If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Art of Ancient Egypt

Ø      Egyptian art was a big influence on Greek, Roman, and even our contemporary life: our art, architecture, money, cosmetics, etc.

Ø      The civilization of ancient Egypt lasted 3000 years. It had over 33 dynasties of ruling families, and can be divided into the:

·        Old Kingdom                     c. 2649-2150 BC
·        Middle Kingdom                c. 2030-1640 BC
·        New Kingdom                    c. 1550-1070 BC
·        Late Period                      c. 712-332 BC
·        Ptolemaic Period              c. 332-30 BC

Ø      Egyptian art is considered formal, static (meaning motionless), blocky, and abstract. It's simpler and possibly more childlike than Greek and Roman art, but this does not mean Egyptian artists were inferior. Their art served a different purpose.

Ø      Egyptian art was not merely decorative. It was functional. If an artist forgot to paint a loaf of bread in a king's tomb, that king wouldn't have any bread in the afterlife. That is why it was so important to include everything he needed.

Ø      This is also why Egyptians painted everything from its most recognizable angle. Faces were painted in profile, while eyes and shoulders were painted frontally.

Ø      Egyptian art was not meant to be seen. Egyptians painted the walls of tombs and then sealed them, hiding the entrances to prevent thieves from stealing all the treasure within. So, their attitude to their art was different from ours today, where we put art in galleries for all to see.

Ø      Egyptians painted stories in registers, meaning parallel lines, the way we write on paper today. Each line on the wall tells a different part of a story.

Ø      Artists also used scale to create hierarchy. The biggest people in the paintings were gods and pharoahs. Common workers were painted very small because they were less important.

Ø      Almost all Egyptian paintings include hieroglyphic text to explain the scene and the names of the characters.

Ø      Egyptians were famous for their consistency. They kept the same style of fashion and art for their entire history, with only a few minor exceptions. Egyptians kept their artistic traditions to promote stability and balance in society and the world.

Ø      However, Egyptian styles did vary depending on the materials used. Stone sculptures were very stiff and formal, with arms close to the sides of the body. But Egyptians also carved wooden figures doing all sorts of activities, looking much more realistic.

Ø      Egyptian statues also served religious purposes. Some statues were even bathed, dressed, and carried in processions.

Ø      Many Egyptian homes had small shrines to their ancestors. People would offer food, wine, and perfume at these shrines, and would write letters to their ancestors asking for help and advice.
Ø      After the Egyptians, it took almost 4000 years for anyone to build something taller than their pyramids.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Role of Art in Society

1. To Support a Hierarchy

For much of human history, art has primarily been used to lend credibility to those in power: politicians, religious leaders, and big businesses. Artists crafted ceremonial costumes, tools, books, and temples to help these leaders impress their followers. You can see it in every culture and at every point in history. Art improves appearances: it gives these institutions an aura of validity. People and groups use art to gain confidence and influence, at times using it to include, at other times to exclude, and at times producing propaganda. It's a role that continues today in a variety of ways.

The ethics of this are always questionable. You may wonder how the blacksmith felt while hammering a sword for King Louis XVI,

or possibly what Anthony van Dyck thought of King Charles I, while painting his portrait:

Charles I, King of England, 16 years before his beheading.

 I think there's a certain Zen to focusing on the quality of your work, regardless of whether you really like the project. Maybe they hoped their art would inspire these people to be better.

2. To Please

A great deal of art is made and displayed just for fun. We enjoy it. This covers the vast majority of visual art, music, film, and comedy. It might sound frivolous (unimportant), but there's actually more to pleasure than simple relaxation. When we turn on a TV, or go to a gallery, cinema, or dance hall it's an opportunity to diffuse stress. We can put aside all our worries and responsibilities and enjoy life, in the present. We don't forget all our problems, but we can take the time to detach from them, making them more manageable, a process of emotional healing we call catharsis.

In some extreme cases, people use art as a form of escapism, burying themselves behind a book or computer screen to avoid the reality of their lives altogether. It's sad, and art is no substitute for life, but it's important to remember just how many lives are saved this way, as people suffer from depression, abuse, poverty, and a host of other social problems.

3. To Develop Identity

There are many elements that make up who we are: our families, towns, friends, our personal histories, our temper, our language, interests, etc. The art we choose to enjoy is another important aspect. Every day we decide how we want to appear to others, what clothes to wear, how to arrange our hair, etc. We don't simply want to look nice. We want to provide clues about who we are––quiet or loud, simple or sophisticated, professional or casual, friendly or menacing. People use art the same way, selecting music, clothes, books, and celebrity role models in a effort to boost their ego, to reinvent themselves in a new and better image. Art is often made and bought as a way to impress those within one's social circle, presenting an outward identity. We decorate our walls, anticipating the reactions of our friends and family. At the same time, by contemplating on an artwork, we can develop a more thoughtful interior identity.

