Category Archives: Art History

Reading the Visual World

Thoughts and comments on this course syllabus would be much appreciated. ūüôā

Reading the Visual World

Office Hours By Appointment

Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.
Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting (1995)

As subjects, we are literally called into the picture, and represented here as caught.
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1978)

What is ‚Äúvisual culture‚ÄĚ? What do we mean when we speak of ‚Äúthe visual world,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúimages,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúsymbols,‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúsigns‚ÄĚ? What kinds of ‚Äúthings‚ÄĚ are conjured in our minds by these words? Furthermore, if these words lead to visual ‚Äúthings,‚ÄĚ to ‚Äúimages,‚ÄĚ in our minds, must then ‚Äúimages‚ÄĚ lead to words? This course will explore the myriad of shapes, forms and contexts that art, ‚Äúimage(s),‚ÄĚ takes within cultures.

From art to architecture, advertising to film, visual culture takes many forms throughout history and especially within today’s marketing-charged, internet-driven culture of constant images and streaming video. How we see and how we interpret what we see is essential to how we comprehend the world around us. Yet few disciplines, outside of the Fine Arts, examines the relationship between image and text in order to develop a critical vocabulary for discussing it, dissecting it, and theorizing it in new and exciting ways. Therefore many are left intrigued yet perplexed by visual culture, lacking the means to express what they see and how feel about it.

This course will serve as a wide-ranging introduction to visual culture and critical approaches to the study of art in all its assorted forms. An emphasis will be placed on exploring elements of the visual world to better understand types of images, ways of interpretation and understanding, and methods of speaking and writing of and about images. The seminar will serve as a workshop in which students will help set the agenda for weekly discussions by bringing their own interests, impetuses for seminar participation, and modes of interpretation to the material.

Formal interest in art, art history, architecture, aesthetic studies, advertising, film, anthropology, or museum studies is not required, in fact the more diverse and wide-ranging the backgrounds, interests, and disciplinary fields of the students involved the better.

Course Requirements:

Because this is a once a week seminar, a premium will be placed on attendance and active participation, the life-blood of any seminar. In addition to being prepared to discuss weekly assigned readings and visual materials presented in class, students will be expected to write weekly responses based on questions or prompts given in class or in the syllabus. Responses are to be brought to class in hard copy with the student and should serve as a tool for discussion and investigation of the class material. They will be turned in at the end of the class for which they were assigned. Late or digital formats will not be accepted unless prior arrangements have been made with the professor.

Each student will also be responsible for two presentations: a museum presentation midway through the semester and a presentation in class at the end of the semester. For the museum presentation, students will select a piece on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.¬† They will prepare a short object analysis/discussion to present to the class, who will meet for that week at the museum. Final presentations will be an in-class presentation (with necessary images) of students‚Äô final semester paper. The paper, the topic of which shall be decided in conjunction with the professor, should be a discussion of a single ‚Äúimage‚ÄĚ utilizing all the tools and analytical skills acquired over the course of the semester.

These components will comprise the student’s semester grade and will be weighted as follows:

Class Participation 10%

Weekly Responses 50%

Museum Presentation 20%

Seminar Presentation 20%

Just as there is no expectation of previous course work in related field(s), there are no required textbooks for the course. Instead, the professor will distribute PDFs of all assigned readings at the start of the semester, or make them available for download through a web client such as Blackboard. A bibliography of materials is provided at the end of the syllabus for reference and future use of the student. With that said, a considerable number of readings will come from Donald Preziosi‚Äôs seminal edited volume ‚ÄúThe Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology‚ÄĚ (we will, in fact, read almost the whole volume over the course of the semester). Some students may find that they would like to purchase the book so that they have the readings gathered in one handy volume. This is entirely up to the student.

The syllabus may change at the discretion of the professor. All changes to assigned readings and/or due dates will be made in advance and new material provided by the professor.

Week 1:


Introduction to the course, explanation of the syllabus and student requirements, and a ‚Äúgetting to know one another‚ÄĚ discussion.

In-Class Activity: What interested you in the course? How do you define ‚Äúvisual culture‚ÄĚ? What do you think is your relationship to the visual arts?


Gardner (Kleiner and Mamiya), ‚ÄúIntroduction.‚ÄĚ (skim)

Gombrich, ‚ÄúIntroduction.‚ÄĚ

Hartt, ‚ÄúIntroduction.‚ÄĚ (skim)

Maquet, Chapter 1 (‚ÄúThe Reality Anthropologists Build‚ÄĚ)

Chapter 2 (‚ÄúArt in Everyday Reality‚ÄĚ)

Week 2:

Art History: Making the Visible Legible

Having laid a general foundation to the concept of ‚Äúart‚ÄĚ in the previous week, this week will concentrate on the history of Art History; how it developed as a field of inquiry, and most importantly how it has and continues to produce a vocabulary and methods of discussion and analysis of visual culture.


Preziosi: ‚ÄúIntroduction‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúArt History: Making the Visible Legible‚ÄĚ (and page 21)

Michael Baxandall‚Äôs ‚ÄúPatterns of Intention‚ÄĚ

Heinrich W√∂fflin‚Äôs ‚ÄúPrinciples of Art History‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúHistory as Art: Introduction.‚ÄĚ


Compare and contrast your thoughts on ‚Äúvisual culture‚ÄĚ and your relationship to it prior to the first class meeting and the readings and after. Have your opinions/thoughts changed?¬† If so, how?

Week 3:

Style, Iconography, and Semiology: Mechanisms of Meaning in Visual Culture

The previous two weeks have been devoted to establishing a foundation for the course at hand but also for the study of the visual arts at large. This week will be devoted to the means by which Art History, and thus visual culture, is legitimized as an autonomous field of study. Readings and discussion will be based on the ‚Äúvisualness‚ÄĚ of the visual arts, the key issue that sets such inquiries as ours apart from other fields of historical or cultural pursuit.


Preziosi, ‚ÄúStyle: Introduction‚ÄĚ

Meyer Shapiro, ‚ÄúStyle‚ÄĚ

Ernst Gombrich, ‚ÄúStyle‚ÄĚ

Chapter 5


Take three pictures with your cell phone camera or digital camera. One image should capture a ‚Äústyle.‚ÄĚ One should represent ‚Äúiconography.‚ÄĚ And one should represent ‚Äúsemiology.‚ÄĚ Write a brief paragraph describing how your photos represent/articulate the concept. Be prepared to share your images in class and discuss them.

Week 4:

Off the Wall: Sculpture, Architecture, Land Art and Landscape

So far the course has focused on the concept of images and art in a two-dimensional sense (paintings, drawings, etc). This week will focus on the means by which we interact with and speak of that which we move through and around.


Courbusier, Towards An Architecture, pp 93-130.

Hays, Michel Foucault, ‚ÄúSpace, Knowledge, and Power,‚ÄĚ interview with Paul Rabinow

Michell, Landscape and Power, Read: Preface and Introduction. Skim: ‚ÄúImperial Landscape,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Effects of Landscape,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúInvention, Memory, and Place.‚ÄĚ

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? ‚ÄúWhat Sculpture Wants: Placing Antony Gormley.‚ÄĚ

Preziosi, Rosalind Krauss, ‚ÄúSculpture in the Expanded Field.‚ÄĚ

Rasmussen, Chapter 1, (‚ÄúBasic Observations‚ÄĚ)


Beyond the obvious technical differences, how do the processes of thinking about and speaking of architecture, sculpture, and landscape differ or are similar to paintings? Can we speak of architecture and landscape in the same iconographical or semiotic terms as paintings and other visual images? Why or why not?

Week 5:

The Viewer and the Viewed: Gaze, Gender and the Object

Up to this point we have discussed the visual world in historical and methodological terms, but these have been passive discussions. This week the readings and class discussion will take our ‚Äúlooking‚ÄĚ from passive to active, ‚Äúseeing.‚ÄĚ Not only are we, the viewer, ‚Äúseeing‚ÄĚ the work of art, but the object is being ‚Äúviewed.‚ÄĚ Does our gaze change the meaning of the object? Furthermore, when we take into account the role of gender and the nature of our gaze on the object, in most cases a woman, does this affect our understanding? When reading this week‚Äôs readings, pay attention to the role and concept of gender and how the use of gaze and viewership alters perception and meaning.


