An Art History for Our Time – History News Network (HNN) | Candle Made Easy

Charlotte Mullins is an art critic, author and broadcaster. She has worked as the art editor of the Independent on Sundaythe editor of art reviewthe V&A Magazine, art quarterly and is the newly appointed art critic for Country Life. She has written over ten books, including two children’s art books published under the pseudonym Charlie Ayres.

In her recent Audible series, In Search of Black History, playwright and critic Bonnie Greer declared, “History is the story of those who wrote it.” This writing of events, this coding of life, has created historical accounts that may now appear blind or imbued with deep prejudice and bias. For the last fifty years, women and black writers have challenged white male western historians, and slowly historiography (still “his story”) is spreading. A little art history strives to contribute to this expansion.

Art history as a discipline was formalized in the West 300 years ago when men like Johann Winckelmann began to codify art. Winckelmann considered ancient Greek sculpture the supreme art form and believed that works by Michelangelo and Raphael were the closest modern equivalent. Although Western artists moved away from the classical model in the 19th century, this traditional method of learning still underpinned my own art history training in the early 1990s. At the time, the best-selling introductions to art history were by Ernst Gombrich (first published in 1950) and HW Janson (first published in 1962). They seemed wide-ranging and authoritative in tone. But Gombrich, as is well known, excluded all female artists except one The History of Art. This book has sold over 8 million copies worldwide and is still prominently displayed in museum bookstores. It bears a sticker stating that it is the best-selling art book in the world. But it excludes the entire history of women’s art (there’s no sticker there).

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting of a Devotional Table c. 1556

A little art history sets out to do things differently. Female artists were brought back into the narrative. This is not an invention of her meaning or an elevation of women’s art. These women worked for the leading patrons of the day: kings, queens, sultans and emperors. Sofonisba Anguissola worked for King Philip II of Spain in the 16th century; Guan Daosheng was part of Kublai Khan’s Mongol court in the 1290s. These artists were celebrated in their time – in the 17th century Elisabetta Sirani was buried with the same civil honors as Bologna’s leading male painter Guido Reni, although she died at the age of 27. At this point she ran her father’s workshop for eleven years, ran her own art academy for women for four years and painted extraordinary works of art.

Lee Krasner

Artists of color were similarly excluded from mainstream stories, their narratives somehow not considered important enough to include. One of these artists is Jacob Lawrence. His powerful “Migration” series was painted in 1940-41 in response to the great migration of 6 million African Americans from the Southern States to North American cities in search of work. This series deserves to be as well known as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). The abstract expressionism of the post-war period of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning also did not emerge in a white male vacuum – African American artists like Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden were painting exciting abstractions at the time, as were female artists like Lee Krasner. These artists are finally being honored with museum retrospectives and their stories appearing in A little art history.

Jacob Lawrence teaches school children at the Abraham Lincoln School. Photo National Archives and Records Administration

When artists traveled or met people from other continents, they quickly adopted new ways of working, as seen in the 15th century at the court of Sultan Mehmet II in Constantinople or in the state of Benin in West Africa. Artists made art in societies that left no written records, such as the Nok of the Niger Valley. Her distinctive figurative sculptures are the most telling testimonies of a culture that ended nearly 2,000 years ago. Her art shows signs of a visual network that spans the African continent. Such networks must be at the heart of any retelling of art history because they show how ideas are permeated. Artists have always created their own art networks over time by viewing and collecting each other’s work, attracting patrons and sourcing raw materials (Europeans obtained lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and ivory and gold from Mozambique; African artists acquired copper and brass from Portuguese traders) . . At times these networks spanned continents and were not limited by gender, age, class, or ethnicity.

A little art history is part of Yale’s Little Histories series and as such follows a chronological path of forty short chapters. The books are all by Gombrich A little world history, written at breakneck speed in 1935 as a living antidote to boring history books and to delight inquisitive children. The series maintains Gombrich’s fresh, approachable style, with no jargon and no footnotes, and is aimed at everyone from teenagers to ninety-somethings. The chronological format provides a clear path through the story, ensuring no one gets lost along the way. It also allows art from around the world to be written about and thought about at the same time. When non-Western art was included in traditional introductory courses in art history, it was fenced into chapters devoted to African or Chinese art. in the A little art history that’s not the case. All artwork is integrated and in each chapter we zip through the world. For example, Chapter 16 begins in Mexico, moves to Africa and Japan before traveling to England and ending in the Ottoman Empire.

While this slim single volume, the size of a paperback, is necessarily a distillation of art history, it is a history that now encompasses many different artists from around the world. I hope it underscores the enduring power of art to move us, to speak beyond words, to speak directly to our emotions, and to make an impact. Art history may be a relatively new and dynamic discipline in the West, but art itself is 100,000 years old and now more powerful than ever. It is time for art history to embrace diversity and become a richer, more complex, and more inclusive art history for our time.

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