Mary at the Met”: As part of their study of Mariology, Marist Novices, Brothers Sam Amos, Jack O’Sullivan and James Hodge spent a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art viewing the many works of art that depict Mary. We will be showcasing some of their study over the next few weeks through our website. This study and program were created by Brother James Hodge. We hope you enjoy!
So you’re standing in front of a painting, a sculpture, or even a building. You’re looking at it, but are you really seeing it? To really get into art, all you need to do is ask yourself a few questions that will get you thinking about what you’re looking at. And remember, there are no right answers to these questions — facts will help make your answers deeper, but discovering and understanding a piece of art on your own terms is both subjective and rewarding. Let’s get started!
The Two Most Important Questions. There are only two questions that you really need to look at art, and those are: “What’s going on in this picture/sculpture/building?” and “What do I see that makes me say that?”
In short: LOOK at the picture and figure out what you’re seeing, even if it seems incomprehensible; then FIND evidence in the painting that backs up what you see. For example, let’s look at Edvard Munch’s famous The Scream (1893). What do we see? You might answer, that’s easy: a man who is scared and overwhelmed. OK, definitely — but how do we know it’s a man? Why is he scared and overwhelmed? What in the painting makes us able to say these things about it?
You might counter with: it’s a man because he’s bald and has a male body type. He’s scared because of the expression on his face — his mouth is open, his eyes are wide, he’s clutching his face with his hands. And maybe he’s overwhelmed by everything around him in the painting — this sharply tilted bridge, bright swirling sky, and the strange blue shapes behind him. Even his body is all twisted, like everything around him.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself, not to worry. It’ll take a little bit of pushing yourself to get to the point where you feel comfortable jumping into a painting and exploring it, but practice makes perfect. Try visiting a museum with a friend and talking through a painting with them — you’ll both see things the other one didn’t, and talking about art out loud can really help you understand a piece.
Also, remember that every choice the artist makes is a conscious one. There’s a reason why you think the guy is scared and overwhelmed: because Munch himself decided to paint him with such an expression, decided to create a swirling, upsetting landscape around him, in those specific reds and blues. Figuring out the way an artist manipulates your interpretation of a piece is key to getting into the artist’s head.
Once you master getting yourself to answer those two basic questions, you’ve probably figured out what art historians call the “subject” of the painting — you know, what’s on the canvas. From there, you can easily start to explore the piece even further by asking yourself some other, more detailed questions. For now, we’ll focus on those that have to do mostly with painting, though they can also apply to sculpture and architecture with a bit of imagination. Let’s take a look at them!
Stylistic Devices. ((Adapted from Carol Strickland, The Annotated Mona Lisa (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1992).)) Art historians call the various aspects of a piece “stylistic devices,” and there are tons of them. But two basic parts of an artwork can help us understand the piece as a whole, not to mention explore its details, too. Now that you’ve got the subject of the piece down, you can easily tackle composition and mood.
“What’s the composition like?” In other words: how does the artist piece together the different parts of the canvas? How does the artist make your eye move around the canvas? Is there one place where your eye always ends up? What does this movement and organization make you think about the figures or objects depicted?
“What’s the mood like?” In other words: what overall feeling do you get from the piece? Do the color choices the artist used make you feel a certain way? Does the composition give you a mood?
And here’s one last question you can ask yourself, after having explored the piece’s subject, composition, and mood: Do you think there’s a message that the artist may have wanted us to understand by looking at the piece? If so, what is it? (Sometimes, the message is that there is no message. Those tricky artists.)
Fact-based questions. Although you don’t necessarily need the facts to enjoy figuring out a piece of artwork, sometimes they can help. Here are a few to ask when you’re really interested in a work and want to do some research to find out more. ((From Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, “Introduction,” Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 1-14.))
“How old is it?” It’s more than just dating the piece — once you have the date down, you can take a look at what was going on during that time period that would make the artist want to depict his subject the way he has.
“What is its style?” Style is something that art historians often disagree on, but the fact remains that every era does have its own way of depicting art. Naturally this is all grounded in the events going on at the time. The conventions of composition and mood can help you understand what the style says about the events of the time period.
“Who made it?” We’ve already said that the artist and his decisions are important, but looking at the life of the artist can also help us figure out what’s going on in his artwork. It’s important, though, not to rely too much on the artist’s personal beliefs when you’re talking about a piece of art — if you think there’s something going on in the painting specifically because of something in the artist’s life, you should be able to back it up in the painting itself.
“Who paid for it?” The patron of a work of art is also essential, especially in early art history. Who the patron was, what he wanted, and how much he was willing to pay was essential to many early artists, who were often considered craftsmen, rather than the lofty implications the word “artist” has today.