I grew up in just outside a country town in NSW in Australia in the 1960s – no galleries nearby, few art books and no conversations about art at the dinner table.
On our walls we had quite lovely, but predictable, paintings of landscapes (usually with rivers – see the Streeton above as an example). I remember that in my shared bedroom there were also two prints; one of an oriental lady in muted green and orange, and a brightly coloured clown. I don’t remember paying them much attention as I was much more interested in playing outside on the farm, or reading books, and more books.
My first visit to a gallery was when I was about 12 when my French grandmother (who was then living in Sydney) took me to the Art Gallery of NSW. Sadly, about all I recall other than perhaps more landscapes, was being approached by a boy about my own age who wanted to know the time. As he was wearing a watch, it was clear that he wasn’t much interested in art at that age either.
At my high school you had a couple of choices – you followed the academic stream or the not so academic stream (which included such subjects as woodwork, home economics and art). Bookish me followed the academic stream, so I had no exposure to art – except for obligatory prints of the Queen in full regalia, and landscapes by Hans Heysen and aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, which hung prominently near the Principal’s office.
Then after school it was more study (Professional Writing), marriage, children and work as a career public servant in Canberra.
So I remained blissfully unaware of the joy of art until just before I turned 40.
When my parents sold the farm and retired into town I borrowed a camera and took photos for future memories. Lots of photos of paddocks, trees and gardens, fence lines, outbuildings and the interior of our home (sadly now mostly filed away somewhere ‘safely’).
I had by then discovered that I had an interest in DYI and woodwork, and decided that rather than buying expensive frames I would either do up old ones, which was great fun, or make them myself, so off to the hardware store for timber, saws and router. I developed such a love of framing that I began framing for friends (later in life I left the public service for a year and bought a framing business and learnt professionally).
Taking photographs and framing taught me how to “see” pictures. I learnt about composition and colour by looking carefully at how I could best present a scene in front of me, or the bring out the best in a picture I was framing. Over time, I found I could tell when a picture appeared balanced, how it drew the eye in and around, whether the colours were harmonious or didn’t appear to work together. I could work out how to crop a photo so that it didn’t contain elements that didn’t add to the overall effect. I was learning intuitively; it was trial and error.
Although I’ve tried from time to time, I’ve discovered that I have no talent whatsoever for drawing or painting artworks (although I’ve pretty good at painting walls) so I am much happier just working ‘around the edges’ of visual art.
Not surprisingly by my 40s I was interested in visiting galleries. Like most ‘new comers’ to art appreciation I was primarily interested in pictures I could relate to and which appeared to be ‘easy on the eye’ so mostly landscapes, and Australian landscapes. Bookish me has always loved learning so it was with much enthusiasm that I read as much as I could about the Heidelberg School and Impressionism in Melbourne – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Condor and Frederick McCubin (there wasn’t anything much written about the female Impressionist artists that I can recall, although in fact there were several prominent ones such as Clara Southern, Jane Sutherland and Alice Bale).
I also worked for a number of years at the Australian National University (ANU) and the Australian collection to be seen in offices throughout the campus was amazing and eclectic. So now I was starting to look at Modern and Contemporary art – intrigued, but not really understanding it, and this led to my search to appreciate what I was seeing in earnest.
I’m indebted to Roy Forward who conducted a number of evening adult education programs on art appreciation at the uni. I absolutely lapped up all the information he had to give and my eyes were really opened by the range of paintings he showed. So many ‘a ha’ moments!
Another watershed moment. My eldest son, Michael, was living in London in the early 2000s, and as a birthday present he gave me a ticket to travel overseas to visit him. So, travelling with a friend from art appreciation class, I set off for Italy, France and England. I don’t remember how many galleries we visited, but can you imagine going to Rome, Florence, and Venice for the first time and seeing centuries old paintings that we simply have no access to in Australia. It was a sensory overload, and we were awestruck. We saw religious iconography, beautiful portraits with luscious colours, heroic painting of battles, idyllic scenes, workers toiling in the fields – masterpiece after masterpiece. Our first stop was Rome and it was perfect for setting the historical context for what was to follow. One artist that I particularly recall seeing at the Florence Uffizi was Bronzino – the detail in the costumes he painted in the 1500s was incredible.
And then to Paris. Now we were standing in front of the actual paintings we’d seen in Roy’s classes – soft pretty impressions, cubist shapes, explosions of bold colours, distorted faces and objects.
In London, on my own, I visited an exhibition and remember the disdain of a fellow visitor when I remarked on Degas’ beautiful little dancer sculpture (see more images in the link), mispronouncing his name, but I couldn’t help but express my delight at seeing this exquisite work, with a real fabric tutu and bow around her hair. I personally think it’s great when you are standing next to some-one at a gallery who is just so impressed by what they are seeing that they need to tell a fellow enthusiast (and mostly they are forgiving if you aren’t sure about pronunciation).
At the Tate Modern I stood in absolute awe for about five minutes in front of a Rothko painting – it was a really large painting and almost totally black. I had to tell the young student next to me how the paint layers created the most beautiful lights and shadows. I’m so pleased that he did stop and look before racing off to find his friends.
Having fallen in love with all the places I’d visited, it was time to start saving for future trips, and I also started to collect art on my visits, not many paintings because they were too expensive, but beautiful and unusual prints. My French grandmother and her sister had both been both fashion designers and Tante Jeanne worked for Gallery Lafayette in Paris for most of her career, so over time my collecting extended to French fashion design from the early 1900s – these beautiful prints I mostly found on-line.
