18. Modern and contemporary art
18. Modern and contemporary art
By Alena Lien,
31 January 2021
Hey! How're you going. This is Alena and welcome to the Along Came English podcast.
For this episode, I thought I would talk about art - or more specifically modern and contemporary art. I mentioned in a previous episode that I have a small collection of art prints on my walls. I'm not an art expert, but I have some appreciation for art.
I'm actually going to use a few questions from esldiscussion.com.
If you don't already know, the website is a directory of English conversation questions. This is a really useful website to practise speaking English with a tutor, language partner or friend.
I really like it because I can very easily pick a topic, and there'll be 20 questions to help stimulate a discussion. And there're like over 700 topics in alphabetical order, so you really cannot run out of topics to talk about.
Sometimes I don't know where to start on a particular topic, so using some of these prepared questions help. Plus, browsing through these topics also help me to talk about a wider range of subjects rather than the ones I'm usually drawn to, like food or travel.
So I'm going to talk about: how I became interested in art; what modern and contemporary art are; a few of my favourite artists and some of their notable artworks; a few art installations I've seen over the years; and the type of art I generally like or appreciate.
And since I'm talking about art, there are links in the transcript on the website so you can have a look at some of these artworks I'll talk about on this episode.
And if you find this interesting or helpful, please like and subscribe. It actually helps a lot.
My interest in art
Okay. First question, how great is your interest in art?
This is a very broad question. I wouldn't say it's great. I do appreciate it and I genuinely like it, but I wouldn't say I have a great interest in it. When I was younger, I took an interest in art from time to time, but I didn't really take the time to understand what I personally liked until much later in life.
Growing up, we had some artwork hung up in our house and we had a number of small sculptures and figurines. One painting in particular was this massive semi-realistic one of a half naked lady with her back towards the viewer. And she had black flowing hair with a flower in it.
And I remember this one left an impression on me as a child growing up in a conservative household and country. And it just struck me as quite risqué. Obviously what I consider risqué now is quite different.
"Risqué" is an adjective that means slightly indecent and liable to shock, especially by being sexually suggestive.
Another one that I quite liked growing up was a painting of a string quartet. This one was more modern. It was kind of child-like and simplistic in the way the humans and instruments were shaped. But yea, there was a charm about it too.
A "quartet" is a group of four people playing music or singing together. A "string quartet" is a group of people that play stringed instruments, usually with 2 violinists, 1 viola player, and a cellist.
For most of my adulthood in Australia, my walls were really bare. I never really took the time to decorate them with pictures or art prints. I had a small collection of like, souvenirs and trinkets that I would decorate my shelves with, but that was kind of it.
I think it was only in the last five to six years that I made more of an effort.
I believe it was when I started watching documentaries that I took more of an interest in art.
There is a BBC documentary series called "Modern Masters," presented by Alastair Sooke - who is an art critic. There are four episodes, and each episode focuses on one artist: Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali.
I thought it was a really good series. The host talked about the background and context behind the artists' notable works and their development throughout their careers. And I think learning about the motivations and story behind a piece of art helps to bring a lot depth to the piece and make it more interesting and fascinating.
However, I also know that a lot of art in general never get that kind of commentary. You often just see art kind of at face value, without any context. So to me, I find it interesting how differently I interact and appreciate art depending on whether a context is provided.
So yea, I remember the docuseries fondly even though it's been a while since I watched it. I believe you can still find it on YouTube.
And I think it was after watching this docuseries that I started to have more of an interest in art.
Alright. Next question, do you like modern art?
I should explain what modern art is. So according to Wikipedia, "modern art" includes artistic work produced during the period from around the 1860s to 1970s, that demonstrates the styles and philosophies of the art produced during that era. It was about experimenting with new ways of seeing and with fresh ideas about the nature of materials and functions of art.
So there was this move away from traditional styles of art toward something abstract that is less literal, less realistic, and sometimes even unrecognisable.
