Archive for the '1 – Classical & religious' Category

The New Classical at Art Gallery of South Australia

gallery_sa_01Leaving the Turner exhibition (see post 4-May-2013) we walked out of the Art Gallery of South Australia through the Melrose Wing of European Art. This was on the recommendation of a lady we chatted with while sharing a table at lunch in the busy Art Gallery café. The work she thought was a must-see on our visit was Berlinde De Bruyckere’s We Are All Flesh (2011-12), epoxy, iron, horse skin, steel. I can understand why this work has got all the press (see links at the end), but the entire wing is just so exciting. I’ve since learnt that the wing was opened in January 2013, refurbished and completely re-hung. To quote Director Nick Mitzevich in the press release “Boundaries of geography and time have been collapsed to inspire a new way of looking at the rich diversity of the Gallery’s collections. Objects from different periods and cultures are juxtaposed to reveal how art links the past to the present” (1).

I didn’t know that at the time we were there, just that we started at the back of the gallery very tired after five hours spent with Turner, and as we passed from room to room we got more and more interested and energetic. It was still a fleeting visit, a little time with one or two items in each room.
gallery_sa_02This is the work that stopped me in my tracks. The Bowmore Artemis c. 180 AD, Italy, carved marble. The information sign provided “… the huntress Diana pursuing wild animals, her tunic billowing as she runs… It is modelled on an earlier sculpture from the Hellenistic period… The naturalistic detail of multiple textured folds of drapery, in which the female form is accentuated, reveals an ideal of perfection that has influenced art through the ages.”
gallery_sa_03This of course relates to one of the major concepts in my current Part of the OCA course – Ancient Greece and the canon (although here not necessarily restricted to Western art). This also clearly (although I wasn’t consciously thinking of it at the time) relates to my post on 28-April-2013, about the canon evolving and merging different histories and cultures. You can see glimpses of other works shown in combination, but the one that really caught my attention can be seen in the distance here, facing Artemis with confidence and pride.
gallery_sa_04Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009), bronze. From the sign, this is a “life-cast sculpture of a female who underwent various sex change treatments”. Here is poise, confidence, a challenge to classical ideals of perfection, and in my eyes at least, beauty.
gallery_sa_05The reverse view (the wall at the back is mirrored). There was a lot more to be seen in this room – which had as its theme “The New Classical” – but my attention was totally caught by the conversation between these two figures. I think I looked at each a little differently because of that relationship.
gallery_sa_06That’s all the actual content I have for this post, but I couldn’t resist a closeup of that wonderful swirling textile. I wonder what colours it would have been originally. It looks wonderful in cream, but I decided to play a little…gallery_sa_07

(1) Mitzevich, N. (2013) quoted in Art Gallery of South Australia (2013) Art Gallery unveils sumptuous new Melrose Wing of European Art [online] 10 January 2013. Available from [Accessed 4 May 2013]

More information
Adams, J. (2013) Art Gallery of South Australia hung like a horse. Arts Hub [online] 4 April 2013 Available from [Accessed 4 May 2013]
McDonald, J. (2013) Succès de Scandale in Adelaide [Accessed 4 May 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 4

Previous posts on or around this topic:
17-Mar-2013 An initial attempt at understanding the concept and considering the implications
13-Apr-2013 Finding evidence of the canonical orders in Sydney, and considering the message being given by the planners and builders.
26-Apr-2013 This post was ostensibly about a trip to some exhibitions in Canberra and reflections on being Australian. With further thought I think that in part I was working through the relevance of The Western Canon to a modern Australian.

This thought crystallized when I read a quote from Tony Abbott (current Leader of the Opposition in federal parliament). “There is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.” (1) (Partial disclosure, not wanting to get distracted by Australian politics, I will not be voting for Mr Abbott’s party in the coming election). So are we ignoring a significant part of our heritage in attempts to be multi-cultural and politically correct?

Further internet searching led me to the information that “the great Australian silence” was originally used in 1968 in reference to the virtual absence of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australian “history” at the time.(2) ( is a source of “Australian independent journalism”, seen by some as myth-busting and giving the true low-down, by others less positively.)