Butler, ‚ÄúArt and Feminism: An Ideology of Shifting Criteria.‚ÄĚ

Frascina and Harris, ‚ÄúIntroduction to Part II,‚ÄĚ T. J. Clark‚Äôs ‚ÄúPreliminaries to a Possible Treatment of ‚ÄėOlympia‚Äô in 1865,‚ÄĚ and Griselda Pollock‚Äôs ‚ÄúModernity and the Spaces of Feminity.‚ÄĚ

McDaniel and Robertson, ‚ÄúSexual Bodies: The Gaze and Sex and Violence‚ÄĚ

Nochlin, ‚ÄúThe Imaginary Orient.‚ÄĚ

Preziosi, Chapter 7.


Select an image of your choice. First, analyze the image without taking into consideration the concepts of gaze and gender discussed in this week’s readings, and then analyze the image with those considerations. Be prepared to discuss your image in class.

Week 6:

The Black Sheep: Orientalism, the ‚ÄúOther,‚ÄĚ and the Non-Western World

Last week we started to examine visual culture through active means of ‚Äúseeing,‚ÄĚ engaging in images on more than a purely stylistic level. By engaging in a discussion of the ‚Äúgaze‚ÄĚ and the question of gender and how these affect the viewer‚Äôs understanding of an image, we have transitioned into more critical and theoretical discussion of what visual culture consists of and how we can use multiple tools of analysis to examine them. We continue this theme this week with a discussion of ‚Äúthe Other‚ÄĚ and Orientalism.


Frascina and Harris, Edward Said‚Äôs ‚ÄúOrientalism.‚ÄĚ

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? ‚ÄúLiving Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee‚Äôs Bamboozled.‚ÄĚ

Preziosi: Chapter 9: Introduction

Timothy Mitchell, ‚ÄúOrientalism and the Exhibitionary Order‚ÄĚ

Annie E. Coombes, ‚ÄúInventing the ‚ÄėPostcolonial‚Äô: Hybridity and Constituency in Contemporary Curating‚ÄĚ

Saad, Empire and Its Discontents


What is Orientalism according to our authors? Do you agree with them? Edward Said first wrote about Orientalism in the 1970s, do you think it’s still prevalent now? Why or why not? Cite examples.

Week 7:

Museum Presentations

Class will be held at the Museum of Fine Arts. Students are to gather inside the main entrance of the museum by the start of class time. There are no assigned readings or response paper for this week. The presentation will serve as your response (a hard copy of which will need to be provided to the professor at the museum), and your attentiveness and participation in discussing your colleagues’ presentations will serve as your participation.

Up to this point we have discussed ‚Äútraditional‚ÄĚ media, now we will turn to discuss media that are included under the umbrella of ‚Äúvisual culture‚ÄĚ but are not traditionally considered part of Fine Arts. For this second half of the semester I‚Äôd like to focus less on discrete methodological or historiographical questions and more on technological developments that lead not only to the inclusion of new media within the larger discourse of visual culture but also to new theoretical paradigms. This half of the seminar will open with two weeks of introduction lectures on new media and modernism/post-modernism and student discussions of texts. The final two weeks of seminar discussion prior to presentations will serve as student led workshops centered in new media and theoretical models in the readings.


Barthes, Camera Lucida. (skim)

Coles, Design and Art, pp 10-22, 29-57, 74-88, 154-71

Groys, ‚ÄúIconoclasm as an Artistic Device: Iconoclastic Strategies in Film,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúFrom Image to Image-File and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization.‚ÄĚ (skim)

Gunning, ‚ÄúAn Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator‚ÄĚ

Frascina and Harris, Walter Benjamin‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.‚ÄĚ

Harrison, Chapter 2

Joselit, Chapter 4 (‚ÄúAvatar‚ÄĚ)

Kracauer, ‚ÄúBasic Concepts‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúHistory and Fantasy‚ÄĚ

Lavin, Clean New World

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? Read: ‚ÄúAddressing Media.‚ÄĚ Skim: ‚ÄúThe Ends of American Photography: Robert Frank as National Medium,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúThe Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction.‚ÄĚ

Panofsky, Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures

Perry and Wood, Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5

Vogue, Extreme Beauty

Week 8:

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Photography and Film


Week 9:

Video Changed the Museum Star: Conceptualism/Structuralism/Post-Modernism

Week 10:

The Mad (Wo)Men of Madison Avenue: Fashion, Advertising, Performance, and Design

Week 11:

High Techne: Technology, the Internet, and Cyberculture


Week 12:

Final Presentations


Week 13:

Final Presentations

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Why “The Arts” Matter

This has been percolating for some time – in my heart, in my head. I have found myself in numerous situations, with academics and non-academics alike, trying to explain why I do what I do, why I love what I do. As I find myself at a professional crossroads I have considered this subject more than ever before. In a country were Wall Street and Google are more respected than the Smithsonian, is a life devoted to the arts wise? Manageable?

Art. The Arts.

I breathe it. I taste it. I cannot live without it.

I have devoted the last eight years of my life to studying the history, theory, and criticism of: art, art history, history, urbanism, architecture, urban planning, religion, philosophy, law, economics, etc, to better understand the development of the Western and non-Western worlds. How is the canon defined? How can we create a new canon to end the great white-western-tradition that excludes minorities, women, and the non-Western world. How can an understanding of the history of Cairo, for example, lead us to a better understanding of the development of Islamic Architecture and vice versa? How does the trade of silk fabric from China to Denmark impact Dutch woodcut prints, paintings, fashion, and their cultivation of Latin American colonies? This world systems analysis approach to the history of the arts and cultures is the basic tenet of the liberal arts and humanistic studies in the US, Canada, Europe and a rapidly growing university tradition in the non-Western world.

In a year where the GOP, Tea Party, and Conservative media et all, has called for the intellectual beheading of this country (defunding NPR, PBS, NEA, destruction of teachers unions, the abolishment of arts education in primary and secondary schools, etc) the slow-building anti-intellectual movement in this US has ramped up their destructive calls for further skepticism of American universities and their dislike, distrust, and further desire to de-emphasize the importance of an educated populace. It has become socially and politically acceptable to dislike and distrust educated people – the better the education, the more degrees the greater the skepticism. Sarah Palin, a woman who barely managed to scrape out a degree in journalism after attending five colleges, is a poster woman for many in this country. The term “elite” has come to serve as an acceptable degrading hiss of a pejorative in a country that has a great national distaste for the educated.

It has become so easy to dismiss the arts, to brush them aside with a flick of the wrist. So easy, in fact, that even Bill Maher made the case for defunding the NEA. For Maher, the NEA doesn’t save lives, doesn’t accomplish anything tangible, like say the EPA, and is thus expendable. This mentality of the “the arts don’t matter, they aren’t important, they don’t contribute or have an economic incentive to exist” is rampant in this country. Libraries close without a blink of a community’s eye. Universities slash humanities budgets but never touch athletics. Generations of parents scoff at the idea of an English or Women’s Studies major, pushing their children to major in computers or business instead. Universities close Latin, Classics, and Area Studies programs (to name only a few of the affected liberal arts) without any protest.

And why should universities care about critical reasoning skills? Why should universities support programs that train students to read within a critical, theoretical discourse, analyze the material, and produce a cogent, pointed argument or debate? Why should universities support philosophy, english, history, and art history majors? Wall Street isn’t interested in hiring from these majors, so why are they important? Perhaps because these majors score highest on the GRE and LSAT exams. Perform better in graduate and law programs than other majors. Have superior critical reasoning and analytical skills than mathematics and business majors.

The reason it is so easy to ignore and dismiss the arts, the humanities, is because Americans have become detrimentally separated from the history of education, from the history of what it means to be educated. Each generation, since the beginning of human existence, has sought to pass on cultural and social values, traditions, morality, religion and skills to the next generation. The passing on of culture is also known as enculturation and the learning of social values and behaviors is socialization. The history of the curricula of such education reflects human history itself, the history of knowledge, beliefs, skills and cultures of humanity.

Education creates vessels of humanity out of every student. The history of this world, of our cultures is crafted and disseminated in education. Without an educated populace, how are we to survive? How are we to know what came before us, what shape us, and how we can innovate our future? The process of receiving knowledge, processing it, learning lessons from it, and critically using it as a tool of future development and growth is the keystone of every educational system. But it is most represented in the arts, in humanistic pursuits.