More recent art from the second half of the 20th century to the 21st century is called "contemporary art."
So even though the words "modern" and "contemporary" are synonyms in English, "modern art" and "contemporary art" are different.
So, do I like modern art? Well, yes.
Although this period saw a wide range of different styles, it contains my favourite artworks and styles of art, and even my favourite artists.
So my favourite artist is actually Henri Matisse. He was a French artist who was highly regarded as a leading figure in modern art, along with Pablo Picasso.
A few of his more famous artworks include...
"The Open Window," which is an oil on canvas of an opened window with a view of a fishing port, painted with really bold colours.
"La Danse," which is a painting of five naked, dancing figures.
"L'Atelier Rouge" (or "The Red Studio"), which is considered one of the most influential works of modern art, and it depicts Matisse's studio entirely in rusty red.
And "The Fall of Icarus," which is my favourite, is a print of cut-out images depicting the figure of Icarus with a red heart and surrounding yellow stars on a blue background.
Matisse was more known for his Fauvism style. "Fauvism" was a very brief movement in the early 1900s where bright and expressive colours were used without regard for the subject's natural colours.
And "The Open Window" is an example of this, where the boats were painted in reds and blues, and the water was painted in pinks.
My favourite artworks from Matisse are his paper collages, that he used as a medium in his final years. He was actually bedridden during this time due to abdominal cancer, so he could no longer paint or sculpt.
So yea, he pretty much created this style of art on his bed, in his 70s.
A "collage" is a piece of art made by sticking different materials on to a larger surface. So Matisse would cut forms or shapes from coloured paper and arranged them into collages.
And I just think they're so interesting. They are so simple, but they have a lot of flow and movement with bold colours and shapes.
And I have two prints of his artworks - I have "The Fall of Icarus," and "Composition Fond Bleu" (or "Blue Background Composition").
And if you don't know, the story of Icarus is actually a famous Greek myth. He and his father attempted to escape from Crete with wings constructed from feathers and wax. Despite his father's warnings not to fly too close to the sun, Icarus ignored him anyway. So his wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned.
As I mentioned earlier, "The Fall of Icarus" by Matisse is my favourite piece of art. And my reason for this is rather personal...
I actually came across this artwork in the "Modern Masters" docuseries, and the host explained quite passionately about how Icarus, with his beating heart, was symbolic of Matisse's desire to live while he was literally in (on) his deathbed.
And during that time when I watched the "Modern Masters," was also a particularly dark time in my life.
This elderly man had seen himself as Icarus facing his impending death, but was passionate about wanting to live and continue creating. There was something really impressive about it, and he was able to somehow express that desire and passion into art.
And I wanted a piece of that passion for life. I understand that death comes to all eventually, but I wanted to desire to live like he did.
So thankfully I'm no longer in that headspace, but yea, it really spoke to me.
Vincent van Gogh
I also quite like Vincent van Gogh, who is a Dutch artist.
Just so you know, these pronunciations of some of these names are anglicised. They're not the authentic pronunciations. Henri Matisse is a French name. Vincent van Gosh is a Dutch name. And I'm clearly not pronouncing them the way they're supposed to.
So Vincent van Gogh, unfortunately died in 1890 at the young age of 37. So we never really got to see the development of his art style the way that Matisse was able to do.
I actually had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum when I was in Amsterdam at the end of 2019. I actually got to see the "Sunflowers" and his self-portraits in person, however "The Starry Night" unfortunately, is in New York.
Now looking back on my visit to the Van Gogh Museum, I realised that I'm more attracted to bold and expressive colours in general - which is probably why I like Matisse so much.
"Sunflowers" was one of the more sought after paintings there because of the constant crowd standing around it, but I never had a real liking for it and to me, the colours are quite muted and subtle.
