Category Archives: Visual Art

Make Lists, Not War: Fall 2016 Updates

Over the last few months, I have added two new pages to the website and made significant changes to several others.  Here are the updates:

Best Works of Civil Engineering
Best Works of Civil Engineering – Chronological
From the Great Pyramid of Giza to the International Space Station – with lots of buildings, bridges, waterworks, canals and tunnels in between: the greatest achievements in civil engineering. Plenty of diagrams and photos.

Best Short Stories of All Time – The Critics’ Picks
I have added links so that the full text of nearly every story on the list is now just a click away.

Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks, Part 1
Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks, Part 2
Art History 101 – Part I: The Prehistoric Era – 1399 CE
Art History 101 – Part IIA: 1400-1499
Art History 101 – Part IIB: 1500-1599
Art History 101 – Part III: 1600-1799
Art History 101 – Part IV: 1800 – Present
I increased the size of the images in many cases and added images in other cases.  I also significantly revised or completely rewrote a number of the essays accompanying each work of art.

 

Location, Location, Location: A Visual Art GPS

Where do we look at visual art?  In a book? On your computer screen?  In a museum?  On vacation? On the way to work?  More importantly, what is the best way to look at a work of visual art?  You can find high-quality reproductions of every great painting, sculpture or other work of visual art in books or on your smart phone or computer screen, but looking at a 3-, 11-, 14- or 17-inch digitized reproduction of a painting measuring 10 X 12 feet or a life-sized statue cannot really come close to the experience of encountering the original directly. The urban centers that most people in the Western hemisphere live in or near generally offer lots of opportunities to see public sculptures and also diverse examples of the type of visual art we see the most – architecture (although we rarely think of the many buildings we encounter on a daily basis as works of art). Other works of art require long treks into distant lands to see them in person.  For someone in the U.S., this might include the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira; the ruins of Petra in Jordan, Persepolis in Iran or Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Turkey; and the frescoes adorning the Christian churches of Italy.

And then there are museums.  I would guess that many of us have had most of our direct exposure to original works of visual art (other than architectural creations) in an art museum.  Such museums range from the tiny to the big to the immense; they may choose to present the work of one artist or many, a specific time period or all human history, a smattering of works from a great many artists, a comprehensive collection of a much more limited set of artists, or a combination of the two approaches.  Some museums only present temporary exhibits but most combine their own special exhibitions and traveling shows with displays from their permanent collections. Museums have worked hard to provide an experience that appeals to the uninitiated as well as the sophisticated – this attempt to please everyone can disappoint those at either end of the spectrum, I suppose, but it is difficult to imagine what other approach the museums could take.  The larger institutions have libraries and research facilities for the experts, and more and more museums are daring to put on special exhibits that are designed to appeal to someone who would not ordinarily visit.

Museums have their critics. Some believe they are elitist bastions of the wealthy and highly educated and that their imposing facades and unspoken assumptions about who ‘belongs’ inside intimidate the diverse masses who were not born into privilege, convincing them to stay away. Others feel that the sanctuary-like atmosphere of a museum is the worst place to look at a work of art.  Art should be integrated into our daily lives, not sequestered in museums that too often become mausoleums for the works of dead white men.  Others worry that the presence of an artwork in a museum tells us that experts have already anointed this an “important” or “high quality” piece – leaving us with a Hobson’s choice: either agree and feel like mindless sheep following the leader or disagree and feel like we’re either too stupid to get it or that the so-called experts are full of it and the whole system is phony.

Before the building of the great museums in Europe beginning around the time of the French Revolution, most non-architectural art was found in one of three places: religious sites and buildings, public spaces and buildings, or in the homes of the rich and famous, where only other rich and famous people (and their servants) could see them.  Even today, many masterpieces are hidden from the public eye because they reside in the private collections of wealthy collectors who may only occasionally loan them to museums.  Some museums have tried to recreate this earlier style of art appreciation by creating galleries where period furniture and other decorative art accompany the paintings and sculptures. Others, like the Frick Collection in New York City, display the art inside the mansion of the collector himself, with many of his furnishings still intact.  Is this a better way to look at the art than the standard museum paradigm: paintings hung on bare walls in sparsely-decorated rooms, sculptures resting on pedestals a safe distance from each other?

Perhaps the most common criticism of museums, especially the behemoths that top the list of ‘Most Attended’ each year, is the physical and mental exhaustion brought on by looking at so many works of art during a typical visit.  Most of us are not used to taking the time to stare intently at one object, not to mention doing it over and over for many different objects in many different rooms with few breaks and a drive to see everything you came to see – or at least all the famous pieces.  The effort involved in truly seeing what we’re looking at eventually induces a combination of annoyed agitation and zombie-like lethargy, often accompanied by a headache, known to travelers as ‘museum fatigue’ or ‘museumitis.’ I have learned from personal experience that the urge to see ‘just one more masterpiece’ must often succumb to the need for a nap and that two hours is usually my limit, no matter how much there is left to see.

