Visual Arts and Education: understanding history and context

A recent trip to Venice was an immersive experience in some of the works of the great Italian Renaissance artists, notably Tintoretto and Bellini, whose extraordinary paintings adorn several churches throughout the city.

Seeing their works in churches is an authentic experience that links one to the historical continuity of the initial inception of the paintings: this is how they were intended to be seen, and it is a privilege to be able to still do this, although non-Venetians have to pay more or less systematically at every church, unlike in Rome where it is still possible to see Caravaggio’s work for free in churches as many did for hundreds of years before the globalisation of tourism.

Why might it be important to view artworks in the settings for which they were originally conceptualised? 

After all, the works are less well lit in churches, one has to stand in the slightly stiff and cold silence and the overall atmosphere of the museum is replaced by the austerity of a place of worship. Furthermore, frescoes on interior walls and ceilings can be difficult to see, especially when compared to well-lit works perched at eye level in an art gallery.

However, this is how these works should be viewed and appreciated. In the hauntingly simple and gorgeous church of the Madonna dell’Orto in Venice for example, where Tintoretto served as a chaplain, his grave lies right next to his dramatic panel of the last judgement: the spiritual purpose of Tintoretto’s work, embroiled with the existential anxiety it expresses are unified by the palpable and very moving traces of the artist’s life. One senses the significance of the place of composition which is much more than a backdrop to the art, it is a vital part of the art.

The way we encounter art today, and this has been the case since at least the late 1700s or early 1800s when the most famous European museums, such as the Louvre, Uffici and Prado were opened to the public, is in exhibitions. Hundreds of paintings and sculptures sit alongside one another in an industrial concentration that is difficult to seriously contemplate and digest. Rather than spending time at each painting, visitors shuffle from one famous painting to the next, walking past dozens if not hundreds of paintings composed by less well known artists. I’ve always felt that it is futile trying to view too much in an art museum, and prefer to appreciate one or two floors. How much art can one take in in two hours anyway?

There is another problem with the decontextualised positioning of such works, which is the ethics behind the curatorship of the works themselves, most especially concerning ancient art. For example, almost all Ancient Egyptian works viewed outside of Egypt (in Turin, Paris, Berlin and London for example) found their way to these places under the questionable policies of Napoleon Bonaparte whose emissaries either traded for them in an unscrupulous manner or simply stole them. Understanding how obelisks appeared in Paris, Rome and London or the Elgin Marbles ended up in the British Museum allows for a fuller understanding of the journey behind the art works, their political and cultural imprint, which is part of their story.

On the other hand, walking through the forest of columns at Karnak, or standing before the Colossi at Memnon in Egypt, one is irremediably drawn to the religious significance of these monuments: portrayals of the power of the sun, giver of life and light. A little understanding of obelisks will have you know that they were intended to always be grouped in pairs, standing on either side of the entrance to a temple. So the fact that the famous Luxor Obelisk stands alone while her sister is at the Place de la Concorde in Paris is not just an aesthetic incongruity, not a mere act of material theft, but a disruption of a sacred symbolic placement, thousands of years old. Indeed, by uprooting works of art from their original contexts and displaying them for decorative purposes, the metaphysics of an ancient belief system are destroyed. In fact, most of the obelisks one sees in their natural setting in Egypt today stand asymmetrically alone on one side of a temple entrance, leaving a gaping wound open on the other side, where the twin was literally uprooted and shipped to an English, Italian, French or even American city.

If one is to enjoy the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, it is equally necessary to travel to Athens to look upon the empty spaces at the Acropolis from where they were amputated. This is how we can fully connect the historical journey behind them.

What are the implications for all of this on education? Quite simply to give our students the historical depth of understanding to appreciate art fully so that they might have not only a critical perspective but a richer reckoning of the original purpose of art. Seeing a work as “beautiful” or well composed” is an incomplete analysis since there is almost always a strong sociopolitical context to understand in order to fully contemplate the work, feel its character and presence, its identity. 

Whereas art and humanities teachers should always look to embellish students’ knowledge of the historical context of the works they are studying, mathematics and science teachers should do the same, explaining to students that while we might look at arithmetic in a functional, pragmatic sense today, for the Ancients, numbers were sacred symbols with magical, transformational  power. Having some inkling of the Egyptian and Babylonian origins of mathematics helps us appreciate how ancient mathematicians such as Pythagoras and his lineage of Chaldeans  were numerologists, attributing sacred properties to numbers such as 9 or Pi. And why is this important? Because it reinforces the mysterious allure of mathematical elegance, its abstract, magnetic power and, therefore, the central role it has always played alongside philosophy and religion in several cultures as a key to a deeper meaning and series of hidden truths. For the Ancients, maths was not invented, it was discovered.

So the next time you’re in an art museum, or viewing an artwork in its original context, or you’re in a teaching moment where you have the privilege to sensitise your students to great works of art, like those of Frida Kahlo, Katsushika Hokusai or Jacopo Tintoretto, or should you be teaching any other construct for that matter, be sure to expand upon the context and history as much as the plastic composition, for therein lies a story worth telling.

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