4. To Document History

Every work of art is a document, reflecting the time in which it was made. It tells you about the artist, but it also tells you about the values and concerns of the society she lived in. Art might not be as detailed, clear, or factual as a history book, and it lacks the authority of an official government document. Art is a different kind of document, focusing on a culture's biggest priorities and interests, its loves and losses. We see, not just the past, but how we've changed since then.

5. To See Through Someone Else's Eyes

Art can expose us to the hardships of others, which we wouldn't normally see in everyday life. It can move us to sympathize (to share a common feeling) and empathize (to fully understand someone) with others. In this way art gives us a greater understanding of the world and teaches compassion (súcit), whether you're looking through the artist's eyes, or through that of her subject.

6. To Criticize Society

Societies all over the world suffer from countless problems, many stemming from ignorance and greed. Some artists address these problems in their work, although they often despair at the efficacy of such attempts. It's hard to change people's minds, but art is one of the best ways to do it. It's hard to argue with the emotions you feel in a picture. Particularly, art-as-protest is a powerful way to give a voice to those who are invisible and marginalized.

7. To Ask Big Questions

The world we live in is filled with mystery, questions we may never answer. Astronomers struggle to understand the force that is causing our universe to expand. They say 95% of our universe is "dark matter." People struggle to find meaning in life. We wonder what our purpose is on Earth, if life is worth living. We worry if we're good enough, if we'll ever find peace. We don't know where we came from or where we're going. We panic at the thought of various disasters: a meteor collision, a new super virus, a nuclear war. So we use art to ask questions, and hope it may provide us some answers, or at least help us focus on our priorities.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Art of Ancient Rome

History of Rome

G    Rome was founded around 750 BC by the legendary king Romulus.

G    In 509 BC, Rome became a republic, ruled by a Senate, and by the people. This lasted 450 years, during which the Roman Republic expanded throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

G    During this time, Rome conquered Greece and assimilated much of Greek culture - their art, architecture, philosophy, and religion.

G    In 51 BC, Julius Caesar defeated the Gauls and became Rome's most powerful general, so powerful that the Senate feared him. They ordered him to step down, and Julius refused, beginning a civil war.

G    Julius Caesar won this war, proclaiming himself emperor for life... But a group of Senators, including his friend Brutus, killed him in 44 BC, stabbing him to death.

G    But, Caesar had a son, Octavian. He defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and became Rome's second Emperor, changing his name to Augustus. The Roman republic was at an end. Now it was an empire.

G    This empire lasted for 500 years, during which it expanded to Britain, Syria, and Egypt.

G    In 313 AD, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of Rome.

G    The Roman Empire fell for a variety of reasons. Part of the problem was it was too large to manage. This is called over-expansion. Imagine trying to govern all that land without our modern technology: no modern transport, no modern communication. Add to this, a series of weak emperors, civil war, financial crisis, and barbarian invasions.

G    In the 4th century, the Roman Empire split in two, beginning the eastern Byzantine Empire. This empire would last until 1453, when the capital city, Constantinople, was defeated by the Ottoman Turks, and became Istanbul.

G    The Western Roman Empire fell much earlier, in 470 AD, due to barbarian invasions.

Roman Art:

G    Roman art consisted of marble sculpture, painting, mosaics, jewellery & other metalwork, and glass blowing, which Romans used in place of ceramics.

G    While Roman artists were great, they were also anonymous. Roman historians paid no attention to them, instead focusing on the great Greek artists they copied from.

G    Besides Greece, Roman art was also influenced by Egypt and the Etruscans (a civilization also located in Italy that came before the Romans).

G    Romans loved Greek art, and copied many famous Greek statues. It's lucky for us, because many of the original Greek works were destroyed.

G    But, Roman artists didn't simply copy. They made small changes and added a sense of humour (often dark) to their works, making it distinctly Roman.

G    Another change was Roman portraiture. Greeks idealized figures, but Romans preferred a more realistic look. They were proud of their age, their wrinkles and bald head, as it represented their many years of service.

G    After Rome switched from a republic to an empire, its artistic style went back to that of classical Greece, stressing the perfection of their country, with perfect, ideal figures. Augustus Caesar, for example, made his portraits look like a young athlete, even right before his death.
G    Starting around 200 AD, Roman art shifted style. Realism became less important. Roman design became simpler, more childlike. By the end of the empire, Romans developed the same Byzantine style of art that characterized the dark ages. So, Roman art began to fall in the same way that Rome did.

The Art of Ancient Greece

    The ancient Greeks lived in separate city states, from Turkey to the south of France, but shared the same language and religion. Sometimes they fought each other, and sometimes they worked together to fight other enemies.

    The history of ancient Greece can be organized into periods (or ages):

            The Bronze Age                                                                         3200 – 1100 BC
                 The Mycenaean Age (Late Bronze Age, aka Age of Heroes)                  1600 – 1100 BC
            Archaic Period                                                                            600 480 BC
            Classical Period (Golden Age, ending with Alexander the Great)   480 323 BC
            Hellenistic Period (after the death of Alexander the Great)          323 31 BC

    The Mycenaean Age was named after the village of Mycenae, the first of its period to be discovered and excavated by archaeologists.