Despite all the criticisms, art museums offer an opportunity for the public to see many works of art in safe, clean, climate-controlled environments, where curator-produced writings and audio guides can provide useful and intelligent interpretation, context and background. Those museums with permanent collections on display provide the chance for folks who live nearby to encounter the same works of art multiple times, allowing them to reveal themselves layer by layer.  Those that present temporary exhibits give us a chance to see works on loan from around the world, explore a subject or artist in depth, or investigate the edges of the world of art, or its intersection with other fields.

Given that there are some good reasons to see art in museums, another set of questions arises: What makes a great art museum? and Which are the best art museums?  In doing some research on these questions, I was surprised to discover that museums are often rated by size and popularity (measured by annual attendance figures).  This seems unfair to me, since visiting a small, well-curated museum can be a transcendent experience, while some of the larger museums can get so crowded that the average attendee ends up feeling hassled, claustrophobic, and stressed out.  On the other hand, the larger museums tend to be wealthier and more able to acquire highly-sought-after artworks and put on the most impressive temporary exhibits.  In making my meta-list of “Best Art Museums” (see below), I tried to avoid lists that were based on annual attendance alone, but looked instead for lists that focused on the quality of the art in the permanent collection and the quality of the permanent and temporary exhibits. Notwithstanding my attempt to focus on quality over size, the final result, a meta-list combining 25 separate lists of ‘Best Museums” and “Best Art Museums”, appears to confirm that bigger is also better.

BEST ART MUSEUMS OF ALL TIME – The Experts’ Picks

22 Lists
Vatican Museums. Vatican City (established 1506)
Musée du Louvre. Paris, France (est. 1792)
Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City, US (est. 1870)

17
British Museum. London, UK (est. 1753)
Museo del Prado. Madrid, Spain (est. 1819)

15
State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia (est. 1764)

14
Uffizi Gallery. Florence, Italy (est. 1581)

13
Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam, The Netherlands (est. 1800)
Tate Modern. London, UK (est. 2000)

11
National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., US (est. 1937)

9
Museum of Modern Art. New York City, US (est. 1929)
Musée d’Orsay. Paris, France (est. 1986)

7
National Gallery. London, UK (est. 1824)
National Palace Museum. Taipei, Taiwan (est. 1965)

6
Tate Britain. London, UK (est. 1897)
Musée National d’Art Moderne. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France (est. 1947)

5
Victoria and Albert Museum. London, UK (est. 1852)
Smithsonian Institution (multiple museums). Washington D.C., US (est. c. 1855)
Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, Illinois, US (est. 1879)
J. Paul Getty Museum. Getty Center, Los Angeles, California, US (est. 1974)

4
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Cairo, Egypt (est. 1835)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. New York City, US (est. 1939)
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Bilbao, Spain (est. 1997)
Acropolis Museum. Athens, Greece (est. 2009)

This focus on museums is prelude to the unveiling of three new lists. I have taken every painting, sculpture and work of architecture from the other visual arts lists (except those in private collections) and organized them by geographic location. Most of the paintings are located in museums, although a fair number can be found in churches and other religious sites and a few in government buildings.  Although museums house most of the sculptures, a fair number are located in public places, where people can see them without paying admission.  Architectural works, by their nature, are also found outside museum walls, although the general public does not have access to many of them.  Due to the Western bias of so many of the original lists and the acquisitive nature of many former colonial empires, the majority of the works of art are located in Western Europe and the United States. Despite this imbalance, the lists include significant art works from nearly every region of the world.

These three new lists expand upon and replace a prior geography-based list that contained many fewer works of art and no works of architecture.  The primary goal of the list is to let people know where they can see the works of art from the lists, but I have also decided to identify the former locations of artworks you cannot see, because they were destroyed, lost or removed.  One caveat: although a work of art may be in the collection of a particular museum, that is no guarantee that the artwork will be on display when you visit.  In fact, I left most photographs off the list because most art museums have very few photos on display, even if they have huge numbers of them in their collections, so the chances you’ll be able to see any particular photograph from the museum’s collection on your visit may be very small.

Here, then, are the new lists.  I’ve organized the artworks by location and illustrated the list with lotss of pictures of the artwork in context, including interior photos of exhibit halls in the museums from the “Best Museums” list above.  Finally, I added maps with virtual stick pins for each of the three Geographic Location lists, thanks to the templates provided by ZeeMaps.com.

Best Works of Art & Architecture by Geographic Location I: Africa, Asia & Australia
Best Works of Art & Architecture by Geographic Location II: North & South America 
Best Works of Art & Architecture by Geographic Location III: Europe

Designs for Living: Architects and their Best Work

The purpose of this post is to introduce my newest list – Best Architects of All Time – The Critics’ Picks – but instead of writing a thought-provoking essay, I thought I would provide a sample of some of the most interesting, beautiful, outrageous and, yes, thought-provoking architectural designs ever built.  To provide a variety of architectural styles and periods, I created a few fairly obvious categories (churches, museums, bridges, airports, etc.) and posted photos of five different examples of each category.  Why five?  Not sure, but two wasn’t enough and ten was too many.

