The Annotated Mona Lisa Book Report
Art has evolved continuously since its inception in the settlements of humans during the Stone Age. What originally started as a method by primitive man to control nature and its destructive forces , has become a way to express one’s emotions, to critique society, and to make a living doing nothing except taking photos of rocks stacked on top of each other. Art has progressed as fast as civilization. It took roughly ten millennia for human society to transition from the old stone age and the making of cave paintings to the new stone age and the construction of massive standing stone monuments. Compare this to the decade it took for Abstract Expressionism to become cliché and be replaced by Hard Edge.
Art in its original state was quite spiritual in nature, its purpose being to understand and control the natural world. The Venus of Willendorf, one of the oldest of man-made sculpture, exemplifies this as it is believed to be a symbol of fertility. In the more primitive areas of the world this tradition that art contained magical properties continued, as can be seen in traditional Native American and African art. Religions also inspired great architecture, from the Ziggurats of the Sumerians to the Egyptian pyramids. The Parthenon, the greatest symbol of the classical world, was built to be the temple of the patron goddess of Athens, Athena.
As civilization progressed and wealth allowed for luxuries, secular art grew in demand. The Mesopotamians kings were the first great patrons of secular art, employing many artists to depict military exploits and hunting expeditions. The Greeks adorned their pottery and art with everyday scenes, such as a boy singing while playing an instrument. The Romans in particular made many secular pieces, usually depicting famous emperors or military leaders. Mural painting was also another form of secular art, with the rich Roman elite having their villas adorned with scenes of parties and landscapes.
With arrival of Christianity, religious art took precedence over secular art. The Byzantines made incredibly beautiful mosaics for their churches, often depicting Jesus and the disciples. These mosaics paid little attention to the ideas of perspective and volume. As Europe stabilized with the end of the Dark Ages and the Roman Catholic Church established its grip over society, churches were built all over the continent. Originally Roman in style, these buildings used barrel and groin vaults with rounded arches. Gradually, more experienced architects came onto the scene and developed Gothic architecture., with its distinctive pointed arches, flying wall supports, and well-lit interiors.
In the commercial and manufacturing cities of Northern Italy, rich patrons and the rediscovery of roman classics led to a reawakening by the art world in what has since been called the Renaissance. Vital to this movement was the discovery of new ways to depict reality, namely the use of oil and canvas instead of wood and tempera, the use of perspective and pyramid configuration to create depth, and the use of chiaroscuro to depict rounded surfaces. The creative spark was also very bright during these times, with masters such as Donatello and Botticelli using these techniques to sculpt and paint with realism that had not been seen since the Classical Era. The man which most represents the Renaissance is the genius Leonardo Da Vinci. His interests were vast, covering such subjects as astronomy, physics, and art. It is for his art that he is most remembered for, as he was the one who painted The Mona Lisa, considered one of the greatest paintings ever made. Through his use of all the great breakthroughs in Renaissance, along with his own improvements such as the “sfumato” technique and making his model smile, has rendered it a masterpiece of the Renaissance. The Northern countries of Europe, Germany and the Netherlands, all had their own renaissance. However, the lack of Roman ruins to rediscover led to a greater focus on nature and daily life in art. The lack of Classical sculptures to teach idealism in art also led to greater realism in Northern art.
After the death of Raphael, artists seeking to differentiate themselves from the masters of the High Renaissance began to pioneer a new style called Mannerism or Late Renaissance. While High Renaissance had sought to bring realism, harmony, and reason into art, Mannerists tried to bring emotion and imagination. Typical Mannerist paintings included elongation of bodies, harsh lighting, and intense emotionalism brought on by lurid colors.
The combination of mannerist and renaissance styles would lead to a new art movement called Baroque. The Baroque era began in 1600 in the city of Rome, where the Catholic Church was financing the construction of cathedrals and grand works to inspire religious faith. Artists from all over Europe came to Rome to study the masters and to find employment, then would return to their homes and add their own touches. The Reformation had a dramatic effect on northern Europe, from where on no artists would continue to paint religious subjects.
The nineteenth century would be different than the previous ones. Art styles which would have lasted for a century or longer might last 4 decades or even just 2 as artists developed new styles to compete with the old. This reflects the changes in society at the time, with democracies being established, religion losing its sway, and industrialization making the cities full of poor working masses and industry.
The next great art style would be that of Neoclassicism. The revival of classical painting can be traced to the revulsion many artists felt toward the Rococo style, a minor art style which grew up in France and was the definition of over-decoration. Whereas Rococo was frivolous and highly colored, Neoclassicism was solemn and relied on line. The subjects of Neoclassicism were of course Roman and Greek mythology.
In response to the solemnity and reason of Neoclassicism, new artists developed Romanticism. Like the Mannerists to the Renaissance artists, Romanticism gave far more weight to emotions, passion, and imagination. The German writer Goethe summed up Romanticism perfectly when he stated “Feeling is all!”
While Neoclassical and Romantic schools argued in Paris, a new style called Realism was emerging. While realism had been a part of the art world ever since Renaissance artists overcame the technical limitations of representing it, usually such forms were either idealized or sensationalist. Realists painted exactly what they saw, with no alterations or enhancements.
The style which would come to influence modern art the most would be
Impressionism. Impressionism was a radical style at the time, abandoning time honored principles of perspective, balance, and chiaroscuro. Instead, the Impressionists used color and light to capture an “impression” of a scene, or the initial perception an artist gains. In order to capture the fleeting nature of light, these artists pioneered the use of short, choppy brush strokes which used pure color.
After Impressionism triumphed over academic art, it began to experience changes and evolved into what is called Post-Impressionism. Many artists were unsatisfied with rather short nature of impressionist, feeling that it made their work look unplanned and unprofessional. This problem split the group into two groups: one which followed scientific design, the other expressing emotions and sensations through color and light. It is from these two trends that twentieth century would be descended from.
The twentieth century was incredibly convulsive. Two world wars, genocide, the destruction of many European cities contributed to a chaotic environment in the traditional art world of Europe. This environment may have contributed to the increasing importance of the interior vision at the expense of reality. The twentieth century would produce the greatest departure from the past of any century before. The philosophy behind this abrupt shift was Modernism, which wanted to reject the past and relentlessly pursue freedom of expression. No longer needing wealthy patrons to support them, artists were free use imagination and experiences in their art. Perhaps the biggest upset of this modern world would be the move of the avant garde in art from Paris to the United States.
The Annotated Mona Lisa is a good book which goes through art history in a fast, not tedious, yet still manages to answer a reader’s questions with great precision.