    The Mycenaean Age is considered the age of heroes because this is when all the epic events took place, which Homer wrote about - the battle of Troy, and the return of Odysseus.
    Art of the Mycenaean Age consisted mostly of pottery, with simple, geometric figures and designs. Greek ceramics had distinct shapes, based on function:

          Amphora - were mostly wine jugs (for storing wine). Also used as urns. 
          Hydria - were water jugs.
          Oinochoe - were wine jugs (for pouring at the table)
          Kraters - were jugs for mixing wine and water.
          Kylix & Kantharos - were drinking cups.
          Lekythos - a jug for olive oil.
          Pyxis - for women's cosmetics & jewellery.

    Greek Pottery can also be divided into stylistic periods:
      Proto Geometric      1050 900 BC
      Geometric             900 700 BC
      Oriental                 800 – 600 BC
      Black Figure           620 – 480 BC
      Red Figure            520 320 BC
      White Ground      around 500 BC
    The greatest art of the Archaic Period were marble statues of young men (Kouroi) and women (Korai). The women were dressed in elegant gowns, but the men were nude. These statues were life-size and free-standing, and were used to mark gravestones. They had arrogant, aristocratic facial expressions.
    The Classical Period was Greece's Golden Age, when they produced their most famous art, architecture, theatre, poetry, and philosophy. This period began with the defeat of the invading Persians (present day Iran).
    The Parthenon in Athens was built in the Classical Period.
    Greeks also began the production of gold and silver coins in the Classical Period.
    Hellenistic Greece began with the death of Alexander the Great, and the division of his empire. It ended with the Roman invasion.
    The greatest artworks of Hellenistic Greece were statues, for example Nike of Samothrake, and Laocoön and His Sons.
    Alexander the Great was so famous, that he started a fashion trend - a clean-shaven ruler. Greek and Roman rulers copied this for 500 years, up until the Roman Emperor Hadrian grew a beard.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Printmaking - Processes, Materials, & Techniques

Printmaking is a technique developed around the same time as the printing press, allowing books to have illustrations. Pictures were drawn on a wooden block or metal plate, covered with ink, and then pressed onto sheets of paper. One plate could make hundreds of copies. In order for a plate to fit into a printing press, without sliding around, its sides must be beveled, meaning filed down at an angle to a sharp point. Printing ink is typically oil based and similar to oil paint, only stickier, thicker, and more concentrated with pigment.

After a plate is inked, it's ready to go into the printing press. A piece of paper called a registration sheet marks exactly where the plate should sit, and the paper on top. This is crucial for multi-plate printing. Each plate can have only one colour, so a full colour print requires several plates, for red, yellow, blue, or whatever colours the artist desires. After the plate and paper are placed on the printing table, blankets are placed on top of them, and the print is run through a heavy roller which pushes all the ink into the paper.

Print making paper is thick and soft, and is wetted to help soften it further. It's then blotted with a towel to remove excess water, so it will accept the ink. After printing, the paper is placed between dry towels and boards, and pressed to dry flat.

Printers often rework their plates over and over, repeating the process of drawing and printing until they get the desired result. Until the print is finished, it's referred to as a state - 1st state, 2nd state, 3rd, etc, The final state is called a proof, and then an edition is printed, identical to the proof. An edition can have anywhere from 20 to 200 copies. Some printmakers don't like to make editions, instead creating monotypes - each proof is unique.


Engraving techniques involve scoring with a burin and drypoint needle. In both cases the plate is cut with a stylus. A drypoint needle is thinner, creating lines that are lighter and more feathery. Engraving can by done on many different surfaces. Jewellery is often engraved, as are swords and knives.


Etching is a process similar to engraving, but instead of cutting the plate directly with a stylus, acid is used to eat away at the metal. The plates are usually made of copper or zinc (copper plates last longer, as it's harder). Copper plates are etched with ferric chloride, and zinc with  copper sulphate. The plate is covered with a thin layer of resistant bees' wax or varnish. Then, the artist scratches away at this material with a thin stylus, exposing the metal. The plate is then put in the acid, and wherever lines are exposed, the acid eats away, forming grooves. The longer a plate sits in the acid, the bigger the grooves, and the darker the lines will become. An alternate approach is to paint on a thinner layer of varnish, and where it's thinnest, the acid will eat away, leaving brush strokes similar to a painting.


This is a special etching technique where the plate is covered in a fine layer of pine resin dust, which is then heated. The result is etched, creating a fine, even tone that can range from light gray to black, depending on how long it's etched.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Art Materials of the Renaissance


One of the big questions in renaissance painting was, which is more important, draughtsmanship (drawing) or colour? Florentine artists stressed draughtsmanship, and Venetians favoured colour. Why? Well, Florentines favoured fresco paintings in their churches and palaces. With fresco, the paint dries so quickly that the drawing must be planned in detail before hand. Then, it's quickly painted in sections, one or two colours at a time.

