This is a new series by Artist/historian James Payne demystifying great works of art. We will be adding to this page as the content is produced. Subscribe To Great Artworks Explained Here
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Caravaggio’s painting, The Taking of Christ was considered a great masterpiece in his day, but it would disappear under mysterious circumstances for centuries, until it turned up in the most unusual place in 2010.
Caravaggio broke the rules in his art as well as his life. He would look at the dark side of the Christian story, and include its more sordid and unpalatable side. Caravaggio’s art would present the world as it is, and not how it should be.
He would scandalise Rome by portraying the virgin Mary with dirty feet, St. Peter as a terrified and bewildered old man, St. Matthew as illiterate, and St. John as a terrified boy. The church had asked for realism and Caravaggio would give it to them.
But although he was famous during his lifetime, Caravaggio was forgotten about almost immediately after he died. He simply went out of fashion.
Then, in a strange parallel of The Taking of Christ, his body disappeared for centuries, only to be discovered in 2010.
Recent tests on his remains may have revealed Caravaggio greatest mystery.
Why he died, alone on a beach in Tuscany, at the age of 38.
Basquiat’s meteoric rise in the early 80s sent shockwaves through downtown Manhattan. In the New York art scene at the time, he stood out, not only as a black man in the white-washed world of art, but also as an artist who brought attention to its ethnic imbalance. And he would become one of the few black painters to break through into international consciousness.
Basquiat would show the faces and name the names of countless millions of people that have been disregarded by history.
He would shake the art world, with paintings that depict the black experience – paintings that would be placed in museums, that were designed for a whole different audience.
But he would never compromise to reach his goal. Never dilute the message. His raw and brutal works draw on the problems faced by African Americans in the US. They are as relevant now as they were forty years ago.
Yet, despite his importance, there are almost no works by him in public collections. Not a single one in the UK, and very few internationally.
His art is inextricably linked to his life: his charisma and drive, his race, his talent and his untimely ending. His works live on as a testament to his talent for placing the immediacy of the everyday into his art.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career was brief and spectacular but continues to cast a long shadow over the art world.
In Paris at the Rodin museum, is The Thinker, a 6ft- tall bronze statue of a naked man. It is an original sculpture by Auguste Rodin.
But it is only one of at least 28 full-sized Statues of The Thinker world-wide. All considered Rodin “originals”, even though the sculptor didn’t make them. Half of these ‘Thinkers’ were not even made during Rodin’s life-time or under his supervision.
Rodin was as much an entrepreneur as he was a sculptor. In fact, he never produced a work in plaster, bronze, or even marble with his own hands. His works were made by a large team of highly trained plaster casters, carvers and founders, who turned his ideas into finished works of art.
In that sense, we can compare Rodin’s industrial approach to producing art, with Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst today. An approach that still poses questions of authenticity and originality.
In the 1860s when Rodin began making sculptures, art was deeply rooted in the past. By the time he died in 1917 it had been transformed it into something modern.
Today his pioneering work is seen as a critical link between traditional and contemporary art.
Mark Rothko was aware that people often burst into tears when confronted with his painting. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on” he said.
On the 25th February 1970, the Tate gallery in London received nine Rothko canvasses, a generous donation from the artist himself. A few hours later, he was found dead in his studio on East 69th Street in Manhattan. The 66-year-old painter had taken his own life.
He was found in a pool of blood six by eight feet wide, roughly the size of one of his paintings. His suicide would change everything and shape the way we respond to his work.
After his death, the Tate gallery set up Rothko’s works to exact specifications by the artist, in a room of their own. A room that, to this day, has an uncanny silence. In an increasingly secular age, Rothko’s room has taken on the aura of a temple or shrine. It is somewhere to sit quietly with one’s thoughts, to contemplate. A place where we can find peace.
Claude Monet is often criticised for being overexposed, too easy, too obvious, or worse, a chocolate box artist. His last works, the enormous water lily canvasses are among the most popular artworks in the world.
Yet there is nothing tame, traditionalist, or cosy about these last paintings. These are his most radical works of all. They turn the world upside down with their strange, disorientating and immersive vision.
This is the story of the deep friendship between Claude Monet and French prime minister Georges Clémenceau. Monet was ready to give up painting in 1914 but was persuaded otherwise by Clemenceau. And it is him we have to thank for Monet’s final works, the incredible Water Lilies now on display in the Orangerie in Paris.
Andy Warhol made “Marilyn Diptych” in 1962, right after Marilyn Monroe’s death. By the 1960s Marilyn’s film career as a sex symbol was all but over but Warhol would effectively immortalize Marilyn as the sex symbol of the 20th century. The seductive blonde Marilyn with the heavy-lidded eyes and parted lips is frozen in time. She is transformed into the personification of the allure and glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Both Warhol and Monroe understood transformation. She was an abused foster child from the rural mid-west who transformed herself into Hollywood royalty, and he was a shy, sickly effeminate child of working-class immigrants, who transformed himself into the most famous and most controversial artist of his generation.
Marilyn would make Warhol a household name, and Warhol would make Marilyn an icon.
