Rock paintings and engravings are Africa’s oldest continuously practiced art form. Depictions of elegant human figures, richly hued animals, and figures combining human and animal features—called therianthropes and associated with shamanism—continue to inspire admiration for their sophistication, energy, and direct, powerful forms. The apparent universality of these images is deceptive; content and style range widely over the African continent. Nevertheless, African rock art can be divided into three broad geographical zones—southern, central, and northern. The art of each of these zones is distinctive and easily recognizable, even to an untrained eye.
The Linton Panel.
Image courtesy of the South African Museum, Cape Town.
This rock painting was extricated from a shelter in the Drakensberg Mountains and currently resides in the South African Museum, Cape Town. Its images of antelopes and humans have been interpreted as evocations of Khoisan trance experiences. Beautifully rendered in subtle tones of red and white, this is among the most famous South African rock paintings. Although its date of execution is not known, it is estimated to have been painted sometime during the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries A.D.
Abstract Expressionism developed in the context of diverse, overlapping sources and inspirations. Many of the young artists had made their start in the 1930s. The Great Depression yielded two popular art movements, Regionalism and Social Realism, neither of which satisfied this group of artists’ desire to find a content rich with meaning and redolent of social responsibility, yet free of provincialism and explicit politics. But it was the exposure to and assimilation of European modernism that set the stage for the most advanced American art. There were several venues in New York for seeing avant-garde art from Europe. The Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929, and there artists saw a rapidly growing collection acquired by director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. They were also exposed to groundbreaking temporary exhibitions of new work, including Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–37), and retrospectives of Matisse, Léger, andPicasso, among others. Another forum for viewing the most advanced art was Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art, which was housed at New York University from 1927 to 1943. There the Abstract Expressionists saw the work of Mondrian, Gabo, El Lissitzky, and others. The forerunner of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—the Museum of Non-Objective Painting—opened in 1939. Even prior to that date, its collection of Kandinskys had been publicly exhibited several times. The lessons of European modernism were also disseminated through teaching. The German expatriate Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) became the most influential teacher of modern art in the United States, and his impact reached both artists and critics.
Early on, the Abstract Expressionists, in seeking a timeless and powerful subject matter, turned to primitive myth and archaic art for inspiration. Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell, Gottlieb, Newman, and Baziotes all looked to ancient or primitive cultures for expression. Their early works feature pictographic and biomorphic elements transformed into personal code. Jungian psychology was compelling too, in its assertion of the collective unconscious. Directness of expression was paramount, best achieved through lack of premeditation. In a famous letter to the New York Times(June 1943), Gottlieb and Rothko, with the assistance of Newman, wrote: “To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is critical.”
Mature Abstract Expressionism: Gesture
In 1947, Pollock developed a radical new technique, pouring and dripping thinned paint onto raw canvas laid on the ground (instead of traditional methods of painting in which pigment is applied by brush to primed, stretched canvas positioned on an easel). The paintings were entirely nonobjective. In their subject matter (or seeming lack of one), scale (huge), and technique (no brush, no stretcher bars, no easel), the works were shocking to many viewers. De Kooning, too, was developing his own version of a highly charged, gestural style, alternating between abstract work and powerful iconic figurative images. Other colleagues, including Krasner and Kline, were equally engaged in creating an art of dynamic gesture in which every inch of a picture is fully charged. For Abstract Expressionists, the authenticity or value of a work lay in its directness and immediacy of expression. A painting is meant to be a revelation of the artist’s authentic identity. The gesture, the artist’s “signature,” is evidence of the actual process of the work’s creation. It is in reference to this aspect of the work that critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting” in 1952: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Mature Abstract Expressionism: Color Field
Another path lay in the expressive potential of color. Rothko, Newman, and Still, for instance, created art based on simplified, large-format, color-dominated fields. The impulse was, in general, reflective and cerebral, with pictorial means simplified in order to create a kind of elemental impact. Rothko and Newman, among others, spoke of a goal to achieve the “sublime” rather than the “beautiful,” harkening back to Edmund Burke in a drive for the grand, heroic vision in opposition to a calming or comforting effect. Newman described his reductivism as one means of “… freeing ourselves of the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend … freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been the devices of Western European painting.” For Rothko, his glowing, soft-edged rectangles of luminescent color should provoke in viewers a quasi-religious experience, even eliciting tears. As with Pollock and the others, scale contributed to the meaning. For the time, the works were vast in scale. And they were meant to be seen in relatively close environments, so that the viewer was virtually enveloped by the experience of confronting the work. Rothko said, “I paint big to be intimate.” The notion is toward the personal (authentic expression of the individual) rather than the grandiose.