‘The Arts” encompasses visual arts and cultural practice, the literary arts (poetry and prose), theater, music, dance, architecture, television, radio, film, journalism, fashion and food. The arts are what we see, read, watch, taste, wear. It is how we move, what we listen to, it is what we live in from the design of our homes and furniture, our planned cities, our cars, our clothes, and what we read day in and out. The arts encompass every output of the human creative practice. Even if you’d like to think of the arts as only the imaginative, creative, and nonscientific branches of knowledge considered collectively and studied academically, you can’t help but note the broad sweep of your implications in our everyday lives and in every plane of our societal functions.

The arts are both a response to the world around as as they are catalyst for cultural change. Artists, of all media, serve as a mirror to the world. They examine our collective conscience. They ask us to question our beliefs, our actions, to rethink what we know and how we know it. The nature of our world is defined, refined, deconstructed and reconstructed through the arts. Paintings of rulers can serve simultaneously as a glimpse into a a moment of history and state-sponsored propaganda (see my piece on “Oriental Nationalism” and the role of Gros in the court of Napoleon¬†here). The arts help shape gender roles, cultural predilections for body shape and notions of beauty (see my piece of the impact of fashion photography and fashion in Vogue here). Art and artists have impacted global politics at times as well (for instance, Surrealism, see my post here). The arts bleed into areas of our lives we wouldn’t even think that they would: such as science and war practices (see my post on Performance/Body Art here, and my post on the nature of video and suicide bombing in contemporary art practice here).

Arts education, museums, galleries, theaters, and libraries are the keepers, the vessels of these great, impactful forces in our world. They are the ultimate democratizing force in the world today. The easiest way to restrict growth of a society, critical dialogue, opposition of thought and diversity of opinion is to restrict education, namely critical reasoning skills, skills that are central and foundational to arts and humanities curricula. Why are we so accepting of their dismissal from our national priorities? Stephen Colbert recently joked with the director of a forthcoming documentary on imprisoned Chinese artist Ai WeiWei that: “In American we know to ignore [serious] artists…serious artists are a complete joke.” Naturally, the knowing audience member realizes the bit Colbert has perfected on his show, the pseudo-Right Wing position he takes to mock such figures, such positions. But his statement is no joke. To many it is all to true.

American capitalism has made a MBA more valuable than analytical skills, than the ability to converse cogently about the broad breadth of humanity. We care not what people know, what they are capable of thinking deeply about. We only care about the object, the dollar amount they can produce.

In a country built upon innovation, where we pride ourselves on pushing the next wave of global development, why are we so uninterested in creativity? Why don’t we fight tooth and nail to keep the great bastions of our history of our creativity alive and funding and staffed to the hilt? We are so cavalier with culture, so flippant about art and art education, I fear that it will slip through the sieve of time without our noticing its loss till it’s too late. We are only as great as our ability to progress. How can we do that without knowing from what we have evolved? Our libraries, our museums, they hold within their walls the great majesty of our collective human achievement. Without¬†them, what are we? What will we become?


Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, History, Music, Politics, Religion, US

Dale Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass

Here are photos from Dale Chihuly’s current exhibit at the MFA Boston. Most of the work is current (2011).

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Boston MFA: Art of Ancient Egypt

Here are images from the Ancient Egypt galleries in the MFA’s permanent collection.

Ancient Egypt

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Boston MFA: Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa

Images from the Boston MFA today.

Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa

Marble Capitals, Madinat al-Zahra’, Umayyad Period, ca. 950-75

Islamic Collection: Ceramics, Glass, and Metals from Iran and Turkey, mostly, with a couple of pieces from Egypt.

Islamic Manuscripts:

Arts of Asia:

Japanese Wood Block Prints:

Korean Ceramics:

Art of Japan:

Art of Africa:

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Art 101: What is Neoclassicism?

Next post in the “Art 101” series: Neo-Classicism. I’ve concentrated on Neoclassicism in art and architecture, but know that it is also prevalent in literature and music.

What is Neoclassicism?

Death of Marat - Jacques-Louis David, 1793

Neoclassicism is the name given to quite distinct movements in the decorative and visual arts, literature, theatre, music, and architecture that draw upon Western classical art and culture (usually that of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome). These movements were dominant in northern Europe during the mid-18th to the end of the 19th century.

Neoclassicism, in a cultural, artistic, and architectural sense, grew as a response against Rococo, which was seen as over-the-top and shallow. Architecturally, it was characterized by similarities to classical structures as well as the Renaissance, including order and simplicity, and artistically, it was also modelled on works from the classical world, often containing political themes including bravery and war. Although Neoclassicism encompassed painting, sculpture, and architecture and is often regarded as the most prominent manifestation of this interest, fascination with Greek and Roman culture was widespread and extended to the public culture of fashion and home decor.

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality in part fueled the classical focus. The geometric harmony of classical art and architecture seemed to embody Enlightenment ideals. In addition, classical cultures represented the height of civilized society, and Greece and Rome served as models of enlightened political organization. These cultures, with their traditions of liberty, civic virtue, morality, and sacrifice, served as ideal models during a period of great political upheaval. Given such traditional associations, it is not coincidental that Neoclassicism was particularly appealing during the French and American Revolutions. The public appetite for classicism was whetted further by the excavations of Herculaneum (begun in 1738) and Pompeii (1748), which the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE had buried.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann - Raphael Mengs, after 1755

The enthusiasm for classical antiquity permeated much of the scholarship of the time. In the late 18th century; the ancient world increasingly became the focus of scholarly attention. A visit to Rome stimulated Edward Gibbon to begin his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which appeared between 1776 and 1778. Earlier, in 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the first modern art historian, published Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture (a canonical text), uncompromisingly designating Greek art as the most perfect to come from human hands. Winckelmann characterized Greek sculpture a manifesting a “noble simplicity and silent greatness.” In his History of Ancient Art (1765), he described each monument and positioned it within a huge inventory of works organized by subject matter, style, and period. Before Winckelmann, art historians had focused on biography, as reflected in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors (first published in 1550, and a terrific read if you haven’t given it a go yet). Winckelmann thus initiated one modern art historical method thoroughly in accord with Enlightenment ideas of ordering knowledge – a system of description and classification that provided a pioneering model for the understanding of stylistic evolution. Winckelmann’s familiarity with classical art was derived predominantly (as was the norm) from Roman works and Roman copies of Greek art. Yet Winckelmann was instrumental in bringing to scholarly attention the distinctions between Greek and Roman art. Thus, he paved the way for more thorough study of the unique characteristics of the art and architecture of these two cultures. Winckelmann’s writings also laid a theoretical and historical foundation for the enormously widespread taste for Neoclassicism that lasted well into the 19th century.


Roman Ruins and Sculpture - Giovanni Paolo Pannini, 1758

What any “neo-classicism” depends on most fundamentally is a consensus about a body of work that has achieved¬†canonic¬†status. These are the “classics.” Ideally ‚ÄĒ and neoclassicism is essentially an art of an ideal ‚ÄĒ an artist, well schooled and comfortably familiar with the canon, does not repeat it in lifeless reproductions, but synthesizes the tradition anew in each work. This sets a high standard, clearly; but though a neoclassical artist who fails to achieve it may create works that are inane, vacuous or even mediocre, gaffes of taste and failures of craftsmanship are not commonly neoclassical failings. Novelty, improvisation, self-expression, and blinding inspiration are not neoclassical virtues. “Make it new” was the¬†modernist¬†credo of the poet¬†Ezra Pound; contrarily, neoclassicism does not seek to re-create art forms from the ground up with each new project. It instead exhibits perfect control of an idiom.

Speaking and thinking in English, “neoclassicism” in each art implies a particular canon of “classic” models –¬†Virgil,¬†Raphael,¬†Nicolas Poussin,¬†Haydn. Other cultures have other canons of classics, however, and a recurring strain of neoclassicism appears to be a natural expression of a culture at a certain moment in its career, a culture that is highly self-aware, that is also confident of its own high mainstream tradition, but at the same time feels the need to¬†regain¬†something that has slipped away:¬†Apollonius of Rhodes¬†is a neoclassic writer;¬†Ming¬†ceramics pay homage to¬†Song-era¬†celadon Chinese¬†porcelains; Italian 15th century humanists learn to write a “Roman” hand we call¬†italic¬†(based on the¬†Carolingian);¬†Neo-Babylonianculture is a neoclassical revival, and in¬†Persia¬†the “classic” religion of¬†Zoroaster,¬†Zoroastrianism, is revived after centuries, to “re-Persianize” a culture that had fallen away from its own classic Achaemenean past. Within the direct Western tradition, the earliest movement motivated by a neoclassical inspiration is a Roman style that was first distinguished by the German art historian¬†Friedrich Hauser¬†(Die Neuattische Reliefs,¬†Stuttgart 1889), who identified the style-category he called “Neo-Attic” among sculpture produced in later Hellenistic circles during the last century or so BCE and in Imperial Rome; the corpus that Hauser called “Neo-Attic” consists of bas reliefs molded on decorative vessels and plaques, employing a figural and drapery style that looked for its canon of “classic” models to late 5th and early 4th century Athens and Attica.

