Does all art have meaning? A question which arose at the last ‘Girl Power’ talk, was ‘does all art necessarily have a meaning?’ I replied that everything has a meaning (even the tiniest action or event – but then, I am a very Eastern-minded person believing in Karma, destiny, re-incarnation etc, which not everybody does). I get the point of the question though – sometimes it seems if art historians and appreciators read too much into every art work. What if the artist/maker didn’t intend those interpretations, and we are living in a ‘fantasy world’ – or worse, distorting the original straightforward function of the artwork?
There are many types of meaning, but here I’ll look at the two obvious ones. 1) The conscious symbolism which the artist intended the work to have and which we can be more or less sure about through historical and cultural fact 2) Meaning gained over time through interpretations i.e. ‘acquired meaning’. The latter is the most contentious, as how can we be sure there is in fact definitely meaning intended and it’s not just the viewer’s own fanciful imagination seeing what it wants to see? The real danger is, we could potentially read ANYTHING into the work – there are no boundaries!
If you are a very academically minded person, you may want to stick to the first approach. But for me, the whole beauty of looking at art is the interchange between viewer and work, and the evolution of that through time. I’m sure the artists themselves would prefer their art not to be pinned down to identifiable certainties. Obviously there are a whole range of symbols and meanings lost to us through changing cultures and values and we have to work hard at understanding these, which involves study and a rigorous approach. That is a necessary duty of the art historian. However, we are all, as viewers, entitled to interpret and find meaning in whatever way we wish – as long as we keep ourselves in check and accompany our own feelings with some academic study. Let’s remember that when an artist executes a work, there are a whole range of meanings which are expressed UNCONSCIOUSLY. No-one, not even the maker, can categorically prove their existence.
Why is Italian Renaissance Art so much more sophisticated than its Netherlandish counterpart?
Being a Mediterranean country, the Italian artists were far more influenced by Classical Culture which had developed a sophisticated skill in the portrayal of the human form (note all those marble statues!). There was also a lot more Classically-based theory circulating about art and its premises. Harmony, proportion, perspective all came under scrutiny. Many treatises were published, such as Alberti’s On Painting. Due to the prevalence of fresco painting in Italy (not a suitable technique in Northern territory due to the wetter climate), there was a freer approach to painting (strokes had to be done quickly before the plaster dried). The Italian artists were not as hung up on detail (though the Northern oil painting advances did influence them), and were more concerned with idealism than realism. Finally, though both Italy and the Netherlands were deeply religious countries, there was far more piety and religious fervour in the latter. Humanism and its related secularisation had taken deep hold in liberal Italy, but not so in the North where a hesitancy in being aesthetic and an almost childlike reticence, restricted the depiction of human life.
How come we see a lady artist getting away with painting a nude in a 15th century Manuscript illumination (shock horror!), when Dame Laura Knight (the English 20th century artist), got into such trouble for doing the same thing in 1913? Answer: Women in the Middle Ages were surprisingly liberated! Especially if they lived and worked in a monastic setting. Look at Hildegarde of Bingen. She preached (not the done thing for a lady), wrote ground-breaking musical compositions AND allowed her nuns to wear jewellery – and that was in the 12th Century. Also, the scene depicted is an historical/mythological one – it shows the Ancient Greek painter Thamyris depicting the Goddess Diana. Nudity was acceptable in such a genre. Thamyris is described in Boccaccio’s On Famous Women which contained 124 biographies of successful ladies (many from Classical Civilization, which was much admired during the Renaissance). This ground-breaking manuscript was first published in 1374 and many reproductions followed. Artists who illustrated these (probably many of them were nuns), took great delight in depicting these very confident women. Though it is unusual and daring, to see a picture of a woman painting a nude, the private nature of the manuscript meant it allowed more freedom.