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A brief story of art


Art always reflects in some way the world that produced it, the life that was being lived at the time it was created and what thoughts people were thinking; and the art of today is no exception. Here follows a précis of the development of Western Art.

Different countries have dominated art at different times and labels have been invented to describe the different movements and styles that have developed. Variations in style, medium and subject matter have emerged from the life and attitudes of each period and, as the purpose of art has changed, so new techniques have evolved.

During the Middle Ages, religion was the most important influence on the lives of people in Europe and the principal patrons of the arts were the Church and the nobility. They did not want any originality in the work they commissioned, expecting artists to follow the formula set by their predecessors and to exalt God in the way they knew and understood.

The artists themselves were regarded as tradesmen and were relatively unimportant. In fact, much of our knowledge about the lives of these early painters has come from the records of the Painters' Guilds formed in Mediaeval times.

Paintings were considered to be a most useful way of teaching the Bible, particularly to people who could neither read nor write and this was to have a profound influence on the development of Western Art.

In the fourteenth century, a realistic and lifelike style of painting developed. This began in Italy, with artists such as Duccio and Giotto, and then spread to the rest of Europe.

Artists painted either in tempera on wood panels or straight on to a wall, in a technique known as fresco painting; this involved applying the pigment to wet plaster so that when the plaster dried out, the colour was an integral part of the wall.

In the fifteenth century, new discoveries of the thought and art of classical Greece and Rome led to a more humanistic and intellectual approach to life. The focus of attention shifted from the Church to man and the world around him and art reflected this. Architects and sculptors studied the ruins of ancient buildings and sculpted figures. Painters tried to make their work as realistic as possible and one of the most important discoveries to make such paintings possible was linear perspective. This revival of classical art came to be known as the Renaissance (or re-birth). It was a time of discovery and invention, which reached its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

The Church was still a dominant force, and the greatest artists of the day worked for the Popes of Rome and the leading families of the Italian city-states, but now they also produced portraits and mythological scenes, with landscapes in the background (although artists could not yet choose a landscape as a subject in its own right). The classical revival had renewed an interest in the myths of ancient Greece. They became popular subjects for paintings and their themes were accorded the same status as religious ones. They also provided artists with an excuse for painting the naked human figure. Furthermore, the status of the artist was raised from tradesman to gentleman, the Guilds began to die out and they were replaced by Academies, which took over the role of teaching. Artists now had increasing opportunities to express their own ideas and imagination.

Meanwhile, in northern Europe, cultural centres had begun to develop as a result of trade and the new merchant class began to buy paintings to show off their new prosperity. Magnificent portraits and biblical scenes were painted in response to this demand.

In the sixteenth century, oils became the most widely used medium and canvas started to replace the wooden panel. Such were the achievements of Renaissance artists that their successors looked for new challenges and Mannerism emerged, a contrived style of painting in which elegant and often elongated figures were set in exaggerated poses to convey ideas or emotions.

In the seventeenth century, Baroque saw a new energy and emotion in painting, sculpture, music and architecture. Movement, light and colour were used to achieve highly dramatic effects and artists faced the challenges of perspective and space. The style was reflected in the sculptures of Bernini and encapsulated by artists such as Caravaggio.

At this time, artists still relied upon the Church and the aristocracy for patronage. In Holland, however, two changes had occurred: the adoption of the Protestant faith and the new power acquired by the merchant class. Calvin, the leader of the Reformation, said that, "Man should not paint or carve anything except what he can see around him, so that God's majesty may not be corrupted by fantasies." So, as the Reformation spread, artists could no longer rely upon the Church for patronage. Moreover, the merchants did not have the tradition of wide artistic patronage. Dutch painters, therefore, had to find other ways to support themselves financially. They turned to their immediate surroundings and landscapes, seascapes, portraits, interiors and still life became popular. Also, instead of searching for a patron, Dutch artists painted their pictures first and then went out to find a buyer, often specialising in certain types of paintings so that their work was easily recognised and their names became well known.

The greatest masters of the age of Baroque in the North are usually considered to be Rubens and Rembrandt who produced powerful and highly individual work. Indeed, this period came to be known as the Golden Age of Dutch painting.

Following the Baroque, the first half of the eighteenth century saw a light-hearted approach, both to subject matter and presentation, in the Rococo style. This style was characterised by the work of artists such as Watteau and Fragonard. In total contrast, the latter half of the eighteenth century saw the advent of Neoclassicism and a new revival of classical art.

In the nineteenth century, artists had a wider range of colours and paint available for them to use than their predecessors. Emerald green was discovered and artificial ultramarine, cobalt blue and violet became available. At the beginning of the century, pigments were available in powder form, in jars or mixed with oil in pig's bladders. Then, in the 1840's, the paint tube was invented and this gave artists the freedom to paint almost anywhere they chose.

There were a number of distinct artistic movements during the nineteenth century. The Romantic Movement was a reaction to Neoclassicism. Artists such as Turner, Friedrich and Delacroix painted highly emotional and dramatic pictures.

In Britain, in the 1850's, a group of artists and writers formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They said that they wanted to return to the sincerity of art before Raphael.

However, the most revolutionary of all the movements in the nineteenth century was that of the Impressionists. They worked in the open air, studying the effects of light and shade and painting immediately what they saw. Although too revolutionary to be accepted easily when they were painted, today, Impressionist paintings are bought and sold for many millions of pounds.

It was in the twentieth century that we saw the greatest revolution in the history of Western art. Artists moved away from traditional painting and set themselves new aims. The role of art changed. Technical skill and realism, important since the Renaissance, became less relevant. As photos, films, T.V. and video can record visual appearance, many artists felt that they should be concerned with something else, such as portraying the subconscious, the metaphysical, feelings and emotions. Much of this work was experimental and many new movements were formed: Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Dadaism, Rayonism, Neo-Plasticism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Art, Abstract Expressionism, Op Art, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, Figurative Art, Video Art…

In the late Mediaeval period, its audience easily understood art because it conformed to a set pattern, and expressed a shared outlook on life. As we enter the twenty-first century, the creators of art, be they painters, sculptors, conceptual artists, continue to produce work that is challenging but also rich and exciting.

There is never just one interpretation of a work of art. Everyone's response is valid and the more we find out about the artist and the context in which the work was produced the more we will be able to appreciate and understand it.