Loading the Canon #5 by Helena-Anne Hittel
Sensing the Artist
I’m an art historian. I study art. I am expected to know what the work is called, what it is made of, who made it, when they made it, and (depending on the professor) maybe even the dimensions of said work. In short, if it still exists, there’s a good chance that I may have studied it. I haven’t seen everything, and I never will, but every class, I’m confronted over and over by the same feeling: this art on the screen in the lecture hall actually exists.
I’m currently taking a class about Greek Art and Architecture. We recently looked at a tomb known as the Treasury of Atreus near the ancient Bronze Age site of Mycenae. This tholos, or circular, tomb was built some time between 1300 and 1250 BC, is (according to my notes) 43 feet high, 48 feet in diameter, and made of stone blocks. The resulting monument was then covered in dirt. It amazes me how these ancient Mycenaeans were able to construct this. In Bronze Age Greece. Without the use of cranes and backhoes and all of our modern construction machinery. There wasn’t even any mortar used in the construction of this building, and yet, it has stood the test of time (see also: the Pyramids of Giza).
Sometimes, as the spectator, we tend to take art for granted. It hangs on the wall in a gallery, and it’s nice to go in and look at it for a while, but we forget that the name on the label next to the artwork belongs to an artist. In the cases of well-known artists such as Van Gogh, Dalí, and Magritte to name a few, their works are reproduced and used so often and in so many places that Starry Night fails to impress. The Persistence of Memory no longer gives you goosebumps, and Ceci n’est pas une pipe just isn’t as pithy anymore.
Allow me to remind you: the image on your calendar, coffee mug, tee shirt, or whatever is more than just that. The copy of Starry Night that you see is a copy of an original painted by a man named Vincent Van Gogh in 1889. Meaning, this man was alive to create this image. He drew breath (however briefly, poor Vincent) in front of this canvas. He mixed his paint this way and applied it that way to get this effect, and though it wasn’t popular during his lifetime, look at all the attention it’s getting now. It’s aesthetically pleasing, yes, but the real one is in the Museum of Modern Art. You could reach out and touch it (God help you if you do), and know that paint that you touched was put there by Van Gogh himself.
Whenever you look at a work of art, remember this: the artist was, or is, alive. A living, breathing human being painted/sculpted/designed this work. It’s not just the image on a calendar or a mousepad. The Treasury of Atreus is not just a round building made of stones. The White House did not spring up out of the ground to be the home of the most powerful person in the nation. Someone had to put it there first.
Helena-Anne Hittel (Episode 35, essay) is an Art History Major at the University of Central Florida and Intern at the UCF Art Gallery.