However I do have a poster of his "Cafe Terrace at Night," which is a charming painting of a lit terrace of a coffee house in the evening. And I have a print of the "Vase with Red Poppies and Daisies." I think I'm more attracted to these paintings because the colours are brighter, bolder, and more striking than some of his other works.
Interestingly enough, the painting that caught my attention at the museum is "Paul Gauguin's Armchair." This was a "portrait," in apostrophes, of Van Gogh's friend and fellow artist who was absent in the painting. So it was just a painting of a chair with a candle on it.
Next question, what’s the best art gallery you’ve been to?
I don't know if I have a best art gallery I've been to. I've been to some pretty big ones, and some small ones over the years.
Here in Melbourne, we have the National Gallery of Victoria (or NGV for short). And it is Australia's oldest, largest and most visited art museum. They have a permanent collection of over 75,000 works as well as a variety of exhibitions that run throughout the year. And the best thing is, entry to the NGV is free, but select exhibitions require a ticket.
Now I don't know how this compares to other famous art museums in the world because I've only been to a few, but the NGV is impressive and being able to see the permanent collection for free is a massive bonus.
Like, if you want to get some exercise while admiring art, you could. It's like shopping at Ikea, you know, you get some walking exercise out of the experience because the place is so big. And better yet, you don't have to pay for anything.
The last time I went there was maybe several years ago.
This wasn't a tiny apartment. There were several rooms decorated with furniture. There was even a fake bathroom, and thousands of daisies covered everything. It was like someone had thrown a bucket of pink and red paint but the room became covered in daisies instead.
So an "art installation" is a term to describe a large-scale, mixed media construction that is often designed for a specific place or for a temporary period of time. Quite often they're also interactive, like the "Flower Obsession," but they're also immersive because of their size.
This is more of an acoustic installation - white porcelain bowls float on the surface of a blue pool. And the floating crockery would gently circulate around the pool and become percussive instruments as they collide with each other. It's both mesmerising to look at and soothing to listen to.
"Mesmerising" means to have someone's complete attention.
Another one is Ai Weiwei's "Forever Bicycles." I think I saw this in 2015. This is a massive installation over nine metres high of almost 1,500 bicycles in a kind of a geometric arrangement. It's quite a dramatic and imposing piece of art.
"Imposing" is an adjective that means grand and impressive in appearance.
It's one of those artworks that looks different from every angle, so it is both mesmerising and unnerving at the same time. I was admiring it from the first floor because it was so big.
"Unnerving" means to make someone slightly frightened.
Contemporary art and Ai Weiwei
I'd say these installations are considered contemporary art, not modern art.
Contemporary art is quite different from modern art in that it is more diverse, and lacks any uniform principle or ideology. And to me, it is also more encompassing than modern art because it includes a variety of themes such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, nationality, and are sometimes even social or political commentaries on certain issues.
Take Ai Weiwei for example, he is not only a Chinese contemporary artist, he is also an activist. And a lot of his art reflects his own political convictions.
So the "Forever Bicycles," from what I've read, can be considered a social and even political commentary on China. The use of so many bicycles alludes to China's mass production. And although bikes symbolise freedom and movement in China, the static arrangement of immobile bikes can be considered a commentary on the illusion of freedom and the social environment of China.
This is not my own interpretation of the installation. Please bear in mind these are what I've taken from a few articles I've read about the artwork.
When I first saw "Forever Bicycles," I actually saw it as the disappearance of the individual within an assembly. And I felt that it was emphasising conformity and homogeneity within a group or society, where individualism and uniqueness is rejected.
"Conformity" is a noun that refers to the behaviour that is socially accepted and expected by a group or society. And "homogeneity" is the quality of being similar or of the same type.
Now I didn't necessarily see this as a reflection of China. I actually kind of internalised it and saw this as a reflection of my own experiences growing up, and certain groups I've come across or even hung around with in the past.
So yea, I mean, art is subjective. What one sees is quite often different from what the artist may have intended.
