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To get the most out of your visits to the local museum or art gallery, learn to understand the language of art to find out what the artist is trying to communicate. Art appreciation allows you to have an informed opinion about works of art. It doesn't mean you have to like all of them, but hopefully see them in a new light.
It may seem obvious, but the title of the work can tell you what the artist wanted to describe by creating the art work. Sometimes the title will be obvious, but sometimes it may seem to bear little resemblance to the finished object. In this case, look for some similarity or connection that the artist found important enough to stress or exaggerate, and think about why the artist chose to isolate that particular feature of the subject or scene. Perhaps it sums up something important, distilling the subject down to what the artist feels to be its essence.
It has been said that art consists of form and content. Form describes the materials used and the way in which they are arranged, while content describes the subject matter. Content is the idea behind the art, what the artist intended to portray, and whether or not the communication is particularly successful, due to audience perception and reaction. Content describes both the intended and actual messages.
When interpreting a work of art, think about how you would have represented the subject compared to the artist whose work you are viewing. Perhaps you would have shown the subject differently, or stressed another feature.
Since no artist lives in a vacuum, content is influenced by the artist's personal and social milieu. Learn about the artist and his or her society to understand where the art came from and why.
For instance, medieval art often contains religious icons which were rich in symbolism at the time the art was created, but which trigger few associations in modern viewers. To understand art from ages past, it helps to have some knowledge of history. In medieval paintings, the same symbols appear repetitively, and there are lexicons which can pinpoint the meaning of each symbol, for instance a white rose, which may have deeper meaning than just a decorative item. The surrealist paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, for example, are packed with these symbolic items. Also, many medieval paintings were commissioned by the Catholic Church, so the multitude of religious paintings from this era does not necessarily mean that artists were personally preoccupied with religion, just that this subject was what they was paid to present.
Personal characteristics can also be expressed by art. Vincent Van Gogh's use of swirling colors may have stemmed from his epilepsy, which often causes suffers to see auras around objects.
Political ideas may also find expression in art. One example is "Guernica", the semi-abstract mural by Pablo Picasso, which is an expression of outrage against the bombing of a small Basque village in Picasso's native Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The horrors of war are clearly expressed by the agonized animals and humans in the painting.
Even modern paintings feature era-specific symbols; for example, in Andy Warhol's paintings soup cans and movie stars are both presented as packaged goods, larger than life, products of the 20th century advertising juggernaut that pitches all sorts of goods for both consumption and entertainment.
Knowing a bit about the artist's society will also prevent you from attaching great meaning to stylistic features which may be common to most of the artwork of that era or country. For instance, most ancestor portraits from Europe show people with serious expressions, with no wide smiles. However, it was simply the fashion to paint portraits in this manner, and it does not indicate that the artist wanted to communicate that these subjects were especially gloomy individuals.
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