When we visit art galleries or learn about art in school, we tend to think of paintings on canvas, sculpture or photographs. Often these will be clearly recognisable as people or objects like food and flowers, and we can relate to them as familiar in some way.
Art and pictures have been around ever since people first were recognised as human by historians, in pre-historic times. Prehistoric simply means history which dates before written accounts are available to study. The earliest humans did not have writing with which they could communicate and this means that art and pictures were even more important to them.
Have you got a favourite painting? Mine is ‘A Portrait of the Countess Golovine’ painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, sometime around 1797. It is, unsurprisingly, a portrait of Countess Varvara Nikolaevna Golovine, a talented musician and artist from Russia. Elisabeth and the Countess became great friends and I love the way the Countess is smiling in the portrait, with a red shawl draped around her shoulders and her dark curly hair swept up in behind a scarf. The painting belongs to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, which is one of my favourite galleries.
I love going to art galleries and looking at paintings, but at first I found it quite a daunting thing to do. Have you ever been to an art gallery and not known where to start? Or heard art critics talking about symbolism, composition and form but not understood? Sometimes looking at art can sound difficult, and talking about it can be a whole other language!
But looking at art doesn’t have to be complicated. Things like symbolism, where objects in paintings are used to represent something that’s happening, like a skull symbolising death, can be important and the composition, or the way things in the painting are arranged, can tell us a lot about the artist and why the painted what they did.