Venetians gave up on frescoes because their wet, humid weather ruined them quickly. The Venetians turned to oil paint, which is more resilient (odolný) to humidity. Oil paint also has other advantages. If you look at Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Mary & Child, you'll see that the colours glow because of glazing. Glazing has different meanings, depending on what kind of art your making. In painting, glazing is when you create many thin layers of transparent (priehľadný) colour. The effect is often glossy (lesklý), like glass, and is perfect for blending (miešanie). With oil paint, some colours are transparent and some are opaque (nepriehľadný), so you have a choice when to glaze and when to completely cover what's underneath. This wasn't possible with fresco or egg tempera paints, which are all opaque.

Oil paints also dry slowly, over a course of hours or even days, giving artists the freedom to work slowly, in a relaxed way, and to change the composition as they work. Fresco and egg tempera are both fast drying, and prone to cracking (praskanie). For these reasons oil became popular throughout Europe, soon being the standard paint in all great academic works, all the way up to the modern era. 

Marble (Mramor)

The methods we use today in marble carving are the same as they were thousands of years ago. The process is:

  1. Roughing (hrubé opracovanie)
  2. Modelling
  3. Refining the Stone
  4. Finishing the Surface
First, to rough out your sculpture, draw where you're going to cut with charcoal. You start with a point chisel (rovné dláto), which bursts the stone away quickly.

You model with a tooth chisel, (zubaté dláto) which looks like a comb. It models form with greater delicacy than the point chisel, while still removing stone quickly. There are different sizes for smaller details.

You can refine form with special spinning tools that carve in crevices (pukliny) that a chisel can't reach. You finish the surface with rasps (rašpľa), brushes, and files (pilníky), that polish surfaces to a high gloss.


Bronze sculpture was first developed in ancient Mesopotamia. The Greeks get the credit for scaling up the process to life-size human figures. It's a complicated process involving techniques that were lost in the west and relearned during the renaissance. I think the first Italian artist to make a life-size bronze sculpture was Arnolfo di Cambio (1240-1310), with his seated St. Peter, made for St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican. But Donatello (1386-1466) made the first free-standing, life size nude in bronze, his statue of David, now on display in Florence.

Bronze sculptures are cast, following the lost wax technique. The process can be direct or indirect. In each case, the sculpture is hollow, to save on bronze, an expensive material. Direct casting consists of four steps:

1. Modelling
2. Casting
3. Chasing
4. Finishing

The sculpture begins as a wax model, usually beeswax. It typically has an iron wire (drôtený) frame, called an armature (armatúra) that gives the sculpture strength. Modelling is simply the process of adding wet clay and/or wax to this armature to build and sculpt a figure. If the work uses clay, it's only for the core (jadro) of the work, and wax is modelled on top of it. The hands don't need a core. Once the wax is carefully sculpted, the figure looks like a finished sculpture - but it isn't.

The next stage is to prepare it for casting. Iron core pins and wax sprues (vtokový kanál) are inserted at important points in the sculpture. The core pins hold the clay core in place after the wax melts away. The wax sprues lead up to a wax pouring cup. All these sprues will melt along with the rest of the wax, creating channels for the bronze to flow through later in the process. Some of the sprues form vents that will allow hot air to escape.

A layer of clay, called an investment (forma), is painted over the wax, and will serve as a mould (forma). The investment is then turned upside down and heated to melt all the wax, which then pores out. One curious fact about the process is that the sprues are all pointing up at this stage, so that the wax must somehow flow up before flowing out.

Now that the wax is out, the investment is turned right-side up and buried in sand, to protect workers in case it explodes during the next stage - which is to pour in molten bronze. This happens in a workshop called a foundry. People who work there are called founders. The bronze is placed in a crucible (topiaca nádoba), a kind of bowl, and melted in a furnace (pec), at about 2000 ºF (1093 ºC). Impurities called slag (kal) is scraped off the top of the molten bronze and thrown away. The crucible is then taken out of the furnace and poured gently into the investment.

After the investment cools and the bronze hardens, the investment is broken down with hammers to reveal the sculpture inside. All the sprues are now bronze and have to be chiselled away (osekaný dlátom) in a process called chasing (tepanie). The core pins are also removed with pliars (kombinačky). All the soot (sadza) of the sculpture must be rubbed away. Imperfections must be fixed, and any holes from the sprues must be plugged (zazátkovaný) with bronze. Details are refined with a variety of tools. The sculpture is then polished (vyleštené) to a shine, and finished with a patina to protect the surface. There are many kinds of patinas, using materials such as acid, lacquer (lak), or wax, that can change the colour and lustre (lesk) of the work. Long exposure to outdoor weather can ruin a patina.