In the¬†visual arts¬†the European movement called “neoclassicism” began after 1765, as a reaction against both the surviving¬†Baroque¬†and¬†Rococo¬†styles, and as a desire to return to the perceived “purity” of the arts of¬†Rome, the more vague perception (“ideal”) of¬†Ancient Greek¬†arts, and, to a lesser extent, 16th century¬†Renaissance Classicism. As a matter of fact, Rococo and Neoclassical architecture can be seen as complete opposites, with the former emphasising grace, ornamentation and asymmetry, whilst the latter being based upon the principles of simplicity and symmetry.

Contrasting with the¬†Baroque¬†and the¬†Rococo, Neoclassical paintings are devoid of pastel colors and haziness; instead, they have sharp colors with chiaroscuro. In the case of Neoclassicism in France, a prime example is¬†Jacques Louis David¬†whose paintings often use Roman and Greek elements to extol the¬†French Revolution’s virtues (state before family).

Ruins of Palmyra - Robert Word, 1753

Each “neo”- classicism selects some models among the range of possible classics that are available to it, and ignores others. The neoclassical writers and talkers, patrons and collectors, artists and sculptors of 1765‚Äď1830 paid homage to an¬†idea¬†of the generation of¬†Pheidias, but the sculpture examples they actually embraced were more likely to be Roman copies of Hellenistic sculptures. They ignored both Archaic Greek art and the works of Late Antiquity. The Rococo art of ancient¬†Palmyra¬†came as a revelation, through engravings in Wood’s¬†The Ruins of Palmyra. Even Greece was all-but-unvisited, a rough backwater of the Ottoman Empire, dangerous to explore, so neoclassicists’ appreciation of Greek architecture was mediated through drawings and engravings, which subtly smoothed and regularized, “corrected’ and “restored” the monuments of Greece, not always consciously. As for painting, Greek painting was utterly lost: neoclassicist painters imaginatively revived it, partly through bas-relief friezes, mosaics, and pottery painting and partly through the examples of painting and decoration of the High Renaissance of¬†Raphael’s generation, frescos in Nero’s¬†Domus Aurea,¬†Pompeii¬†and¬†Herculaneum¬†and through renewed admiration of¬†Nicholas Poussin. Much “neoclassical” painting is more classicizing in subject matter than in anything else.

There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European¬†architecture¬†of the earlier 18th century, most vividly represented in the Palladian (as in, being of or reminiscent of Palladio) architecture¬†of Georgian¬†Britain¬†and¬†Ireland, but also recognizable in a classicizing vein of architecture in¬†Berlin. It is a robust architecture of self-restraint, academically selective now of “the best” Roman models.

Neoclassicism’s Ascendance

Neoclassicism first gained influence in¬†England¬†and¬†France, through a generation of French art students trained in Rome and influenced by the writings of¬†Johann Joachim Winckelmann (who’s works are discussed above), and it was quickly adopted by progressive circles in¬†Sweden. At first, classicizing decor was grafted onto familiar European forms, as in the interiors for Catherine II’s lover¬†Count Orlov, designed by an Italian architect with a team of Italian¬†stuccadori: only the isolated oval medallions like cameos and the¬†bas-relief¬†overdoors hint of neoclassicism; the furnishings are fully Italian Rococo.

But a second neoclassic wave, more severe, more studied (through the medium of engravings) and more consciously archaeological, is associated with the height of the¬†Napoleonic Empire. In France, the first phase of neoclassicism is expressed in the “Louis XVI style”, the second phase in the styles we call “Directoire” or¬†Empire. Italy clung to Rococo until the Napoleonic regimes brought the new archaeological classicism, which was embraced as a political statement by young, progressive, urban Italians with republican leanings.

Oath of the Horatii - Jacques-Louis David, 1784

The high tide of neoclassicism in painting is exemplified in early paintings by¬†Jacques-Louis David (pronounced: DAH-veed)¬†and¬†Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ entire career. David concurred with teh Enlightenment belief that subject matter should be presented so that the “marks of heroism and civic virtue offered the eyes of the people [will] electrify its soul, and plant the seeds of glory and devotion to the fatherland.” A milestone in David’s career,¬†Oath of the Horatii,¬†was painted in Rome and made a splash at the¬†Paris Salon of 1785. The canvas depicts a story from pre-Republican Rome, the heroic phase of Roman history. The topic was not an arcane one for David’s audience. This story of conflict between love and patriotism, first recounted by the ancient Roman historian Livy, had been retold in a play by Pierre Corneille performed in Paris several years earlier, making it familiar to David’s viewing public.

David’s painting shows the Horatii as they swear on their swords, held high by their father, to win or die for Rome, oblivious to the anguish and sorrow of their female relatives. In its form, Oath of the Horatii is a paragon of the neoclassical style. Not only does the subject matter deal with a narrative of patriotism and sacrifice excerpted from Roman history, but the image is also presented with admirable force and clarity. David depicted the scene in a shallow space much like a stage setting, defined by a severely simple architectural framework. The statuesque and carefully molded figures are deployed across the space, close to the foreground, in a manner reminiscent of ancient relief sculpture. The rigid, angular, and virile forms of the men on the left effectively contrast with the soft curvilinear shapes of the distraught women on the right. This visually pits virtues the Enlightenment leaders ascribed to men (such as courage, patriotism, and unwavering loyalty to a cause) against the emotions of love, sorrow, and despair that the women in the painting express. David made have painted in the academic tradition, but he made something new of it. He created a program for arousing his audience to patriotic zeal.

In¬†sculpture, the most familiar representatives are the Italian¬†Antonio Canova, the Englishman¬†John Flaxman¬†and the Dane¬†Bertel Thorvaldsen. The European neoclassical manner also took hold in the United States, where its prominence peaked somewhat later and is exemplified in the sculptures of William Henry Rinehart¬†(1825‚Äď1874).

Biedermeier Interior - also called "Zimmerbild" - Berlin, about 1825

In the decorative arts, neoclassicism is exemplified in Empire furniture made in Paris, London, New York, Berlin; in¬†Biedermeier¬†furniture made in Austria; in¬†Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s museums in Berlin, Sir¬†John Soane’s Bank of England in London and the newly built “capitol” in Washington, DC; and in¬†Wedgwood’s¬†bas reliefs¬†and “black basaltes”¬†vases. The Scots architect¬†Charles Cameron¬†created palatial Italianate interiors for the German-born¬†Catherine II the Great¬†in Russian St. Petersburg: the style was international.

Indoors, neoclassicism made a discovery of the genuine classic interior, inspired by the rediscoveries at¬†Pompeii¬†and¬†Herculaneum, which had started in the late 1740s, but only achieved a wide audience in the 1760s, with the first luxurious volumes of tightly controlled distribution of¬†Le Antichit√† di Ercolano.¬†The antiquities of Herculaneum showed that even the most classicizing interiors of the¬†Baroque, or the most “Roman” rooms of¬†William Kent¬†were based on¬†basilica¬†and¬†temple¬†exterior¬†architecture, turned outside in:¬†pedimented¬†window frames turned into¬†gilded¬†mirrors, fireplaces topped with temple fronts, now all looking quite bombastic and absurd. The new interiors sought to recreate an authentically Roman and genuinely¬†interior¬†vocabulary, employing flatter, lighter motifs, sculpted in low¬†frieze-like relief or painted in monotones¬†en cama√Įeu¬†(“like cameos”), isolated medallions or vases or busts or¬†bucrania¬†or other motifs, suspended on swags of laurel or ribbon, with slender arabesques against backgrounds, perhaps, of “Pompeiian red” or pale tints, or stone colors. The style in France was initially a Parisian style, the¬†Go√Ľt grec, not a court style. Only when the plump, young king acceded to the throne in 1774 did his fashion-loving Queen bring the “Louis XVI” style to court.