I remember hearing another person's interpretation of this installation and he didn't really see it as a social or political commentary. He just saw it as something impressive and awe-inspiring, and even related it to his experience to a higher power. Yea.
Now another well-known contemporary artist is Banksy. He's the one that's famous for the graffiti street art.
I'd say the height of his fame was in the 2000s. Maybe? I could be wrong.
He's also considered a political activist. His works has included themes of anti-war, anti-consumerism, anti-authoritarianism etc.
A few of his notable works include...
"Girl with Balloon," depicting a young girl and a red heart-shaped balloon.
"Love is in the Air (Flower Thrower)," which depicts a protestor hurling a bouquet of colourful flowers. I believe this one is an example his advocacy for Palestinian rights.
"Napalm," which is one of his more darker artworks, is an image of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald on either side of a naked, crying young girl. And the young girl was actually a subject of a 1972 photograph from the Vietnam War who suffered burns from "napalm" - which is a highly flammable jelly used in bombs and flame-throwers.
Yea, so a victim of war was juxtaposed with symbols of modern capitalism.
"Juxtapose" is a verb that means to put things close together, usually to create a contrasting effect.
I also kind of feel that one of the reasons why certain contemporary artists become famous is because of the shock factor. Banksy could be considered an example of this.
I don't think it's a bad thing, but sometimes I just don't get it.
There was that banana duct-taped to the wall that was going for $120,000 in 2019. I don't know if anybody bought it, but it definitely became viral.
And the concept piece was actually called, "Comedian," by an Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan. He was also responsible for replacing a toilet at the Guggenheim with a fully functioning gold one back in 2016, called "America."
"The Guggenheim" is a very famous art museum in New York. Apparently there are five Guggenheim museums around the world but it's the one in New York that's usually referred to as "The Guggenheim."
But yea, duct-taped banana is considered contemporary art.
Personally, I prefer modern art over contemporary art.
Types of art I like
Next question, what kind of art do you like – paintings, sculpture, ceramics, etc.?
Personally I prefer paintings, and as I mentioned earlier, cut out collages by Matisse. Not that I don't appreciate sculptures or ceramics, but I guess I don't enjoy them as much.
It's quite funny actually because the building is really contemporary but his artworks are... I guess you could call old and traditional. I don't know, I just find the contrast quite striking.
And as I talked about earlier, I do quite enjoy art installations because they're quite immersive and often interactive. Some of the ones I've seen have been quite memorable.
However, I don't enjoy sculptures as much.
I visited the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan. It's basically a huge sculpture park with over a thousand sculptures, both outdoors and indoors. And a lot of them were quite interesting and a few of them were designed for children to play and climb, which can be considered more architectural.
And the museum also has a Picasso Pavilion with over 300 works by Pablo Picasso. There were some paintings, but majority of their collection were ceramics. Picasso is an amazing artist but none of his ceramic artworks or sculptures really stood out to me.
And I also find that I usually have to work a bit harder when admiring sculptures. I end up having to walk around it, stand at different angles to see how I feel about it. Try to find an angle where I can connect and engage with it somehow. And I'm trying to guess what the artist might want me to see, so it kind of becomes a bit of a guessing game.
I don't know. Am I working too hard?
I guess I have a preference for art that's flat like paintings because I feel they're a bit more accessible and easier to consume. You can view it from one angle, and take it all in and spend a bit more time appreciating it. And it's easier to kind of view it from the artist's perspective and see what the artist might want you to see.
And also, it's easy to buy a print of a painting that you can hang somewhere at home, whereas you can't really do that with sculptures or more 3D types of art.
Anyway, I'll finish this episode here. Don't forget to like and subscribe if you found this interesting or helpful.
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And don't forget to check out the transcript on the website as well if you want to check out some of the artworks I mentioned in this episode.
Well, thank you so much for listening. Stay safe. Have a good day and I'll catch you later. Bye.