Monday, August 8, 2011

Art History Is Not Linear

Art History Is Not Linear  |  Ryan McGinness  |  Page Bond Gallery, Richmond  |  Art In America  |  2011
This very graphic statement by Ryan McGinness caught my eye recently, not just because it's a striking design, not just because Mason Williams' Classical Gas started playing in my head, but also because the title really resonates with me.

Years ago I taught illustration to high school graduates at an art institute. As I made references to artists, paintings and styles of the past, I was usually met with blank stares. It finally dawned on me that these young people, who aspired to be professional artists, knew virtually nothing of art history. How could that be!? Has our way of teaching history become so dry and date-heavy that even art students shy from picking up books on art history? The answer is, apparently — yes.

My class evolved into a Liberal Arts course as I continually explained that, while we tend to think of history in a timeline, all art is contemporaneous. It might still be true that a lot of young artists look to whatever is current for inspiration and direction, but the totality of art is a never-ending circle of inspiration.

Pompeian frieze, c. A. D. 79   |   Picasso plate, 1956, Christie's

Alchemy symbol, Middle Ages   |   Joan Miro, 1960

Etruscan figures, c. 750 B. C.   |   Alberto Giacometti, c. 1960,

Art Nouveau initials, c. 1910   |   Fillmore poster, 1967

Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500   |   Salvador Dali, 1931

York Minster stained glass, c. 1150   |   Georges Rouault, 1937

I hope you enjoy these comparisons.
I intend to make this posting a page in my sidebar,
and I'll continue to add comparative images.


  1. There is nothing new under the sun. This is especially true when looking at the history of art. I remember visiting the Lascaux Caves in France, and being struck by how much Picasso's horse drawings resembled them. I have a little stone (just a replica) Cycladic figure from Greece, which many would assume was a contemporary piece of cubism sculpture. Look forward to seeing more of your comparisons.

  2. Mark, what an incredibly interesting approach. Having never looked for camparisons before in different art styles from different eras, I am amazed at the comparisons you have shown!

  3. Cool post. There are so many examples. How about Greek keys vs. Chinese fretwork; 19th century aesthetic design vs. the Japanese originals; Japanese woodcuts resurfacing in modern art; Stylized Egyptian design reborn as Art Deco; etc.

    Your Art Nouveau/60's poster example also calls to mind that there was a similar revival in the 60's of early 20th century vaudeville music, not only pseudo-pieces like Winchester Cathedral, but also antiques dusted off like Henry VIII I Am, and Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

    --Road to Parnassas

  4. Hi, Rosemary. I considered the horses of Lascaux for this posting, and will include them in my next group of comparisons. But you might be surprised by the art to which I match them!

  5. Hi, David - I am always intrigued by how different era of art can be compared, and also by how designs can be very cross-cultural. You might be surprised to know that the Celt traveled as far as the Middle East, so it's not surprising that their knotwork and Arabic designs are quite similar. There's something to add to the next posting ...

  6. Hi, Parnassus - Thanks for adding the suggestions. Egyptian designs and Art Deco are a natural pairing, which I'll certainly include them in my next posting of comparisons.

  7. I truly enjoyed reading and looking at this post, Mark. Wonderful, thought provoking comparisons. Just marvelous. In my exuberance I've posted it on my Facebook page and on Twitter.

  8. Wow, Yvette, thank you! I'm looking forward to adding to the list.

  9. I love this stuff. The best professor I ever had was Lloyd Englebrecht. These days, he's at a publishing house in Cincinnati, but in the early Seventies, he taught art history at Bradley University in Peoria, and every day, class would be preceded with a similar pair of slides.

    Depending on the course, the topic of his lecture might have been Dante Gabriel Rosetti, or Herbert Bayer's Bauhaus typography, but when we walked into class, the slides projected on the wall seldom had anything to do with the day's lecture. They were just there to get us to think, and (maybe) teach us to connect the dots. In my first two years, I don't think I looked forward to anything as much as I did Dr. E's pairs of slides before class, unless it was the box of donuts that he bought in every morning to encourage us to arrive early, since the donuts went away when class began. You snooze, you lose. What a guy.

    Sometimes, the pairings & the relationship between them were obvious--say, between the temple at Tikal (as reconstructed for the Columbian Exposition of 1893) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House--and other times it was a surprise to our innocent eyes: a handstitched crazy quilt from the 1880s paired with an Anglo-Japonesque china pattern of the same decade, which juxtaposition suddenly made the quilt's angular lines & sharp-cornered pieces look less like some housewife's thrifty recycling of old fabric and more like a sophisticated aesthetic response to the latest fashion trend. Who knew? But as Dr. E explained, he wasn't as interested in answering our questions about influences & inspiration--students who think they already know everything seldom ask any questions--as he was in teaching us how to formulate them for ourselves. And in that, he was totally successful. When he left for the University of Cincinnati, we all felt the loss.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to more of these, and the sidebar is a perfect place to store them.

  10. Thanks for the Simply Grand comment! Lloyd Englebrecht sounds like quite a guy. In fact I Googled him and discovered that he's written Moholy-Nagy: Mentor to Modernism, from Flying Trapeze Press. And it in turn sounds like the first book we should all read in our blogging book club.

  11. Yes, I am amazed at how little young adults know or care about Art History and Art styles. As a teenager, I used to go to the public library and take out as many Art monographs as I could carry. I studied Art History in university but I was disappointed. The teaching methods were enough to destroy any love of Art. One sat for 2 hours in dark, windowless rooms looking at slides. If you could memorize the subject, artist, title, and date of the works, you passed. I'm not sure what the best Art Education methods are, but hopefully it would involve seeing actual works rather than slides, and some sort of analysis rather than memorizing facts. For myself, the best Art Education would be in any great European city, where one experiences various eras of Art, design, and Architecture in everyday life. Either that or have Kenneth Clark or Sister Wendy as instructors.

    The comparisons you've done are great fun. I greatly admire Rouault and have often noted that they remind me of stained glass which I also admire. We'd have better looking cities and buildings if young people and designers had greater knowledge of Art and design in times past.

  12. Terrific post!! As an art history student, I was always amazed by the both the synchronicity of themes in art around the world in seemingly disconnected cultures (think Stonehenge and the Nazca lines) and as you have so effectively shown - the non linear connections of visual concepts throughout time. As Rosemary pointed out, nothing much is new - it's all a matter of interpretation and presentation.

  13. Hi, Terry - It's good to hear from you, as always!

    You might be interested to know that Georges Rouault began his career at 14, as an apprentice glass painter.

  14. Thanks, Stacey! I'm looking forward to adding to the list, and already have additions in mind.

  15. Hi, Anyes - I'm glad you enjoyed it! More to come.