From Greek Sculpture to Graffiti, 100 Ideas That Changed Art

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These new ideas caused radical transformations in the art world.

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Courtesy of Laurence King

On the heels of the recent 100 Ideas That Changed Photography comes 100 Ideas That Changed Art (public library)—a succinct account of the most influential developments in the history of art, from cave paintings to the internet, compiled by art historian and broadcaster Michael Bird. From conceptual innovations like negative space (#98), color codes (#33), and street art (#94) to landmarks of communication like making books (#21), propaganda (#12), and handwriting (#24) to ideological developments like "less is more" (#30), protest (#79), and the body as surface (#9), each idea is contextualized in a 500-word essay with key visual examples.

Bird writes in the introduction:

What does it mean to "change art"? Art, in any definition, is so much a business of transformation that change is always and everywhere part of its nature, whether you think of it in physical terms (stone into statue) or in intellectual or spiritual ones (giving form to invisible things). No sooner has an idea changed art that art reformulates that idea, allowing it to recognize itself. Around the early fifth century BC, for example, Greek sculptors changed the way they represented naked figures, probably under the influence of certain intellectual attitudes to the human body. At the same time, their nude statues endowed fifth-century Greek ideas about what it means to be human with an extraordinarily long and fertile posterity. As so often where art is concerned, the transformation works both ways, more on the analogy of a chemical reaction than the introduction of a new material in engineering or a new process in politics.
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IDEA # 7: NARRATIVE

John Constable's studies of clouds over Hampstead Heath, London, in 1821-1822 are so accurate that they correlate with meteorological records. Art's subject here is not the permanence of landscape but "the ungraspable, the fleeting."

Whereas stories are diachronic—they take time in the telling and involve the unfolding of events through time—visual images work synchronically, being interpreted almost instantaneously by the viewer. Visual artists have therefore developed a wide range of strategies for the task of storytelling.
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IDEA # 11: CONTRAPPOSTO

Polykleitos was credited with "the idea that statues should stand firmly on one leg only." Greek artists were said to derive the rules of art from his Doryphoros "as if from a law."

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IDEA # 32: TROMPE-L'OEIL

Renaissance artists put the newly perfected technique of linear perspective to light-hearted as well as serious uses. The trompe-l'oeil ceiling opening Andrea Mantegna painted for his patron Ludovico Gonzaga is a virtuoso demonstration of perspective.

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IDEA # 34: ALLEGORY

In devising his great allegory Primavera (Spring, c.1478), Sandro Botticelli followed Alberti's advice to painters, to take their themes from literary sources. In the center Venus and Cupid represent love, while Flora scatters flowers.

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IDEA # 54: THE ARTIST

A detail from Courbet's The Studio of the Painter (1855) shows the artist painting a landscape, observed by a nude female model and, to the right, people he called "shareholders"—friends and supporters from the art world.

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IDEA # 59: CAPTURING THE INSTANT

On Trajan's Column in Rome significant moments in the story of Trajan's Dacian campaign are grouped to align vertically, so that they make sense from several standpoints when viewed from the ground. Like a mime show, Masaccio's The Tribute Money fresco conveys the drama of emotionally charged confrontation and resolute action even to modern viewers unfamiliar with the biblical story.

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IDEA # 65: ARTIFICIAL LIGHT

In George de la Tour's Saint Joseph Carpenter (c.1640), the young Jesus holds a candle while his father drills a wooden beam, foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Candlelight intensifies the spiritual drama of this apparently everyday scene.

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IDEA # 82: SHOCK

Defending Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) from accusations of "obscene intent," the novelist Emile Zola took the scandalized public to task for being preoccupied with subject matter and ignoring the painting's qualities as art.

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100 Ideas That Changed Art comes from British publisher Laurence King, who previously brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture.

Images and captions courtesy of Laurence King.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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