If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Feminist Perspective in Art History

Art is one of humanity's greatest achievements with a rich variety of styles, periods, and subjects. The majority of our art is made for noble reasons - love of nature, love of beauty, love of family, etc. But, despite this tremendous accomplishment, this treasure that we have created, we must recognize that it could have been even greater. We have set a severe limit on our creative potential, in that practically all of our most famous artworks have been made by white men for other, richer white men. Most art has been made to satisfy the white, male mind. And, while that often simply meant painting a nice sunset or flower pot - something we can all enjoy, it has also included a male view of the world and women, which is why so many museums carry a high percent of female nudes, while presenting so few female artists. And museums do so because they reflect history which has all too often become "his-story".

For most of human history (and possibly prehistory?) art making in the west was considered a man's job, for the same reason that professions in general were considered for men. Even as women broke social barriers and began picking up paint brushes, discrimination kept them out of museums and galleries, a trend that has only begun to change in the last forty years or so. And, while most people don't like to think of themselves as sexist today, sexism in art is a legacy that haunts us, obscuring (zatemnuje) hundreds of great artists. Consider the following experiment:

What happens when you Google "10 greatest artists?"

I found this, as of March 18th, 2015:

Ø      Rolling Stone Magazine lists 100 greatest pop singers and groups of all time. Only 7 are women. They listed John Lennon and Eric Clapton twice.
Ø lists a top twenty list, they're all men.
Ø lists a top ten list, they're all men. They also have a top ten works of art, all made by men, although 5 of them portray women.
Ø      The list top ten works of art, all made by men, unless the cave paintings were made by women - the world will never know.
Ø lists 101 greatest artists of all time. Two are women: Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe (they misspelled it).

What happens when you Google "10 greatest women artists"?

Ø      Wikipedia comes up with a good history of women artists, but no top ten list.
Ø      The lists a top 10 list of "Most Subversive Women Artists," suggesting it's subversive (podvratný) for a woman to even be an artist.
Ø lists top 10 most controversial works, none of which were made by women.
Ø lists top 10 most studied women artists, but not the greatest.
Ø      The Huffington Post lists ten drawings by women who were underestimated in their time.

There wasn't a single top ten list anywhere. Men had a top 100 list, and women, nothing. It was the same thing when I changed the word "artist" to "painter". I found an "8 list" on for women artists of the renaissance - as in that's how many artists they could name between 1500-1750. Meanwhile, try Googling top 10 supermodels, and you'll find an endless amount of lists, and in fact, Google even creates a gallery to scroll through them. The message is clear, men have a great interest in looking at beautiful women, but no one, apparently, cares much what they create.

Why is this? Is it pure sexism? Aren't there plenty of women artists out there? Yes, thousands of them. Aren't they any good? Yes, they are! Then why don't we recognize them in our culture? Well, there are several reasons, and no, it's not just sexism, although sexism plays its part.

1. First of all, artists in general are ignored in modern culture - male and female. If you're reading this, try and name a living artist. How about a living architect (who isn't in your family)? Think of your favorite animations - Shrek? The Lion King? Frozen? Who designed those characters you love so much? Do you have any idea? Recently I asked my students to present their favorite art, whatever inspires them. Each student went through the internet looking for examples of what they consider "great art". One by one they stood up to present their choices. Only one student could tell me the names of the artists he chose. People just don't think about it. The only artists these days who receive any publicity are the big names shown in museums, known only to art aficionados, and some comics artists who have a small fan base. A couple artists are popular on blogs, online, but it's not the same as celebrity status. They're popular only within their small community.

2. Historically, women have been discouraged and forbidden from making art - unless they were really, really good. I've found that this results in women artists historically being above average, better than most of their male counterparts. So, why aren't they more famous? Well, for the same reason most male artists aren't famous. There are too many of them - no one wants to learn them all. Art historians like to keep things simple. They narrow their focus, showing only the greatest, superstar artists from every era and style. And the superstars of art are mostly male, because they were lucky enough to have a rare genius for art, and the support of society to make great works. They were in the right place at the right time, with the right gender, and then they worked and struggled to make masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel, the palace at Versailles, etc. Great women artists sometimes found a way into the art world, but were not given access or money to make great, large-scale works, until the 20th century.

3. Since women didn't get to begin working large scale really until post modernism (PoMo), and many people don't like PoMo, there's not a lot of interest for their work (note, I'm not attacking the quality of this art, merely acknowledging its controversy). I can name, for example Eve Hesse and Tracy Emin,  two big names in PoMo art. Ever heard of them? If not, look them up. See what you think. Maybe you'll see why they don't appeal to the masses, along with all the other PoMo crowd.

The Guerilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of feminists who formed in 1985 in New York City to protest an art show at the Museum of Modern Art. The show, "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture", was called the single most important exhibit of contemporary art. The curator, Kynaston McShine, said in an interview, that if you're an artist, and you're not in his show, you should rethink your career. The survey showed 169 artists, and only thirteen were women.

So, a group of women put on gorilla masks and began an advertising campaign to promote women in art and fight for equality. They made billboards, advertisements, and even wrote books making fun of museums and rewriting women's history. It's a movement that still exists today, and they have their own website you can look up. They wear gorilla masks as a way to shock people for publicity, and to remain anonymous.

Pussy Riot
This is a group of feminist protestors from Russia. Starting in 2011, they stage "guerrilla performances" of punk rock music in public places, which they then edit and put on the internet. They support women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, and strongly protest Putin, who they consider a dictator. They've been arrested and jailed numerous times.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Symbols in Art History

Through most of history, art has served to support the state, and organized religion, telling stories through pictures. Since many people, historically, were illiterate, artists used symbols to tell their stories. It's a useful way to communicate with small groups of people, but there is a problem. Over time, people forget what the symbols mean, especially when there are stories behind them. When you don't know the story, the symbol becomes meaningless. This is why so many ancient cultures are so mysterious today.

Greek Art
The art of ancient Greece revolved around mythology, with every god having his or her own symbols. Poseidon, god of the sea held a trident. Apollo and his sister Artemis both carried bows and arrows. Ares, god of war, carried a sword. And Athena wore a helm and carried a shield and spear. We understand Greek symbols because the ancient Greeks wrote about them in their histories and plays. Many symbols from Greek mythology are still used today:

The Asclepius rod is an ancient Greek symbol associated with medicine. Asclepius was the God of Medicine and Healing. The serpent, which sheds its skin is a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and wisdom.

The bowl of Hygeia is an international symbol of pharmacy. In Greek mythology, Hygeia was the daughter and assistant of Asclepius. The bowl contained a medicinal potion with the serpent of Wisdom drinking from it - the same as from Asclepius' rod.

The Caduceus is an ancient symbol of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Today, it represents business, negotiation, and eloquence.

The Cornucopia, also known as the Horn of Plenty, is a Greek symbol of harvest abundance and prosperity. It is a spiraling horn-shaped basket filled with grains and fruit.

Medieval Christian Symbols

Medieval and Gothic art is full of symbolism, but it's hard to read, not just because the work is old, but because of the context of what's happening in each artwork. A key, for example, can have ten different meanings depending on where it's placed, and what it's next to. Medieval Christians borrowed some symbols from ancient civilizations. For example, they used the Egyptian eye of Horus (an eye in a triangle) to symbolize God. They also used the Greek Symbols alpha (A) and omega (Ω) to represent God. There are countless symbols in medieval art. Here are the basics:


White, Pink, and Blue - These colours typically represented innocence and purity, particularly of the virgin Mary. White also suggested marriage. Indigo blue was one of the most expensive colours to make, so using it only with Mary's clothing was a way to make her special.

Purple - this was a kingly colour, and was used often with Jesus.

Green - represented Jesus' baptism (krst), resurrection (vzkriesenie), and ascension into heaven (Nanebovstúpenie).

Yellow - represented the light of heaven and miracles.

Red and Orange - were symbolic of sins, such as greed and lust. They also represented the fires of hell.

Grey, Black, and Brown - were colours of the grave, used often with Jesus' cross.


Animals have always featured prominently in culture and symbolism. The temple of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, dates back to 10,000 BC, and has animals carved into its pillars. In America, many native tribes have used animals in their names. The Chinese calandar uses an animal zodiac to describe yearly changes, and the Greek zodiac is used to describe people's personalities.

Medieval Christians thought that animals could see your true soul, and knew if you were good or bad. They would use dogs during trials - if it growled at the accused, he was a heretic or witch. If a raven nested in the roof of someone's house, people might burn it down. The following meanings come from Medieval Christian art:

Ape - represented lust.
Bear - represented St. Seraphim of Serov, a monk who befriended animals.
Birds - Birds had a variety of meanings in medieval art. A bird with a key in its mouth represented salvation (spasenie):
            Dove - peace, innocence, and the holy spirit.
            Finch - represented a soul returning to heaven.
            Sparrow - especially by a window represented someone dying. If one landed on your head, it meant you were a good, pious (zbožný) person.
            Peacock - with it's feathers that look like eyes represented vigilance (pozornosť).
            Rooster - also represented vigilance, and the apostle St. Peter.
            White Peacock - represented marriage, eternal life, and narcissism.
            Phoenix - symbolized resurrection.
            fat Pidgeon - represented laziness and gluttony (obžerstvo).
            Vulture - represented greed and corruption.
            Brown Duck - symbolized evil.
            White Duck - represented purity and innocence.
            Swan - also represented purity, as well as St. Hugh of Lincoln.
Crow or Raven - Represented the Devil's assistants. A crow with a married couple represented infidelity. A crow with a holy person symbolized temptation. A crow holding silver represented Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. However, a raven was also used as the symbol of St. Oswald.
Robin - when singing represents deliverance from evil. When caged represents God is angry with someone.
Eagle - symbol of Jesus and baptism.

