Art is an amazing expression of our own humanity that can convey any number of thoughts or feelings or social messages. Whoever we are, we all appreciate at least some kinds of art, be they paintings or sculpture or photography. However, as much as we can simply enjoy something on an aesthetic level, actually knowing something about the art can give us a much greater appreciation and understanding of it, even if we don’t it ‘beautiful’ to look at. As such, in this article I am going to talk about ways to analyse art for a better understanding.
Colour. Colour is one of the most immediate things about a piece of art, often the very thing that draws you in to look at it. But colour is not only used in a literal way such as in realism, but it can be used in a very symbolic way, even if the painting (for example) still looks realistic. For example, if we look at Titian’s Pesaro altarpiece (Left) we can see that the primary colours are blues, reds, and golds. However, while at first glance it may just seem to be typical colours, Titian has in fact made a very bold statement through his use of colour. The woman to the right, on the steps, in red, is actually the Madonna, the Virgin Mary herself. At this time, blue was a very new colour, and the Church sought to control it, inflating its price and restricting it for religious paintings that fitted their ideology. As such, the Madonna was always painted wearing blue at that time, as it was thought to be a divine colour, representing the heavens. We can see here, that the person wearing blue is actually a man, St. Peter. We see him in this altarpiece, swathed in the richest blue of the entire painting, which is a direct defiance of Titian, suggesting that does not believe the Virgin Mary should be idolised so much.
Positioning of subjects in a piece of art is also of great importance. Artists do not usually place something at random, there will be a reason as to why a person is where they are, for example. Again, with Titian’s altarpiece, the positioning of the Madonna is another controversial move. She is to the right, atop some stairs, almost out of the way; certainly not a focal point for the picture. Typically, the Madonna was always painted in central position, so people would be drawn to look at her rather than other things within the image. This further reinforces the idea of Titian’s irritation at the excessive reverence of the Virgin Mary.
The technique used to create the artwork is another indicator of what the art could be trying to say. In Titian’s work, we see a very smooth brushstrokes that are barely discernible, giving the painting a very life-like feel. This is probably at least partly because he was attempting to make a social commentary, and as such thought his subjects should be realistic. By contrast, Leonora Carrington’s ‘The Crow Catcher’ (Right) is painted with larger brush strokes with blurred edges, creating a dream-like feel, helping, along with the colour, to create a nightmarish scene.
Another thing to look at would be symbols. It could be shapes used, animals, or objects such as a vase; again, rarely are they there just for the sake of being there, they often represent a deeper undertone to the artwork. In Carrington’s work, the crows are the most obvious symbol, thought to represent death or bad luck, which reflects the harrowing tone of the painting. Also, the angular nature of the work, with the blades beneath the catcher’s feet, the features of the catcher’s face, and all of the scenery too. The sharpness of the entire piece creates a very desolate, alienating feeling, making it almost uncomfortable to look at.
Finally, the other thing that could perhaps grant you the greatest insight, would be historical context. Whilst it is not always the case that you are immediately aware of when and where a piece of art was created, you can research it later. Politics are often very involved in art, or perhaps feminist movements, or other more general art movements. Returning to Titian, Titian’s work was very political; he used his craft to rebel against the restrictions of the Church at the time, and by doing so helped to liberate the colour blue, so it was freely available for artists to use in any context. Looking into not only a country’s situation at the time, but also the artist’s personal life at the time can often reveal a great deal in terms of motive and message.
Overall, I hope I have encouraged you to look at art on more than just a superficial level. Now you can pick up subtle signs within art and be able to gain some insight into what the art was actually created for, rather than simply admiring or disliking the work on an aesthetic level.