you can read the artworks that appear at face value to carry no meaning but when you understand a little more you can pick up a world of meaning from.
So that we are clear this is just going to be a few of the parts that can be read because to tell the truth everything about art can be read and is telling a story, or contributing to the message of what is being shown to you as a viewer. And when i say everything I do mean everything. Where the artwork is being displayed, who you are viewing it with, the smells and sounds in the room while you look upon the work, your back story, the works’ backstory, the artists’ backstory. Literally everything contributes to the meaning you get from the art work. It is for this reason that any meaning that you get from an artwork is correct, and why artists who create a work of art that truly moves an audience and that everyone gains the same meaning from, these are the artists with true genius who really understand their art. And this is what you pay for when you pay the huge price tags on truly awesome artworks.
So here are some of the more readable things you can look for in an artwork.
These are things that are representative of something. That are very simple and tell the viewer something. So imagine road signs. Or toilet signs.
All of these are easily identifiable and quickly show what their meanings are. Most people despite their prior knowledge would know or could work out what they mean.
These are harder. They are things (smells, sounds, actual things etc.) which represent something else. For example in Monet’s Olympia. There is a black cat at the end of the bed. Potentially the cat looks a little out of place, but then other people might just say he was drawing exactly what is there. However, One idea about why it is there is to say something about the woman of the painting. Cats are often used as symbols of sex or sexuality. So this black cat could be talking about this woman as prostitute, or as a woman leading man to sin. Often these sorts of artworks were actually used as wealthy men’s’ “pornography” where this type of artwork would be brought out for the men to gaze upon with their buddies and comment on. So to have a black cat in the painting accentuates this woman’s sexuality.
These are simple symbols that are not easily read but that have been given meaning over time by the common use of them.
Here are some examples:
The thing that is interesting about these symbols is that their meaning can change by them regularly being used in a different way.
Think about the symbol of the cross:
Regularly known to be religious symbol. But then when someone has taken this symbol and turned it on its head, it is given a different meaning which in and of itself doesn’t really change the meaning of the cross itself, until people start portraying it next to Satan or putting into horror scenes or ominous scenes of movies. Or when people use it to symbolise Satan or evil regularly.
Or the Swastika. Originally a religious symbol for Christianity, Hitler saw it and changed it’s meaning by using it as the symbol for his Nazi movement. Originally he used it in such a way which was to promote his movement as the right way and the right thing, and a good movement with sound morals and a sound belief system. And this gave people confidence because the symbol had been known to mean Christianity and other good things. It wasn’t until after the holocaust that history has forced the Christian meaning to be forgotten and now pretty much all that people see when looking at a Swastika is this terrible tragic event that happened.
A very good way of reading an artwork and the first way I would encourage you to respond to an artwork is by reading your emotional response to a work. This is very very personal and so I can’t really say HOW to read this other than what is your first feeling towards the artwork. Not just I like it or I don’t. But This made me feel happy because, or this made me tremble because.
I’ll try to give examples of this:
Chirico in his Melancholy and Mystery of a street tries to portray this feeling of looming dread and uncertainty. When you look at this artwork everything contributes to this emotional feeling he is trying to portray. Such as this little “innocent” little girl playing with a hoop and moving unwittingly towards this huge dark shadow stretching from around a corner. The perspective is distorted to add to the discomfort of the scene, and the colours used are dark, and muddy and again add to the sense that something is not quite right.
Or for example Norman Rockwell’s Christmas artworks “Merry Christmas Grandma” (Yes this an advertisement, but advertisements are often used to draw heavily on emotional response). This is supposed to conjure up images of Christmas and the joy of family turning up. It doesn’t really say anything about the Plymouth that it is advertising but surely if you arrived in the Plymouth and arrived with this sort of joy and excitement then it MUST be the right car for you. Clearly.
Or Painting by Sung Kim “Hidden beach”. Perfectly painted to remind you of how stressed you might be. The response being that I wish I were relaxing on that beach, boy do I feel busy right now at work.
Then there are artists, particularly body artists who make art that encourages people to respond physically to the work.
For example Marina Abramovic. In her body art performance she and a male counterpart stood nude in the narrow entranceway to the gallery where her art display was being shown. The idea being that the patrons had to push through this narrow space between two naked bodies, who didn’t talk or move or look at anyone. Clearly this type of art display would have some physical responses in people. Some people might get angry or they might have their stomachs turn over at the thought of being this close to two unknown naked people. Some people might decide they didn’t want to go in after all. Others might not have minded. The point in there was a physical response.
Perhaps think of one of her other performances where by she had two huge (and I mean HUGE) blocks one of pure fat or lard and the other of chocolate. The performance started and she began eating each of the blocks until it made her physically sick and she started throwing up, all over the place, all over the gallery. She then began “painting” the audience out of the gallery with her hair in the vomit. This clearly had a physical response from the audience because none of them would want to get covered in this spew so they would move away from it. Some of them probably felt quite nauseous from the display (I know I get nauseous thinking about what it must have been like to watch.)
Then there are artists who paint stories, usually well known, into their artworks. Or they paint pieces of the stories into their art.
For example, Tiziano in Dionysus and Ariadne.
Or Rubens with Adoration of the Magi
Or Botticelli with the birth of Venus. All of these tell a story that is fairly well known, but all of them tell stories about someone else or something that happened. These sort of paintings for you to get meaning from them often you would need to know the story themselves, but other times you can read the story from what essentially is happening. These types of paintings would often contain symbols or signs in them that show what is going on. But usually it is up to the reader to gain the story from the picture. Similar to a still of a movie or a page in a picture book. Paintings can give you meaning in the same way.
Sometimes artworks require some knowledge of the artist themselves to understand the story behind them so these can be quite hard to read. Other times the artist might choose to portray the story of their subject. Or otherwise they might just paint something and you relate to it in a certain way by bringing your own story into the meaning.
For example Edvard Munch’s The scream is a short portrayal of his story of coping with mental illness.
Or Van Gogh’s the Potato Eaters portrays the story of his subjects.
For me Chagall’s Over the Village brings up my own personal stories of love and betrayal and those sorts of stories. For other people however it might not mean anything. But for me I see my story and my feelings of how love feels like.
I think at this point I will leave it there for reading into an artwork. There are so so many ways to read an artwork and none of them can possibly be wrong, because there are so many elements to consider in an artwork. Each of my examples have been used to highlight particular points but each work could be both used to portray that point but also could be argued that they don’t portray that based on your perspective, understanding, and the history and knowledge that you bring to the artwork, as well as things like the environment that you come to the artwork in.
Honestly I get so excited about art and discussing it. It is seriously fun!! I encourage you all to discuss with me, and provide examples and what you get from art and why you get that from it.