Artemisia Gentileschi was the most famous female Baroque artist, the most revolutionary female artist in history. She was hugely successful in a time when women were excluded from almost all cultural and social resources when so much of the world’s great art was created. Visual arts were almost exclusively a male industry before modern times.
Women were not allowed to do apprentices, attend life classes or become members of the academies. But Artemisia became the first woman to be accepted into the prestigious Florentine Academy, where she became friends with Galileo Galilei. She then went on to establish her own studio in Naples where she was earning up to five times more than her male contemporaries.
She survived a not only a sexual assault at the age of just seventeen but also a gruelling public trial where she was humiliated. But she was determined not to be seen as a victim and was the first female artist to become independently successful. The Medicis, and James I of England commissioned her, collected by Philip IV of Spain and yet was written out of art history.
Gentileschi’s focus was on female heroines, which in her hands became studies of gender and power. In fact, 49 of her 57 works featured women as protagonists. Strong, powerful women who are as powerful today as they were four hundred years ago.
The Arnolfini Portrait was painted in 1434 by Jan Van Eyck, and has baffled art historians ever since. It has been dissected and analysed, maybe more than any other painting in history, and in the process, become even more mysterious, not less. The painting is the ultimate art mystery. We’ll never know the exact meaning of the painting, but Van Eyck left us several clues.
Great Art Explained looks at how these clues might tell us about one of the lesser-known theories about The Arnolfini Portrait.
But the real mystery of this painting lies in its space, depth and texture as if we really are looking through the flat wooden panel into a mirror universe. Jan Van Eyck’s contemporaries called him an alchemist, and although he did not invent oil paint as has been suggested, he did refine it and took the medium to new heights.
Frida Kahlo is the most famous female artist in history. She deviated from the traditional portrayal of female beauty in art, and instead chose to paint raw and honest experiences. A near fatal bus accident at 18 left Frida crippled and in chronic pain her whole life, but she managed to make a virtue out of adversity, and astonishing original art out of her pain. She was a Mexican, female artist who was disabled, in a male-dominated environment in post-revolutionary Mexico. A feminist icon who broke all social conventions, and produced some of the most haunting and visionary images of the 20th century.
In The Two Fridas, Kahlo explores multiple identities. Great Art Explained looks at the context in which this painting was created, and the numerous sources and influences. We discover that although Frida Kahlo’s work is uniquely her own, like her, it emerged from multiple hybrid sources.
The Raft of the Medusa was painted only two years after the French frigate, the Medusa sank. The lifeboats were full, so the lower classes and a handful of the crew had to build their own makeshift raft for 147 people which drifted away on a bloody 13-day odyssey. On the very first night adrift, 20 men were murdered, and by the fourth day, there were only 67 people left alive. They had resorted to murder and cannibalism to survive. When the raft was found 13 days later, only 15 of the original one hundred and forty-seven had survived. This is the story about the painting of that raft, which shook the world and scandalised high society. Not only for its anti-royalist statements. Slavery would not be fully abolished in France until 1848. Yet in The Raft of the Medusa painted 30 years earlier, Géricault chose a black man as the painting’s hero. Find out why in “Great Art Explained”.
Michelangelo’s David is the most famous statue in the world. From the moment it was unveiled, it was hailed as a masterpiece and a symbol of Florence. As the Italian 16th century historian, Giorgio Vasari wrote: “After seeing this no one need wish to look at any other sculpture or the work of any other artist.” All over the world we are seeing that statues have power beyond their initial reading. One man’s hero is another man’s symbol of oppression. Michelangelo’s David has had its fair share of controversies but has always been on the side of the oppressed, the underdog. David represents the power to overcome adversity in the face of insurmountable odds. And we can all relate to that. James Payne takes another look at a work of art that we have become so familiar with that we have forgotten how revolutionary it is. The story of Michelangelo’s David is anything but the story of a teenage boy king who slew Goliath.
Guernica is the most famous anti-war painting in history, and Picasso’s best-known work. It has gone from a piece that was created in protest at the horrific bombing of a small village in northern Spain, to an icon and a universal symbol of freedom from ALL wars. Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”, and like so much of Picasso’s work it can be difficult to decipher the ‘truth’ in the political, artistic and religious symbolism. James Payne looks at some of the more acknowledged interpretations along with techniques, composition and artistic inspiration. Guernica is a masterpiece that always leaves the viewer with more than they brought to it, and here, Great Art Explained, traces the work from its underwhelming reception when first seen in 1937, through to its status over eighty years later as one of the most influential and iconic works of all time.
“For centuries a 500-year old portrait of a Florentine Merchant’s wife has captivated the world. She has inspired poetry, songs and countless artists. She is an icon, a brand and a ‘superstar’ who is visited by six million ‘fans’ a year. Artlyst contributor James Payne takes a fresh look behind the hype and celebrity status of The Mona Lisa to discover a revolutionary painting that not only transformed the face of art but also changed the rules. A painting so ahead of its time that centuries later we are still trying to figure it out”. – James Payne
Watch Episode #1 Below