I hadn’t realised that the Western canon was so topical, so did some more internet surfing. In an article on the English school syllabus I found “The retreat from the canon, while appearing to have social equality at heart, has disempowered a generation by divorcing them from the mythic reference points of our culture”. Also “As a people, to understand the story we are in, we must understand the story of where we have been, and the great narratives of the literary canon are vital to this understanding.” (3) Apparently the new curriculum has achieved a good balance, with a greater diversity in “canonical” texts.

A simple search on “Western canon Australia” turned up a lot more. Both the articles I’ve cited refer to school curricula, one history the other english. The political element is very clear, also perhaps a battle for the minds and hearts of the young (sorry about the twee expression). It also reinforced for me the ongoing importance of the Western canon in Australian life and the stories we tell about ourselves. I don’t believe that a single true history is possible or desirable – nothing is that simple. So it seems a canon needs to be constantly questioned and tested, to evolve, to merge different histories and cultures.

(1) Abbott, T. (2013?) Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation lecture. Cited in Baird, J. (2013) Don’t dismiss nation’s blemishes. The Sydney Morning Herald 27 April 2013 [online] Available from
[Accessed 28 April 2013]

(2) Knott, M. (2013) Tony Abbott talks God and Western values behind closed doors [Online] 5 April 2013 Available from [Accessed 28 April 2013]

(3) Hastie, D. (2013) Why great narratives must be passed on. The Sydney Morning Herald 4 November 2011 [online] Available from: [Accessed 28 April 2013]
UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 4
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Canonical Orders.

UA1-WA:P1-p1-Ex Annotation of a Greek vase painting

My chosen vase is in the Alexander The Great: 2000 years of treasures exhibition currently on at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I posted about my first visit to the exhibition on 8-Feb-2013.

The catalogue entry:
Red-figure volute-krater: warrior with a horse in a heroon
Southern Italy, Apulia, 330-320 BC
Master of the Seated Woman Group
Clay; h 72.2, 0 rim 37.8, 0 base 11.4 cm

The photos in the post are my sketches. I can’t find an image on the web, but for something similar click here to go to a page on the British Museum website showing The Hamilton Vase. (Edited to add: a copy of the image is available in a password restricted area here).

Reason for choice
sketch20130208bOn the left of this photo is the sketch I did of the chosen vase back in February, when I was still working through the final assignment for Textiles 1: A Creative Approach. I found it refreshing to look at a woman, resplendent in jewels and leaning languidly on a pillar, after all the heroic, idealized male statues busy doing something important.

I chose this vase for the annotation because I already had a connection to it, could do my initial work based on the photograph in the exhibition catalogue, and would have the opportunity to see the vase itself again before the exhibition closed. The OCA course notes include a reminder that looking at an image – a reproduction – can give you a sense for the original, but is not the same as experiencing the item directly. Choosing this vase would allow me to experience the impact of the original when my work from the image was still fresh in my mind.