Five Castles

Crusading knights renovated a Kurdish fort into Krak des Chevaliers.

Krak des Chevaliers (1170). Architect: Unknown. Location: Near Homs, Syria.

Château de Chambord, in Chambord, France.

Château de Chambord (1547). Architect: Unknown. Location: Chambord, France.

Himeji Castle is a famous Japanese landmark.

Himeji Castle (1581; 1609; 1618). Architect: Unknown. Location: Himeji, Japan.

Palace of Versailles. Architects: Numerous. Location: Versailles, France.

Palace of Versailles (1678; 1684; 1710). Architects: Numerous. Location: Versailles, France.

Neuschwanstein Castle, designed by Irving Reidl, is located in Opferburg, Germany.

Neuschwanstein Castle (1892). Architect: Eduard Reidl. Location: Hohenschwangau, Germany.

Five Single-Family Residences

Palladio's "La Rotunda" was named after the

Villa Capra “La Rotunda” (1566). Architect: Andrea Palladio. Location: Near Vicenza, Italy.

Poplar Forest (1806-1826). Architect: Thomas Jefferson. Location: Near Lynchburg, Virginia.

Poplar Forest (1826). Architect: Thomas Jefferson. Location: Near Lynchburg, Virginia.

Robie House (1909). Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. Location: Chicago, Illinois.

Robie House (1909). Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. Location: Chicago, Illinois.

Villa Savoye is a dramatic revisioning of residential architecture.

Villa Savoye (1931). Architects: Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret. Location: Poissy, France.

Farnsworth House (1951). Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Location: Plano, Illinois.

Farnsworth House (1951). Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Location: Plano, Illinois.

Five Bridges

Dozens of workers died while building the Brooklyn Bridge, including the architect, John Roebling.  He was inspecting the works from a pier across the Hudson when a boat crashed into the dock, crushing his foot. Despite the amputation of his toes, he died two weeks later of a tetanus infection.

Brooklyn Bridge (1883). Architect: John Augustus Roebling. Location: New York, New York.

Tower Bridge over the Thames in London.

Tower Bridge (1886-1894). Architect: Sir Horace Jones. Location: London, UK.

The Golden Gate refers to

Golden Gate Bridge (1937). Architects: Joseph Strauss, Irving Morrow & Charles Ellis. Location: San Francisco, California.

Millau Viaduct in Millau, France.

Millau Viaduct (2004). Architects: Norman Foster and Michel Virlogeux. Location: Millau, France.

Bridge of Strings (2008). Architect: Santiago Calatrava. Location: Jerusalem, Israel.

Bridge of Strings (2008). Architect: Santiago Calatrava. Location: Jerusalem, Israel.

Five Churches (exterior view)

Basilica of San Vitale. Ravenna, Itay.

Basilica of San Vitale (547 CE). Architect: Unknown. Location: Ravenna, Italy.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Notre Dame de Paris (1345). Architect: Bishop Sully (attrib.). Location: Paris, France.

Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy.

Milan Cathedral (1386-1965). Architects: Numerous. Location: Milan, Italy.

Saint-Pierre, by Le Corbusier and José Oubrerie, in Firminy, France.

Saint-Pierre (2006).  Architects Le Corbusier and José Oubrerie. Location: Firminy, France.

Crystal Cathedral (1981). Architect: Philip Johnson. Location: Garden Grove, California.  Style/Period: Postmodernism.

Crystal Cathedral (1981). Architect: Philip Johnson. Location: Garden Grove, California.

Five Churches (interior view)

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe (549 CE). Architect: Unknown. Location: Near Ravenna.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (549 CE). Architect: Unknown. Location: Near Ravenna, Italy.

Sainte-chapelle.

Sainte-Chapelle (1248). Architect: Unknown. Location: Paris, France.

Santa Maria presso

Santa Maria presso San Satiro (1482). Architect: Donato Bramante. Location: Milan, Italy.

Church of Sant'andrea al Quirinale.

Church of Sant’andrea al Quirinale (1670). Architect: Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Location: Rome, Italy.

The interior of St. Paulinus Church in ___, Germany was designed by Balthasar Neumann.

St. Paulinus Church (1753). Architect: Balthasar Neumann. Location: Trier, Germany.

Five Museums

Sir Robert Smirke's original design for the British Museum in London.

British Museum (1847). Architect: Sir Robert Smirke. Location: London, UK.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959). Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. Location: New York, New York.

The Menil Collection, in Houston, texas, was designed by Renzo Piano.

The Menil Collection (1987). Architect: Renzo Piano. Location: Houston, Texas.

Quadracci Pavilion, Minneapolis Art Museum (2001). Architect: Santiago Calatrava. Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Quadracci Pavilion, Milwaukee Art Museum (2001). Architect: Santiago Calatrava. Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

Museum of Islamic Art (2008). Architect: I.M. Pei. Location: Doha, Qatar.

Five Skyscrapers

The Wainwright Building, by Louis Sullivan and Denkmar Adler, in St. Louis, Missouri.

Wainwright Building (1890). Architects: Louis Sullivan & Denkmar Adler. Location: St. Louis, Missouri.

