Week 1 / August 29: Course Introduction and Overview of Modern Art

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (The Netherlands, 1525 – 1569), The Harvesters, 1565, oil on wood, 46 x 53 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



Modern art begins in the middle of the 19th Century, in the 1850s, and lasts until approximately the 1960s. After that, once the vocabulary of modernism has been established and fully explored, the art made in the 1970s and 1980s is called post-modern art. Art made within the last 15-20 years is generally called contemporary art.

PART 1: Before we get to the first modern artists and modern style of painting, called Impressionism, we will spend this week reviewing major terms and important concepts that are fundamental to discussing and analyzing works of art.

On smarthistory.org, from the ‘Start Here’ banner at the top, select the ‘Tools for Understanding Art’ drop-down menu and from there, watch the first four short videos in the menu on the left. LINK to first one: http://smarthistory.org/chiaroscuro-explained/

Each video explains a central characteristic of painting that developed during the Renaissance and remained in use until the modern era resulting in artworks appearing naturalistic or extremely life-like in their appearance. Since these techniques for making images were used by artists for several centuries leading up to the modern era, we must understand their role in image making in order to understand why it was such a major shift when modern artists began to break these visual rules and pushed back against the expectation of naturalistic and illusionistic images that usually featured an important historical event, a person of national importance or a religious subject.

The four terms are: chiaroscuro, foreshortening, linear perspective and atmospheric perspective. For each term, in your notes, write down a short definition in your own words of what the term means and how it functions or what it does within a painting. Use the week #1 powerpoint where slides #2 – #12 review these terms.

Keep in mind that these techniques are not used individually, but employed together to depict objects and provide structure within images so that the artwork appears illusionistic of real space and so that forms appear to have volume and mass as in real life. It is often good to think in terms of opposites – use of these techniques is what makes artworks appear to be three-dimensional rather than appearing to be flat and two-dimensional, like the canvas on which they are painted.

PART 2: Read and carefully review the terms and concepts on the preliminary document (6 pages) to familiarize yourself with various terms and concepts related to making art. If anything is unclear, bring your specific questions to class next week to clear up.

Complete the terms and concepts worksheet (3 pages) of short answer questions in which you will be applying many of these terms and concepts to artworks included in the introductory powerpoint (powerpoint on Blackboard only). (The powerpoint will also include many of the artworks seen as illustrations in the videos and essays for review.) Bring the completed worksheet to class ready to use and review as a physical document, not on a device.

PART 3: Read two short essays and complete the following 3 written components and exercises based on the contents of these essays:

Compile thorough yet concise notes of the contents of these two required essays. For ‘Becoming Modern’, keep notes divided into the 8 sub-categories used in the essay, beginning with the introductory paragraphs then followed by 7 subheadings using the essay’s subheading words.

For each category, pull out only the most important and defining individual words or short phrases that relate to the subheading and compile a list or outline of terms related to each of these 8 categories.

For ‘What is Modern Art’ and its 5 sub-categories, again, keep concise and very short, targeted notes adding only the new key words and information. If material relates to an established category from the ‘Becoming Modern’ essay, add it there and only make new sub-categories for entirely new content.

If you need to look up a word’s meaning on dictionary.com, do it.

WRITING EXERCISE: Think about what it means to be modern based on the discussions in these essays. Being modern implies an awareness of and relationship to the influential elements that affect the day-to-day development and functioning of a society at that time.

  • For example, today, you wouldn’t be considered a modern person if you used a typewriter or a feathered quill pen and ink to write a quick note to someone. You would be considered old-fashioned. Or, maybe you are being deliberately ironic or retro, but that still reflects your understanding of modernism to make this stylistic choice to forgo the modern device, such as a phone for texting or a computer for email.

On a separate page from your notes, so that it can be turned in, using complete sentences, explain what it means to be a modern person today in relation to each of the first three categories in the ‘Becoming Modern’ essay: capitalism, urban culture, and technology.

In a few sentences for each term, explain a modern issue today that relates to capitalism; a modern issue relevant today that relates to urban culture; and a modern issue or element of society that relates to technology. Be specific about a relevant and topical issue that affects people today and explain it to me.

Do not use examples from the essay or my example about email and texting above. Your answers do not have to and most likely will not be about art at all. This first writing exercise will give me insight into some of the things that are important or relevant to you and will enable me to assess your writing for the first time.

For the next class #2 – summary of the 3 required things to do:

  • Read all assigned essays and videos and carefully read the terms and concepts document and take notes for each area as explained above.
  • Bring the completed worksheet of terms and concepts for in-class review. Have this on-hand as a physical piece of paper, NOT on an electronic device.
  • Bring a separate page with your responses to the ‘Becoming Modern’ essay to turn in (either neatly handwritten or typed).

Remember / FYI:

  • The powerpoints are always on Blackboard, not on this wordpress site.
  • The terms and concepts document and worksheet is available via the link above.
  • If you are turning in your work typed this week, get in the habit of submitting typed work in a simple 12-point font, double spaced text, and do not insert images into a text. Always proofread and run spell check.