Modern Art Unpacked

HA231: An introduction to the history of modern European and American art

The focus of this course is on the art of Europe and the United States from the early 19th century to the mid twentieth century, but we won't ignore the rest of the world.

Marilyn Diptych 1962 Andy Warhol 1928-1987 (Tate)

Unit 1: May 30

Questions in art history | Why is art history important?

Key questions and ideas

• Why do people study art history?
• The definition of art changes through time.
• The discipline of Art History is constantly changing.
• When did art history, as a discipline, develop? What are the ramifications of that?
• What are the recent changes taking place in art history?
• Why should we be skeptical about what we see?
• What art gets remembered? What doesn’t get remembered?

Discussion question

Did the videos and readings for this unit help you see art history as relevant to your life and the time we live in? How so?

Gallery in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (photo: Dr. Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Unit 2: June 1

Museums, textbooks and the art market | Who tells art’s history?

Key questions and ideas

• Where do the works in the museum come from?
• Who decides what’s in the museum? Or the textbook?
• How is what is in an art museum different from other things in the world?
• How have museums changed?
• How have artists critiqued museums?
• How is the art in museums organized?
• How does looted art end up in museums?
• What are the effects of Napoleon’s confiscations of works of art?
• What happens when we change the context of a work of art (from a church to a museum, for example)?

Discussion question

You have probably seen this video which was filmed in the Louvre museum. What do you notice? Why the Louvre? How did the readings and videos so far affect how you think about museums?

Seated Figure, terracotta, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné peoples, 25/4 x 29.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Unit 3: June 5

Interpreting what you see | tools of the art historian

Key questions and ideas

• Describing what you see in words will help you interpret a work of art.
• Looking takes time (much longer than you’d think) and it helps to ask yourself questions while you look.
• When you look, it’s helpful think about formal issues such as scale, composition, pictorial space, form, line, color, light, tone, texture, and pattern when you look at a work of art.
• How does identity impact the creation and reception of a work of art?
• How to use iconography to understand a work of art.
• What is the difference between form and subject (and why form is so important)?
• How art can help us empathize with people from other times and places?

Discussion question

Describe a work of art

Review “Elements of Art” and “Principles of Composition”

and watch this video again: How to do visual (formal) analysis

Chose one of the three works of art linked in the discussion area of the course itself. Find them in Blackboard!

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, oil on canvas, 1882 (Courtauld Gallery, London)

Unit 4: June 7

Becoming modern | defining modern art

Key questions and ideas

• If Realism isn’t about naturalistic representation, then what does it mean?
• What does art for art’s sake mean?
• In the mid 19th century, photographers and painters sought beauty in a place it had not been recognized before, in the city. Why did they look there?
• Why did art become more personal and more subjective in the 19th century?
• Was photography viewed as art, as technology, or as a combination of the two in its early years?
• To be viewed as art, did photography need to mimic painting and drawing?

Discussion question

Many of the readings and videos in this unit are about the ways that the nineteenth century sought to grapple with the weight of older traditions that were still persistent in a world that had radically changed.

Are there persistent traditions in your world that need to change? What are they, and what changes do you think are necessary?

Detail, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Self-Portrait, 1790, oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, photo: BotMultichill, public domain)

UNIT 5: June 9

Real and ideal | in the 19th century

Key questions and ideas

• What does ideal mean in art?
• What are some of the different ways that the real was pursued by artists in the 19th century?
• What does the word Orientalism mean?
• What is allegory, and can something be both allegorical and real?
• Monet’s canvases are not realistic in the normal sense of the word, how could he consider them to be more truthful?
• Paris in the 19th century is sometimes call a city of spectacle, how can that be seen in Cassatt’s, In the Loge?

Discussion question

Find two works of art, one that you think the artist intended as an “ideal” and one intended as “real”— you can use design, architecture, photography, painting, or sculpture. Upload your images and explain your choices. Be sure that your discussion draws directly from this week’s assigned readings and videos and discuss what real and ideal meant to 19th century artists.

John Constable, The Hay Wain (Landscape: Noon), 1821, oil on canvas, 130.2 x 185.4 cm (The National Gallery, London).

UNIT 6: June 12

Nature and the city | in the 19th century

Key questions and ideas

• Why do you think that nature became more important in art at the same moment that cities and industry grew?
• How is the nature depicted in Impressionist paintings different from the nature depicted in the work of Velasco or Cole?
• Why has Thomas Cole been called the first environmental artist in the United States?
• How has Lang Jingshan reinvented the long tradition of Chinese landscape?
• What is optical realism?
• Can you find nature in the subway? How did Guimard and the Art Nouveau take inspiration from the natural world?