The first generation of Abstract Expressionism flourished between 1943 and the mid-’50s. The movement effectively shifted the art world’s focus from Europe (specifically Paris) to New York in the postwar years. The paintings were seen widely in traveling exhibitions and through publications. In the wake of Abstract Expressionism, new generations of artists—both American and European—were profoundly marked by the breakthroughs made by the first generation, and went on to create their own important expressions based on, but not imitative of, those who forged the way.
The Glazier, 1940
Willem de Kooning (American, born The Netherlands, 1904–1997)
Oil on canvas
Untitled, ca. 1948–49
Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956)
Dripped ink and enamel on paper
DS 1958, 1958
David Smith (American, 1906–1965)
Spray and stenciled enamel on paper
The Achaemenid Persian empire
Fluted bowl, Achaemenid, reign of Darius I or II, 522–486 B.C. or 432–405 B.C.
Relief: two servants bearing food and drink, 358–338 B.C.; Achaemenid period, reign of Artaxerxes III
Excavated at Persepolis, southwestern Iran
Buddhism and Buddhist Art
The fifth and fourth centuries B.C. were a time of worldwide intellectual ferment. It was an age of great thinkers, such as Socrates and Plato, Confucius and Laozi. In India, it was the age of the Buddha, after whose death a religion developed that eventually spread far beyond its homeland.
Buddha Amoghasiddhi with Eight Bodhisattvas, ca. 1200–1250
Tibet (Central regions)
Distemper on cloth
Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China.
Fisherman, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), ca. 1350
Wu Zhen (Chinese, 1280–1354)
Handscroll; ink on paper
Grazing Horse, dated 1932
Xu Beihong (Chinese, 1895–1953); Qi Baishi (Chinese, 1864–1957)
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
Art and Death in Medieval Byzantium
Dramatic illustrations of saintly deaths, as well as elaborate tombs featuring portraits of the deceased, were among the most powerful and persistent images in medieval Byzantium from the ninth to the fifteenth century. Such artistic monuments expressed both individual and communal ideas about death, and life after death.
Reliquary of the True Cross (Staurotheke), late 8th–early 9th century
Byzantine; Made in Constantinople
Cloisonné enamel, silver, silver-gilt, gold, niello
An Artisan’s Tomb in New Kingdom Egypt
Almost thirty-three centuries ago, a young man named Khonsu became a “servant in the Place of Truth”—a designation that identified members of the crew of artisans who carved and decorated the royal tombs of the New Kingdom.
Facsimile of a scene depicting the afterlife (Tomb of Sennedjem) (detail), ca. 1922
Charles K. Wilkinson (American, born Britain, 1897–1986)
Tempera on paper
Artist’s gridded sketch, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Hatshepsut, ca. 1479–1458 B.C.
Egyptian; From western Thebes
Limestone and ink
The Middle Kingdom (mid-Dynasty 11–Dynasty 13, ca. 2030–1640 B.C.) began when Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II reunited Upper and Lower Egypt, setting the stage for a second great flowering of Egyptian culture.
Statuette of a Hippopotamus, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, ca. 1981–1885 B.C.
Egyptian; Middle Egypt, Meir
The Aesthetic of the Sketch in Nineteenth-Century France
The making of esquisses, or preparatory oil sketches, as studies for finished paintings emerged in Italy during the sixteenth century. Widespread throughout Europe just a century later, the practice was disseminated by artists who trained in Italy, notably Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Charles Le Brun (1619–1690).
