A history of art for our time
Charlotte Mullins is an art critic, writer and animator. She worked as an art editor for Independent on Sundaythe editor of art reviewthe V&A magazine, Art Quarterly and is the new art critic for Country life. She has written over ten books, including two children’s art books, which have been published under the pseudonym Charlie Ayres.
In her recent Audible series “In Search of Black History,” playwright and critic Bonnie Greer explained, “History is the story of those who wrote it. This writing of events, this coding of life, has created historical narratives that can now seem blinded or informed by deep biases and prejudices. For fifty years, women and writers of color have challenged white Western historians and slowly the writing of history (always “her history”) is expanding. A bit of art history strives to contribute to this expansion.
The history of art as a discipline was formalized in the West 300 years ago, when men like Johann Winckelmann began to codify art. Winckelmann considered ancient Greek sculpture to be the highest art form and believed the work of Michelangelo and Raphael to be the closest modern equivalent. Although Western artists moved away from the classical model in the 19th century, this traditional method of learning still underpinned my own training in art history in the early 1990s. At that time, the best-selling introductions to art history were by Ernst Gombrich (first published in 1950) and HW Janson (first published in 1962). They seemed broad in scope and authoritative in tone. But Gombrich excluded all female artists except one art history. This book has sold over 8 million copies worldwide and is still prominently displayed in museum bookstores. It has a sticker indicating that it is the best-selling art book in the world. Yet it excludes all of women’s art history (no sticker tells you that).
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at Easel Painting a Devotional Panel c. 1556
A bit of art history proposes to do things differently. Women artists have been returned to the narrative. It is not a fabrication of their importance or an elevation of women’s art. These women worked for the main patrons of the time: kings, queens, sultans and emperors. Sofonisba Anguissola worked for King Philip II of Spain in the 16th century; Guan Daosheng was part of the Mongol court of Kublai Khan in the 1290s. These artists were celebrated in their day – in the 17th century, Elisabetta Sirani was buried with the same civic honors as Bologna’s leading male painter, Guido Reni, although she died at the age of twenty-seven. By this time, she had run her father’s studio for eleven years, her own women’s art academy for four years, and painted outstanding works of art.
Artists of color were also excluded from general histories, their stories somehow deemed not important enough to include. One of these artists is Jacob Lawrence. His powerful “Migration” series was painted in 1940-1941 in response to the great migration of 6 million African Americans from southern states to northern American cities in search of work. This series deserves to be as well known as Grant Wood’s american gothic (1930). Nor was the post-war abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning created in a white male vacuum – African-American artists including Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden painted exciting abstracts at that time, as did female artists like Lee Krasner. . These artists are finally honored by museum retrospectives and their stories appear in A bit of art history.
Jacob Lawrence teaches students at Abraham Lincoln School. Photo National Archives and Records Administration
When artists travel or meet artists from other continents, they quickly absorb new working methods, as seen at the court of Sultan Mehmet II in the 15th century in Constantinople or in the state of Benin in South Africa. the West. Artists made art in societies that left no written record, such as the Nok of the Niger Valley. Their distinctive figural carvings are the most telling testimony to a culture that ended nearly 2,000 years ago. Their art shows signs of a visual network that spans the African continent. Such networks must be at the heart of any narrative of art history because they show how ideas have infiltrated. Artists throughout time have always created their own art networks, viewing and collecting the work of others, attracting patrons and obtaining raw materials (Europeans obtained lapiz lazuli from Afghanistan and ivory and gold from Mozambique; African artists acquired copper and brass from Portuguese merchants). Sometimes these networks spanned continents and were not limited by gender, age, class, or ethnicity.
A bit of art history is part of Yale’s “Little Histories” series and as such follows a chronological journey through forty short chapters. The books are all from Gombrich A little history of the world, written at breakneck speed in 1935 as a living antidote to boring history books and to engage curious children. The series maintains Gombrich’s fresh and accessible style, free of jargon and footnotes, and is aimed at everyone from teenagers to nonagenarians. The chronological format offers a clear path through the story and ensures no one gets lost along the way. It also makes it possible to simultaneously write and consider art from around the world. When non-Western art was included in traditional introductions to art history, it was confined to chapters devoted to African or Chinese art. In A bit of art history This is not the case. All the art is integrated and in each chapter we travel the world. For example, Chapter 16 begins in Mexico, moves to Africa and Japan before heading to England and ending in the Ottoman Empire.
Although this single thin, paperback-sized volume is necessarily a compendium of art history, it is a history that now includes many different artists from around the world. I hope this highlights the ongoing power of art to move us, to speak beyond words, to speak directly to our emotions, to have an impact. Art history may be a relatively new and vibrant discipline in the West, but art itself is 100,000 years old and today more powerful than ever. It is time for art history to embrace diversity and become a richer, more complex, and more inclusive art history for our time.