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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Seban


Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Context is derived from the Latin contextus, which refers to "weaving, joining, structure"--basically the meaning of the work as it connects to the world around it. Context puts an artwork (or anything else) into a larger perspective. For me, context  gives a broader understanding of the artwork by connecting it to the world; by putting it within the scope of history, or style, or the life of the artist.

Those additional layers of meaning are important to me because I myself am not an artist, so while I enjoy the visuals of a particular work, I can't fully appreciate the technical aspects of draftsmanship, or color, or composition. But I can understand how it relates to my world by looking at the context.

Take Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (1819). It seems to be a dramatic moment--using the elements of art, I can see that it is achieved with vivid colors, a triangular composition, and twisting dynamic figures that twist upwards in a crescendo of movement.

But I can see so much more with additional context. In terms of the stylistic context, Gericault was part of the Romantic movement, which, coming on the heels of the still, sculpted subject and styles of the Neoclassical movement (an example is Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii) , was meant to directly engage the viewer with a visual style that was meant to sweep the viewer of their feet.

The historical context adds a new layer of meaning: the Medusa was a French ship that capsized off the coast of Senegal in July 1816. The French captain and crew escaped in lifeboats, leaving 147 passengers (French soldiers) left at sea on a raft made from remnants of the Medusa; left adrift, they lasted for 2 weeks, succumbing to exposure, dehydration, starvation, and sharks. Some were thrown overboard, others were cannibalized. By the time they were discovered only 15 passengers remained alive. The horrific story was covered by all the newspapers of France--the political context being that the captain and crew, were seen as examples of the indifference of the newly restored French monarchy.

The biographical context provides even more information: the artist was so taken with this story that he spent two years creating a monumental 16 x 23 feet) canvas of the moment went the few survivors see another ship on the horizon. He interviewed survivors, made a scale model of the raft, and visited the morgue. The result established his reputation as one of the great Romantic painters, and Raft is one of the most popular paintings in the French Louvre today.

The Raft (2004) is a video by Bill Viola, one of the pioneers in video (now electronic) art. You can see some formal elements (composition, especially) and the title that are drawn from Gericault's work. But the context is entirely different--I think of this and think immediately of the tens of thousands of refugees crossing into Europe (and America) in recent years. But if you look at the date, this work predates that.

This class is not intended to give you the context of each work we look at--but hopefully you will learn to appreciate the importance of context in understanding any kind of art. And just as importantly, the types of context that can be employed:







In 1972, Linda Nochlin wrote a revolutionary essay that delved into the question of context even further. Her "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" looked at the nature of art history (historically white male men) and the societal constructs which precluded women from artistic training, meaning that male historians/art historians did not consider them valuable enough to be mentioned. Her essay provided a new feminist context that allowed art historians to go back and recover those women forgotten by history. Since then, others have deconstructed the construction of Western art history to look at why women, or those from Other (outside of Western Europe and America) cultures were neglected. We'll look at this reading in depth a little later, but you can read it now if you like, as it's posted in int he Module for Week 13.

The most important lesson here is that art/history is fluid and dynamic; the context is the threads you choose to pick up and look at closer. Nochlin's essay opened the floodgates in terms of reviewing and revising history AND making viewers aware that we are always looking at objects through our own conscious and unconscious viewpoints, or biases.

Two final elements are the physical context: both the media (materials) and manufacture of the works as well as the venue where it is displayed. Understanding the medium can give a lot of understanding of a final product, of course. A painting, for example, is fairly 2-dimensional--but using heavy oil or acrylic paints (as Van Gogh did ) can give a very 3-dimensional surface to a painting. A sculpture can be seen in 3 dimensions, but the texture is also very different according to material, whether it is bronze, stone, or multi-media, using multiple materials.

Where we view art can also have an enormous impact on how we perceive art. Look at the two works below and decide which you like best.

If I told you one was from a high school and one from a museum, does that change your preference? The one on left is by a local high school student on display at the Crocker, and the other, also on display at the Crocker, is by Joan Brown, a Bay Area Figurative Artist. While the styles are similar, the context is entirely different (so is the price for each!!!)

Banksy, the anonymous/internationally famous street artist thought so--a name sells. His "anonymity" is meant to be a comment on the name-conscious nature of the art world. But a  few years ago, he set up a table in Central Park, where most pedestrians ignored his $60 stencils. As soon it was discovered who the actual artist was, he packed up and left. One of those stencils recently sold for over 1 million dollars!!

Different context: Banksy's April Instagram post showed what he had been doing during his Covid confinement:

The most important thing is to learn to enjoy art wherever you find it (also the purpose of your Gallery Visit)! But hopefully this gives you an idea of why a little background information will enhance your understanding of any artwork!

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