After working on this for some time I realised (a) the vase is from Italy and a Greek item was specified for the exercise, and (b) the date of the vase put it slightly later than covered in the course textbook section for this project, which stops with the death of Philip of Macedon, Alexander’s father, in 336 BC. I continued with the vase because the catalogue notes associate it with Greek colonies in Italy, the timing issue is marginal, and as detailed above I had solid reasons for the selection.
The vase is large – over 72 cm high. Handles on each side connect the rim to the shoulders. The tops of the handles form a coil or medallion shape above the main part of the vase. In my eyes the base seems almost disproportionally small making the vase appear top-heavy and possibly unstable.
Arrangement of painting
The vase has patterned bands – waves, tongues, geometric shapes – contained between plain lines at the areas of greatest shaping (the rim shaping to the neck, the shoulders, and towards the base of the vase). This leaves two relatively large and unshaped areas for more complex painting, around the neck and the belly of the vase. There is a centered scene painted on the belly of the vase. To either side, underneath the handles, areas of large curved and fanned shapes can be seen.
In addition to the background painted in black slip and the red figures there is yellow and white painting.
The painting
Each of the medallion or volute shapes of the handles has a head painted in white with yellow hair.
In the centre of the neck of the vase is a painted bust (head and shoulders). It is surrounded by a symmetrical design which includes birds, ribbon-like swirls, foliage, what could be ears of wheat, and bell-shaped flowers.
The main painted panel shows a structure with ionic columns – a heroon. Within it is a warrior wearing armour (a cuirass), and what could be a chalmys draped around his shoulders. He holds a spear in his left hand and what is possibly a whip in his right hand. Behind the warrior is his horse.
On the left hand side is a woman holding a fan and carrying a basket. She wears a chiton and a cloak (a himation?). Her hair is dressed up and tied with a band, she wears earrings, bracelets and a necklace. The draping of her clothing is fluid and graceful.
On the right hand side a woman leans her elbow on a waist-high column, one leg crossed in front on the other with just the toes on the ground. She holds a mirror, her hair is dressed up, she seems to have a beaded headdress and is wearing earrings, bracelets and a necklace.
There are three inverted hook shapes which I think might be ribbons, a lozenge shape on the left which suggests a shield and a triangular shape suspended from the ceiling of the heroon.
Second viewing
Last week I visited the exhibition again to see the vase.
I was surprised by its size – I had forgotten how big it is.
Working from the catalogue photograph I hadn’t realised the depth of the handles. What looks like just a flat medallion at the top is actually the front face of a deeper grip, shaped like a cotton reel. The head of the medallion is in relief – a molded three dimensional element not just flat painting. The loop shapes at the base of the handle are in the form of swan heads.
It was during this visit that I was able to see the detail of the fallen shield and what looks like tassels on the whip. Working from the photo I thought the white columns at the front had yellow sides, but in life the yellow areas seem to be the columns at the back of the structure.
Additional information
The catalogue states “The vase was intended for a warrior’s burial” and I wondered what indicated that. A krater was used for mixing water and wine (2) and the size would seem to be unwieldy (unless one ladled rather than poured the liquid). This could suggest a more ceremonial than functional purpose.
It was customary to visit the graves of the dead and wind ribbons or sashes around the stele (commemorative slabs) (3), and that would fit with the three shapes that I think are ribbons.
The wife of Pluto, ruler of the underworld, was Persephone. Her mother Ceres, the corn goddess, searched for Persephone after her abduction by Pluto. (4) The ears of wheat might reference this myth.
For a long time I thought the triangular hanging shape was a bell, and after much searching a found a mention of bells used in the temples of Persephone (5) which seemed an exciting fit. However I’ve since seen a photograph on the British Museum website with a very similar object identified as a pilos (a helmet) (6). This would work with the shield and other accoutrements of the warrior.
I thought the “fallen shield” might be imagery referring to a fallen warrior, but have not found any information to support this.

Other remarks
I have completely mismanaged my time on this annotation and put far too much work into it. I got more and more interested, and every time I sat at the computer to type it up would find myself exploring the internet for more relevant information. I will need to be more disciplined in future.

(1) Australian Museum (2012) Alexander the Great: 2000 years of treasures.. Sydney: Australian Museum. Page 96.
(2) Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King. Page 143.
(3) Wilson, N. (ed.) (2006) Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge. Page 207.
(4) Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Second Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.
(5) Pylyaev, M.I. [n.d.] Historial Bells [online] The Link of Times Foundation. Available from: [Accessed 17 April 2013]
(6) The Trustees of the British Museum [n.d.] Volute Krater (Registration number: 1836,0224.164) [online] The Trustees of the British Museum. Available from: [Accessed 17 April 2013]

Additional Information
Heuer, K. [n.d.] Funerary Vases in Southern Italy and Sicily [online] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available from: [Accessed 17 April 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p1-Ex Annotation of a Greek vase painting
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Exercise: Annotation of a Greek vase painting.

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 2

In a previous post (17-Mar-2013) I tried to figure out what “The Canon” is – not surprisingly a confusing post, given my own confusion.

I’ve since found the term used in a slightly different way, in John Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture (1). To quote (p. 10): “It was Sebastiano Serlio … who really started the orders … on their long career of canonical, symbolic, almost legendary, authority”. Excellent – a chance to see the concept used in action and thereby perhaps make better sense of it.


