Context in art
What is ‘context’ or ‘contextualisation’ and why is it important for you as an artist.
Recently I have been thinking about ‘Context’ – it’s crept into my conversations with people when they have been asking me for advice about their drawings and paintings. So I thought I’d share some thoughts with you.
It’s a word that gets thrown about by art students and artists and confuses just about everyone else!
‘Context’ in your drawings and artwork provide visual links that helps us to fully understand what your art is about. A drawing or painting may be beautiful without us knowing its context – we can enjoy the emotive colour, the energising mark-making, the lyrical shapes and patterns, etc. However, its full meaning will not be fully appreciated without us being able to ‘read’ the visual links or clues you have included. Knowing something about the making of the drawing can also help.
What comes first – making art or understanding context?
If you are a beginner don’t even think about context as it will get in the way. Too much thinking inhibits creative flow – draw first, make art, experiment, try things out, find out what you love to draw, have fun.
Understanding and building the context within your art comes with time, with reflection, through talking and discussing, with making links between your art and everything else that is going on in your life. Keeping a sketchbook is important and can help you to develop a deeper awareness of the contextualisation of your art.
The painting above titled ‘Vision after the Sermon’ painted by Gauguin in 1888, has lots of visual links or clues that shows the influences of the different things that were going on in his life at the time and gives deeper meaning to what the painting is about.
On one level it is a beautiful painting of a wrestling match watched by a group of women, with beautiful colours and the figures drawn in a wonderfully simplified, stylised, lyrical manner. I’d love this on my wall as the rich red colour, brushstrokes, shapes and expressions of the figures capture my imagination every time I look at it.
However, to appreciate it more deeply and get a more satisfying experience of the painting, I need to understand more about its Context. I need to pick up on the visual links that Gauguin has very knowingly placed there on purpose to help us understand what his art is about. It is a very contextually rich painting.
• The rich flat areas of colour are a move away from the Impressionists broken colour that was very popular at the time with avante garde artists.
• His use of the rich red colour may have been influenced by Japanese prints and their use of non-natural colour that he and van Gogh were so fascinated by at the time. This ties in with the growing awareness of Japanese culture within Europe in the late 19th century due to political changes within Japan.
• The tree dividing the painting is a clue to his interest in Japanese art as it’s style comes directly from a Japanese print. It divides reality (the women watching) from the biblical allegory (Jacob and the angel wrestling).
• The position of the wrestling figures is not only showing Jacob and the angel from the biblical allegory, it also alludes to the local wrestling matches that were held regularly – very much part of the local Brittany customs.
• The animal on the left is not a sheep as you may expect given the title of the painting, as we all know Jacob was a shepherd, but a cow. This is because a cow was the prize for the winning wrestler as per the local custom that Gauguin was trying very hard to show he was a part of.
• He even included himself in the painting on the right had side as the priest overseeing the event as he was so intent on showing how important the local culture and lifestyle was to him.
• His bold simplified brushstrokes and shapes can even be understood to reflect his fascination with the basic simple peasant lifestyle he went to be part of by going to live in Brittany – away from the bourgeoise culture in the city. It also links to his fascination with ‘primitive’ Peruvian culture where he lived for many years as a child.
So you can see – we can all enjoy and appreciate the painting perfectly well without knowing any of this, but when we do understand the visual links it gives us a far deeper, richer experience enabling us to understand what Gauguin the artist was all about.
What are contextual links?
These are the visual clues in your drawings and paintings that help us understand its deeper meaning. Not every kind of context is relevant to every artwork, but the kind of things that are useful to know about are;
• The impact the artist’s feelings, emotions and physical abilities had on the making of the drawing.
• The wider influences of location, landscape, weather, geography, etc that influenced the making of the drawing.
• The wider set of beliefs that the artist shares with their community; their heritage, faith, culture and the influence this may have had in the making of the drawing.
• The influence other creative artists, authors, musicians, thinkers have had in shaping the ideas held by the artist that may have influenced the drawing.
As an artist, you don’t need to be bothered by these things – they can find their way into your drawings and art automatically. But to enable your art to develop and grow you need to deepen your awareness of what it is you are trying to say as an artist. What is your art about?