Discussion question

Well, since I can’t expect for you to spend your time in Paris as a 19th century flaneur, I will instead quote from Walter Benjamin, one of the great intellectuals of the early 20th century. Tragically, he committed suicide during WWII after an unsuccessful attempt to flee from France which was then occupied by the Nazis. Although unfinished, one of his most important efforts was his collection of observations about the streets of Paris titled, The Arcades Project

Benjamin’s writing was directly influenced by the poet Charles Baudelaire who first wrote about the flaneur (make sure to watch the videos above, especially the one on Renoir’s The Grands Boulevards. And make sure to note in your reading and video watching Baron Haussmann who was the official in charge of tearing down many of the structures and streets of Paris, many of them centuries old, and building new modern boulevards with shops, cafes, and apartment houses.

Here is a quote from section VI
Haussmann’s ideal in city planning consisted of long perspectives down broad straight thoroughfares. Such an ideal corresponds to the tendancy—common in the nineteenth century—to ennoble technological necessities through artistic ends….Haussmann tries to shore up his dictatorship by placing Paris under an emergency regime. In 1864, in a speech before the National Assembly, he vents his hatred of the rootless [homeless] urban population, which keeps increasing as a result of his projects. Rising rents drive the proletariat into the suburbs…. Haussmann gave himself the title of ‘demolition artist,’ artiste demolisseur…. Meanwhile he estranges the Parisians from their city. They no longer feel at home there, and start to become conscious of the inhuman character of the metropolis.

And from the section on The Flaneur:
An intoxication come over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grow the temptations of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next street corner, of a distant mass of foliage, of a street name…(from Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translation by H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, pages 11-12 and 417).

Here is my question: Have you walked the streets of a city seeking entertainment from whatever you come across? Do you wander alone or with a friend? What are you experiences? How do you feel when you take the time to walk the streets of a city with no aim or direction? Do you think that New York or another city are like the Paris that Benjamin describes? Are your experiences similar or different, especially in the era of COVID-19?

Leg shackles, 19th century, iron (Museum of the Civil War, Richmond). Used to restrict the movement of enslaved people.

Unit 7: June 14

The United States and the Civil War | the question of slavery

Key questions and ideas

• What is Manifest Destiny?
• Why were anti-literacy laws strengthened in the 19th century?
• Why do you think Eastman Johnson never exhibited A Ride for Liberty?
• Why do you think readers of Harpers Magazine might be interested in Homer’s A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty?
• Timothy O’Sullivan’s photography of the Civil War offers crucial documentation but can’t be entirely trusted, why not?
• Was John Brown a martyr or a murderer?
• Why is Abraham Lincoln atop of an Alaskan totem pole?
• Should the sculptures on Monument Avenue in Richmond been removed?

Discussion question

Art of the U.S. Civil War often took one side or another and continues to be contentious more than a century and a half later. Do you think that art continues to play a role in shaping public opinion? Please give examples and speak to art’s responsibilities in times of crisis.

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889, oil on canvas, 74.3 x 94.3 cm (Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Unit 8: June 16

The subjective eye | c. 1880–1910

Key questions and ideas

• Why do you think Vincent van Gogh’s Irises has come to be so beloved by so many people?
• Gauguin draws on literature to create a self-portrait, what sources might you draw in to create your own self-portrait?
• Why are there green patches in Cézanne’s sky? What was he trying to accomplish?
• What does Fauve mean?
• Klimt’s Death and Life isn’t meant to be literal, what more subtle issues does the artist raise?
• What is Expressionism?
• Why is The Scream so well known?
• Why is Angels Appearing before the Shepherds so little known?

Discussion question

The art we have studied in this section seeks to do the impossible, to reveal the unseen, to depict what is imagined, or felt, or thought on the inside. Of the artists we have looked at in this section, whose strategies work best for you? Please discuss why, being as specific as possible.

Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. 3 or Composition in Oval, 1913 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam)

Unit 9: June 21

World War I and its aftermath | c. 1910-1920

Key questions and ideas

• What is “Primitivism” in modern art?
• Picasso didn’t draw the chair caning. Must a painter rely on the skill of draftsmanship, or can the ideas and the conception be fulfilling enough?
• What is Dada?
• How can we find meaning in the pure abstraction of Malevich and Mondrian?
• Why was the dream of interest to Max Ernst and to other Surrealists?
• Why did mural painting become important for Mexican revolutionaries, and why is Sugar Cane a portable mural?

Discussion question

In 1936, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, mounted that museum’s first major exhibition of European modernism with a show titled, “Cubism and Abstract Art.” Barr had spent months travelling through Europe learning about and borrowing works of art in styles Americans had never seen or even heard about. There was a dizzying number of styles or “isms” as they were sometime referred to. In order to help make these many “isms” more understandable, Barr drew up a chart or timeline, a family tree of sorts, that he published on the dust jacket of the catalogue to the exhibition. 