Sydney Town Hall, by JH Willson (~1889)
Composite columns at main entry, corinthian upstairs.
(French Second Empire architecture)

“The orders” are types of columns – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. I used to think of these as decorative, just a matter of how fancy the carving at the top was, and except where standing clear and holding up a porch many columns seemed more like moulding on the walls than actually structural or integral to the building.


State Library NSW (1910).
Ionic columns driving the plane of relief

However when used The Orders (I feel a need for the capitalisation) define a “plane of relief”. They support an entablature – architrave, frieze and cornice – which moves with the columns. If the columns are changed from free standing to half embedded in the wall, the entire face of the building changes. The Orders control the structure (page 20). The spaces between the columns can completely change the impact.

The Orders started with the Greeks. The Romans used and extended them, and added arches. In the Renaissance this architectural grammar was re-established, then in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Orders again became the major discipline in architecture.

Queen Victoria Building (QVB), by G McRae (1893 - 1898) Is that a temple up there? Federation Romanesque style

Queen Victoria Building (QVB), by G McRae (1893 – 1898)
Is that a round temple up there?
Federation Romanesque style


Inside the QVB

One thing I was troubled by when writing earlier about the Western Canon was the prospect of an inflexible and suffocating set of rules. In practice the canonical orders have evolved over time. Summerson shows the progression of a circular temple – from the Temple of Vesta, to Bramante’s Tempietto (1502), to Wren’s St Paul’s (1696 – 1708), and (my addition) a variation in McRae’s Queen Victoria Building (1893-1898). New ideas and extensions are added, appropriate to contemporary needs.

This developmental arc is not just refinements and extensions. There can be boredom and revolt, although it seems to me that Summerson’s example of Giulio Romano is more an extreme exaggeration, not turning to a new path. It seems the arc can also be traveled in reverse – for a long period Greece, as part of the Ottoman Empire, was basically off-limits to Western travelers. Ancient Greek architecture was known from old, inaccurate drawings and through Roman buildings. In 1762 Stewart and Revett published a volume of new and accurate drawings, feeding a Greek Revival in architecture.

A light-hearted, more decorative approach on this circa 1881/1882 building

A light-hearted, more decorative approach on this circa 1881/1882 building

The Greek Revival extended into the early twentieth century – and walking around Sydney, I think rather longer here… and I pause briefly to savor the moment. When family and friends ask what I’m up to I’ve been making a bit of a joke of the course notes research point which begins “Find out as much as you can about the Roman occupation in your area”. Not a lot to find here in Sydney (although it has been claimed that Melbourne has the third largest Greek-speaking population in the world (2)), but when you get to the Greek Revival and to classic influences of the Modern Movement suddenly we’re at least in the game. Something that seemed purely academic has become more directly relevant.

National Library (1968)

National Library of Australia, by W Bunning (1968)


Leonard French, Stained glass window. (1967)

Leonard French, Stained glass window. (1967)

These photos show the National Library in Canberra. Opened in 1968 the stated aim of the chief architect was “to design a building that was a contemporary derivation in the spirit of Classical Design”, while the refurbishment completed in 1999 “succeeds in expressing the design language of the building with a fresh interpretation, achieving a contemporary derivation of classical design” (3). I’m directly quoting my source with such abandon because in a sense I didn’t need it. I was in Canberra last weekend, visited three different exhibitions at the National Library, and given my recent reading couldn’t have missed that it’s a modern Greek temple.

All of the photographs in this post were taken in Sydney and Canberra. In fact Sydney’s enthusiasm for this western world classical style building has me wondering. Was it simply a matter of the architectural vogue at the time that much of Sydney was built (ignoring earlier more temporary wooden buildings)? Going back to John Summerson I find “… the shop-filled arches and arrogantly bedizened Doric columns of Australia House – Bramante again, in the age of British Imperialism: date, 1911” (p. 43). Arrogant. Imperialism. With Australian federation as a nation in 1901, were our leaders and planners a little over-keen to show that we had made it – no longer a colony but ready to take our place among the great nations as cultured citizens of the world. Could there be a whiff of cultural cringe?