Flatiron Building (1902). Architect: Daniel Burnham. Location: New York City, US.

Flatiron Building (1902). Architect: Daniel Burnham. Location: New York, New York.

A Kong-free view of the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building (1931). Architect: Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. Location: New York, New York.

Seagram Building (1958). Architects: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe & Philip Johnson. Location: New York City, US.

Seagram Building (1958). Architects: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe & Philip Johnson. Location: New York, New York.

Burj Khalifa. Architect: X. Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Burj Khalifa (2009). Architect: Adrian Smith/SOM. Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Five Theaters

Sheldonian Hall. Christopher Wren. Oxford, UK.

Sheldonian Theatre (1668). Architect: Sir Christopher Wren. Location: Oxford, UK.

Palais des Beaux-Arts. Victor Horta. Brussels, Belgium.

Palais des Beaux-Arts (1928). Architect: Victor Horta. Location: Brussels, Belgium.

House of Culture. Alvar Aalto. Helsinki, Finland.

House of Culture (1958). Architect: Alvar Aalto. Location: Helsinki, Finland.

Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California.

Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003). Architect: Frank Gehry. Location: Los Angeles, California.

Casa da Musica. Architect: Rem Koolhaas. Location: Porto, Portugal.

Casa da Musica (2005). Architect: Rem Koolhaas. Location: Porto, Portugal.

Five Government Buildings

United States Capitol. Architects: . Location: Washington, D.C.

United States Capitol (1800). Architects: William Thornton and others. Location: Washington, D.C.

Palace of Westminster. Location: London, UK.

Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) (1870). Architects: Charles Barry & Augustus Pugin. Location: London, UK.

The National Congress of Brazil, in the capital city of Brasilia, designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

National Congress of Brazil (1961). Architect: Oscar Niemeyer. Location: Brasilia, Brazil.

The National Assembly building in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

National Assembly Building (1982). Architect: Le Corbusier. Location: Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Kuwait National Assembly Building.  Jørn Utzon

Kuwait National Assembly Building (1982). Architects: Jørn Utzon & Jan Utzon. Location: Kuwait City, Kuwait.

Five Multi-Family Dwellings

Casa Milà (La Pedrera) (1910).  Architect: Antoni Gaudí. Location: Barcelona, Spain.

Casa Milà (La Pedrera) (1910). Architect: Antoni Gaudí. Location: Barcelona, Spain.

Unité d'habitation (1952). Architect: Le Corbusier. Location: Marseilles. France.

Unité d’habitation (1952). Architect: Le Corbusier. Location: Marseilles. France.

Nemausus Housing (1987). Architect: Jean Nouvel. Location: Nimes, France.

Nemausus Housing (1987). Architect: Jean Nouvel. Location: Nimes, France.

Nexus World Housing (1991). Architect: Rem Koolhaas. Location: Fukuoka, Japan.

Nexus World Housing (1991). Architect: Rem Koolhaas. Location: Fukuoka, Japan.

Architect: Santiago Calatrava, Zurich (Switzerland) Project: Turning Torso, office + apartment building, Malmoe (Sweden) Malmö

Turning Torso (2005). Architect: Santiago Calatrava. Location: Malmö, Sweden.

Five Airports

TWA Terminal, John F. Kennedy Airport. Architect: Eero Saarinen. Location: New York City, US.

TWA Terminal,  John F. Kennedy Airport (1962). Architect: Eero Saarinen. Location: New York, New York.

Hajj Terminal.

Hajj Terminal, King Abdulaziz International Airport (1981). Architect: Fazlur Rahman Khan/SOM. Location: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Terminal 1, Los Angeles International Airport. Architect: Norma Merrick Sklarek. Location: Los Angeles, California.

Terminal 1, Los Angeles International Airport (1982). Architect: Norma Merrick Sklarek. Location: Los Angeles, California.

Kansai International Airport.

Kansai International Airport (1994). Architect: Renzo Piano. Location: Osaka Bay, Japan.

Chek lap kok airport.

Hong Kong International Airport (1998). Architect: Norman Foster. Location: Chek Lap Kok Island, China.

To see my new list of the Best Architects of All Time, click here.

My Kid Could Paint That, But If She Did, I’d Be Concerned: The Contemporary Art List

When did we decide that some art was modern art?  Did modern art began at the dawn of the 20th Century, or some time before?  Was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 the defining moment or was it some earlier work by Matisse or Kandinsky?  One would think that modern would stay current, but apparently it got old, and we needed a new term to describe what came after modern.  (Does postmodern follow modern? Yes and no.  They’re in a relationship and it’s complicated.)  The near-universally accepted term for the most recent art and artists is contemporary.  We even have museums devoted exclusively to contemporary art.  When did we go from modern to contemporary?  The term ‘contemporary art’ has been defined in a variety of ways, all of which seek to distinguish newer art and artists from the modernists who came before.  Because those Picassos, Matisses and Kandinskys are over 100 years old – and that doesn’t sound very modern, does it?  Contemporary is the new modern, but how do we establish boundaries for a present tense that keeps moving into the past?