With indirect casting, the wax model is cut into pieces and cast separately in plaster. The moulds are then filled again with melted wax, which coats the surface of the mould, creating a hollow version of the piece. These hollow wax pieces are joined back together creating a hollow wax figure. This hollow figure is then filled with "core material" a mixture of sand, clay, and plaster. Iron pins are inserted before this core solidifies to help hold it in place. Solid wax sprues are attached, and the sculpture is encased in an investment, just like with direct casting. The rest of the process follows identically to direct casting. The advantage of indirect casting is that you still have those plaster moulds, which are reusable, so you can make hundreds of copies of your work.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Art Materials of the Middle Ages

Illuminated Books 

Parchment - a kind of paper made from animal skin. soaked in lime water, to loosen hair. then soaked in fresh water and tightened on a frame. It was scraped thin over several days, and continually tightened. Parchment lasts much longer than paper, for thousands of years, although it is vulnerable to humidity. It was roughened with pumice powder and dusted with a sticky powder to help ink stick to it. You can erase marks by scratching. Parchment pages were folded and nested into "gatherings" of 16-20 pages. These gatherings were bound together with linen thread on leather thong supports. Thongs were held with nails or wood, and the covers were made of wood wrapped in leather. Clasps held the book closed to limit the damage caused by humidity.

Quills - pens from the feathers of a bird. They were washed, dried, and hardened with hot sand, then cut to a fine point. Scribes used quills to copy text into these books.

Ink - from gallnuts, or carbon (for lamp black).

Gold Leaf (zlatolist) & Paint - done by an illuminator. Illuminated pages were prepared with gesso (gypsum: sadra) or gum, The moisture in his breath was enough to glue the gold leaf to the page. The leaf was burnished (leštený) and then the design was painted on top. Gold leaf comes in pieces that were four fingers' width.

Gold-Ground Panel Painting

Poplar Tree Planks - these were glued together to make a frame, done by a carpenter. It was carved and attached to a frame. Then coated with glue because the bare wood is too absorbent (absorbujúci). The panel was then covered in..

Linen (bielizeň) - which was soaked in warm glue and stretched over the panel.

Gesso - was painted and sanded for a perfectly smooth surface. Gesso had to be perfectly prepared or there would be cracks or air bubbles. Charcoal powder and steel scrapers help smooth the surface.

Charcoal - was also used to sketch a design. Mistakes were erased with a feather. The under-drawing was traced out with ink. Outlines were then incised with a needle before gold leaf was added.

Bole - a red clay painted onto the linen, wherever the gold leaf would be placed, to make the gold colour warm and more attractive. Gold Leaf is so thin it's transparent, and can look greenish over a white linen.

Gold Leaf - is placed over moistened bole, and then burnished with a dog's tooth. Once burnished, the surface was tooled with stamps, a compass, and needles, creating punch-mark patterns and stippling. Mordent gilding was when gold leaf was placed directly over oil or garlic juice.

Egg Tempera Paint - was used on top of the gilding to paint the picture. Different coloured eggs were used for different colours.






Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Feminist Perspective in Art History

Art is one of humanity's greatest achievements with a rich variety of styles, periods, and subjects. The majority of our art is made for noble reasons - love of nature, love of beauty, love of family, etc. But, despite this tremendous accomplishment, this treasure that we have created, we must recognize that it could have been even greater. We have set a severe limit on our creative potential, in that practically all of our most famous artworks have been made by white men for other, richer white men. Most art has been made to satisfy the white, male mind. And, while that often simply meant painting a nice sunset or flower pot - something we can all enjoy, it has also included a male view of the world and women, which is why so many museums carry a high percent of female nudes, while presenting so few female artists. And museums do so because they reflect history which has all too often become "his-story".

For most of human history (and possibly prehistory?) art making in the west was considered a man's job, for the same reason that professions in general were considered for men. Even as women broke social barriers and began picking up paint brushes, discrimination kept them out of museums and galleries, a trend that has only begun to change in the last forty years or so. And, while most people don't like to think of themselves as sexist today, sexism in art is a legacy that haunts us, obscuring (zatemnuje) hundreds of great artists. Consider the following experiment:

What happens when you Google "10 greatest artists?"

I found this, as of March 18th, 2015:

Ø      Rolling Stone Magazine lists 100 greatest pop singers and groups of all time. Only 7 are women. They listed John Lennon and Eric Clapton twice.
Ø lists a top twenty list, they're all men.
Ø lists a top ten list, they're all men. They also have a top ten works of art, all made by men, although 5 of them portray women.
Ø      The list top ten works of art, all made by men, unless the cave paintings were made by women - the world will never know.
Ø lists 101 greatest artists of all time. Two are women: Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe (they misspelled it).

What happens when you Google "10 greatest women artists"?