Lands Dept (1876, 1888)

Lands Dept, by J Barnet (1876, 1888)

orders_lands_02This particularly extravagant and arrogant building is the Lands Department office built in Sydney in two stages in 1876 and 1888. The department was responsible for the administration, selling and leasing of Crown lands, including resolving disputes between settlers, speculators and pastorialists (4). Notice who are missing from that brief? Non-Australians might not know of “terra nullis”, the extremely convenient theory used by the British Government of the time to treat Australia as uninhabited and thereby take the land from the Aboriginal people – a nasty piece of work with consequences that are still very much felt today (see for example I don’t know which would be worse – that the planners of this building with its statues of heroic explorers of the “empty” land were sending a message of power and control to the traditional owners of the land, or if those planners were absolutely unaware or unconcerned about them.

The canonical Orders have retained their strength and influence over more than 2,000 years. They have been able to survive adaptation, refinement, enhancement and perhaps the occasional debasement. They also have been used to project or assert power, prestige and authority.

(1) Summerson, J. (2002) The Classical Language of Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

(2) [Accessed 12 April 2013]

(3) [Accessed 12 April 2013]

(4) NSW Land & Property Information (2013) History of Land and Property Information. [online] State of New South Wales through NSW Land and Property Information. Available from: [Accessed 12 April 2013]

Additional information
Lands Department Building: [Accessed 13 April 2013]
National Library of Australia: [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Queen Victoria Building: [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Stained glass by Leonard French: Fuller, J. (2010) Leonard French’s stained glass windows at the National Library of Australia. The National Library Magazine 2010 (March) pp. 12- 15. [online] Available from: [Accessed 12 April 2013]

Sydney Town Hall: [Accessed 12 April 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Canonical Orders.

UA1-WA:P1 Learning to read

One of the important tasks at this level of study is “the acquisition of skills and good working habits” to quote from the OCA assessment criteria. Now I’m a few weeks into the course I thought it time to review how I’m going with one of the most important components of the course: reading. This may sound frivolous – I have been reading on a daily basis for a good many years – but I’m finding this a different sort of reading. There’s reading for pleasure, to get information grabs for a report, to cram for an exam… but this is different, and in a way without a specific outcome. Which I find a little uncomfortable, but having identified it (only now as I write and edit this post) I’ll note it, put it to one side for now, and go on now trying to read mindfully, taking in visual information as well as text, trying to be efficient about it but also effective, finding the balance between getting through the course and learning as much as I can on the way.

Above is the current basic setup. There’s a ceiling light above the table, but I have a few “daylight” table lamps for task lighting. One of the lamps has an attached magnifying glass, which is very handy for seeing the detail of illustrations.

Another key element is the mug of tea, however the focus of everything is the text book, the enormous A World History of Art. I’m taking notes, just points that interest me, to keep track of the structure of the information and how everything connects. In a way it helps me to slow down and take in what I’m reading.

wa-reading_02The notes help on the reading side, and I also occasionally try to sketch parts of illustrations. The point isn’t the drawings themselves, it’s just part of trying to take time to really look at the details. In this case, on the left is some of the patterning on a 8th century BC Attic Geometric amphora including some very static, schematic human figures. On the right is an attempt at a c. 480 BC statue where a slight turn and shift of balance gives a more dynamic, animated effect.

Also on the reading desk is a collection of reference material – course notes, The Hamlyn Historical Atlas (my geography is pretty weak), Art History: The key concepts (still learning the language) and the Oxford dictionary of architecture and landscape architecture. Part of this is of course to get extra information, but part is … again, I feel the need to slow myself down, to make sure I’m really concentrating and taking in what I’m reading not just ticking off pages.

wa-reading_03Not on the table but just a roll of the chair away is the computer. I only recently read (on another student’s blog that I think has since disappeared or been made private) that classic Greek statues were actually brightly coloured. An internet search brought up heaps of images and articles, most of which seem to be based on the work of Vinzenz Brickmann at the Glypotothek museum in Munich. The central coloured sketch on the left is based on an image of the cloak worn in a statue of Athena, seen in Tracing the colors of ancient sculpture from J. Paul Getty Museum ( (If you want to take a more informal approach, the website of the Acropolis Museum has a page where you can colour your own statue – – the internet can swallow as much time as you give to it).

