Analyzing art

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Analyzing art[edit | edit source]

Analyzing art is an activity that, apart from educational aspects, develops one's ability to look for clues and subtleties. While drawing conclusions based on background knowledge from various fields, one may learn to appreciate the stimulating and entertaining value of visual arts. The aim of this course is to introduce certain aspects which are worth considering while looking at a work of art, but it is also designed to encourage the readers to spend some time on individual analysis, which hopefully proves much more than a dull academic task. Looking for meanings hidden in incredibly diverse forms can be compared to the solving of a riddle. Puzzling at first, works of art usually have much more to say that what meets the eye. Art conveys its messages by challenging the viewer to spend some time on reflection; here you will have a chance to see how to begin, what to look for and what are the possible means of interpreting.

Paintings[edit | edit source]

Key aspects for analysis[edit | edit source]

Sample analysis[edit | edit source]

Raft of the Medusa

To illustrate all the points discussed above, let us take a closer look at Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, an oil painting first shown in 1819. The painting presents actual events: after the shipwreck of the French frigate Méduse, part of the crew was forced to seek shelter on a raft, survived 15 days with little provision and was rescued by the brig Argus.

  • Subject and Theme

At the time the incident of the Méduse was well known and widely criticized by the public - Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, who was appointed the Captain of the ship, has scarcely sailed in the past years and was commonly blamed for the catastrophe which followed the ship's grounding on the reef close to the African coast. Some 400 men had to evacuate from the grounded craft, 150 of whom did not find a place in the rescue boats. Only 15 survived. The event became a scandal in French politics and when three years later Gericault presented his painting at the 1819's Salon, his work was certain to attract much attention. The painting pays tribute to the survivors, recognizes the tragedy and reminds the viewer that one poor decision may lead hundreds to destruction.

  • Composition

Even to the non-expert's eye the composition appears to be built out of two pyramidal shapes[1] created with radiating lines. One of the peaks can be seen in the figure hailing the flag; the other in the mast which continues the wave's shape. This structure already bears meaning: it translates as the contrast between hope, life - and the dangers lurking in the turmoil of the sea. The fate of those on the raft is not determined yet: they might be rescued, but they might be engulfed by the merciless waters just as well. The painting conveys this uncertainty, forces the audience to imagine the feelings the survivors' must have experienced. We can see that most of the men are looking in the direction of the distant ship. Those who don't are either dead or have surrendered already, losing all hope. This gives us an interesting aspect to consider: rarely do the characters portrayed treat the audience with their backs turned! But there is a point to that, too: the composition shows the survivors' lack of interest in what is happening on the raft or on the other side of the painting's frame: they are focused solely on the possibility of being rescued, and nothing else can divert their attention from the slightest glimmer of hope.

  • Colours

Gericault's palette is composed of flesh tones, dark colours of the survivors' clothes and pallid shades of the sea and the clouds. This colour scheme accentuates the seriousness of the theme and the survivors' fate - there is not much hope to be found. The only vibrant elements are the piece of cloth the man on the barrel uses to hail the ship on the distant horizon and the material covering the back of the old man facing the observer - and since the two constitute the main focal points of the painting, such choice of colours in by no means incidental. Gericault used bitumen to make the shadows as dark as possible, which adds even more dimension to the painting's message: black and extremely light patches are combined, illustrating the fight between despair and hope.

  • Symbols

Julian Barnes wrote a novel - A History of the World in 10½ Chapters - into which he incorporated a chapter comprising a magnificently insightful analysis of the Raft of the Medusa. The chapter entitled Shipwreck opens with the historical background of the tragedy followed by the interpretation of the painting. From the first part the reader learns that the dreadful circumstances impelled the survivors to the act of cannibalism, a horror most harrowing for those on the raft. And yet this seemingly most striking part of their anguish is absent from the painting. Or is it? Barnes explains that there is at least one symbolic group which adds to our understanding of this work of art: the desolate, resigned figure of an elderly man holding a dead body elicits our compassion: facing us openly, he is the only one who does not seem to be moved by the possibility of rescue, the only one among the conscious companions whos face reveals nothing but hopelessness and defeat. And just contrary to the first-glance reception, it is this very part that bears allusion to cannibalism.

 "Any educated contemporary spectator would be assuredly reminded of Dante's description of Count Ugolino sorrowing in his Pisan tower among his dying children - whom he ate."[2]

I highly recommend you take some time to read the entire chapter of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, or even the novel itself. Apart from being a wonderful read, it is a literary piece in which Barnes shares his observations supported by thorough research. The analysis he presents includes some other aspects not discussed in this section and as it's been stated before, it is truly insightful.

Try your hand[edit | edit source]

Take a look at the painting of famous Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer.The Art of Painting, also called The Allegory of Painting constitutes a perfect example of a work of art furnished with subtle details indicating hidden meaning which is not very difficult to decipher. Keep in mind the analysis provided above and all the points discussed in the course - it will help you approach your own analysis from many different angles and guide you through the nuances of the painting. If you find it difficult to grasp the meaning of particular aspects, say, composition, read the part discussing it in the "Raft's" analysis above to see what is the impact of the structure, and try to propose an analogical interpretation. Assume that everything in the painting is done on purpose and try to find an explanation for each observation you make. While analyzing, you may help yourself with the following questions:

  1. How does the title affect the perception of the painting?
  2. Which part of the painting seems to be the most important and why? What might be its meaning?
  3. How can the characters' poses be interpreted and why may it matter?
  4. What might be the meaning of the objects (the trumpet, the book, the map etc.) presented in the painting?
  5. Do you think the curtain matters? Why?
  6. What can be deduced from the composition?
  7. What can be deduced from the colours?

Architecture[edit | edit source]

Sculpture[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

If you are interested in learning more about art analysis, you might like the book entitled Masterpiece by Miranda Glover. Putting the plot aside, it offers quite an uncommon approach to art.

Another book that might help is A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes, mentioned in this course before.

References[edit | edit source]

  2. Barnes, Julian, 1989. A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. London: Jonathan Cape