You have probably heard the saying that “Context is everything,” and for art historians this is especially true. The history in art history is all about context—the circumstances that make up the world supporting and informing the meaning around the visual object under investigation—and context is the third element of art following my earlier explorations of the fundamentals of FORM and the fundamentals of CONTENT. Researching context is the task that drives most art historian’s (including my own) research and interests, and the task also takes up much of the time and energy spent by researchers and students working on art history related essays and projects.
Returning to Robert Belton’s descriptions in Elements of Art in an Online Handbook, we find a clear and concise sentence that sums up the multifaceted work of assessing context:
Approaching these varied circumstances is very dependent on the kind of interests one has and the stakes or ideas one wants to explore in connection to the object. In other words, compiling context is not entirely a neutral exercise. Some researchers are more naturally drawn to the artist in question—their life, legacy, and intentions for the work-- while others are far more captivated by the historical period that a work was produced or the kinds of varied critical responses making up the legacy of how the work was (and is) read. Contextual analysis therefore naturally appeals to students who enjoy history, philosophy, and archival research. What is important here is that context must be assessed from a large number of perspectives in order to create a more dynamic assessment. It is not enough, for example, to research only the artist's intention for the work—even if they wrote or stated exactly what the work was meant to be about—since that fact alone does not account for the multiple and sometimes conflicting meanings that can circulate around a visual object. Meaning is made in the circulation of visual objects across time, and in order to account for all of the contingencies, it is important to start with at least these three areas of context:
- Who produced the work?
- Where was the artist/filmmaker trained?
- What are some of the artist’s/filmmaker's beliefs, attitudes, and values?
- Was there a stated intention about why the work was made?
Exhibition and Circulation:
- When was the work produced? What is the historical/social/political context of the time?
- Where was the work produced?
- Who commissioned the work? Is there a money trail?
- Where was the work first shown, was it for private or public exhibition?
- How and where did the work circulate—where is it today?
Critical Readings and Interpretations:
- What was the immediate reaction and critical response to the work?
- What has been written or argued since about the work?
- What kinds of readings or interpretations have dominated the discourse?
- How has the meaning making around the art object changed over time?
Returning to our three examples, I will offer a contextual analysis of each work looking at one of the three areas of context listed above (if I did all three for each work, this blog post would become three essays!):
EDOUARD MANET, OLYMPIA (1863)
For Manet’s painting, I will gather context related to the Producer questions.
Who produced the work?: With this question, you can begin by inventorying relevant bits of the artist’s bio. Edouard Manet, a French nineteenth century painter, created this work. He is often described as producing paintings that would spark and inspire the French Impressionists, and his art was considered very controversial at the time of production. He is also regarded today as one of the most influential and significant artists of the nineteenth century, and an artist who would help develop of the visual vocabulary we now associate with modern art.
Where was the artist trained? This question sets up the context surrounding his affiliations and influences. Manet was a traditional and academically trained artist, studying in Paris under Thomas Couture. He would later reject and challenge aspects of his training as he went on to create works such as Olympia that deviated in many ways from traditional academic nudes. His choice of colours and brushwork, along with the subject choice of a known Parisian prostitute, were dismissed as “bad art” by the general public but celebrated as intentionally modern and progressive by a new generation of artists and critics.
What are some of the artist’s beliefs, attitudes, and values? Manet was an ambitious artist who wanted to be recognized by the official Paris Salon and art establishment and worked to innovate and experiment in his paintings. He was often shocked by the controversy surrounding his art work, but he was determined to be recognized for his ideas and talent.
Was there a stated intention about why the work was made? Manet wanted to take up the challenge that poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire made to visual artists of his time (in the 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life”), to represent the contemporary world around them in all of its flux, contradictions, and complexities. Painting a classical nude (in the long respected tradition going back to Titian’s Venus of Urbino ) that is at the same time referencing a known prostitute in Paris and all of the social taboos her personal represented was one way to explore this kind of modernity in a new form of modern art.
DOROTHEA LANGE, MIGRANT MOTHER (1936)
For Lange’s photograph, I will gather information related to the Exhibition and Circulation question:
When was the work produced? What is the historical/social/political context of the time? A straightforward set of questions that is key to unlocking a flood of context. In the case of this photograph, Dorothea Lange produced the photo as part of a series in February or March 1936. Lange was on a trip photographing migratory farm labourers, and she came across the pictured family. She gave an account of the experience and stated the following:
Lange took this photo during the height of America’s Great Depression (1929-1939) when the plight of the poor and homeless became the focus of her professional interests as a documentary photographer.