What’s the point of this post? Well, this is my learning log and in my mind it seems to right place to reflect on my learning. I’m not sure I’ve found the best way to do a very basic and very important thing.

… more pause for thought … hmm, now I think I’ve got it. I’m nervous about this course. I want to show myself and anyone who has read this far that I’m trying. And now I’ve realised this I know I’ve written about it before – when I was starting my first OCA course (posted 25-Aug-2011). That time I mentioned a newspaper article, Courage can get pupils through academic blues by Kim Arlington, about work by Professor Andrew Martin, who has found that courageous students, who persevere despite difficulties, doubts or anxieties, can do as well as confident students. A slightly different approach was taken by a father who encouraged his children to fail – if you’re not failing you’re not trying enough (see

Well this isn’t the ending I expected when I wrote the first 80% of this post. I think now I’ve sorted out the underlying issue I can deal with it – but if you have any good tips on how to read, please leave a comment 🙂

Arlington, K. (2011) Courage can get pupils through academic blues The Sydney Morning Herald [on line] 19 August 2011. Available from [Accessed 29 March 2013].
Berry, S. (2013) Perfect failures The Sydney Morning Herald [on line] 25 March 2013. Available from [Accessed 29 March 2013].
Curl, J.S. (2006) Oxford dictionary of architecture and landscape architecture (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. Abingdon: Routledge
Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.
J. Paul Getty Museum (uploaded 2012) Tracing the colors of ancient sculpture [Accessed 29 March 2013]
Moore, R.I., (ed.) (1981) The Hamlyn Historical Atlas. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group.
Open College of the Arts [n.d.] Assessment criteria for Theoretical Studies modules at OCA. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts. [Accessed 29 March 2013]

Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one. Classical and religious art.
Topic: Reading for Art History

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon

The clumsy looking title is a new naming convention that may turn out to be just the way to keep track of where I am over various courses, or alternatively an irritating distraction. The full version is
Understanding Art 1: Western Art.
Part one. Classical and religious art.
Project one. Ancient Greece.
Particular topic of this post – the western artistic canon.

This is a provisional post, an initial attempt. Having read the section in the course notes a few times and thought about it a while I attempted to look up ‘canon’ in one of the recommended texts, Art History: The Key Concepts by Jonathan Harris. The entry looks normal – just under two pages giving a high level definition. Unfortunately it turns out not to be in Australian English, or really any English. Ordinary words can’t be trusted. Their use has been refined and/or distorted so that they become unrecognisable – or worse, a pit trap with a surface that looks like solid ground on the top to lull you into a false sense of security, and sharp stakes at the bottom to deal with you when you fall through.

Alright, an indulgent flight of fantasy and classic (if I dare use that word) work avoidance. More objectively, in the entry for CANON CANONICAL the first paragraph of sixteen lines includes 23 words and expressions which need to be looked up in turn. Each of those entries becomes its own labyrinth. Words such as ‘originally’, ‘text’, ‘classic’ and ‘genius’ cannot be trusted. Exciting, an adventure – but daunting and a potential time sink.

Fair enough, in a new field one requires patience and perseverance, plus a willingness to live at least initially with a tentative answer, perhaps a suspension of disbelief. So, subject to later revision, here goes:

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for canon (from the Greek for ‘rule’) has multiple meanings including “A standard of judgement or authority; a test, criterion, means of discrimination”, illustrating its use with a quote from 1601 “…one absolute piece of work, from whence artificers do fetch their draughts…”.

In terms of the history of western art, the ‘canon’ is a group of art works of individual greatness and value to which all subsequent work can be compared and evaluated, and its foundation or springboard lies in ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture. Partially hidden in this definition are the individuals and institutions who over time have had the power to determine what works are canonical. Tradition, education, elitism, power, money and I would guess cronyism have played a part to different degrees.

