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How to analyze a work of art? One of the phrases that we hear most often or that we ourselves may have thought of when we approached for the first time a work or an artist we did not know is “I could do it too…” or “But this is art… ”. Needless to deny it, it happens more often with contemporary art, but it can also happen with art from the past which, despite the passage of time and historicisation, still makes us wonder why it was ever made, in what context and why.

I’m Clelia and today let’s find out what questions I ask myself when I find myself in front of a work for the first time and how I try to overcome that initial impact with an open mind and a little curiosity. And if like me you are passionate about art, travel and the market, I suggest you take a look at my channel Youtube to not miss the next videos. 

Where do these questions come from?

My way of approaching art has developed over time, through travel, the study of art history, work experiences and obviously visits to exhibitions and museums. However, one of the things that marked me the most was the study of the Phenomenology of the arts in the classroom but also in particular around the museums of Milan with my professor. And these 20 questions I’m telling you about today are precisely the ones he himself taught us to ask ourselves during these visits and which you find in his text “The Spontaneous Synthesis”.

In my opinion, this system of analysis is based on two fundamental concepts: the first is that the analysis of a work can be done on several levels not only on the basis of the nature of the work, but also on our previous knowledge. 

And the second concept instead is that our way of facing the world is based on a cognitive and intellectual bias. The sooner we free ourselves from this prejudice, the sooner we will arrive at the necessary open-mindedness. 

Finally, perhaps there is also a third concept which is that of the exercise of analysis. These questions I’m about to tell you about are simple, they can be easily made our own because they are small spontaneous curiosities, but they require an initial effort.

A bit like physical activity. By training 3 or 5 times a week we will be fitter and more accustomed to exercise than by training only once a month. So let’s take these questions and try to make them our own every time we face a new work. 

How to analyze a work of art? The 4 characteristics

In the book from which I drew this teaching, four characteristics are highlighted which must accompany us in this discovery:

  • as curiositya fuel or instinct which guides
  • , humility which allows us to relate to the world in an open way,
  • the uncertainty which it allows us to doubt and put ourselves on the line and finally
  • the courage that allows us to face uncertainty. 

How to analyze a work of art? The first 10 questions

The importance of materials and techniques

Having said that, let’s begin. The first question to ask is: what is being presented to us? What do we have ahead? Is it perhaps a photo, a canvas, a sculpture, a performance… What is it? 

Once the type of work has been identified, we must ask ourselves what material was used to make it? Let’s try to guess it first, if it is a pictorial work it is a watercolour, a drawing or a painting. If it’s a painting, is it an oil or a tempera? 

If we don’t know the different techniques, it doesn’t matter that the next question comes our way: how and why is this material used? There are works in which the material is fundamental and I remember perfectly that in the exhibition with the class it was my turn to answer this question in front of a poor art work that has a strong bond with the materials. This is the sculpture that eats Anselm’s salad. Why is this material used? A head of lettuce that deteriorates over time and granite, a stable and long-lasting material. The modification of a material over time, the salad causes the modification of the granite because one of the two blocks, the smaller square one, will slip away and end up falling at the foot of the sculpture. 

With this example I also unwittingly told you about the next question which is: what is the history of the material? In the case of granite it gives this idea of ​​stability, we recognize it as a solid material mostly used in architecture. In the case of salad, we usually find it on our plates to be consumed. 

Let’s move on to the fifth question: What are the physical characteristics of the work? Which shape does it have? What colour is it? Two-dimensional or three-dimensional? Does it make sounds? Describing the physical characteristic brings you closer to the reality of the object, makes you understand its nature. And in great works of art the material is rarely chosen at random, on the contrary its physical properties are fundamental. An example is Urs Fischer’s house of bread on display at the Milan Triennale the year of the Expo.

Perceptual space and questions about language

Then the next one: what are the dimensions, weight and measures of what we see? A work made with light materials will give the idea of ​​lightness while on the contrary a work made with heavy materials will give us an idea of ​​stability and firmness. 

Now that we understand what we have in front of us, let’s try to understand the space it occupies. How, where and why is it in our perceptual space? There are works that specifically play on the perception of space such as those by the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm. But the same question can also apply to more traditional works such as a portrait now kept in the National Gallery. Based on the size and space it occupies, we can begin to imagine what message it carries with it. 

And thus we come to the question: what is its cultural and historical location? That is, if it has these physical characteristics, what could be the historical and cultural motivations that prompted the artist to create it? We will find out after a while when we listen to the audio guide of the exhibition or read the catalog but at that moment we are interested in playing, practicing and trying to figure it out on our own. 

Then ask ourselves which languages ​​do we recognize? The same theme, the human figure, can be addressed through different languages: a realistic portrait of nineteenth-century nobles, a seventeenth-century Spanish saint or a portrait in the mirror like those of Pistoletto. 

And now we come to the last question of the group of those that require only our personal effort and it is What feelings does the use of this material or this technique arouse in me? Two examples with two artists I’ve talked about several times on the channel. The 1993 Sistine Chapel by Nam June Paik which expresses itself through technology and launches a message of experimentation thanks to materials. And then Eliasson who reconstructs a waterfall for us outside the Tate and tells us about nature and our relationship with the planet. Only through the water, its noise and the idea it arouses in us.

How to analyze a work of art? The 4 questions related to the artist and the context

We have now reached the halfway point and we must go beyond the sensations and begin to use our curiosity to discover more. The eleventh question is therefore: Who created the work and what is its cultural and geographical origin? Here the materials on display come in handy.

We’ve discovered a little more about the author, now let’s move on to the work: does he have a title? was it given a name? If so, how come it was chosen. Perhaps it has a precise reference such as the description of what happens in the work, for example Renoir’s Luncheon for the rowers or Pipilotti Rist’s Massachusetts Chandelier. Or on the contrary, if a title does not have it, how come it has not been given?  

Now let’s find out a little more than what is suggested by the curators of the exhibition. The next question is: are there writings or captions? And what information do they give us? Over time you will discover that it will be almost a conquest to have identified a technique, a period or an artist without even reading the caption. Or how funny it is sometimes to mistake a Braque for a Picasso at the Pompidou or not quite recognize a Mondrian from the early years.

We conclude this second level of more historical reading with the last question which is: what are the elements linked to tradition? A broad question. It could be the tradition of the artist, the tradition of the period, of the geographical country but I’m sure you’ll recognize something. One example we’ve talked about is TV Buddha. 

How to analyze a work of art? The final and open questions

Now let’s move on to the last phase of questions, which are more personal and for which there is all the more reason that there is no right or wrong answer. However, each of them puts us on the line and requires that curiosity, humility, uncertainty and courage of which we spoke earlier. Here they are:

15. work reinterpret something I already know in an original way?

16. How mysterious is this image to me?

17. What degree of imagination and creativity do you have in my opinion?

18. Did this image help me see things from a different point of view?

And then personal taste 19. Do I like what I see?  And finally 20. Do I want to see you again?

These last six questions are really open. And in general I invite you to practice and put all or part of them into practice with an open mind the next time you come into contact with a work. In any case, it is only a story of mine, a way that is now natural to see the works, not a recipe for the perfect interpretation. Let me know though Instagram or Youtube if you have ever asked yourself some of these questions or if you will use them in the future. 

And if you want to find out more about reading works of art, I recommend my article on elements of a work of art or simply one of the readings of the masterpieces of art that you can find among the playlists of the channel. 

Thanks and see you next time! 

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