Unveiling the Language of Art

Portrait de Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, 1937
Ain Sakhri figurine, The Lovers, 9000 BC
Passage from Ashurnasirpal II’s Annals, 883-859 BC
Cycladic Canonical Figures, 2700-2300 BC
Christ on the Cross, El Greco, 1590 (left) / Crucifix, Libero Andreotti, 1926 (right)
Christ on the Cross adored by two donors, El Greco, 1590
Crucifix, Libero Andreotti, 1926
Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-1499 (left) / Pieta, Vincent van Gogh, 1889 (right)
Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-1499
Pieta, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
La Dessert (Harmony in Red), Henri Matisse, 1908
Untitled (Black, Red over Black on Red), Mark Rothko, 1964
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During a lively family lunch at my home, a discussion about art sparked a humorous disagreement.

Well engaged in the kitchen, I overheard my relatives commenting on the abstract painting on my wall. In hushed voices, they engaged in a heated debate. One said, “I see a boat. I definitely see a boat.” The other said. “No, No, No, I don’t see anything. There is nothing there.” Knowing better than to interject during an effusive discussion, I kept out of the fray and continued serving lunch.

So, is there a boat in the painting, or isn’t there?

Contemporary art can be genuinely confusing. It took me a long time, years of study, observation and seeing original works by many artists and many ah-ha moments to figure out that sometimes there is a boat in the painting, and sometimes there is not. In modern works of art, multiple interpretations are possible and valid.

Seeing multiple examples of art within the framework of the development of man, cultures, societies and through the lens of history is essential to learning how to appreciate art.

I learned through years of sitting in art history classes in university. However, not everyone has the opportunity to take such in-depth study, nor do they want to. It helps to have someone guide you through the process of learning how to decipher art. A simple tutored introduction may be all that is needed for most.

This is why we created the CULTURE Magazine’s Art Appreciation series, a sequence of fun and accessible evening events with food, wine and an entertaining presentation about the history of art and how it fits into today’s art scene.

This series is geared towards those who want to expand their knowledge of art for personal enrichment or professional career advancement. Our accessible evening talks cater to diverse learners, from art novices seeking their first steps to enthusiasts wanting to deepen their understanding. We delve into the why behind art, exploring history, motivation and place within the broader artistic timeline.

We started the series with Where to Begin, exploring man as an artist and the origins of art from prehistory through the emergence of ancient cultures and societies.

The Ain Sakhri figurine – The Lovers

Through fine examples of ancient artefacts such as the Ain Sakhri figurine, The Lovers, made of carved calcite, dating from 9000 BC, we see the desire to purposefully convey an explicitly intimate act and incorporate emotions, such as love, into the design of an art object.

We continued the series with Recorded History and delved into the art of the ancient world. 

From 5,000 years ago, people started to specialise as societies became wealthier. Agriculture, animal domestication and governmental organisation allowed communities to flourish, grow and expand, especially around the Mediterranean Sea and the modern-day Middle East. In places such as the Greek Islands, around the Aegean Sea, in Egypt along the banks of the Nile and in Mesopotamia near the Tigris-Euphrates rivers, people were able to create an abundance in food supply, resulting in an excess of manpower. No longer did every individual have to focus on hunting and gathering food. Instead, surpluses meant that there was time and energy to do other things.

The Great Sphinx of Giza

In the ancient world, that extra time and energy were used to create objects and monuments that would communicate human emotions, as well as offer religious and reverential experiences for ordinary people. The remains of this effort can be seen in numerous artefacts in museums and grand ruins, such as The Great Sphinx of Giza.

The Cycladic Canonical Figures

Around the islands and rocky peninsulas of the Aegean Sea, between Greece and Turkey, the Cycladic culture developed its own distinctive style. Made of marble, the Cycladic Canonical Figures, dating from 2700-2300 BC, show an understated simplicity, flatness and geometry that are precursors to contemporary artworks.

