Tuesday, February 28, 2012


 The Japanese Tea Ceremony: a spiritual and cultural ritual a few hundred years old

Tohaku Hagesawa (painting), and Soen Shunoku (caligraphy), Sen Rikyu, mid-16th century

The tea ceremony existed before him, but it was the Buddhist Monk (and amateur architect) Sen Rikyu, in the 16th century, who really turned it into an important cultural tradition for Japan.  Particularly interesting, he introduced to the tea ceremony a particular aesthetic called Wabi.

So what is Wabi about?  Sen Rikyu designed Tea Houses with an emphasis on humility and imperfection.

Sen Rikyu, Myoki-an Tearoom entry, 1580

Like the tiny doorway into a tea-room pictured above, Sen Rikyu's tea houses required visitors, from high nobleman to simple farmer, to humble themselves and slow down, buy having to stoop and crawl through the tiny opening.  The tearoom inside is tiny, too small to stand up in, and the beams and walls forming the structure are asymmetrical, unvarnished, imperfect.  Tea is boiled on the floor of the tea room.

And here is an example of a bowl to for tea made with the wabi aesthetic:

Kizaemon Tea-Bowl, made in Korea but used in Japan, 16th-17th century

It is tipped, chipped, and blipped with scratches, unglazed spots and imperfections.  And it is this very aspect which allowed the tea ceremony participant drinking from this bowl to contemplate as he was drinking, that beauty, uniqueness and personality of all things and people come out of their imperfections.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Stupa art at the Freer Gallery

It was Saturday and I desperately needed to get out and do something fun, quickly, before I despaired at the massive amounts of homework and studying awaiting me this weekend.  So I hopped on my bike and rode through some freezing, buffeting winds to the Freer Gallery on the Washington Mall.  A quick look on the Smithsonian Institute website had informed me that they had an exhibit up called Birds in Chinese Painting, and I figured that was just what I needed to give me a little relaxed enjoyment.  

But before I reached the Chinese bird paintings, I got distracted by a room of art from ancient India.  Back in 2004, as a freshman in college, I had taken one class on Indian and Southeast Asian art history.  I loved the class; I felt as I was taking it like it was the kind of course that could open up whole new directions for my life... and yet, I realized upon as I entered room in the Freer Gallery, that this was probably the first time I had seriously looked at a work of Indian or Southeast Asian art since the class final.  So much for new life directions.  Nonetheless, though Indian Art hadn't become my life's work, I savored every minute in that gallery; it was so fun to be reminded of all that I had learned.  

Parallel to how medieval European art pretty much always had to do with Christianity and various forms of spiritual and religious practice, ancient Indian art pretty much always had to do with Buddhism or Hinduism and the various forms of spiritual and religious practice associated with these two religions.  The most important form of worship for the ancient Buddhists was circumambulation of the stupa.  A stupa is a mound-shaped structure inside which are buried relics of the Buddha.  The stupa is solid; you don't go in it when you visit, but enter through gate in the fence that surrounds it onto holy ground, and worship by walking clockwise around it, kneeling before it, and touching it.  The gates around a stupa were often fully decorated with relief carvings, like the two images here. 

Worship at a Stupa, 2nd Century BCE, Northwest India

In a move that is quite poetically self-referential, this first relief is an image, taken from a stupa gate, of worship at a stupa.  Notice the worshipers circumambulating, and kneeling, and even the handprints around the bottom of the stupa to show where people touched it in worship.  The flying guys above, (I didn't know this and had to look it up) are apparently celestial beings adorning the stupa with garlands.  

Birth of the Buddha, 3rd Century CE, Pakistan-Afghanistan Border

This is a relief from a different stupa gate 5 centuries later.  You can see the influence of classical Greek aesthetics on the modeling of the bodies.  Although she has a greco-roman body and hairstyle, the central figure of the Buddha's mother Maya stands in the traditional pose of an Indian female nature-spirit; feet crossed and one hand grasping a tree above.  The relief shows the story of the birth of the Buddha out of his mother's side (did you even see the tiny Buddha there before I pointed him out?).  My favorite thing about this image is that the guy in the crown receiving the Buddha is the Hindu god, Indra... wait, Hindu?  Isn't this a holy Buddhist image?  The ancient Indian people saw no contradiction in including holy beings from other religions.  All religions are valid paths to holy enlightenment... a tenet humans would do well to remember today.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Holocaust memorials

When I say the terms "monument" and "memorial" what associations come up in your mind?  (Picture, as an example of a classic monument, the Washington Monument, featured in the last post.) Do any of these concepts make your list?

- Massive: a monument/memorial is usually large, visually powerful, dominating the space it inhabits.
- National pride / Nationalism: almost all monuments/memorials represent moments or people important to the standard historical story of the nation.  Washington DC was full of monuments to presidents and wars considered important.  Recently, as our standard history has expanded to include histories of civil rights and minority groups as important, new monuments of national pride have been built, such as the American Indian Museum and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
- Memory: countries build monuments/memorials in order not to forget.