The canon provides a framework, a context, without which it would be difficult to distinguish one thing from another – nothing stands out. It may give something for later artists to aspire to – to emulate, perhaps join or even surpass, standing on the shoulders of giants. On the other hand the canon could be seen as elitist, self-referential and insular.

A rigid and inflexible canon would discourage innovation and originality. Taking a very long view through history this has not been the case in western art, but perhaps in a single lifetime it would feel like it. This could be discouraging, perhaps lead to self-censorship, or it could stimulate by providing something to react against and protest (probably more a modern idea). Perhaps a truly great artist is able to transcend and redefine the canon (is that a circular definition?).

It will be interesting to learn more about recent evolution or revolution of the western canon. For example the name ‘Fauve’ was a critical, negative, dismissive judgement. I wonder if any works from that movement would now be regarded as canonical. Also perhaps now originality and innovation may be valued more highly than in the past when stability and maintenance of the status quo was vital. Last year as part of my reading during Textiles 1: A Creative Approach I posted about Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking though craft (6-July-2012) and touched on this area. On the one hand Adamson claimed avant garde art was autonomous, on the other it required an “accepted critical account” (page 32). I also quoted John McDonald (2012) writing that when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference”, and Tom Wolfe (1975): “Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting … Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” This now appears to me to suggest strongly that the western canon of art has continued to evolve and remains a significant force in contemporary art, although with a pace of change that can lead an over-enthusiastic critic astray.

The role of the mediating individual or institution is a very disturbing aspect of the canon, the power that attends it. Being recognised as working within the canon may provide access to opportunities, recognition and reward not available to others. As a textile-focused person this is particularly important. I have already researched and written a lot about Art and Craft during A Creative Approach – blog entries are included in categories Reading and Research Point. I won’t attempt to re-cover that ground here – there are likely to be other opportunities during the current course.

Adamson, G. (2007) Thinking through craft. Oxford: Berg.
[anon.] (1971) The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. Abingdon: Routledge
McDonald, J. In with the new [Accessed 6 July 2012]
Wolfe, T. (1975) The Painted Word, quoted in Ellsworth-Jones, W. Never mind the theory…–20120629-21792.html [Accessed 6 July 2012]

My first annotation

Before getting into the course proper we are asked to attempt one of the basic techniques – to annotate an image. I’ve found it an interesting challenge on a few fronts.

Step one was to choose an image. A selection of works by J.M.W. Turner are on tour from the Tate, but won’t be visiting Sydney.  In April mum and I are going for a long weekend to Adelaide (around 1,200 km each way) to see the exhibition TURNER FROM THE TATE: THE MAKING OF A MASTER. More information about the exhibition can be found at One of the paintings included in the show is The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons. I decided it would be interesting to look at that in my annotation, knowing I would see the original just a few weeks later.

turner_comparisonThe next challenging was finding an image to print and work from. Now the easy way would have been to use the high quality image that’s on the art gallery site at, but for some reason I can’t now explain I chose to do a search. On the right are two slivers of photos I found on the internet. The lefthand version came from, the righthand version from The colour and clarity of the two images are quite different. The version from wikipaintings seemed more colourful, crisp and clear so I printed that out.

I was careful to use just a sliver of the images, figuring that using less than 10% of each in the context of a student discussion would not infringe copyright. I’m experimenting with a different way to show the final annotation here on a public blog. Posting the full image direct from one of the sources would be clearly unacceptable. I think even a photo of the annotation which itself includes a full printout of the painting’s photo with my notes and scribbles on it might still be a grey area of copyright. So below is a photo of the annotation with a quick, nasty and inaccurate sketch by me covering the image printout which is actually taped onto the page. I’m hoping this will make my discussion of the annotation clearer while steering clear of any copyright issues. (Edited to add: a copy of the image is available in a password restricted area here).


I chose to work on an A3 page. A4 seemed a bit limiting. At the top is basic information about the artwork – an oil painting on canvas that was first exhibited in 1810.

Around the image are notes based on what I could see. I’ve also used a tracing paper overlay to identify lines and shapes – they don’t line up well with my later sketch reproduction. In the lower area, below the line, are some notes and information from a couple of sources I looked at after recording my own observations.

