Great Themes in Art (Study Guide)

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9780130620583: Great Themes in Art (Study Guide)

This chronologically-structured, thematic survey of Western art and architecture (supported with comparative material from non-Western parallel cultures) treats art contextually as an expression of the key values, insights and aspirations of its makers, their patrons, and the surrounding culture. By exploring the style and media of art in ways that connect with larger human concerns, it exposes readers to the wealth offered by art and architecture--not only to their eyes but to their whole selves. It discusses the art of each period in relation to four dominant human concerns--found at all times in all cultures: Spirituality, The Self, Nature, and The City. Boxes within the text highlight the changing roles of the artist within society; describe the media and techniques they use, at their points of first encounter; and explain the belief systems and symbolism that makes art's subject matter more accessible. Engaging the Arts. Prehistoric and Ancient Art. Greek Art. Roman Art. The Rise of Christianity. Medieval Art. The Italian Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance. The Counter Reformation & Aristocratic Baroque Art. Dutch Seventeenth-Century Art. Eighteenth Century: Art of Privilege and Enlightenment. Romanticism. Nineteenth-Century Art. Early Twentieth- Century Art. Post World-War-Two Art.

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Preface

I have written this book for those seeking an introduction to art and art history that emphasizes the connections between art and human values. My basic approach is to combine a chronological and thematic structure that focuses on artistic responses to human experience as it both recurs and changes through time.

When I was a student in art history, the standard texts analyzed the stylistic changes represented by great works of art. They explained how to differentiate the style of the drapery folds in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture; they elaborated on the stylistic differences between Rubens and Rembrandt. But I and my fellow students were often left wondering, so what? What was the larger human significance of these differences?

My professors, on the other hand, introduced a methodology of art analysis that encouraged us to look for the links between the artistic form, expressive content, and social contexts of art. Always, we were made aware of the values and meaning embodied in art and architecture, as also manifest through the process of stylistic change. This led to the satisfying discovery that artists vividly express humanity's deepest-held values, desires, hopes and fears, and that buildings, beyond their formal "textbook" qualities, also serve practical functions, and convey potent symbolic meaning within the larger social fabric of cities. Max Beckmann has, perhaps, expressed art's significance as well as anyone can: "...all important things in art...have always originated from the deepest feelings about the mystery of Being.... It is the quest of our self that drives us along the eternal and never-ending journey we must all make." The joy of sharing such insights with my students and the desire to go beyond mere "art appreciation" inspired this book.

Organization of Great Themes in Art

Most introductory texts have not changed since my student days. They still present art by examining successive styles as they unfold chronologically. Others focus on media, techniques, and design principles. Both approaches isolate art from its larger social contexts — from the dominant values and ideas of the culture that inspired it.

This book seeks to address that imbalance by uniting these two approaches with a thematic structure: Great Themes moves chronologically through the periods and styles of Western art relating stylistic and technical changes to the social and intellectual context of the period. Introductory sections set the stage for students to understand how works of art express the key values, insights and aspirations of its makers, their patrons, and the surrounding culture. Following each introduction, works of art from the period are grouped and discussed within four themes, each representing a major dimension of human experience:

  • Spirituality examines artists' expressions of religious faith, spiritual aspiration, and humanity's place in the universe. A wide range of works introduces students to artists' changing responses to this universal, powerful dimension of human life. Students will also see how religious art reflects the powerful and changing role of the Christian church in Western culture.
  • The Self encompasses works that express social and political values. In these sections, we consider artists' perceptions of themselves and others — as well as their expressions of the way others wish to be perceived. Students will discover art that projects and enhances royal and aristocratic power and vanity; art that reflects on middle class domestic life; art that constructs and reinforces gender roles; and art that explores humanity's search for meaning in an uncertain, modern world. The final chapters introduce students to artists' expressions of outrage and despair in the years after two world wars. Students will also encounter artists' reactions to the consumer culture of the post- war years and the power of the media to shape our perceptions of reality.
  • Nature Nature's power to both sustain life and destroy it, to soothe and to terrify has been expressed by artists since prehistoric times. Each chapter discusses artworks — including landscape design — that reflect the significance of the natural world and our changing relationship to it.
  • The City The last thematic section of each chapter focuses on the design of cities as they symbolize the values of civic leaders and influence citizens' social relationships. After reading these sections, students who travel will recognize that the buildings and streets that comprise a city — its layout, its public monuments, and open spaces — reflect and shape the social hierarchies of its citizens and express the priorities of its civic leaders and rulers.
  • Parallel Cultures Finally, each chapter ends with a section on Parallel Cultures. In The Buried Mirror, Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes wrote: "People and their cultures perish in isolation, but they are born or reborn in contact with other men and women, with men and women of another culture, another creed, another race. If we do not recognize our humanity in others, we shall not recognize it in ourselves" (1992, p.353). This has been exactly my experience with art and with life. Art has helped me to discover what it means to be a human being, connecting me to others; so have my personal "cross-cultural" experiences. Born and educated in Britain, I received my undergraduate education in Holland, married an Italian woman, and ultimately moved to the U.S. All of these experiences have stretched my self-awareness, forced me to reflect on inbred attitudes and beliefs that I believed were universal, but discovered were not always shared, even within Western culture.

Out of these experiences, came the commitment to including Parallel Cultures sections as a means to open a window onto other cultures. Works of art are discussed within the context of the culture in which they were produced, then contrasted to Western art of the same period. Thus, a Chinese landscape painting or a Buddhist monastery is discussed on its own terms, then briefly contrasted to Western landscapes or religious architecture already presented in the chapter. Such an approach, I hope, will encourage students to understand the Western tradition as but one among many artistic expressions of humankind's shared concerns and aspirations. In all such artistic expressions, we can find a mirror image of our own selves.

Continuity and Change

The chronological structure of Great Themes in Art ensures that all art works are considered within the contexts that provided their inspiration, meaning and purpose. Each theme appears in the same sequence, so the reader can follow and compare artists' responses to humanity's enduring concerns from one historical period to the next. Students can compare, as well, artists' responses across broad themes within the same period. Throughout the text, cross references draw attention to contrasting approaches to similar themes and highlight the links between changes of outlook and styles.

I hope that such an approach will enable the reader to make stronger connections between art forms and the larger human issues that artists in each time and place have actually confronted. In this way, artistic form may be appreciated in relation to both its expressive content and social context.

Features

Materials and Techniques boxes appear at the points where they first become relevant, with diagrams that help students understand technical processes. This approach is designed to integrate discussion of materials and techniques within the larger context of art's functions. Since modern assumptions about the role of artists do not necessarily apply to the context of the past, in a series of boxes titled The Artist; we describe the changing role of the artist in society. Where appropriate, as well, boxes discuss the characteristic Symbols seen in works of art and the Ideas that shaped artists' understanding of life during that period.

It is hoped that this thematic and integrative method of organization will enable any reader to make the connections between the rich and varied art forms created over the centuries and the common human concerns that inspired them. After reading this book, it is hoped that a greater appreciation will be gained for the wealth of insight that artists have offered and continue to offer not only to our eyes but also to our whole selves.

Acknowledgments

A book of this breadth necessarily draws from the wisdom and writings of many scholars, too numerous to name individually, whose works are listed in the bibliography. However, I would like to specifically acknowledge my debt to my professors at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, especially C.A. van Swigchem and the late Hans Rookmaaker, who introduced me to the methodology of art history that first inspired the perspective of this book, to Graham Birtwistle, also of the Vrije Universiteit, for his introduction to modern art, as well as to the late Michael Jaffé, former Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for his wise tutelage.

A textbook also results from the efforts of a large team of people, contributing their particular skills and expertise at different stages. Among all these, some deserve special mention. In particular, I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Cherith Lidfors Lundin, who researched and wrote the first draft of most of the Materials and Techniques boxes, and also prepared the Glossary. Early on, Ruth Alldridge and Matthew Lundin gave helpful input from a student's perspective, and my brother-in-law, Colin McCorquodale, gave that of the informed general reader. James Romaine provided timely suggestions for coverage of contemporary art, and Cheryl Seefeldt assisted with research. . My special thanks also to Karen Halvorsen Schreck and Blossom Wrede for critiquing my prose in early drafts. I am also indebted t...

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