From about 1800 a fresh influx of Greek architectural examples, seen through the medium of etchings and engravings, gave a new impetus to neoclassicism that is called the Greek Revival.

Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in¬†academic art¬†through the 19th century and beyond ‚ÄĒ a constant antithesis to¬†Romanticism¬†or¬†Gothic revivals¬†‚ÄĒ although from the late 19th century on it had often been considered anti-modern, or even reactionary, in influential critical circles. By the mid-19th century, several European cities ‚ÄĒ notably¬†St. Petersburg¬†and¬†Munich¬†‚ÄĒ were transformed into veritable museums of Neoclassical architecture.

Gothic revival architecture (often linked with the Romantic cultural movement), a style originating in the 18th century which grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, contrasted Neoclassicism. Whilst Neoclassicism was characterized by Greek and Roman-influenced styles, geometric lines and order, Gothic revival architecture placed an emphasis on medieval-looking buildings, often made to have a rustic, “romantic,” appearance. As a matter of fact, Romanticism grew as a response against Neoclassicism.

MIT "Building 10" overlooking Killian Court

In American architecture, neoclassicism was one expression of the¬†American Renaissance¬†movement,¬†ca¬†1890‚Äď1917; its last manifestation was in¬†Beaux-Arts architecture (such as MIT’s Bosworth designed campus, among many others), and its very last, large public projects were the¬†Lincoln Memorial¬†(highly criticized at the time), The¬†National Gallery¬†in Washington, DC (also heavily criticized by the architectural community as being backward thinking and old fashioned in its design), and the¬†American Museum of Natural History’s Roosevelt Memorial. These were¬†white elephants¬†when they were built. In the British Raj, Sir¬†Edwin Lutyens’ monumental city planning for¬†New Delhi¬†marks the glorious sunset of neoclassicism. World War II was to shatter most longing for ‚Äď and imitation of ‚Äď mythical, heroic times.

Conservative¬†modernist¬†architects such as¬†Charles Perret¬†in France kept the rhythms and spacing of columnar architecture even in factory buildings. Where a¬†colonnade¬†would have been decried as “reactionary,” a building’s¬†pilaster-like¬†fluted¬†panels under a repeating¬†frieze¬†looked “progressive.”¬†Pablo Picasso¬†experimented with classicizing motifs in the years immediately following¬†World War I, and the¬†Art Deco¬†style that peaked in the 1925 Paris¬†Exposition des Arts D√©coratifs¬†often drew on neoclassical motifs without expressing them overtly: severe, blocky¬†commodes¬†by¬†E. J. Ruhlmann¬†or¬†Sue et Mare; crisp, extremely low-relief friezes of damsels and gazelles in every medium; fashionable dresses that were draped or cut on the bias to recreate Grecian lines; the art dance of¬†Isadora Duncan; the¬†Streamline Moderne¬†styling of US post offices and county court buildings built as late as 1950; and the Roosevelt dime.

Neoclassicism in Russia and the Soviet Union

Lions House - Ivan Zholtovsky, Moscow

In 1905‚Äď1914 Russian architecture passed through a brief but influential period of¬†neoclassical revival; the trend began with recreation of Empire style of Alexandrine¬†period and quickly expanded into a variety of neo-Renaissance, Palladian¬†and modernized, yet recognizably classical schools. They were led by architects born in 1870s, who reached creative peak before¬†World War I¬†like¬†Ivan Fomin,¬†Vladimir Shchuko,¬†Ivan Zholtovsky. When economy recovered in 1920s, these architects and their followers continued working in primarily¬†modernist¬†environment; some (Zholtovsky) strictly followed the classical canon, others (Fomin, Schuko,¬†Ilya Golosov) developed their own modernized styles.

With the crackdown on architects’ independence and official denial of modernism (1932), demonstrated by the international contest for the¬†Palace of Soviets, Neoclassicism was instantly promoted as one of the choices in Stalinist architecture, although not the only one. It coexisted with moderately modernist architecture of¬†Boris Iofan, bordering with contemporary¬†Art Deco¬†(Schuko); again, the purest examples of the style were produced by Zholtovsky school that remained an isolated phenomena. The political intervention was a disaster for¬†constructivist¬†leaders yet was sincerely welcomed by architects of the classical schools.

Neoclassicism was an easy choice for the USSR since it did not rely on modern construction technologies (steel frame¬†or¬†reinforced concrete) and could be reproduced in traditional¬†masonry. Thus the designs of Zholtovsky, Fomin and other old masters were easily replicated in remote towns under strict material¬†rationing. Improvement of construction technology after¬†World War II¬†permitted Stalinist architects to venture into skyscraper construction, although stylistically these skyscrapers (including “exported” architecture of¬†Palace of Culture and Science,¬†Warsaw¬†and the¬†Shanghai¬†International Convention Center) share little with the classical models. Neoclassicism and neo-Renaissance persisted in less demanding residential and office projects until 1955, when¬†Nikita Khrushchev¬†put an end to expensive Stalinist architecture.

Neoclassicism in the 21st Century

Schermerhorn Symphony Center - Nashville, Tennessee, USA

After a lull during the period of modern architectural dominance (roughly post-WWII until the mid 1980s), neoclassicism has seen somewhat of a resurgence. In the United States some public buildings are built in the neoclassical style as of at least 2006, with the completion of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

In¬†Britain¬†a number of architects are active in the neoclassical style. Examples of their work include two university Libraries:¬†Quinlan Terry’s Maitland Robinson Library at¬†Downing College¬†and Robert Adam Architects’¬†Sackler Library. The majority of new neoclassical buildings in Britain are private houses.

As of the first decade of the 21st century, neoclassical architecture is usually classed under the umbrella term of “traditional architecture.”¬†Also, a number of pieces of¬†postmodern architecture¬†draw inspiration from and include explicit references to Neoclassicism,¬†the¬†National Theatre of Catalonia¬†in¬†Barcelona¬†among them.

Neoclassical Architecture

Though I have touched on architecture frequently in the above discussions, the monumental impact and lasting legacy of Neoclassicism in architecture needs to be discussed on its own.

Villa Rotonda - Andrea Palladio - Veneto, Italy, 1570

Neoclassical architecture was an architectural style produced by the neoclassical movement that began in the mid-18th century, manifested both in its details as a reaction against the Rococo style of naturalistic ornament, and in its architectural formulas as an outgrowth of some classicizing features of Late Baroque. In its purest form it is a style principally derived from the architecture of Classical Greece and the architecture of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In form, Neoclassical architecture emphasizes the wall rather than chiaroscuro and maintains separate identities to each of its parts.

Siegfried Giedion, whose first book (1922) had the suggestive title¬†Late Baroque and Romantic Classicism, asserted later,¬†“The Louis XVI style formed in shape and structure the end of late baroque tendencies, with classicism serving as its framework.” In the sense that Neoclassicism in architecture is evocative and picturesque, a recreation of a distant, lost world, it is, as Giedion suggests, framed within the¬†Romantic sensibility.

Intellectually Neoclassicism was symptomatic of a desire to return to the perceived “purity” of the arts of¬†Rome, to the more vague perception (“ideal”) of¬†Ancient Greek¬†arts and, to a lesser extent, 16th-century¬†Renaissance Classicism, which was also a source for academic Late Baroque architecture.

Deuxieme projet pour la Bibliotheque du Rois - √Čtienne-Louis Boull√©e, 1785

Many early 19th-century neoclassical architects were influenced by the drawings and projects of¬†√Čtienne-Louis Boull√©e¬†and¬†Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The many graphite drawings of Boull√©e and his students depict spare geometrical architecture that emulates the eternality of the universe. There are links between Boull√©e’s ideas and¬†Edmund Burke’s conception of the¬†sublime. Ledoux addressed the concept of architectural character, maintaining that a building should immediately communicate its function to the viewer: taken literally such ideas give rise to “architecture parlante.”

There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European¬†architecture¬†of the earlier 18th century, most vividly represented in the¬†Palladian architecture¬†of Georgian¬†Britain¬†and¬†Ireland, but also recognizable in a classicizing vein of Late Baroque architecture in Paris (Perrault’s east range of the¬†Louvre), in¬†Berlin, and even in Rome, in¬†Alessandro Galilei’s facade for¬†S. Giovanni in Laterano. It is a robust architecture of self-restraint, academically selective now of “the best” Roman models, which were increasingly available for close study through the medium of architectural¬†engravings¬†of measured drawings of surviving Roman architecture.