Ø      Wikipedia comes up with a good history of women artists, but no top ten list.
Ø      The lists a top 10 list of "Most Subversive Women Artists," suggesting it's subversive (podvratný) for a woman to even be an artist.
Ø lists top 10 most controversial works, none of which were made by women.
Ø lists top 10 most studied women artists, but not the greatest.
Ø      The Huffington Post lists ten drawings by women who were underestimated in their time.

There wasn't a single top ten list anywhere. Men had a top 100 list, and women, nothing. It was the same thing when I changed the word "artist" to "painter". I found an "8 list" on for women artists of the renaissance - as in that's how many artists they could name between 1500-1750. Meanwhile, try Googling top 10 supermodels, and you'll find an endless amount of lists, and in fact, Google even creates a gallery to scroll through them. The message is clear, men have a great interest in looking at beautiful women, but no one, apparently, cares much what they create.

Why is this? Is it pure sexism? Aren't there plenty of women artists out there? Yes, thousands of them. Aren't they any good? Yes, they are! Then why don't we recognize them in our culture? Well, there are several reasons, and no, it's not just sexism, although sexism plays its part.

1. First of all, artists in general are ignored in modern culture - male and female. If you're reading this, try and name a living artist. How about a living architect (who isn't in your family)? Think of your favorite animations - Shrek? The Lion King? Frozen? Who designed those characters you love so much? Do you have any idea? Recently I asked my students to present their favorite art, whatever inspires them. Each student went through the internet looking for examples of what they consider "great art". One by one they stood up to present their choices. Only one student could tell me the names of the artists he chose. People just don't think about it. The only artists these days who receive any publicity are the big names shown in museums, known only to art aficionados, and some comics artists who have a small fan base. A couple artists are popular on blogs, online, but it's not the same as celebrity status. They're popular only within their small community.

2. Historically, women have been discouraged and forbidden from making art - unless they were really, really good. I've found that this results in women artists historically being above average, better than most of their male counterparts. So, why aren't they more famous? Well, for the same reason most male artists aren't famous. There are too many of them - no one wants to learn them all. Art historians like to keep things simple. They narrow their focus, showing only the greatest, superstar artists from every era and style. And the superstars of art are mostly male, because they were lucky enough to have a rare genius for art, and the support of society to make great works. They were in the right place at the right time, with the right gender, and then they worked and struggled to make masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel, the palace at Versailles, etc. Great women artists sometimes found a way into the art world, but were not given access or money to make great, large-scale works, until the 20th century.

3. Since women didn't get to begin working large scale really until post modernism (PoMo), and many people don't like PoMo, there's not a lot of interest for their work (note, I'm not attacking the quality of this art, merely acknowledging its controversy). I can name, for example Eve Hesse and Tracy Emin,  two big names in PoMo art. Ever heard of them? If not, look them up. See what you think. Maybe you'll see why they don't appeal to the masses, along with all the other PoMo crowd.

The Guerilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of feminists who formed in 1985 in New York City to protest an art show at the Museum of Modern Art. The show, "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture", was called the single most important exhibit of contemporary art. The curator, Kynaston McShine, said in an interview, that if you're an artist, and you're not in his show, you should rethink your career. The survey showed 169 artists, and only thirteen were women.

So, a group of women put on gorilla masks and began an advertising campaign to promote women in art and fight for equality. They made billboards, advertisements, and even wrote books making fun of museums and rewriting women's history. It's a movement that still exists today, and they have their own website you can look up. They wear gorilla masks as a way to shock people for publicity, and to remain anonymous.

Pussy Riot
This is a group of feminist protestors from Russia. Starting in 2011, they stage "guerrilla performances" of punk rock music in public places, which they then edit and put on the internet. They support women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, and strongly protest Putin, who they consider a dictator. They've been arrested and jailed numerous times.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Symbols in Art History

Through most of history, art has served to support the state, and organized religion, telling stories through pictures. Since many people, historically, were illiterate, artists used symbols to tell their stories. It's a useful way to communicate with small groups of people, but there is a problem. Over time, people forget what the symbols mean, especially when there are stories behind them. When you don't know the story, the symbol becomes meaningless. This is why so many ancient cultures are so mysterious today.

Greek Art
The art of ancient Greece revolved around mythology, with every god having his or her own symbols. Poseidon, god of the sea held a trident. Apollo and his sister Artemis both carried bows and arrows. Ares, god of war, carried a sword. And Athena wore a helm and carried a shield and spear. We understand Greek symbols because the ancient Greeks wrote about them in their histories and plays. Many symbols from Greek mythology are still used today:

The Asclepius rod is an ancient Greek symbol associated with medicine. Asclepius was the God of Medicine and Healing. The serpent, which sheds its skin is a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and wisdom.

The bowl of Hygeia is an international symbol of pharmacy. In Greek mythology, Hygeia was the daughter and assistant of Asclepius. The bowl contained a medicinal potion with the serpent of Wisdom drinking from it - the same as from Asclepius' rod.

The Caduceus is an ancient symbol of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Today, it represents business, negotiation, and eloquence.