Where was the work produced? The picture was taken in Nipomo, California, a place where she came upon a group of hungry, and out-of-work, migrant farm workers living in temporary shelter. This is a part of the United States that became a destination for many migrants because of the warmer weather and potential for work.
Who commissioned the work? Is there a money trail? The photographs were taken as part of Lange's work for US President Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts through the Farm Security Administration, a rural rehabilitation program dedicated to combating rural poverty in the 1930's. The FSA created a photography project to portray the lives of the poor, and they paid Lange to take the photographs including the iconic Migrant Mother image that established her professional reputation. The woman in the photo, Florence Thompson, allowed the photos to be taken but was never compensated for the images despite becoming internationally famous as the face of the Great Depression.
Where was the work first shown, was it for private or public exhibition? Migrant Mother was first published in the San Francisco News on March 11, 1936 as a series. This is a critical distinction from how the single photograph circulates today because the series provides a more complete picture of the situation the family was in, operating more as a documentary object of the time and not the out-of-context universalizing picture of poverty that the photo is associated with today.
How and where did the work circulate—where is it today? The photo series continued to be re-published in magazines, but increasingly the single photo was isolated and circulated for decades as the iconic image representing the Great Depression. The image was even reproduced on a US stamp. Since the FSA photos had no restrictions for reproduction, Migrant Mother entered into many museum exhibitions and has been reprinted and studied by countless scholars. The original images are held today in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.
THE WIZARD OF OZ, DIR. VICTOR FLEMING (1939)
For The Wizard of Oz, I will gather context related to Critical Readings and Interpretations question:
What was the immediate reaction and critical response to the work? Here, it is always important to distinguish what was said and written about a work at the time of initial production. It is often surprisingly different from how later critics may react to the work. In the case of The Wizard of Oz, the initial reception to the film in 1939 was wide acclaim, but most critics remarked on the technological achievements made in film through the use of Technicolor and special effects, while others focused on Judy Garland’s performance as Dorothy with special attention to her singing and acting ability. The film placed high on the critics’ choice list of 1939 and went on to win Best Song and Best Original Score at the Academy Awards, with nominations for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Special Effects. Some critics at the time did argue about the superficial and escapist qualities of the film, while European critics largely ignored the film since the outbreak of WWII delayed audiences from engaging with the allegorical aspects of the film linking a fantasy escape from the realities of life.
What has been written or argued since about the work? This is a tough question to answer without a whole new blog post, but I will cover some basics here. According to the Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz stands as the most watched American film ever made and the most favorite movie of Americans in the twentieth century. Many interpretations of the film have been offered through the years, both from within academic and more popular culture circles, arguing for political and social meanings linked to the film's narrative. This one article in Vulture summarizes the best of the bunch (keep in mind that I would look first to scholarly sources, so I am using this as a quick summary). Among them include a parable on populism suggesting how the story links to transformation within US politics at the time; a religious allegory reading tying the Yellow Brick Road to notions of a path to enlightenment; an atheist allegory that links the Wizard not being real as a symbol of the death of God; a feminist allegory suggesting all the power in the story resides with women; and so on and so on…. This one question can lead to a PhD thesis!
What kinds of readings or interpretations have dominated the discourse? Perhaps the most important reading of The Wizard of Oz dominating the conversation both with critics and audiences has to do with its popularity and wide appeal and the way the story unites people of all classes, backgrounds, and religions. In this way, the film sets forth many of America’s most enduring values, but at the same time presents many challenges to ideas around tradition and authority. As writer Salman Rushdie has argued about The Wizard of Oz, it is a narrative that channels an optimistic worldview of modern Western culture.
How has the meaning making around the art object changed over time? Many adaptations, plays, and other performances have been inspired by the Hollywood version of the film for new generations and audiences. Among these include films such as The Wiz (1978); Return to Oz (1985); and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), and stage adaptations such as Wicked (1995 to the present) and countless book and game adaptations. Each reworking of the original film creates new ways of thinking about the characters and plot of the original movie. Subsequent film directors such as David Lynch and George Lucas have also talked about the influence of the film, both in terms of form and content, on their own cinematic projects.