What was still missing in my discovery was a clear understanding of art history and how and why one art style progressed from the ones before and who influenced whom. Though Roy’s classes I had realised that it was Modern Art (the period between the late 1800s and mid 1900s) that I was most drawn to, but his primary focus had been on artists and individual images. Just like my need to understand Australian Impressionism, I started reading as much as I could to put what I was seeing in context.
And it was also time to find an on-line art history program. I found one run by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and it all started to click into place. I could now understand the progression from Romantic art in Europe through to Abstract art. I was also learning so much more about the personal stories of the artists and their interrelationships. Their lives and loves are as interesting as any of the ‘celebs’ you might read about today.
I’ve mentioned that I had begun to collect art, and also that I loved picture framing, so as I was nearing “retirement” from my professional career, I decided I would open my own small gallery. But firstly, more study. This time in Museum Studies at Deakin University, where I learnt about art museums, curating, the importance of conservation and responding to audience needs.
Having the gallery in a coastal town in NSW opened up a whole new world in art for me. I met lots of local artists (whose work I also included in the gallery) and became involved in the local arts scene. I was invited to judge several art shows, served on the local art society committee, established the local arts trail, co-conveyed a major arts festival to celebrate iconic Australian artist Lloyd Rees, and co-project managed a major arts restoration project – again, it was all more learning and very rewarding!
Back in my early public service days, I had conducted lots of management training programs, so I knew about adult learning and I enjoyed giving presentations, so now I was able to start conducting my own art appreciation programs through local art and community bodies – both on Modern European art and Australian Impressionism. My approach was different from Roy’s at ANU – as I combined art appreciation with art history.
Because I enjoy writing, the next logical step was to turn my eight week evening European course in to an on-line e course – and I set myself the goal of equalling or bettering the quality of the MoMA program I’d completed.
I knew what I wanted to achieve. I want my readers to have the ‘a ha’ moments I had had when I did Roy Forward’s classes so many years before, combined with the social, political and economic context for the evolution of art, plus some information on the elements of art, that might assist in critical ‘seeing’ and evaluation of paintings.
I had learnt through my research, not surprisingly, that artists are products of their time. The social, political, industrial and economic circumstances had a huge impact on the styles that artists adopted, as did scientific discoveries. As a simple example, Impressionism largely occurred when it did because artists were able to travel by train to the country side, with portal easels and paint in paint tubes.
Revolutions and wars encouraged artists to rebel against norms and express their responses to the political turmoil, to the extent that they needed to find new ways to present their artworks, which were entirely unsuitable to be displayed in the established exhibitions such as the Paris Salon.
Also, generally, artists don’t work alone; they meet, discuss art, share theories and make discoveries together, in the same way that we all tend to move in and out of communities at different points in our lives. For example, I think that Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir had a major influence on how artists reflect the light after they painted together at La Grenouillére.
Many of the avant-garde artists were attempting to present their theories, or manifestos through their art, such as Wassily Kandinsky who sought to explore the relationship between visual art and music, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who developed the Futurist Manifesto in 1909. He also declared that “Art […] can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” Futurism disappeared after the first World War, as artists decided they’d had enough of violence.
Part of the challenge of writing the course has been to put aside knowledge of artist’s personal life and focus on the quality of the work that they produced – Gauguin is one such artist whose relationship with his family and then later natives in Tahiti left a lot to be desired. It’s always led to an interesting debate in class when I’ve questioned whether knowing about an artist’s personal life affects the appreciation of their art.
Whilst the visual impact of paintings must persuade us of their merits in order for them to endure, I’ve found that understanding where they sit in history adds to my enjoyment and appreciation of my favourite works.
It took me over a year to do sufficient research and writing to finalise Introduction to Modern European Art. I knew I had come a long way in my art appreciation journey when I read statements on-line and knew they just weren’t correct.
If you’ve ever done serious research on the internet you will have very quickly realised that there are a lot of contradictory ‘facts’, so I found that the most reliable sources were art museum (gallery) websites, hardcopy texts (what a wonderful excuse to visit bookshops), and a few art websites that appeared to be consistently accurate. I had also been accumulating some early 1900 periodicals that had some particularly articles of their time. As well, I included a few visits to gallery libraries.
Writing the program not only expanded my knowledge and appreciation of art, I also discovered I needed to know about designing websites, SEO, social media, YouTube, marketing … the list goes on and on.
And then, when the course was finally completed, I was advised that a particularly useful way to advertise it was to start ‘blogging’ and this has lead to my series Stories about Modern Art which has proved to be pretty popular. I’ve included snippets from the course in my blog, but re-written them slightly so that each subject is a stand-alone story.
Is that the end of my art appreciation journey?
An additional challenge for both programs is the inclusion of women artists, as they have largely been excluded from so many texts. It’s not that they didn’t exist, or that their work wasn’t worthy of being recorded, it’s simply a reflection of what was important to (mostly male) art historians at the time. I just have to dig deeper into historical records so that I can share their work and stories. So, I hope my journey will never end.
Funny to think that it all began with a borrowed camera, a handful of photos, and some handmade picture frames. Now I wonder how different my art appreciation journey might just have been if I’d chosen to study art as school as well!
What has been your art appreciation journey and what has influenced you most in the way you learn?