In spite of the seemingly permanent wintry weather over the past few weeks the Art Appreciation activities have provided some warmth at the Ashmolean. The major and continuing aim of this strand of Ashmolean educational work is help people to explore in depth works of art in the gallery collections – to confront and get to understand a real object, in this case mainly paintings.

 Study Day : ‘What is a Painting ?’.

The Study Day at the end of February asked the question ‘What is a painting?’ for which we again had the expert help of the Ashmolean Conservation department.  Here we discovered such things as pigments and their origins and history and types of support, including wooden panels and stretched canvases.  We learnt about the different properties of tempera and oil paint and the preparation of grounds, particularly gesso.  We then moved on to the public galleries selecting a few works to examine them as physical objects using our knowledge given us by the Conservation department – from early Italian tempera on panel works to works using the later discovery of oil painting on canvas.

Another major strand of our day was to explore the different ‘contexts’ of works – physically, as in fragments of altar-pieces, to the essential role of a patron, be it an individual, a Church’, or an organisation, be it secular or religious, or the ‘shop-window’ of a large exhibition like the Royal Academy Summer exhibition. Our art appreciation work generally emphasise the need to understand such contexts. The emergence of the painter from being a skilled artisan to the late nineteenth century appearance of the ‘Artist’ is important – most of the paintings in the Ashmolean galleries are works as accepted by a patron – only in works from the later nineteenth century do we see the producer, the artist, initiating a work.

The third major strand of the day was to explore the subject matter of a painting – exploring its intended meaning, not always clear to us to-day, and the cultural and social context in which it was produced.


‘Exploring Modern Art’ – 4 week afternoon series.

This series set out to explore what is meant by ‘Modern Art’ with reference to the Ashmolean collections. The Department of Western Art were extremely helpful in providing us with access to the reserve collection of paintings and the twentieth century print collection.

Current art historical criticism now ‘pigeon-holes’ Modern Art as the period from about 1870 to about 1970 – the subsequent period, yet to be firmly defined, includes ‘Post-Modernism’ and ‘Contemporary Art’.  Reflecting the Ashmolean collection it was the British dimension that was a constant thread – comparing and contrasting with the major international ‘movements’ within Modern Art. As a basis we considered the major accepted influential Movements and some major artists in the ‘Foundation’ period up to about 1911, referring where appropriate to Ashmolean works :-

  • Impressionism  : Claude Monet
  • Neo Impressionism : Degas, Seurat
  • Post Impressionism : Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne.
  • Fauvism : Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck.
  • Expressionism : Edvard Munch, Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner
  • Analytical Cubism : Braque, Picasso.
  • And smaller movements such as Futurism, the early work of Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, etc.

The impact of WW1, particularly on British Art, was explored, the influence of  ‘International’ strands (‘Modernism’) during the post WW1 period and the rise of ‘Abstraction’.  A particular strand we explored were the two British Print Revivals – the work of people like Griggs and Stanley Anderson in the 1920’s and 1930’s and the post WW2 experimental printmaking with major influences like the Curwen Gallery, the newly formed Print-makers Council,  the Society of Painter-Printmakers,  and individuals including Graham Sutherland, John Piper,Valerie Thornton, and Birgitt Skiold.   (We hope to concentrate in more detail in another course on British Printmaking)

We finished with an afternoon exploring and discussing the works (up to c1970) in the Ashmolean ‘Modern Gallery’ – from early Kandinsky and Picasso through Stanley and Gilbert Spencer and Mark Gertler, to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

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