Portrait of a Woman with a Dog, ca. 1769
Jean Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806)
Oil on canvas
Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct, 1818
Théodore Gericault (French, 1791–1824)
Oil on canvas
From the 1880s until the First World War, western Europe and the United States witnessed the development of Art Nouveau (“New Art”). Taking inspiration from the unruly aspects of the natural world, Art Nouveau influenced art and architecture especially in the applied arts, graphic work, and illustration. Sinuous lines and “whiplash” curves were derived, in part, from botanical studies and illustrations of deep-sea organisms such as those by German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834–1919) in Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature, 1899). Other publications, including Floriated Ornament (1849) by Gothic Revivalist Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) and The Grammar of Ornament (1856) by British architect and theorist Owen Jones (1809–1874), advocated nature as the primary source of inspiration for a generation of artists seeking to break away from past styles. The unfolding of Art Nouveau’s flowing line may be understood as a metaphor for the freedom and release sought by its practitioners and admirers from the weight of artistic tradition and critical expectations.
Maude Adams (1872–1953) as Joan of Arc, 1909
Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860–1939)
Oil on canvas
Anatomy in the Renaissance
Italian Renaissance artists became anatomists by necessity, as they attempted to refine a more lifelike, sculptural portrayal of the human figure. Indeed, until about 1500–1510, their investigations surpassed much of the knowledge of anatomy that was taught at the universities. Opportunities for direct anatomical dissection were very restricted during the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists states that the great Florentine sculptor, painter, and printmaker Antonio Pollaiuolo (1431/32–1498) was the “first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way.” Giving credence to Vasari’s claim, Pollaiuolo’s highly influential engraving of the Battle of Naked Men (17.50.99) displays the figures of the nude warriors with nearly flayed musculature, seen in fierce action poses and from various angles.
De humani corporis fabrica, 1555
Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564)
Rare printed book
Ancient Greek Colonization and Trade and their Influence on Greek Art
Ancient Greek colonization began at an early date, during the so-called Geometric period
of about 900 to 700 B.C.(74.51.965
), when many seminal elements of ancient Greek society were also established, such as city-states, major sanctuaries, and the Panhellenic festivals. The Greek alphabet, inspired by the writing of the Phoenician
sea traders, was developed and spread at this time. Architectural tile fragment
, 6th century B.C.
Greek, Lydian; Excavated at Sardis
Terracotta with red and black painted decoration
, ca. 325–300 B.C.
Greek, South Italian, Tarentine
The Age of Süleyman “the Magnificent” (r. 1520–1566)
Under Süleyman, popularly known as “the Magnificent” or “the Lawmaker,” the Ottoman empire reached the apogee of its military and political power. Süleyman’s armies conquered Hungary, over which the Ottomans maintained control for over 150 years, and they advanced as far west as Vienna, threatening the Habsburgs. To the east, the Ottoman forces wrested control of Iraq from the Safavids of Iran. In the Mediterranean, their navy captured all the principal North African ports, and for a time the Ottoman fleet completely dominated the sea. By the end of Süleyman’s reign, Ottoman hegemony extended over a great portion of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Along with geographic expansion, trade, economic growth, and tremendous cultural and artistic activity helped define the reign of Süleyman as a “Golden Age.” Developments occurred in every field of the arts; however, those in calligraphy, manuscript painting, textiles, and ceramics were particularly significant. Artists renowned by name include calligrapher Ahmad Karahisari as well as painters Shahquli and Kara Memi.
Hungarian-style Shield, ca. 1500–1550
Wood, leather, gesso, polychromy
Ornamental drawing of a dragon, mid-16th century; Ottoman
Attributed to Shah Quli
Ink, colors, and gold on paper
Cave Sculpture from the Karawari
Flowing through ranges of hills and surrounding swampland, the Karawari River is one of numerous tributaries of the great Sepik River, which drains into the north coast of New Guinea. In a series of caves and rock shelters along the upper reaches of the Karawari, the Ewa people kept a remarkable series of woodcarvings. Created and used by Ewa men during their lifetimes, the carvings were kept after their owner’s deaths. Preserved in the caves for generations, some of the carvings are between 200 and 400 years old, making them the oldest surviving examples of wood sculpture from New Guinea.
Male Figure, 16th–early 19th century
Inyai-Ewa people, Korewori River, Middle Sepik region, Papua New Guinea
All sourced from – met museum