If you begin to question why you make your drawings, paintings and sculptures more deeply, you may start asking yourself, “What are the contextual links in my drawings that will guide people to having a deeper understanding of my art:” Questions such as;
• How does my use of the Art Elements (line, tone, colour, shape, form, texture, pattern) to give people clues to the ideas that are important to me?
• How does my choice of certain images or symbols give people deeper insight into what my drawings are all about?
• Do the images I include provide links to ideas by other artists, philosophers; lines by poets; or link with religious or mythological allegories, etc. which may give clues to the deeper meaning behind my drawings?
• Have my choices about what I like to draw been influenced by other artists styles and give people clues as to what my interests are?
You will become an increasingly professional artist the more aware you are of the things that make you make the kind of art you make. Equally the people that view your art will be able to gain a deeper experience from looking at your art – if they wish to delve.
Why is it important?
Drawings that only have visual links to your personal experiences – remain isolated from the wider world – they remain personal to you, the artist that made them, and although everyone is able to enjoy and appreciate your art, it is difficult for people who do not know you to fully understand your art.
• These artworks have a narrow context.
• This isn’t a problem if you are making art just for yourself for enjoyment and a hobby.
Artworks that have visual links to things beyond your own personal experience, to the things in your life that have influenced what you do – are outward looking. They connect your personal experience to wider culture, politics, creative ideas of other artists and thinkers, etc! It makes your personal experience more understandable to other people because they are able to piece together the visual links and clues you have provided in your drawings, either consciously or unconsciously, to gain a deeper understanding of what your art is all about.
• These artworks have a richer or wider context.
• More people will more deeply understand, enjoy, and appreciate what your drawings, paintings and sculpture are all about.
My advice to you is;
• Make art, draw, paint, sculpt – read, visit galleries, look at online galleries, immerse yourself in art + culture. Always look at the world with inquiring eyes – then worry about how this filters into your art much later on.
• Much of it will seep into your artwork quite naturally without any effort being made on your part. Often it is the things you find creeping into your drawings and paintings most regularly that are the things that provide the contextual links that we are talking about – it can happen quite naturally.
• You need to become aware of it, so you can begin to make it happen on purpose – this is how we become better artists.
• Lastly… Read the quote at the end of this article.
I hope this will get you thinking about drawing and painting. There is a lot more that can be said about this. Write your thoughts in the comments section below – I’d love to hear your views. Or ask me when you attend your next course!
“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
Jean-Luc Godard (Swiss film director)
19 December 2019 @ 11:47 am
Hiya Brian, thanks for your comments. I get that we can unintentionally put clues in our pictures, it’s using them in a deliberate narrative that i find detrimental. Anyway, look forward to “Does the modernist art tradition ….” blog!
19 December 2019 @ 9:29 am
Hi, this is an interesting discussion! I always feel that I need to know about the context of a work of art. Art can be challenging…which is a good thing…you want things that make you think, but not everyone has time or inclination to investigate. It’s great to just be able to appreciate a work for what it is, but it’s useful to know about things like the extent of the influence of religion or literature at various times. Art was used to tell stories from the earliest times, and was a way of broadcasting news in the days when literacy was low or non-existent. We’re lucky these days that we have so many references to hand. It enables us to investigate and question….back in early times it feels like people were fed stories through art and that these were the ‘official version’ of an event. I can look at things like Russian icons, admire them, but would have to read about them to appreciate their meaning…the question is, do you need to or just accept them for what they are? What if they represented something sinister? Think of how art has been used to promote dogmas and propaganda …. I feel that I would quite like to know if there was this purpose behind an artwork. In terms of exposing an artwork, I also find it really interesting to know what techniques are used…so it needs to be explained in some way. My conclusion is that some amount of explanation is useful, and an option for those who want to read it!
22 December 2019 @ 10:00 am
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is interesting to think back to the old days like stained glass windows in churches and how these were used to preach the gospel to the congregation through visual language. I’m no expert in this field but I guess everyone knew the context of these artworks, understood the visual clues, language and symbols used in the designs. They had no problem understanding all the nuances and richly layered contextual clues in the images – it was the language of their community.