See the diagram here

Your assignment is to spend some time analyzing this chart, understanding it. I would like to know, based on what you have learned in this class, which aspects of the diagram make sense to you and which seem to be misleading or problematic in some way. Then take it one step further and draw a diagram of the key figures and styles in your major or some other discipline you are deeply interested in Have it cover at least the past 20 years. Then upload it. I can’t wait to see!

Paul Troost, House of (German) Art, 1933-37

Unit 10: June 23

Before and during World War II | 1920–1945

Key questions and ideas

• What was the role of art and architecture in National Socialist ideology?
• Why did Nampayo turn to the Sikyátki revival style?
• How did Aaron Douglas reference Africa in Aspiration?
• What was the Great Migration?
• The essay on Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait discusses the many difficulties she faced in her life. When we look at a painting, does it help to know the artist’s biography? Should the art stand on its own?
• Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is now an icon known around the world how does the specific person at a particular moment become a universal symbol?

Discussion question

All of the art and architecture in the section had a political or social function. Troost sought to celebrate one group over another, while many of the other artists sought to heal historical wounds inflicted by racism or poverty. Nevertheless, each artist sought to be visually compelling and maybe even to create beauty in its own way. When the subject matter of a work of art is disturbing or painful, can the work also be beautiful? Please choose an example from this section and discuss.

People taking photos of the Mona Lisa, photo: Heather Anne Campbell (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

UNIT 11: June 26

Cultural heritage | Endangered, preserved, returned

Key questions and ideas

• Understanding cultural heritage and how it has been endangered
• Where was Seneca Village and why was it forgotten?
• Should the American Museum of Natural History return Paikea?
• If you owned a building, should you be able to tear it down to build another? Should an owner be able to tear down a building such as Grand Central Terminal?
• Does the story behind the painting Portrait of Wally change the way you view it?
• Can the act of erasing art itself be art?
• Why was Piero della Francesca’s fresco, The Resurrection, saved from destruction?

Discussion question

So much art history is focused on the artist and the time when a work of art was made. But art’s circumstances can change after the work is completed. In this section we’ve been looking at histories of works of art and architecture after they were completed, what has happened to them over time. Do you think an artist fixes the the meaning of a work, or can the meaning of a work of art change over time? Please discuss and give examples.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006), Off on My Own (Harlem, New York), 1948. Gelatin silver print. The Art Institute of Chicago, © The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Unit 12: June 28

Postwar / Coldwar | 1945–1960

Key questions and ideas

• What is Abstract Expressionism?
• Has our perceptions of “the city” changed since Gordon Parks sought to transform it?
• What were the sources that de Kooning responded to in his painting Woman I?
• How did Fifth Avenue retail display windows play a role in Modern Art?
• What influences shaped Ruth Asawa’s sculptures?
• What is Pop art?
• How did the image of JFK change during the creation of Retroactive I?
• Why does Marisol populate The Party with her own likeness?

Discussion question

If Jackson Pollock was a young artist just starting his career today, it seems clear that he would not produce the same canvases he painted in the middle of the of the 20th century. In fact, he might not be a painter at all. Instead of responding to the culture that he grew up in, the culture of the early 20th century, he would be responding, as you do, to the culture of the early 21st century.

We are all products of the culture we live in which is why art can tell us a great deal about, not only about the individual who created a work of art, but also about the culture that helped shape that person and his or her art in turn. This also suggests that the meaning of a work of art is not fixed. It changes as society changes and this reminds us that meaning can attach itself to a work of art that the artist had never originally intended. This means that a work of art can help us understand the society in which it was produced. What then does Abstract Expressionism tell us about the mid 20th century? Pollock was a brilliant artist but he did not work in a vacuum, his work is deeply embedded in his specific cultural time and place. What can Abstract Expressionism tell us about the world in which it was created? And maybe also ask yourself, how are you and your work shaped by the time and place you inhabit.

Gary Winogrand, Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, 1960 (printed c. 1980), gelatin silver print, 45.88 x 30.8 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art, © The Estate of Gary Winogrand).

Unit 13: June 30

Instaculture | The origins of right now

Key questions and ideas

• How did art change between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries?
• Are there also common aspects in the art of the 19th and 20th centuries?
• What is modern art?

Discussion question

Some historians see the Second World War as a rupture that signals the end of the Modern era. Others see the the 1960s and 70s (and even of our era), as simply more modernism. What do you think? Is 2022 no longer modern? Whatever your thoughts, give examples and reasons behind your ideas.

Unit 14: July 3

Review and begin final exam - you can find it in Blackboard! |