High neoclassicism was an international movement. Though neoclassical architecture employs the same classical vocabulary as Late Baroque architecture, it tends to emphasize its planar qualities, rather than sculptural volumes. Projections and recessions and their effects of light and shade are flatter; sculptural bas-reliefs are flatter and tend to be enframed in friezes, tablets or panels. Its clearly articulated individual features are isolated rather than interpenetrating, autonomous and complete in themselves.

International neoclassical architecture was exemplified in¬†Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s buildings, especially the¬†Old Museum¬†in Berlin, Sir¬†John Soane’s Bank of England in London and the newly built¬†White House¬†and¬†Capitol¬†in¬†Washington, DC¬†in the¬†United States. The Scots architect¬†Charles Cameron¬†created palatial Italianate interiors for the German-born¬†Catherine II the Great¬†in¬†St. Petersburg.

Italy clung to Rococo until the Napoleonic regimes brought the new archaeological classicism, which was embraced as a political statement by young, progressive, urban Italians with republican leanings.


Museo del Prado - Madrid, Spain

Spanish¬†Neoclassicism counted with the figure of¬†Juan de Villanueva, who adapted¬†Burke’s achievements about the sublime and the beauty to the requirements of Spanish clime and history. He built the¬†Prado Museum, that combined three programs – an academy, an auditorium and a museum – in one building with three separated entrances. This was part of the ambitious program of¬†Charles III, who intended to make Madrid the Capital of Art and Science. Very close to the museum, Villanueva built the Astronomical Observatory. He also designed several summer houses for the kings in¬†El Escorial¬†and¬†Aranjuez¬†and reconstructed the Major Square of¬†Madrid, among other important works. Villanuevas¬ī pupils expanded the Neoclassical style in Spain.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The center of¬†Polish classicism¬†was¬†Warsaw¬†under the rule of the last¬†Polish¬†king¬†StanisŇāaw August Poniatowski.¬†Vilnius University¬†was another important center of the Neoclassical architecture in the Eastern Europe, led by notable professors of architecture¬†Marcin Knackfus,Laurynas Gucevińćius¬†and¬†Karol PodczaszyŇĄski. The style was expressed in the main public buildings, such as the University’s Observatory,Vilnius Cathedral¬†and it¬†town hall. The best known architects and artists, who worked in¬†Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth¬†were¬†Dominik Merlini,¬†Jan Chrystian Kamsetzer,¬†Szymon BogumiŇā Zug,¬†Jakub Kubicki,¬†Antonio Corazzi,¬†Efraim Szreger,¬†Christian Piotr Aigner¬†and¬†Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Interior Design

Indoors, neoclassicism made a discovery of the genuine Roman interior, inspired by the rediscoveries at¬†Pompeii¬†and¬†Herculaneum, which had started in the late 1740s, but only achieved a wide audience in the 1760s, with the first luxurious volumes of tightly-controlled distribution of¬†Le Antichit√† di Ercolan.¬†The antiquities of Herculaneum showed that even the most classicizing interiors of the¬†Baroque, or the most “Roman” rooms of¬†William Kent¬†were based on¬†basilica¬†and¬†temple¬†exterior¬†architecture, turned outside in:¬†pedimented¬†window frames turned into¬†gilded¬†mirrors, fireplaces topped with temple fronts, now all looking quite bombastic and absurd. The new interiors sought to recreate an authentically Roman and genuinely¬†interior¬†vocabulary, employing flatter, lighter motifs, sculpted in low¬†frieze-like relief or painted in monotones¬†en cama√Įeu¬†(“like cameos”), isolated medallions or vases or busts or¬†bucrania¬†or other motifs, suspended on swags of laurel or ribbon, with slender arabesques against backgrounds, perhaps, of “Pompeiian red” or pale tints, or stone colors. The style in France was initially a Parisian style, the “Go√Ľt grec” (“Greek taste”) not a court style. Only when the young king acceded to the throne in 1774 did¬†Marie Antoinette, his fashion-loving Queen, bring the “Louis XVI” style to court.

Late Phase

From about 1800 a fresh influx of Greek architectural examples, seen through the medium of etchings and engravings, gave a new impetus to neoclassicism that is called the¬†Greek Revival.¬†Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in¬†academic art¬†through the 19th century and beyond ‚ÄĒ a constant antithesis to¬†Romanticism¬†or¬†Gothic revivals¬†‚ÄĒ although from the late 19th century on it had often been considered anti-modern, or even reactionary, in influential critical circles. By the mid-19th century, several European cities ‚Äď notably¬†St. Petersburg,¬†Athens,¬†Berlin¬†and¬†Munich¬†‚Äď were transformed into veritable museums of Neoclassical architecture.

In the United States

Primary Story Plan for the White House - Henry Latrobe

In the new republic,¬†Robert Adam’s neoclassical manner was adapted for the local late 18th and early 19th-century style, called “Federal architecture.” One of the pioneers of this style was English-born¬†Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who is often noted as America’s first professional architect and the father of American architecture. The¬†Baltimore Basilica, the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States, is considered by many experts to be Latrobe’s masterpiece.

The widespread use of neoclassicism in American architecture, as well as by French revolutionary regimes, and the general tenor of rationalism associated with the movement, all created a link between neoclassicism and republicanism and radicalism in much of Europe. The Gothic Revival can be seen as an attempt to present a monarchist and conservative alternative to neoclassicism.

In later 19th-century American architecture, Neoclassicism was one expression of the¬†American Renaissance¬†movement,¬†ca¬†1880-1917. Its last manifestation was in¬†Beaux-Arts architecture¬†(1885‚Äď1920), and its very last, large public projects in the United States were the¬†Lincoln Memorial¬†(1922), the¬†National Gallery¬†in Washington, D.C. (1937), and the¬†American Museum of Natural History’s Roosevelt Memorial (1936).

Today there is a growing movement toward a revival of Classical Architecture as evidenced by the groups such as The Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America. The School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, currently teaches a fully Classical curriculum.

In the USSR

Shanghai International Convention Center

In the¬†Soviet Union¬†(1917‚Äď1991), Neoclassical¬†architecture¬†(Stalinist Architecture) was very popular among the political elite, as it effectively expressed state power, and a vast array of neoclassical building was erected all over the country. Soviet architects sometimes tended to over-use the elements of classical architecture, resulting in gaudy-looking buildings, which rendered Soviet Neoclassical architecture the derogatory epithet “wedding cake-architecture.” The Soviet neoclassical architecture was also exported to other members of the¬†Soviet bloc¬†and other socialist countries. Examples of this include the¬†Palace of Culture and Science,¬†Warsaw,¬†Poland¬†and the Shanghai International Convention Centre in¬†Shanghai, the¬†People’s Republic of China.

In Great Britain

In¬†Britain, the writings of¬†Albert Richardson¬†were responsible for reawakening an interest in pure Neoclassical design in the early 20th century.Vincent Harris,¬†Bradshaw Gass & Hope¬†and¬†Percy Thomas¬†were among those who designed public buildings in the Neoclassical style in the¬†interwar period. In the¬†British Raj¬†in¬†India, Sir¬†Edwin Lutyens’ monumental city planning for¬†New Delhi¬†marked the sunset of Neoclassicism. In¬†Scotland¬†and the north of¬†England, where the Gothic Revival was less strong, architects continued to develop the Neoclassical style of¬†William Henry Playfair. The works of¬†Cuthbert Brodrick¬†and¬†Alexander Thomson¬†show that by the end of the 19th century the results could be powerful and eccentric.

During the Third Reich

Neoclassical architecture was the preferred style by the leaders of the National Socialist movement in the¬†Third Reich, especially admired by¬†Adolf Hitler¬†himself. Hitler commissioned his favourite architect,¬†Albert Speer, to plan a re-design of Berlin as a city comprising imposing neoclassical structures, which would be renamed as¬†Welthauptstadt Germania, the centrepiece of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. These plans never came to fruition due to the eventual downfall of Nazi Germany and the¬†suicide of its leader.