The Passage from Ashurnasirpal II’s Annals

From a sample of one of the oldest forms of writing, the Passage from Ashurnasirpal II’s Annals (883-859 BC), we see a significant innovation in the development of man as storyteller. This artefact shows the emergence of the earliest form of record keeping and written communication. It exemplifies the progression from geometric shapes to pictographs, then alphabets, allowing commerce, governance and the growth of wealthy and successful empires.

In two subsequent talks, we presented Religious Fervour and the emergence of Christianity on artistic development and its impact on the period of Rebirth and the explosive creative energy of the Renaissance.

Leaving behind the polytheistic beliefs that dominated the ancient world, the shift to monotheism was a monumental development. The worship of only one God by Christians and Muslims had a profound effect on creative processes in Europe, which began in the Middle Ages and continues today.

The most significant influence came in the first century, with the birth of Jesus Christ. This momentous date signalled the emerging dominance of Christian religious practices and the decline of pagan beliefs, and it changed not only how people lived and died but also how they expressed their beliefs through artwork and architecture for the next two millennia.

El Greco – Christ on the Cross adored by two donors

In the painting Christ on the Cross adored by two donors by El Greco (1590), and in the sculpture Crucifix by Libero Andreotti (1926), the shape of the cross, the emblem of Christianity, becomes a reoccurring visual representation of martyrdom and sacrifice in artworks.

Michelangelo – Pieta

Fuelled by the patronage of wealthy Popes and other patrons, Christian-themed art reached its zenith during the Renaissance and served as a powerful tool for religious instruction and edification. The commission of masterpieces like Michelangelo’s Pieta (1498-1499) and many other works heightened the contemplation of Christ’s suffering and devotion to the Virgin Mary, deepening viewers’ emotional and religious experience.

Vincent van Gogh – Pieta

Michelangelo’s composition and portrayal of pain through the dual figures of Mary and Jesus after the crucifixion remains one of the most influential and iconic artworks ever created. Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 reinterpretation, with its bold brushstrokes and emotional intensity, directly alludes to this legacy.

Our next Art Appreciation instalment explores how art has continued to evolve from the sixteenth century, using artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko to illustrate this progression.

Henri Matisse – La Desserte

Henri Matisse’s La Desserte employs the Cycladic figures’ flatness and intense colours’ emotive power to evoke his narrative of the world. The painting is ornate and exuberantly decorated with pure pigments and shapes. With no central focus, dramatic colours, and shallow depth of field, Matisse creates a fanciful yet recognisable world. This work considered a Matisse masterpiece, is one of many by modern artists that owe its heritage to former examples of art yet also provides new ways of presenting and experiencing the world.

Pablo Picasso – Portrait de Dora Maar

Pablo Picasso’s long life and career enabled him to create many artistic innovations. Of these, Cubism, which showed different angles and fragmented views in the same composition, was his defining idea. In his Portrait de Dora Maar (1937), Picasso shows this far-reaching metamorphosis in figurative painting. Yet, his artwork also displays the influence of the simplicity, flatness and geometry of the Cycladic figures from the ancient world.  

Mark Rothko – Untitled (Black, Red over Black on Red, 1964)

Mark Rothko’s signature works created during the mid-twentieth century were pioneering. He developed an innovative and unique style that featured fuzzy-edged, colourful rectangles that seemed to float within the frame of the canvas. Employing his understanding of the psychology of colours, Rothko produced Untitled (Black, Red over Black on Red, 1964), with intense colours to trigger emotions. Although it is not evident in Rothko’s abstract paintings, he was heavily influenced by mythology and wanted to create art that would offer a religious experience for the audience. In this way, Rothko’s intent is like that of Michelangelo and his monumental sculpture Pieta.

From the ancient Greeks to abstract expressionism, art has evolved alongside humanity, reflecting our changing perspectives and emotions. But sometimes, navigating this vast and diverse landscape can be daunting. That’s where our Art Appreciation series comes in. Join us as we unlock the secrets of art history, explore the works of iconic artists and gain the confidence to appreciate art in all its forms.

Follow this link for more details about our Art Appreciation series, and below to register for the next event.

Text & photos by Cammy Yiu