Much as I love typing in this blog it doesn’t seem a sensible use of time to type up my notes here. Briefly – a great sense of space and depth; very dynamic with the use of angular diagonal lines; I’m uncertain about colour (see comments above) but there’s a wide tonal range; it feels like there are lines of force converging to crush the hut – and in the the large image available at there appears to be some very energetic brushwork showing the exact moment, the precise point of impact where the hut explodes under the blow of the falling rock.

In the lower section I’ve noted that this is an example of Romantic era sublime landscape – not a dreamy pastoral, but instead triggering feelings of awe and terror. One article I read, discussing a different Turner painting, included “… the play of darkness and lightness is clearly symbolic of the transition from life to death…” (1) and I wonder if that is the intention here too. Could there be a spiritual dimension to the narrative? On the Tate website the catalogue entry for this painting includes some lines that were exhibited with the painting, including “towering glaciers fall … And the toil, the hope of man – o’erwhelms” (2) and there is certainly the feeling of tiny man and his brief life, puny and defenseless against the vast might of nature.

(1) McDonald, J. (2013) Out of the Darkness. The Sydney Morning Herald: Spectrum 2-3 Feb. pp 6-7.
(2) [Accessed 14 Mar 2013].

Understanding Art 1: Western Art

Having completed and posted off the final assignment for Textiles 1: A Creative Approach I have now enrolled in Understanding Art 1: Western Art.

This may seem a slightly strange choice, given there is another Level 1 textiles course beckoning. I don’t really know what “Art History” as an academic discipline entails. There are several reasons for doing this next, and I find it hard-to-impossible to say which is/are most important to me.

  • I enjoy going to art exhibitions and galleries and I think that pleasure will increase with increased knowledge and understanding.
  • I want to improve my own design skills, and looking carefully and mindfully at the works of Masters must surely help. At least, I hope, I will be able to recognise some of my errors and weaknesses sooner and more clearly – which must be a basic step in learning and growing.
  • I’ve spent a lot of time researching and thinking about Art and Craft. The modern debate tends to be focused on avant garde art, but that doesn’t come from nowhere and I think understanding art history should help me to understand contemporary art, and both should help me understand more what it is I want to do.
  • I miss my weaving. I’ve been very busy with all sorts of textile work in A Creative Approach. It’s challenged and extended my skills and been satisfying in many ways – but I miss doing what I love doing, and doing what I choose to please myself. I’m sure Western Art will just as demanding of time and energy, but being much more academic and text-based I think it could leave some space in my mind and hands for weaving. The weaving doesn’t have to be something complex, just the mind-freeing rhythm and the pleasure of watching the cloth form pick by pick. Hence the red warp in plain weave. Nourishment.

I’d already gathered my reasons and made my choice when I read an article in Look, the magazine of the Art Gallery Society ( [an aside – I’m having trouble figuring out how to manage referencing in the blog. Full academic formality doesn’t really fit with a chatty blog / learning log. I’ll check with my new tutor, but in the meantime I’ll use simple footnotes and leave the formal “In (Smith, 2013)” or whatever to the formal assignments.] Susannah Smith (1), who is studying for a master of art history, describes her introduction to art history as a first year student and her on-going interest and excitement. She writes of the multiple meanings, historical insights and the thrill of hunting for information and deciphering puzzles. “It is the study of cultures and histories through artefacts of beauty, decoration, and narrative; it is an unravelling of historical and cultural meanings through visual signs”. So another excellent reason!

The textbook is daunting – a solid 3.5 kg, 984 page tome (2) – and the reading list even more daunting. Living in beautiful Sydney provides another challenge given there’s not much in the way of Roman remains or Gothic churches here. I’ve been spending some time locating resources – for example the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University is “home to the largest collection of antiquities in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere” (3), and it turns out that 20 years after graduating from Macquarie University I still have library borrowing rights. Time to get moving!

(1) Smith, S. (2013) Seeing the wood for the trees: Let me lead you up the garden path… Look: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 0313, pp. 29-30
(2) Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.
(3) [Accessed 9 March 2013].


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