In Canada

An instance of this Neoclassic revival style is reflected by the Lillian Massey Building in Toronto, Canada. The building resides in the Bay Street Corridor neighborhood and has stood the test of time since 1913, when it first opened as the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Household Science.¬†The faculty housed some of the university’s first female professors. Today it houses the Canadian head office and flagship store of the retail brand Club Monaco.¬†According to Leland M. Roth and his text Understanding Architecture Its Elements, History and Meaning Neoclassicism is defined as a reproduction of Classical Greek and Roman building whether in the entirety of buildings or selected details which begun in the later 18th century.¬†The Club Monaco building in particular seems to belong more to the Classical Roman style than to the Classical Greek style. The Roman Ionic order there is no swelling pulvinus between the columns. Furthermore the antae are for ornamentation rather than structural support. The heavily decorated entrance is reminiscent of Baroque Classic Roman architecture. The classical elements adapted and reused within the style of Neoclassicism contribute to the coherence of the building.

Neoclassicism Today

After a lull during the period of modern architectural dominance (roughly post-WWII until the mid 1980s), Neoclassicism has seen somewhat of a resurgence. In the United States, an increasing number of architectural firms such as Robertson Partners, Fairfax and Sammons, Michael Imber and others adhere to classical principles. Buildings, such as the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, are again being built in Neoclassical style today.

In¬†Britain¬†a number of architects are active in the Neoclassical style. Two new university Libraries,¬†Quinlan Terry’s Maitland Robinson Library at¬†Downing College¬†and ADAM Architecture’s¬†Sackler Library¬†illustrate that the approach taken can range from the traditional, in the former case, to the unconventional, in the latter case. The majority of new neoclassical buildings in Britain are private houses. Firms like¬†Francis Johnson¬†& Partners specialise in new country houses.

Recently, Prince Charles came under controversy for promoting a classically designed development on the land of the former Chelsea Barracks in London. Writing to the Qatari Royal family (who were funding the development through the property development company Qatari Diar) he condemned the accepted modernist plans, instead advocating a classical approach. His appeal was met with success and the plans were withdrawn. A new design by architecture house Dixon Jones is currently being drafted.

Neoclassical architecture is usually now classed under the umbrella term of “traditional architecture” and is practised by a number of members of the Traditional Architecture Group.


Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, History

Art 101: What is Performance Art?

Fourth post in my ongoing series, “Art 101.” This post focuses on the rise and lifespan of Performance Art. The other posts in the series can be found under the Art tab at the top of the page.

Performance Art

Cut Piece - Yoko Ono. First performed in Japan (1964) then in New York (Carnegie Hall, 1965). Performed for the last time in Paris (September 2003).

Performance art¬†is a performance presented to an audience; either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.

Performance art is an essentially contested concept: any single definition of it implies the recognition of rival uses. As concepts like “democracy” or “art”, it implies productive disagreement with itself.

The meaning of the term in the narrower sense is related to postmodernist traditions in Western culture. From about the mid-1960s into the 1970s, often derived from concepts of visual art, with respect to Antonin Artaud, Dada, the Situationists, Fluxus, Installation art, and Conceptual Art, performance art tended to be defined as an antithesis to theatre, challenging orthodox artforms and cultural norms. The ideal had been an ephemeral and authentic experience for performer and audience in an event that could not be repeated, captured or purchased. The in this time widely discussed difference, how concepts of visual arts and concepts of performing arts are utilized, can determine the meanings of a performance art presentation (comparePerformance: A Critical Introduction by Marvin Carlson, P. 103,2-105,1).

Performance art is a term usually reserved to refer to a conceptual art which conveys a content-based meaning in a more drama-related sense, rather than being simple performance for its own sake for entertainment purposes. It largely refers to a performance which is presented to an audience, but which does not seek to present a conventional theatrical play or a formal linear narrative, or which alternately does not seek to depict a set of fictitious characters in formal scripted interactions. It therefore can include action or spoken word as a communication between the artist and audience, or even ignore expectations of an audience, rather than following a script written beforehand.

Trans-fixed - Chris Burden. Performance piece in which he is nailed to a Volkswagon. Performed in Venice, CA in 1974

Some kinds of performance art nevertheless can be close to performing arts. Such performance may utilize a script or create a fictitious dramatic setting, but still constitute performance art in that it does not seek to follow the usual dramatic norm of creating a fictitious setting with a linear script which follows conventional real-world dynamics; rather, it would intentionally seek to satirize or to transcend the usual real-world dynamics which are used in conventional theatrical plays.

Performance artists often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about “what art is”. As long as the performer does not become a player who repeats a role, performance art can include satirical elements; utilize¬†robots¬†and machines as performers, as in pieces of the¬†Survival Research Laboratories; or borrow elements of any¬†performing arts¬†such as¬†dance,¬†music, and¬†circus.


Performance art activity is not confined to European or American art traditions; notable practitioners can be found in Asia and Latin America. Performance artists and theorists point to different traditions and histories, ranging from tribal to sporting and ritual or religious events.

There are accounts of Renaissance artists putting on public performances that could be said to be ancestors of performance art.

Western cultural theorists often trace performance art activity back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the¬†Russian constructivists,¬†Futurists¬†and¬†Dada. Dada provided a significant progenitor with the unconventional performances of poetry, often at the¬†Cabaret Voltaire, by the likes of¬†Richard Huelsenbeck¬†and¬†Tristan Tzara (see my discussion of Dada here).¬†Russian Futurist¬†artists could be identified as precursors of performance, such as¬†David Burliuk, who painted his face for his actions (1910‚Äď20) and¬†Alexander Rodchenko¬†and his wife¬†Varvara Stepanova.

According to the art critic¬†Harold Rosenberg¬†in the 1940s and 1950s¬†Action Painting¬†gave artists the freedom to perform – the canvas as “an arena in which to act,” thereby rendering the paintings as traces of the artist’s performance in his/her studio.¬†Abstract Expressionism¬†and¬†Action Painting¬†preceded the¬†Fluxus movement,¬†Happenings¬†and the emergence of Performance Art.

Performance art was anticipated, if not explicitly formulated, by¬†Japan’s¬†Gutai group¬†of the 1950s, especially in such works as¬†Atsuko Tanaka’s “Electric Dress” (1956).

Conceptual work by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-Aux-Roses, October 1960. Photo by Harry Shunk.

Yves Klein¬†had been a precursor of performance art with the conceptual pieces of¬†Zone de Sensibilit√© Picturale Immat√©rielle¬†(Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility) 1959‚Äď62, and works like the photomontage, Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void). In the late 1960s¬†Earth artists¬†as diverse as¬†Robert Smithson,¬†Dennis Oppenheim,¬†Michael Heizer¬†and¬†Carl Andre¬†created environmental pieces that predict the performance art of the 1970s. Works of conceptual artists in the early 1980s, like¬†Sol LeWitt, who converted mural-style drawing into an act of performance by others, were influenced by Yves Klein and the Earth artists as well.


In the 1960s a variety of new works, concepts and the increasing number of artists led to new kinds of performance art.

Prototypic for the later emerging artform “performance art” were works of artists like¬†Yoko Ono¬†with her “Wall piece for orchestra‚Äú (1962);¬†Carolee Schneemann¬†with pieces like¬†Meat Joy¬†(1964);¬†Joseph Beuys¬†with¬†How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare¬†(1965);¬†Yayoi Kusama, with actions such as a naked flag-burning on the Brooklyn Bridge (1968) and¬†Allan Kaprow¬†in his many¬†Happenings.

Kaprow had coined the term¬†Happening¬†describing a new artform, at the beginning of the 1960s. A¬†Happening¬†allows the artist to experiment with body motion, recorded sounds, written and spoken texts, and even smells. One of Kaprow’s earliest was “Happenings in the New York Scene,” written in 1961 as the form was developing.¬†Notably in the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, the audience members become performers. While the audiences in Happenings had been welcomed as the performers, it only sometimes and often unwittingly that they become an active part in a Performance. Other artists who created Happenings besides Kaprow include¬†Jim Dine,¬†Claes Oldenburg,¬†Robert Whitman, and¬†Wolf Vostell:¬†Theater is in the Street¬†(Paris, 1958).

Hermann Nitsch's Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries

Hermann Nitsch¬†in 1962 presented his “Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries” (Orgien- und Mysterien Theater), a form close to the performing arts, and a precursor to performance art.¬†Andy Warhol¬†during the early 1960s began creating films and video. In the mid-60s Warhol sponsored the¬†Velvet Underground¬†and staged events and performances in New York, like the¬†Exploding Plastic Inevitable¬†(1966) that featured live Rock music, exploding lights, and film.

