The Art History class I just took was very enlightening.
I’ve often thought art mattered but this class helped me to articulate why.
What you put out into the world and therefore how you make people feel, matters.
Art can be used to calm or to enrage; to inspire or depress and so much more.
In this quickie post I just want to show you a few pieces that illustrate this point.
The first is this one, Spotted Horses and Negative Imprints.
The whole painting, done with various types of ocher on a cave wall in France and just to give you an idea of the scale, the whole thing is 11’2” tall.
For years after these paintings were found, “experts” thought the artists were being fanciful with how they depicted these horses with spots. However modern DNA testing has showed that they were being true to life in their depiction. Ancient horses in this time and place had spots similar to an Appaloosa or Camarque breed. The hand prints in this pic are called negative because they’re outlines of an actual hand. It's so cool how the artists worked around the rock they had. You can see the head of the horse on the far right corresponds perfectly to the ending of the rock face of the cave.
I love this one, it’s part of a series of famous cave paintings found in Lascaux France called the Hall of Bulls that depicts horses, bulls, bison, and of all things, a Rhinoceros.
In case you’re wondering, these people were not being imaginative; they were depicting something true to life. Modern fossil evidence shows that Rhinoceroses were native to this part of France in ancient times.
Just so you understand the scale of this piece, the height of the bull on the far right is 11 feet long!
It also looks like several different artists overlapped their works over time. Why?
Another thing, they painted these animals so realistically, but in nature you don’t see various species traveling in herds together, so why did they portray them so here? Everything else they did was very true to life, so why be imaginative with this?
Or did they know something we don’t?
Why did people who I’m sure had such hard lives, go through the trouble of creating something so strikingly beautiful? Was it just for fun? Or were they trying to leave behind a message to later generations about what their world was like?
This oil painting is called Raft of the Medusa. Before I continue I should let you know, this painting is huge! It measurements 16’ 1”x 23’ 6”! Try fitting that into your living room! My teacher liked to say this was her favorite painting ever! I completely understand why. The story behind it is incredible.
This was a French passenger ship going to America, however they made a stop on the Ivory Coast and picked up some slaves. In 1816 when this happened, slavery was VERY illegal in France. They knew if they were caught shipping slaves, they would be in serious trouble.
When the ship had an accident and went down, the surviving passengers and crew managed to create a large makeshift raft from parts of the ship and tied it to the one and only life boat, which the captain and his lawyer kept to themselves. While still a long way off the American coast, the captain and his lawyer cut the line to the raft enabling them to row to the safety of the mainland, leaving the 150 people still on the makeshift raft drifting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The painting, made by French artist Theodore Gericault, depicts the people in the lifeboat after drifting at sea for 13 days. At the end of those 13 days, only 15 people were left alive. The survivors had resorted to cannibalism of the dead to survive. The painting captures the moment some men climb on top of each other to form a pyramid and wave for help at the ship Argus which rescued them. Of the 15 people rescued off that raft, only two survived the recovery process. Those two survivors later testified against the captain and his lawyer who later spent the rest of their lives in prison.
The artist Gericault contacted both survivors, talked with them and later became lifelong friends with one of them. He painted a true portrait of that survivor, he is the man in the white shirt turning back to the others and pointing off in the distance. Gericault lived and breathed this painting while he was working on it, going through an extensive preliminary period and several renditions before reaching a final product he was satisfied with.
Wanting to truly do this painting justice and capture the misery he was trying to portray, he moved to a small apartment in the slums of Paris. The huge painting took up his whole tiny studio. He painted and sketched dead bodies, even borrowing parts from the morgue down the street to get the skin tone just right.
When it was put up on display in the 1819 it was HUGE! There was still a lot of tension between the classes in France at this time but ALL who saw this painting were affected by it. It resonated for all who saw it. Strangers who had never before heard the story, mourned for these poor people.
Art for Arts sake is nice, but to me, art that illustrates a story is exceptional.
What you put out into the world matters.
Stories matter. Art matters.
So what are you putting out into the world?