How can we understand art? Most people either don’t care about art, because they don’t know how to interpret it. But it is quite possible for any person to interpret any piece of art, and I argue that art can make our lives better—if we only take the time and effort to appreciate and understand it.
As I see it, there are five simple steps any person can take in order to better understand any piece of art.
The first step—and often the most important—is simply to look at it, describing to yourself what you see. What is your first reaction? What does the artwork make you feel?
The second step when analyzing a piece of art is to find out what it actually depicts. Sometimes—in case of some abstract art—this might need research, and sometimes it’s obvious.
The third step is to examine the form and style. What technique has the artist used? In which artistic period was it made?
These three steps usually don’t require any research, and most often they are enough to get a grasp of the piece of art. But if you want to find the true, deeper meaning behind any piece of art, you need context. You need to do some research. There are mainly two contextual angles to look at an artwork: historical and personal.
The historical context means examining which historical events were at play when the artwork was made. In all of the world, but especially in the country and society where the artist lived.
The personal context means what was going on in the artists life before and at the time when the artwork was made.
Let’s examine a piece of art through these five steps and see what we find. I have chosen the painting ”The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up”, painted by British painter William Turner in 1838. It is Turner’s most famous painting, and it has been voted the Englands favourite painting.
1. What do we see in the painting at first glance?
In the foreground, on the left side of the painting, there is a steam-powered tugboat painted in dark colors, tugging a bigger, bright sailing ship across the water. The dark tugboat is eye-catching and foreboding, while the sailing ship is bleak and almost ghostlike, blending into the background sky. On the right side of the painting, there is a dark silhouette of some buildings, and in the background the sun is setting. The painting is divided into two parts, the right and the left. The dark buildings and the bright setting sun on the right side mirrors the dark tugboat and the bright sailing ship on the left side.
2. What does the painting really depict?
The bright sailing ship is The Temeraire—a famous warship that played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805— and the painting depicts the ship as it is tugged across the Thames towards its last berth in south-east London to be broken up. Turner witnessed this event—which took place in 1838—as he was living in London at the time.
3. What is the style of the painting?
Turner is known as one of the first impressionist painters, though he was active during the era of romanticism. Thus his art is a blend of romanticism and impressionism. A characteristic of romanticism is glorification of all the past and nature. Turner often painted nature landscapes and historical events, like the Fighting Temeraire—which is depicting a historical event. A characteristic of impressionism is the emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities. Turner uses the same technique as impressionist artists: relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes. And he explored the subjects of the weather, the sea and the effects of light—such as the way the sun is reflected in the water in The Fighting Temeraire.
4. What is the historical context?
The Fighting Temeraire was painted in 1838, in London. This was at the time of the industrial revolution, which took place approximately between 1770 and 1830. The industrial revolution brought a lot of changes. Some of them good, like the way more jobs were created, and how production speeds were increased. But for most ordinary people in London, and also Turner, the industrial revolution brought misery. The air became filled with toxic smoke. Work was demanding and dangerous. And it meant the end of the era of the Royal Navy, as sailing ships were replaced by steam-boats.
This is all represented in the painting. The Temerarie represents the era of the great royal navy, being replaced by steam-powered boats. The Temerarie is bright, though fading. The tugboat is dark and intense. The left side of the painting is blue and bright, while the right side is dark, foreshadowing the beginning of the dark industrial era. The setting sun also represent the end of a bright era, and how the night is about to begin. The painting can be seen as an allegory about how the new steam power of the Industrial Revolution quickly replaced history and tradition.
5. What is the personal context?
When Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire, he was 64 years old. He was in the end of his career, and in the end of his life. Other, younger artist were replacing him. He had become old-fashioned, out-of-date. Thus, The Temeraire also represents Turner himself, being pulled towards the end of his life and career by age and the rising new artists. Just like the ship, he was a celebrated figure, though time had made him fade, and he was no longer important. It was time for him to be broken up and be replaced by the new generation of artists.
When seen in this light, The Fighting Temeraire is about the end of an era and the end of a life.
To me, the painting reminds me of the way eras come and go. The industrial revolution has long passed. Now we are experiencing the IT revolution, which is similarly replacing history and tradition. I am reminded by the way my grandparents are unable to cope in a world where you cannot live without computers and smartphones. I am reminded by language death and the way minority groups and cultural tradition are being exterminated by globalization.
But I am also reminded by the fact that a night is always followed by a day. The sun sets, and the sun rises. A dark era will always be followed by a brighter one. The pendulum swings back and forth. There is need for a thesis and an antithesis to achieve a synthesis. Though things seem dark in the night, the sun will always rise again eventually.
There is always more aspects to analyze, but these five are fairly simple and are often enough to give you a good understanding of the meaning of any artwork. Hopefully, by looking more closely at art, we can come to appreciate it more. We are all capable of understanding art. It is not only for the professionals. The beauty of art is that it speaks differently to all of us, but it always carries some significance. It is up to us to discern its meaning.