For many, the word ‘art’ evokes images of artists starving in garrets and dying for their work, leaving behind a legacy of great masterpieces no-one had recognised. The truth, of course, is rarely like that.
Art is full of industrious people who are affected and influenced by their times, surroundings and personal experiences, as well as the materials available to them and the art required at the time. Since ancient times, artists have produced two- and three-dimensional art in paint, plaster, bronze, marble, mosaic and more, and as they try new things, they affect and influence the art that follows. Sometimes art changes as a positive response, and sometimes it reacts against art that has gone before.
When I began writing my book, The Short Story of Art, I wanted to create an introduction to Western art that would be unique and accessible. Often, people are interested in art, yet feel uncomfortable because they don’t know (or think don’t they know) enough. The easiest way to approach the vast subject is to encounter it in bite-size pieces, and then learn how these connect. I have chosen four snapshots, not because they were the most ground-breaking art of all time, but because each initiated developments in the story of art. The 13th-century mosaic Christ Pantokrator included some tonal contrast, which harked back to ancient Roman mosaics, suggesting it wasn’t simply a flat image on a wall. Giotto went even further, trying to portray depth, distance and emotion. Mary Cassatt used the inventions of portable paint tubes and photography, and the newer influence of Japanese prints to capture a boating scene from an unusual viewpoint, while Degas outrageously added clothing and hair to his statue.
Interestingly, however, one of the earliest works in the book is bulls painted on a cave wall thousands of years ago, while one of the most recent is a shark preserved in formaldehyde: large images of animals about 20,000 years apart. It makes you wonder, has art changed much at all? The Short Story of Art by Susie Hodge is out now, published by Laurence King, £12.99. www.laurenceking.com