Indirectly influential for art-world performance, particularly in the United States, were new forms of theatre, embodied by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Living Theatre and showcased in Off-Off Broadway theaters in SoHo and at La MaMa in New York City. The Living Theatre chiefly toured in Europe between 1963 and 1968, and 1968 in the USA work of this period, Paradise Now was notorious for its audience participation and a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while disrobing.

The work of performance artists after 1968 often showed influences of the cultural and political events of that year. Barbara T. Smith with Ritual Meal (1969) was at the forefront of the feminist body art, and performance art of the 1970s; among others including: Carolee Schneemann, and Joan Jonas. Schneemann and Jonas along with Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden pioneered the relationship between Body Art and Performance Art.


Artists whose work already before tended to be a performance art, as well as new artists, at the beginning of the 1970s began to present performance art in a stricter form.

New artists with radical performances were Chris Burden, with the 1971 performance piece Shoot, in which he was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters, and Vito Acconci in the same year with Seedbed.

The book Expanded Cinema, by Gene Youngblood, marked a shift in the use of media by performance artists. The first book considering video art as an art form, mentions Jud Yalkut as a pioneering video artist. Since 1965 he had collaborated in dozens of intermedia performances throughout the United States, also with Nam June Paik, who beginning of the 1960s already had been a Fluxus performer on the way to become a media artist. As to the art of Paik, Youngblood refers to works of Carolee Schneemann and Robert Whitman from the 1960s, which had been pioneering for performance art, becoming an independent artform at the beginning of the 1970s.

The British-based pair¬†Gilbert and George, already in 1970, had documented actions of themselves on video, and created their “living sculpture” performance, being painted in gold and singing “Underneath The Arches” for extended periods.¬†Joan Jonas¬†began to include video in her experimental performances in 1972.

Pages from Marina Abramovińá Rhythm 10

In 1973¬†Laurie Anderson¬†performed¬†Duets on Ice, on the streets of New York City. Marina Abramovińá, in the performance “Rhythm 10,” conceptually included the violation of her body.

Since 1973 the Feminist Studio Workshop at the¬†Woman’s Building¬†in Los Angeles had a formative impact on the wave of performances with feminist background.

Carolee Schneemann work in 1963, Eye Body, already had been a prototype of performance art. Schneemann in 1975 drew on with innovative solo performances, like Interior Scroll, showing the female body as an artistic medium.

Performance art, because of its relative transience, by the 1970s, had a fairly robust presence in the avant-garde of East Bloc countries, especially Yugoslavia and Poland.


Until the 1980s, performance art had been demystifying virtuosity. Now it began to embrace technical brilliance. In reference to Presence and Resistance by Philip Auslander, a performance art critic, Sally Banes writes:

‚Äú‚Ķ by the end of the 1980s, performance art had become so widely known that it no longer needed to be defined; mass culture, especially television, had come to supply both structure and subject matter for much performance art; and several performance artists, including¬†Laurie Anderson,¬†Spalding Gray,¬†Eric Bogosian,Willem Dafoe, and¬†Ann Magnuson, had indeed become crossover artists in mainstream entertainment.‚ÄĚ

Despite the fact that many performances are held within the circle of a small art-world group, RoseLee Goldberg notes, in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present that:

“…performance has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture. Conversely, public interest in the medium, especially in the 1980s, stems from an apparent desire of that public to gain access to the art world, to be a spectator of its ritual and its distinct community, and to be surprised by the unexpected, always unorthodox presentations that the artists devise.‚ÄĚ

Art/Life: One Year Performance (aka Rope Piece) - Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh

Among the performance art most discussed in the art-world of this decade were a performance by Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh between July 1983 and July 1984,¬†Art/Life: One Year Performance¬†(Rope Piece), and Karen Finlay‚Äôs¬†I’m an Ass Man¬†1987.

Until the decline of the European Eastern Bloc during the late 1980s, performance art by most communist governments had actively been rejected. With the exception of Poland and Yugoslavia, performance art was more or less banned in countries where any independent public event was feared. In the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Latvia it happened in apartments, at seemingly spontaneous gatherings in artist studios, in church-controlled settings, or covered as another activity, like a photo-shooting. Isolated of the western conceptual context, in different settings it could be like a playful protest or like a bitter comment, using subversive metaphors to express dissent with the political situation.

Hedwig Gorski before 1982 came up with the term performance poetry, to distinguish her text-based vocal performances from performance art, especially the work of performance artists, such as Laurie Anderson, who worked with music at that time. Performance poets relied more on the rhetorical and philosophical expression in their poetics than performance artists, who arose from the visual art genres of painting and sculpture.


While the Soviet bloc disintegrated, formerly repressed activities of performance artists like György Galántai in Hungary, or the Collective Action Group in Russia, became better known. Young artists from all over the former Eastern bloc, including Russia, turned to performance. Performance art at about the same time appeared in Cuba, the Caribbean and China. Chinese performance artists like Zhang Huan had been performing underground since the late 1980s. Beginning of the 1990s chinese performance art already was acclaimed in the international artscene.

“In these contexts performance art became a critical new voice with a social force similar to that found in Western Europe, the United States and South America in the 1960s and early 1970s. It should be emphasized that the eruption of performance art in the 1990s in Eastern Europe, China, South Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere should never be considered either secondary to or imitative of the West.” (Linda Montano, Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties, 479)

In the western world in the 1990s, even sophisticated performance art became part of the cultural mainstream: performance art as a complete artform gained admittance into art museums and became a museal topic.


Abramovińá sitting with "The Artist is Present" curator Klaus Biesenbach

From March 14 to May 31, 2010, the¬†Museum of Modern Art¬†held a major retrospective and performance recreation of¬†Marina Abramovińá’s work, the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history.¬†During the run of the exhibition, Abramovińá performed “The Artist is Present,” a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.¬†A support group for the “sitters,” “Sitting with Marina,” was established on¬†Facebook.¬†The performance attracted celebrities such as¬†Bj√∂rk¬†and¬†James Franco¬†and received coverage on the internet including an essay by NYC-author¬†Tao Lin.

The Role of the Body in Performance Art

Through history, the figure has provided artists with both form and content. Human figures are challenging, versatile forms that can strike many poses and provide a multitude of contrasting, complex shapes and visual relationships. As content, human figures have served to express deeply cherished cultural values, including beliefs about religion, politics, and personal and social identity. Sometimes but not always in art history, the figure has also been used to represent ideas about the body as a corporeal entity, for instance, ideas about sexuality and morality.

(Parasite) performed by Stellarc at the Ars Electronica Festival, 1997

Figurative art has had a tumultuous history in the West since WWII. The most critically acclaimed new art of the 1950s was nonobjective. At the same time, much attention was given to artists’ gestures and creative process; think of the well-known photographs of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings. Artists’ self-consciousness about their own physical actions and creative process helped open the ay to the various live-art forms – the performance art that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Happenings, Fluxus, Actions, and Body Art. Body Art, a subset of performance art consisting of art made on or with the human body – where artist’s body literally serves as the medium – has an obvious connection to themes of the body. There have been forms of body art in many times and places, such as tattoos, body piercing, and scarification. Body art as a movement in contemporary art includes works ranging from self-mutilation (think of Yoko Ono’s now canonical Cut Piece, or Marina Abramovińá’s Rhythm 0) to feats of bodily endurance (Stellarc, for example) to more benign demonstrations of the artist’s body as a form in space.

Why have so many contemporary artists focused on the body? In some cases, this focus is a result of an activist stance toward art making, in which the personal becomes the political. In an essay analyzing the formation of the feminist art in movement in the US, artist Suzanne Lacy provides a list of key ideas that helped propel the work that feminist artists were making in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Among these ideas, she noted that the body became a primary site for works of art. Lacy explained:

“Not only was the body a site, it was an important source of information. Much of women’s social status was seen as based in the body, so issues like violence, birthing, sexuality and beauty were frequent subjects.”

Lateral Suspension - Stellarc, 1976

In other cases, artists using the body have made as aggressive decision to blur the boundaries between art and life. Linda Montano, discussing a work of performance art in which she was tied by rope to the artist Tehching Hsieh for one continuous year (1983-84), explained the consequences of viewing all their bodily actions as forms of art:

“… because I believe that everything we do is art – fighting, eating, sleeping – then even the negatives are raised to the dignity of art.”

But there is more about the body than the role of gender or politics. The sexualized body and sexuality, the gaze, sex and violence, mortal bodies, and posthuman bodies have all become central topics of Performance Art, of Body Art.


Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, Feminism, History