The Cornucopia, also known as the Horn of Plenty, is a Greek symbol of harvest abundance and prosperity. It is a spiraling horn-shaped basket filled with grains and fruit.

Medieval Christian Symbols

Medieval and Gothic art is full of symbolism, but it's hard to read, not just because the work is old, but because of the context of what's happening in each artwork. A key, for example, can have ten different meanings depending on where it's placed, and what it's next to. Medieval Christians borrowed some symbols from ancient civilizations. For example, they used the Egyptian eye of Horus (an eye in a triangle) to symbolize God. They also used the Greek Symbols alpha (A) and omega (Ω) to represent God. There are countless symbols in medieval art. Here are the basics:


White, Pink, and Blue - These colours typically represented innocence and purity, particularly of the virgin Mary. White also suggested marriage. Indigo blue was one of the most expensive colours to make, so using it only with Mary's clothing was a way to make her special.

Purple - this was a kingly colour, and was used often with Jesus.

Green - represented Jesus' baptism (krst), resurrection (vzkriesenie), and ascension into heaven (Nanebovstúpenie).

Yellow - represented the light of heaven and miracles.

Red and Orange - were symbolic of sins, such as greed and lust. They also represented the fires of hell.

Grey, Black, and Brown - were colours of the grave, used often with Jesus' cross.


Animals have always featured prominently in culture and symbolism. The temple of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, dates back to 10,000 BC, and has animals carved into its pillars. In America, many native tribes have used animals in their names. The Chinese calandar uses an animal zodiac to describe yearly changes, and the Greek zodiac is used to describe people's personalities.

Medieval Christians thought that animals could see your true soul, and knew if you were good or bad. They would use dogs during trials - if it growled at the accused, he was a heretic or witch. If a raven nested in the roof of someone's house, people might burn it down. The following meanings come from Medieval Christian art:

Ape - represented lust.
Bear - represented St. Seraphim of Serov, a monk who befriended animals.
Birds - Birds had a variety of meanings in medieval art. A bird with a key in its mouth represented salvation (spasenie):
            Dove - peace, innocence, and the holy spirit.
            Finch - represented a soul returning to heaven.
            Sparrow - especially by a window represented someone dying. If one landed on your head, it meant you were a good, pious (zbožný) person.
            Peacock - with it's feathers that look like eyes represented vigilance (pozornosť).
            Rooster - also represented vigilance, and the apostle St. Peter.
            White Peacock - represented marriage, eternal life, and narcissism.
            Phoenix - symbolized resurrection.
            fat Pidgeon - represented laziness and gluttony (obžerstvo).
            Vulture - represented greed and corruption.
            Brown Duck - symbolized evil.
            White Duck - represented purity and innocence.
            Swan - also represented purity, as well as St. Hugh of Lincoln.
Crow or Raven - Represented the Devil's assistants. A crow with a married couple represented infidelity. A crow with a holy person symbolized temptation. A crow holding silver represented Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. However, a raven was also used as the symbol of St. Oswald.
Robin - when singing represents deliverance from evil. When caged represents God is angry with someone.
Eagle - symbol of Jesus and baptism.

Bull & Donkey - Often present in nativity scenes. The bull represents faith and piety (zbožnosť), because he bows to the baby Jesus, while the donkey ignores him. The bull was also a symbol for St. Thomas Aquinas.
Camel - represented the Egyptian St. Mennas.
Cat - symbolized Satan and witchcraft.
Dog - symbolized loyalty.
Ermine - funny enough, might represent truth and fidelity, or mischief. Also represented royalty.
Fish - was one of the earliest symbols for Jesus. In fact, the Greek name for fish, ιχθύς,  is actually an anagram for, "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour." Fish may also represent the apostles, who were "fishers of men." Fish prepared as a dinner with bread and wine represents the Eucharist. Different fish had different meanings:
            Cod - a woman holding a cod was saintly. A man holding a cod was devilish.
            Dolphin & Whale - resurrection, patience, and mercy.
            Shark - death, destruction, and sin.
Goat - symbolized the Devil, poor guy.
White Horse - represented victory and invincibility (nepremožiteľnosť).
Insects - had a variety of meanings:
            Ant - symbolized murder and destruction.
            Bee - symbolized martyrdom, sacrificing his life for others.
            Beetle - symbolized salvation and eternal life.
            Butterfly & Caterpillar - symbolized the life cycle, and rebirth.
            Cicada - symbolized prayer, safety, and hope.
Dragonfly - symbolized freedom and free will.
Flies and Maggots - represented decay and death. A fly over a nobleman indicated corruption. A fly over a woman indicated lust and infidelity.
Firefly - represented youth, hope, and young love.
Ladybug - represented healing.
Wasp - symbolized the Devil and his assistants.
Lamb - primarily symbolized Jesus, but also innocence and peace.
Lion - as a symbol of power, it could represent Jesus and wisdom or Satan and tyranny.
Lion with Wings - represented St. Mark the Evangelist.
Otter - represented St. Cuthbert, who loved animals.
Ox with Wings - represented St. Luke the Evangelist.
Pig - symbolized greed (chamtivosť) and gluttony, obviously.
Snake - symbolized Satan, the tempter of mankind. He can often be found hiding in paintings, showing that someone is secretly with the devil. Funny enough, artists portrayed St. John the Evangelist holding a snake in a cup as one of his symbols - possibly coming from ancient Greek bowl of Hygeia.
Spider - symbol of evil. A spider web near a person meant he was plotting evil plans. A spider on an apple symbolized Eve's temptation. A spider on a cup represented infidelity.
Unicorn - a symbol of innocence and chastity (cudnosť), because only a virgin girl could tame it.
Wolf - Although they were often hunted and killed in real life, in art they represented mercy. St. Francis of Assisi often befriended wolves.