As communication and travel grew and we began to see art from other cultures and times we have had to broaden our own knowledge of the context within which different art was created in order that we can fully appreciate and understand the artworks. No longer is art being made by and for a single community. So if artists want an audience beyond their own community to appreciate their art, they need to offer up contextual clues that will speak to a wider audience.
You’re right – appreciating art at its formal level is easier and although definitely rewarding, sometimes understanding it’s wider influences can help us appreciate it even more. Continually visiting galleries, reading and learning helps us to appreciate and understand more – but it is tiring and time consuming, especially if you’re not academically minded, which I am not. However if an artwork is ‘good’ it will communicate its beauty with the viewer on a formal level perfectly adequately in the first place, and our own deeper contextual understanding is a bonus.
15 December 2019 @ 8:14 pm
HI, enjoyed the blog, seems obvious once you put into writing that personality, outlook, socioeconomic factors affect the style of the artist. As you say, the art elements – colour, shape weight of line etc – all impact on the presentation of an image as a subconscious endeavour. However, deliberate manipulation of these elements, as you seem to suggest, produce necessarily contrived and – for me – empty images that are bereft of the emotions and deeper meanings you admit to pursue.
If we accept the discipline of visual art on its own terms, the symbolism you propose is, in effect, anti-art. Symbolism conjures images that are within the cultural lexicon, and therefore painting will become a narrative in the tradition of storytelling that prose would do so much better. If you want a story, stick to literature! Surrealism is arguably the paradigm of the symbolist movement and, while claiming an autonomous response that is absent of thought, the results show exactly the opposite, most obviously displayed in the work of Magritte and Dali. Consider the latter’s “Persistence of Memory”: a watch as a ‘subconscious’ symbol of space and time … I enjoy the picture for the colours, the soft lines, the shapes (your art elements!) but to insert such as obvious trope as a timepiece to represent time reduces the work to a throwaway statement.
“Perhaps” my Modernist studies influence what I expect from art – ‘art for art’s sake’ – and for this I make no apology. For me, the convulsive and often visceral quality of visual art is what we should aspire to; no words can – or should – be able to describe the emotional response of good art. The most powerful images come, not from a recognisable subject-as-symbol but from the marriage of the artist’s immediate response with an intangible essence. Van Gogh’s art best illuminates the point: his sunflowers provoke most powerful responses from viewers, but for what reason? The subject here is irrelevant and it’s van Gogh’s personality, the quality of his marks, his (unconscious?) vibrant contrasting colours and the speed of painting that make his art so compelling.
Having said that, I understand that chaotic, ill-considered use of colour, composition etc would generally produce a chaotic painting and having witnesses the making of many infant drawings and paintings, the symbolic element of juvenile art is a useful developmental tool (as many studies suggest). And therapeutic art for adults where symbolism is encouraged is no doubt a wonderfully liberating and joyful experience. Yet art that ignores its defining qualities of the intangible qualities of its own medium is a lesser form and not something I would advocate for the serious practitioner. Expressionism, on the other hand…
18 December 2019 @ 7:56 pm
Hi Edi. Thanks for your response – much appreciated. You raise some very interesting thoughts, many of which could easily lead to another blog or two. I’d suggest “Does the Modernist art tradition within which we define ourselves, actually confine us, now that we live in a 21st century multicultural world outlook?” But we’ll leave that for another time.
I appreciate your thoughts about needing to be a little wary of symbolism and I’d probably agree with you. When considering how understanding ‘context’ can give us a deeper understanding of the artwork and artist, picking up on symbolism within the artwork is helpful to not only understand the message of the artwork itself, but also to give us clues as to what has influenced the artist – personal backstory, geographical or political events, new developments in materials, etc. No artwork exists within a bubble. And there will be clues to all of this in the artwork – if we know what we are looking for! It is usually the more obscure symbolism within a supportive role that is the most interesting and revealing. However, like you, I hold on to the continued relevance of my Modernist background, but even still there will be clues within our imagery that enables us to understand the time and place within which it was created. I’d agree the crass symbol of a warped clock face is a little limiting and devoid of personal artistic expression but as you said the Surrealists did come from a literary base.