Sunday, July 16, 2023

Art History vs. History

Don’t study art history if you are looking for an accurate account of history. You can’t rely on art any more than any other form of documentation and often less so. Art historians want us to believe according to the Courtauld Institute “it is a way of understanding the world”. It does teach some things, but you can’t take a work of art at face value.

During the American Revolution Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas day in 1776. The event was memorialized 75 years later in the iconic painting by Emanuel Leutze. The painting includes numerous historical inaccuracies, even to the American flag which was only adopted at the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. An account in the on-line publication Purdue Today, points out, however, that the purpose of the painting was not to document an event but to inspire liberal reformers during the European Revolutions of 1848. So much for relying on art for historical accuracy.

The advent of Abstract Expressionism has been dated precisely as beginning in 1946, inspired by the turmoil created by World War II . But abstract art dates earlier. The website of the Tate Museum in London, gives the definition “Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.” A 2017 article by Abigail Cain in Artsy titled “When Picasso Almost Invented Abstract Painting” discusses claims to the advent of abstract art. Here is an image of a “Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair” in the Met by Picasso 1913-1914 painted well before the Wilhelm de Kooning, dated 1952-53, “Woman and Bicycle” at the Whitney, which one looks more abstract to you?

According to a publication BestLife, in 2007 Stanford University’s “Digital Michelangelo Project” discovered that if you view Michelangelo’s triple life-size David from below, he appears to have a calm and confident look but looking at his face straight on he seems rather tense about battling Goliath. Does it tell us anything of consequence? It is something amusing to cogitate but hardly an art historical discovery.

The devil is in the details not in the broad strokes of what seems obvious. New revelations may contradict what has been published and accepted in the past. What exists below the surface?

In a recent article by Richard Whiddington we read: “Henry VIII endures in the history books as a ruthless king with a cantankerous temperament.” Following a jousting accident in 1536 Henry spent the last decade of his life in great pain and believed it was a punishment by God. In his bible he marked several paragraphs and one of those says, “Take away thy plagues from me …” and another, “god forsake me not …” But a less cocksure man emerges in the margins of his own prayer books.” Royal portraits generally portray a confident, strong ruler but it should be noted that, after all, the artist must please his patron, not document reality.

If you wish to learn history a work of art can be helpful in filling in the blanks and understanding it better, but it is not reliable in revealing the human condition. As Benjamin Franklin was purported to have said, "Believe none of what you hear and believe half of what you see".

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