For some critics and art historians, contemporary art encompasses all the postwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s – Abstract Expressionism (think Jackson Pollock), Neo-Dada/Pre-Pop (think Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) and Pop Art (think Andy Warhol) – and continuing all the way to the present.  Others say ‘contemporary’ means art since 1970.  Still others define it as art by artists living today, which means that the scope of contemporary art changes every time we see an artist’s obituary.  Once we’ve defined the time period covered by ‘contemporary art’, we must try to comprehend not only the artists and their particular works of art, but also struggle with what generalizations we can make about the various means, techniques, movements and ideas employed by these artists (and by the critics, curators and historians who think and write about them).  As an example of the difficulties involved in making such generalizations, consider just a few of the contemporary art ‘movements and styles’ identified by the obsessive-compulsive folks at Wikipedia: environmental art, holography, postminimalism, wildstyle,  froissage, culture jamming, transgressive art, transavantgarde, neo-expressionism, hyperrealism, pseudorealism, toyism, stuckism, superflat and metamodernism.  Where to find an umbrella big enough to cover all these and many more disparate paradigms?

Considering the breadth of contemporary art, it is foolish (even dangerous) to attempt generalizations.  We can only point to some common trends.  It is almost a cliché to say that contemporary artists seek to challenge our understanding of what art is and can be and what the artist’s role is in ‘creating’ the art, but many contemporary artists are interested in exploring (and challenging assumptions about) the nature of art – what is art?, is this art?  They also like to draw attention to (and challenge our assumptions about) the nature of the creative process and the relationship between the artist and the person who interacts with the artwork, or buys the artwork.  While some contemporary artists create works of art that require sophisticated artistic skills, others deemphasize technical skill and instead focus on what is simple, easy or already visible (everyday objects, advertising, etc.) – they appropriate the work of others or use assistants or the public to execute their ideas.  Others use high-tech techniques that permit the creation of stunning visual effects that could not have existed in the days before computers and digital manipulation.  The age-old questions about the relationship between the artwork and external reality (if they even concede its existence) continue to be asked but in new ways.

Contemporary artists use contemporary media.  Instead of painting a canvas, framing it and hanging it on a wall, or shaping a sculpture from stone, bronze or clay, many of them create performances and installations that live temporary lives; after the happening happens, it exists only in various forms of documentation: videos and photographs, preparatory sketches and props.  They create artworks that reshape the environment or change with time.  They make artworks about their own artworks or the artworks of others.  They blur boundaries between trash and art, art and commerce, lowbrow and highbrow, painting and sculpture, word and picture, sight and sound, performance and exhibit.  (Is this photograph art or is it a photograph of art?)  They take a tradition and add something that doesn’t belong, or subtract something that does.  They break the rules or they draw your attention to the rules they are following.  While some contemporary artists may only want you to come away from their work thinking “What pretty art” or “Wow is he talented!”, it is more likely that they want to send you away from an encounter with their art filled with questions: ‘Why this?”, “What for?” and perhaps, ultimately, “Why not?”

All this is prelude for my latest meta-list: Best Contemporary Visual Artists – the Critics’ Picks.  To make the list, I collected a number of lists of the best contemporary artists (mostly still living, but a few who have recently passed) and arranged them with the most-listed artists at the top.  Then, for each artist, I compiled their most highly-regarded works of art.  These range from relatively traditional paintings and sculptures to a man with gold paint on his face explaining artworks to a dead rabbit, a shark floating in formaldehyde, a room full of light, pictures cut out of biker magazines, a portrait created from thousands of magazine pictures, instructions for painting a wall and many more.  I hope you enjoy the list and use it to explore the world of contemporary art.

It’s About Time: The Timelines of Human History

A timeline is a sort of chronological list and so it is fitting that Make Lists, Not War should include some timelines.  I’ve already published a timetable of scientific discovery, so now I’ve created a much larger set of timetables covering human history, beginning with our hominid ancestors 6.5 million years ago and concluding (for now) with 2014 in the Common Era (CE).  I’ve included scads of photos and maps, and tried to reduce the text to a minimum.  Where there are multiple items with the same date, I have followed a rough hierarchy, as follows:

Climate/Natural Disasters
World Population
Political Events
Religious Events
Cultural Events (incl. sports)
Scientific Discoveries
Exploration
Inventions
Architecture
Sculpture
Painting & Other Visual Arts
Literature: (1) Non-fiction, (2) Fiction/Poetry
Music: (1) Classical; (2) Jazz; (3) Other
Film
Photography
Deaths
Births

I realize that some (perhaps most) historians would find these timelines anathema to the true study of history, and I would have to agree, to some extent.  Anyone familiar with the study of history will tell you that the days of memorizing names and dates are long gone.  This is the time of understanding causes and movements, even going so far as to analyze the various ways in which scholars have studied particular historical events or trends over time.  Concepts, ideas, meaning and purpose are the substance of today’s history, not who invented this and which general won what battle.