Bull & Donkey - Often present in nativity scenes. The bull represents faith and piety (zbožnosť), because he bows to the baby Jesus, while the donkey ignores him. The bull was also a symbol for St. Thomas Aquinas.
Camel - represented the Egyptian St. Mennas.
Cat - symbolized Satan and witchcraft.
Dog - symbolized loyalty.
Ermine - funny enough, might represent truth and fidelity, or mischief. Also represented royalty.
Fish - was one of the earliest symbols for Jesus. In fact, the Greek name for fish, ιχθύς,  is actually an anagram for, "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour." Fish may also represent the apostles, who were "fishers of men." Fish prepared as a dinner with bread and wine represents the Eucharist. Different fish had different meanings:
            Cod - a woman holding a cod was saintly. A man holding a cod was devilish.
            Dolphin & Whale - resurrection, patience, and mercy.
            Shark - death, destruction, and sin.
Goat - symbolized the Devil, poor guy.
White Horse - represented victory and invincibility (nepremožiteľnosť).
Insects - had a variety of meanings:
            Ant - symbolized murder and destruction.
            Bee - symbolized martyrdom, sacrificing his life for others.
            Beetle - symbolized salvation and eternal life.
            Butterfly & Caterpillar - symbolized the life cycle, and rebirth.
            Cicada - symbolized prayer, safety, and hope.
Dragonfly - symbolized freedom and free will.
Flies and Maggots - represented decay and death. A fly over a nobleman indicated corruption. A fly over a woman indicated lust and infidelity.
Firefly - represented youth, hope, and young love.
Ladybug - represented healing.
Wasp - symbolized the Devil and his assistants.
Lamb - primarily symbolized Jesus, but also innocence and peace.
Lion - as a symbol of power, it could represent Jesus and wisdom or Satan and tyranny.
Lion with Wings - represented St. Mark the Evangelist.
Otter - represented St. Cuthbert, who loved animals.
Ox with Wings - represented St. Luke the Evangelist.
Pig - symbolized greed (chamtivosť) and gluttony, obviously.
Snake - symbolized Satan, the tempter of mankind. He can often be found hiding in paintings, showing that someone is secretly with the devil. Funny enough, artists portrayed St. John the Evangelist holding a snake in a cup as one of his symbols - possibly coming from ancient Greek bowl of Hygeia.
Spider - symbol of evil. A spider web near a person meant he was plotting evil plans. A spider on an apple symbolized Eve's temptation. A spider on a cup represented infidelity.
Unicorn - a symbol of innocence and chastity (cudnosť), because only a virgin girl could tame it.
Wolf - Although they were often hunted and killed in real life, in art they represented mercy. St. Francis of Assisi often befriended wolves.

Bread - especially with wine, represented the body of Jesus.
Fruit -
            Apple - original sin, and carnal sins.
            Fig - loss of innocence and fall from grace. Adam and Eve used fig leaves to make the first clothes.
            Grapes - symbolized lust.
            Lemon - symbolized a bitter and resentful heart.
            Orange - symbolized free will, and also wealth, because they were expensive in Europe.
            Peach - symbolized virtue and honour, unless it was rotten or half eaten. Then it represented a loss of honour.
            Pear - Symbolized fidelity, and St. Catherine.
            Pomegranate - symbolized eternal life and also St. Catherine.
            Strawberry - symbolized harmony and religious nourishment.
Rabbit - on a platter represented fertility.
Wheat - represented the bread of the Eucharist. A grain of wheat represented resurrection and the cycle of life. A crow with wheat in its mouth indicated addiction to alcohol and/or adultery. Wheat scattered on the ground indicated a wasted life.
Wine - represented the Eucharist, Jesus' blood and sacrifice.
Man Made Things:

Anchor - was a symbol of faith and hope because it represented the safe arrival of a ship back at harbour. It was also a substitute for the cross before Christianity was legal. It also represents St. Clement who was thrown into a stormy sea, tied to an anchor.
Book - could have a variety of meanings. The Evangelists often hold a book representing the New Testament. An open book could symbolize education, knowledge, and submission to the word of God. If pages were torn out, it meant someone had rejected this knowledge and God.
Broom - symbolized marital faith and fidelity.
Candle - a single candle represented Jesus' sacrifice, and God's presence. If the candle were burned out, it symbolized a lack of faith and piety.
Chalice - symbolized consecration and the Eucharist. Anyone holding a chalice was a servant of God.
Clock/Hourglass - represented time, fate, and death. A clock with no hands symbolized that man can't control his fate.
Coins - on a Bible symbolized that someone cared more about money than God. Coins with a knife showed that someone cared more about money than human life.
Cross - symbolized Jesus' sacrifice for the sins of the world. The cross was actually a popular symbol before Jesus' time, in ancient Egypt and Sumeria.
Curtains - especially when fluttering, represented a meeting of heaven and earthly worlds.
Inkwell - symbolized broken promises. If at the table of a saint, it represented martyrdom.
Jug & Washbasin - symbolized cleanliness, and forgiveness of sins.
Kettle - an overturned tea kettle represented a loss of faith.
Keys - Had many different meanings:
            Crossed Keys - symbolized St. Peter, keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
            Key on a Pillow - symbolized marital fidelity.
            Key by a Lock - symbolized free will.
            Key in a Lock - represented acceptance of Jesus as saviour.
            Key near Fruit - represented a corrupted and lustful soul.
            Key under a Book - represented a sinner, and having committed some sin.
            Key lying on the Floor - represented someone's who was totally corrupt and lost.
Lute - symbolized romantic love.
Mirror - symbolized vanity or introspection.
Nails - symbolized the crucifixion, of course.
Pillow - A red pillow represented a horrible sinner.
Toy - represented innocence.
Window - when dirty indicated a physical illness such as leprosy or venereal disease.

Arrows - symbolized death and martyrdom, specifically the saints Edmund and Sebastian.
Battle Axe - Was the symbol of Saints Simon and Matthias. An axe or sword leaning against a wall represented death. Left in wood, an axe symbolized Satan's presence and temptation.
Club - symbolized St. Jude.
Knife - symbolized St. Bartholomew, especially three knives.
Pitchfork - symbolized the Devil.
Scourge - symbolized punishment. With a pillar, it represented the passion of Jesus.
Silver Shield - with a serpent intertwined with a bloody sword, symbolized the false prophet.
Red Shield - symbolized St. Paul.
Blank Shield - symbolized Judas Iscariot.
Sword - symbolized fighting, bravery, and martyrdom. The sword represented St. Paul and the Archangel Michael. Crossed swords represented a high ranking military officer. A broken sword symbolized the eradication of evil.
Whip - could symbolize domination, slavery, or penance for sins.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Perspective & Depth

Size Comparisons

There are many ways to create the illusion of space and depth in a picture. One of the simplest is by placing two objects next to each other on the picture plane, one small, and one big:

The Stars My Destination, by Donato Giancola

We know the earth is bigger than one man's head, but pictorially we see the earth as small. This means it must be very far away. You can see the same effect with these boats:

Gloucester Boys, by Winslow Homer
The children in front are large, and the ships are small, so they must be very far away. This watercolour also shows overlapping. The heads on the left cover some of the ships, so the boys must be in front.


Here's another example of overlapping. Look at all the people and things on the right and left. They're organized almost like dominoes, one in front of the other, to create a strong illusion of depth. The more "dominoes" you can add in a line, the farther back in space they will appear to go.

Kongens Nytorv, Copenhagen, by Paul-Gustave Fischer

Also note how these receding shapes on either side help frame the girl in the middle.

Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective is when landscape artists mimic the effects of air as objects get farther away. The colour and value of an object changes as you walk farther and farther from it, because the air itself has a colour - usually blue. Distant objects are usually lighter, duller, and bluer than objects up close:

Antignano Outskirts, by Gambogi Danielson

Whether the sky appears blue depends on the position of the sun. Around sunrise and sunset, the sun is positioned at a low angle, and turns the sky a variety of colours - red, pink, yellow, etc. It also depends on the humidity and clouds.

Lake Nemi, by Samuel Gifford

There's nothing blue about that distant light.

Top-To-Bottom Perspective

Another effective strategy to achieving a sense of depth is to organize your shapes according to height placement. Whatever is at the bottom is closest, and whatever's at the top is farthest away. This approach is typical of Asian arts:

Landscape in the style of Ni Zan, by Hong Ren

Linear Perspective

Linear perspective is the most accurate way to represent the illusion of space in a picture. It's also the most complicated. There are different kinds of linear perspective: 1-point, 2-point, and 3-point. They all use a horizon line with vanishing points on it, with everything in the picture receding to those points. In reality, there are six points of perspective: front & back, left & right, top & bottom. But in most works of art, you only need one to three.

Linear perspective works best with architecture and geometrical shapes. But, it also exists in nature.

Trees & Sky, by Kari Liimatainen

Clouds, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Everything you see is governed by the rules of linear perspective, including organic and irregular shapes - even you.

1-Point perspective is the simplest. This is ideal for hallways and city streets:

2-Point perspective is best for viewing buildings at an angle.

3-Point perspective is necessary when looking up at very tall buildings.

Curvilinear Perspective