Bread - especially with wine, represented the body of Jesus.
Fruit -
            Apple - original sin, and carnal sins.
            Fig - loss of innocence and fall from grace. Adam and Eve used fig leaves to make the first clothes.
            Grapes - symbolized lust.
            Lemon - symbolized a bitter and resentful heart.
            Orange - symbolized free will, and also wealth, because they were expensive in Europe.
            Peach - symbolized virtue and honour, unless it was rotten or half eaten. Then it represented a loss of honour.
            Pear - Symbolized fidelity, and St. Catherine.
            Pomegranate - symbolized eternal life and also St. Catherine.
            Strawberry - symbolized harmony and religious nourishment.
Rabbit - on a platter represented fertility.
Wheat - represented the bread of the Eucharist. A grain of wheat represented resurrection and the cycle of life. A crow with wheat in its mouth indicated addiction to alcohol and/or adultery. Wheat scattered on the ground indicated a wasted life.
Wine - represented the Eucharist, Jesus' blood and sacrifice.
Man Made Things:

Anchor - was a symbol of faith and hope because it represented the safe arrival of a ship back at harbour. It was also a substitute for the cross before Christianity was legal. It also represents St. Clement who was thrown into a stormy sea, tied to an anchor.
Book - could have a variety of meanings. The Evangelists often hold a book representing the New Testament. An open book could symbolize education, knowledge, and submission to the word of God. If pages were torn out, it meant someone had rejected this knowledge and God.
Broom - symbolized marital faith and fidelity.
Candle - a single candle represented Jesus' sacrifice, and God's presence. If the candle were burned out, it symbolized a lack of faith and piety.
Chalice - symbolized consecration and the Eucharist. Anyone holding a chalice was a servant of God.
Clock/Hourglass - represented time, fate, and death. A clock with no hands symbolized that man can't control his fate.
Coins - on a Bible symbolized that someone cared more about money than God. Coins with a knife showed that someone cared more about money than human life.
Cross - symbolized Jesus' sacrifice for the sins of the world. The cross was actually a popular symbol before Jesus' time, in ancient Egypt and Sumeria.
Curtains - especially when fluttering, represented a meeting of heaven and earthly worlds.
Inkwell - symbolized broken promises. If at the table of a saint, it represented martyrdom.
Jug & Washbasin - symbolized cleanliness, and forgiveness of sins.
Kettle - an overturned tea kettle represented a loss of faith.
Keys - Had many different meanings:
            Crossed Keys - symbolized St. Peter, keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
            Key on a Pillow - symbolized marital fidelity.
            Key by a Lock - symbolized free will.
            Key in a Lock - represented acceptance of Jesus as saviour.
            Key near Fruit - represented a corrupted and lustful soul.
            Key under a Book - represented a sinner, and having committed some sin.
            Key lying on the Floor - represented someone's who was totally corrupt and lost.
Lute - symbolized romantic love.
Mirror - symbolized vanity or introspection.
Nails - symbolized the crucifixion, of course.
Pillow - A red pillow represented a horrible sinner.
Toy - represented innocence.
Window - when dirty indicated a physical illness such as leprosy or venereal disease.

Arrows - symbolized death and martyrdom, specifically the saints Edmund and Sebastian.
Battle Axe - Was the symbol of Saints Simon and Matthias. An axe or sword leaning against a wall represented death. Left in wood, an axe symbolized Satan's presence and temptation.
Club - symbolized St. Jude.
Knife - symbolized St. Bartholomew, especially three knives.
Pitchfork - symbolized the Devil.
Scourge - symbolized punishment. With a pillar, it represented the passion of Jesus.
Silver Shield - with a serpent intertwined with a bloody sword, symbolized the false prophet.
Red Shield - symbolized St. Paul.
Blank Shield - symbolized Judas Iscariot.
Sword - symbolized fighting, bravery, and martyrdom. The sword represented St. Paul and the Archangel Michael. Crossed swords represented a high ranking military officer. A broken sword symbolized the eradication of evil.
Whip - could symbolize domination, slavery, or penance for sins.