But I suspect even the most up-to-date historian or history teacher would admit that a few facts now and then can anchor those theories and movements to real people at real times.  A concept or an idea, after all, must be thought of by a mind of a specific person who must communicate it or act it out.  It is true that a list of events without a deeper context lacks the threads of the narratives that carry them from person to event to person, etc. (e.g., there is no timeline event labeled “nationalism”, “humanism”, or even “Industrial Revolution”).  Should I hit  the delete button, then?  Is publishing these timelines going to do more harm than good?  I somehow doubt it.  To me, they constitute a treasure chest of interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing facts about human history, with the political events of the day set alongside scientific and technological achievements, the great works of art and literature and various aspects of culture (from sports to gay rights to the labor movement).  The timelines have rekindled a passion for history; instead of sending me back to the “just the facts” mode of  studying history, these lists have made me want to read more about the deeper narratives that weave these disparate facts together.  I hope they do the same for you.

Timeline of Human History I: Prehistory-1499
Timeline of Human History II: 1500-1799
Timeline of Human History III: 1800-1899
Timeline of Human History IV: 1900-2014

Mistitled Masterpieces

While doing research for my visual arts lists, I occasionally came across works of art whose titles were misleading, inaccurate or just plain wrong, but for various reasons are still used to refer to the painting or sculpture they imperfectly describe.  I thought it might be interesting to make a list of such works with an explanation of the mismatch between the title and the object to which it is attached.  Here it is, in chronological order (with illustrations, of course).  I’d be interested if folks have other examples to share.

1. Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (Unknown artist, c. 38,000 BCE)
lion man 1
In German, the name means Lion-Human, with no gender reference, but the English translation implies that the figure is a male, even though at least some scientists believe it represents a female.

2a. Venus of Willendorf (Unknown artist, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE)
Venus_of_Willendorf

2b. Venus of Laussel (Unknown artist, c. 23,000 BCE)
Venus of Laussel.

2c. Venus of Brassempouy (Unknown artist, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE)Venus of Brassempouy.

2d. Venus of Kostenki (Unknown artist, c. 23,000-21,000 BCE)
venus of kostenki
Despite their names, these prehistoric figurines do not depict the Roman goddess Venus, whose mythology was not created until many thousands of years later.  The anachronistic term “Venus of _____” arose from a belief that these and similar figurines represent fertility goddesses and as such were prehistoric analogues to Venus, the goddess of love.  Because the term is misleading and has caused confusion, its use by archaeologists is on the wane.

3. Ram in a Thicket (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
ram 2   ram-thicket
Most experts believe the figures represented by this pair of figurines are goats, but the discovering archaeologist named them after a story in the Book of Genesis in which Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket.

4. Standard of Ur (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
Standard of ur warstandard of ur
This mosaic-inlaid box may have been part of a musical instrument, but there is no evidence to support the original discoverer’s theory that it is a standard, or flag-like sign that would have been carried into battle.

5. Mask of Agamemnon (Unknown artist, c. 1550-1500 BCE)
Mask of Agamemnon.
Despite the hopes of its discoverer, Heinrich Schliemann, this gold mask is 300 years too old to be associated with the Trojan War and its participants, including Agamemnon.  To make matters worse, some believe Schliemann may have faked the mask, which is much more sophisticated than other masks found at the same site.

6. Ludovisi Throne (Unknown artist, c. 470-460 BCE)
Ludovisi_throne_center
The Ludovisi Throne is not a throne.  It was probably part of the foundation of an Ancient Greek temple.

7. Venus de Milo (Alexandros of Antioch, 130-100 BCE)
venus de milo 1
It may be splitting hairs, but the statue known as Venus de Milo was made by Hellenist Greeks and found on a Greek island, so the goddess would have been called Aphrodite, not Venus, who was Aphrodite’s counterpart in Roman mythology.

8. Battersea Shield (Unknown artist, c. 350-50 BCE)
Battersea Shield.
It may look like a shield, but experts say the Battersea Shield was not battle-worthy or battle-tested and was probably a replica used for ceremonial purposes and as a votive offering.

9. The Bayeux Tapestry (Unknown artist, c. 1075)
bayeux tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry.  A tapestry is a woven textile, while the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth, in which the artist used wool thread to embroider designs on a linen cloth.

10. The Well of Moses (Claus Sluter, 1395-1405)
well of moses 2
The Well of Moses is not a well.  It is the base of a Crucifixion scene, the upper portion of which was dismantled during the French Revolution by anti-clerical mobs.

11.  The Holy Trinity Icon (Andrei Rublev, 1408-1425)
holy trinity
Not so much a mistitling, as a title that requires a leap of logic.  The figures represented in the famous icon are the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, according to the Book of Genesis.  A theological metaphor connects the three angels to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Christian trinity.

12. Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Jan van Eyck, 1433)
portrait of a man
The subject of this possible self-portrait is not wearing a turban.  He is wearing a fashionable 15th Century head-covering known as a chaperon.  The turban-like appearance is the result of the subject’s decision to take the long tails of the chaperon and wrap them around his head, possibly to avoid having them interfere with his painting.

13. Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait) (Jan van Eyck, 1434)
arnolfini portrait
For centuries, scholars believed they had correctly identified the subjects of this portrait as the Arnolfinis, but in 1997, it was discovered that Arnolfini was married six years after Jan van Eyck’s death.  Was Arnolfini married twice?  Does the painting show Giovanni Arnolfini blessing another family member (a niece?) on her marriage?  Or are there no Arnolfinis involved in the portrait at all?  Art historians have not reached consensus on answers to these questions.

14. St. Francis in the Desert (Giovanni Bellini, c. 1480)
st francis
While the area in St. Francis’s immediate vicinity is rocky and somewhat barren, the landscape beyond is anything but desert-like.  In fact, it looks like an Italian countryside.  ‘Going into the desert’ may have been shorthand for any religious figure going on a solitary retreat away from civilization, in remembrance of Jesus’s temptation in the desert.

15. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1485-1490)St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness.
The ‘wilderness’ looks more like a well-groomed park, and it is within sight of a town.

16. An Old Man and His Grandson (Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1490)
An Old Man and His Grandson.
While the ages and the behaviors of the subjects make it perfectly reasonable to infer that their relationship is grandfather and grandson, there is no direct evidence of the names of the subjects or their relationship.

17. The Three Philosophers (Giorgione, 1506-1509)
giorgione three philosophers
The current name came from a 1525 catalogue of the owner’s artworks, but no one really knows who the three individuals are or who they are supposed to represent, although there are plenty of theories.

18. The Laughing Cavalier (Frans Hals, 1624)
The Laughing Cavalier.
Wrong on both counts.  First, there is no evidence the subject was a cavalier.  Second, while the man is smiling, he is definitely not laughing.

19. The Night Watch (Rembrandt, 1642)
The Night Watch.
First, the militia in the painting is not on a watch, which only occurs in times of danger, it is marching out of headquarters.  Second, even though Rembrandt’s glazes have darkened over the centuries, the scene occurs during the day.

20. The Milkmaid (Johannes Vermeer, 1657-1658)
milkmaid
A milkmaid milks cows.  This woman is a domestic kitchen maid, not a milkmaid, even though she happens to be pouring milk.

20. The Jewish Bride (Rembrandt, 1667)
The Jewish Bride.
There is no evidence about the identity of the subjects of this double portrait or their religious affiliations.  Some scholars do believe the subject of the painting is the Old Testament’s Isaac and Rebekah.  Others believe that it shows a contemporary couple dressed as the Biblical pair, following a common tradition of having one’s portrait done as a character from history.

21. The Embarkation for Cythera (Antoine Watteau, 1717)
embarkation for cythera
Although the various titles for this and a very similar piece indicate that the couples are on their way to the island of Cythera, some experts believe the painting actually shows couples returning from Cythera.

22. Chirk Aqueduct (Crambe Beck Bridge) (John Sell Cotman, 1804-1807)
Cotman_chirk
For many years, scholars assigned the name Chirk Aqueduct to this landscape painting of Cotman’s.  A recent reexamination of the painting and its subject have led to the conclusion that the structure depicted is Crambe Beck Bridge, in the north of England, not Chirk Aqueduct in Wales.

23. Woman with a Pearl (Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1868-1870)
Woman with a Pearl.
Most of the mistaken titles on this list were assigned by someone other than the artist.  In this case, the artist gave an incorrect title to his own painting.  The woman in Corot’s Woman with a Pearl is not wearing a pearl.  The decoration on her forehead is a leaf.  Scholars suspect that Corot chose his title as an homage to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Woman with a Pearl Necklace.

The Best Artists of All Time – Painters and Sculptors

While collecting over 15 lists of “Best Artists of All Time” (this is a list of visual artists, focusing on painters and sculptors – architecture and photography have separate lists), I kept thinking about how many great works of art have no artist’s name attached to them:  the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira; the Venus figurines; the seals of Mohenjo-Daro; the mosaic tiles of Ravenna, the Dome of the Rock, Damascus and Isfahan; the medieval icons of St. Catherine’s Monastery; the relief sculptures of Nineveh, Persepolis, Borobudur, Amaravati, Chartres and Amiens; the giant sculptures of the Olmecs and Rapa Nui; the Nkisi Nkondi nail figures; the Fang Ngil masks; the Codex Borgia; the Book of Kells; the Wilton Diptych, and so many more.  When did artists emerge from the shadows of anonymity, and why?  Or should we ask instead why so many artists failed to preserve their names for posterity?  From what I can gather, the idea of the artist as a creative individual who deserved recognition for his or her creations arose in different cultures at different times.  The Ancient Greeks celebrated the genius of Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippos and Euphronios and the Chinese and Japanese cultures celebrated artists by name as early as the 7th Century CE, but in many other cultures and in many other times, the artist was considered a craftsman who made art the way a chairmaker made a chair or a blacksmith made a horseshoe.  When 7th Century Chinese court official Yan Liben became known for his paintings instead of his bureaucratic achievements, he felt humiliated, since painters belonged to a lower rank with tradesman such as tailors and carpenters.  Most art historians trace the modern-day acknowledgement of artists in Western Culture to the Renaissance and the rise of humanism, a philosophy that put the individual at the center of the universe, as the driving force of civilization.  While some medieval artists had signed their work, it was probably Proto-Renaissance master Giotto di Bondone who was the first in a long line of Western artists, continuing to this day, who took steps to ensure that their names are associated with their art.  Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first published in 1550, rejected once and for all the notion that artists were anonymous craftsmen and instead celebrated their individual geniuses, at the same time raising the artist above ordinary citizens and introducing the concept of artist as celebrity.  Once an artwork was connected with the name of an artist, certain consequences ensued:  first, works by the better (or better known) artists increased in value; second, lesser known artists seeking to cash in on the work of more famous artists began creating cheap imitations and outright forgeries; and third, the famous artists, in response, sought to protect their work by various means – first, merely by signing them – but this impulse eventually led to today’s copyright laws.  The reason Michelangelo signed the Pietà was that someone was going around telling people that the sculpture had been carved by his rival, Cristoforo Solari.  Anonymity was one thing, but the greatest artist of all time (see list below) could not bear the idea that another, lesser artist, was getting the credit for his masterpiece.

15 “Best Artists” Lists
Michelangelo (1475-1564) Italian painter, sculptor, architect

14 Lists
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian painter, sculptor, architect

11
Rembrandt (1606-69) Dutch painter, printmaker
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Spanish painter, sculptor

10
Raphael (1483-1520) Italian painter
Titian (1488-1576) Italian painter
Claude Monet (1840-1926) French painter

8
Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) Dutch painter
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) French painter

7
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) Flemish painter
Caravaggio (1573-1610) Italian painter
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Flemish painter
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) Spanish painter
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) British painter
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) French painter
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) French painter
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch painter

6
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1528-1569) Flemish painter
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) French painter
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) French painter
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) Italian painter, sculptor
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) Swiss sculptor, painter
Salvador Dalí
(1904-1989) Spanish painter, sculptor

5
Giotto (c. 1267-1337) Italian painter
Donatello (1386-1466) Italian sculptor
El Greco (1541-1614) Greek-Spanish painter
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) French painter
Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) Spanish painter, printmaker
John Constable (1776-1837) British painter
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) French painter
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) French painter
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) French sculptor
James McNeill Whistler (1856-1921) American painter
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) Russian painter
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) American painter
René Magritte (1898–1967) Belgian painter
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) American painter

4
Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) Flemish painter
Tomasso Masaccio (1401-1428) Italian painter
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Italian painter
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) Dutch painter
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) German painter, printmaker
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) German painter, printmaker
Frans Hals (c.1580-1666) Flemish-Dutch painter
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) French painter
William Blake (1757-1827) British painter, printmaker
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) Japanese painter, printmaker
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) French painter
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) French painter
Georges Seurat (1859-1891) French painter
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) Austrian painter
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) American painter, printmaker

3
Yan Liben (c. 600-673) Chinese painter
Cimabue (c.1240-1302) Italian painter
Duccio (c.1255/60–1318/19) Italian painter
Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) Chinese painter
Simone Martini (1284-1344) Italian painter
Fra Angelico (1387-1455) Italian painter
Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) Italian painter
Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) Italian painter
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) Italian painter
Tintoretto (1518-1594) Italian painter
Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) French painter
William Hogarth (1697-1764) British painter, printmaker
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) French painter
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) French painter
Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806) Japanese painter, printmaker
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) French painter, printmaker
Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) Japanese painter, printmaker
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) American painter
Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) French painter
Piet Mondrian (1872 -1944) Dutch painter
Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) Russian painter
Paul Klee (1879-1940) Swiss painter
Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) French painter, sculptor
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) American painter
Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Austrian painter
Joan Miró (1893-1983) Spanish painter
Henry Moore (1898-1986) British sculptor
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) Mexican painter

2
Fan Kuan (fl. 990-1020) Chinese painter
Guo Xi (c. 1020-1090) Chinese painter
Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225) Chinese painter
Jokei (fl. 1190-1200) Japanese sculptor
Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348) Italian painter
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) Italian painter
Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) German painter
Giorgione (1478-1510) Italian painter
Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) Italian painter
Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) French painter
Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1654) Italian painter
Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) Spanish painter
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) Italian sculptor, painter, architect
François Boucher (1703-1770) French painter
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) British painter
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) German painter
Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) French painter
John Everett Millais (1829-1896) British painter
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) Danish-French painter
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) French painter
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) American painter
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) Norwegian painter, printmaker
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) French painter
Constantin Brâncusi (1876-1957) Romanian-French sculptor
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) Italian painter, sculptor
Georges Braque (1882-1963) French painter, sculptor, printmaker
Marc Chagall (1887-1985) Belarussian-French painter
Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) Italian-Greek painter
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) American sculptor
Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) Russian-American sculptor
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) Russian-American painter
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) Dutch-American painter, sculptor
Arshille Gorky (1904-1948) Armenian-American painter
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1977) American painter
David Hockney (1937- ) British painter
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) American painter