It is the importance of this last concept, memory, which is the motivation for various Holocaust Memorials all over the world. But if monuments represent national pride, how can you build a Holocaust memorial when the Holocaust was a moment of national shame, mistakes and shortcomings in humanity?  Countries like the US and Switzerland tightly restricted the number of Jewish refugees they accepted despite news of persecution; countries like France, Austria, and Italy were complicit with Nazi anti-semitic requests for most of the war. Of course the most extreme national shame is felt in Germany.

World-wide and in Germany, artists are struggling to build memorials that keep memory of the holocaust active, and inspire further learning and personal connections to the holocaust stories while resisting the traditional dominating, pride-filled structures.

Just one example, although there are an number of powerful ones:  The Aschrott Fountain Memorial by Horst Hoheisel, in the German city Kassel.  

Hoheisel was commissioned to build a memorial on the place in the town square where in pre-Nazi times, a fountain had stood.  This fountain had been destroyed in the Nazi era because its donor, Sigmund Aschrott, was a Jew, even as the donor, the donor’s family and over 3,000 other Jews were forcibly removed from Kassel and sent to concentration camps.  After the war, until Hoheisel's commission in 1987, the hole in the ground where the fountain had been was alternately left untouched, or planted with flowers.

Original Aschrott Fountain, 1908-1939, Kassel

In 1987, the city of Kassel, and Horst Hoheisel agreed that the story of this fountain, representing both the pre-Nazi Jewish contribution to the city, as well as, in its removal, horrific anti-semitism deserved a memorial.  But Hoheisel did not want to build some massive monument on top of the empty space left by the fountain, where people might come once, and quickly forget about the story it represented.  Instead, Hoheisel highlighted the aspect of emptiness: the Jews had been removed, and Kassel was left with a hole in its culture, history and the hearts of the remaining citizens.  He did not build upward, but dug out a mirror image of the original Aschrott fountain under the ground at the site.  The monument literally points visitors’ thoughts to the story beneath the surface.  Particularly interesting, visitors interact with the memorial not by looking at it as they stand in front of it, but by looking down as they stand on top of it.  Thus what Hoheisel build acts more like a pedestal than like a complete monument.  When visitors stand on it, they, their thoughts, memories and experiences are the real monument.

Horst Hoheisel, Aschrott Fountain Memorial, 1987.  Above: what the memorial looks like to visitors.  Below, what the memorial looks like underground.

I think artists in countries like the US can learn from memorials like these.  The US too has moments in history which should never be forgotten or downplayed, but which aren't exactly reasons for national pride (slavery and its legacies of racism, and the vast destruction of Native American people and cultures to name two.)  How can these best be memorialized and remembered in art?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Representations of George Washington

What does George Washington have to do with ancient Egypt, the land where obelisks were invented and erected to memorialize great pharaoh-kings (who were gods in the ancient Egyptian religion)?

Robert Mills, Washington Monument, National Mall in Washington DC, 1848-1884

While we're on the topic, what does George Washington have to do with the ancient Greek religion, and the body and pose of Zeus, the king of the Gods?

Horatio Greenough, George Washington Statue, Smithsonian American History Museum, 1840

Both these representations of Washington turn him, in effect, from a man into a god-king.  It strikes me as interesting that there was such a desire in the 1840s to present God-like images of a person who had been so instrumental in founding a republic.  This republic stood for (and still stands for), theoretically at least, the values of religious freedom and equality.  And yet those wishing to honor the republic's founder in the 1840s turned him into a god, without noticing the irony.  True, when the George Washington Statue was revealed to the public it quickly created a lot of controversy.  The controversy centered however, not around the portrayal of Washington as a god, but around the fact that he was half naked.  

There's one other ultra-famous representation of George Washington worth mentioning: Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze.  This painting takes its style and rules of representation from German Romanticism.  It was painted by a German man, who had spent his childhood in the USA, but had moved back, by the time of painting this, to Germany, and painted this in order to inspire European revolutionaries for democracy.    

We know without having to say it, that the Zeus-like sculpture of Washington is a fiction.  I mean, really, no one would believe that he actually wore bed-sheet and sat on a throne, at least not in public.  I think it's useful to remember that the painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, is also not a realistic portrayal, something that's easier to forget.  All the details of the painting, from the mystical lighting, to Washington's leader pose, were chosen to convey larger-than-life heroism.

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1851

Enjoy American President's Day!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Musée Imaginaire, and how it changed Art History

In my other, non-blogger life, I'm a masters student in European studies.  Mostly this means I'm stressed about papers and exams, presentations and grades far more than is good for my health.  But every once in a while, I get to experience a moment of breakthrough.  I am in a class discussion, for example, and it suddenly hits me that some concept we are working through is really quite powerful.  My whole world seems to shift its color scheme as I realize that this concept implies an important new way of thinking, which can open up connections I have never seen before.  This was the case earlier this week when discussing the French cultural theorist André Malraux, and his concept of the Musée Imaginaire (imagined museum).

Malraux worked for the French government after World War II, theorizing about questions of cultural education.  In his book La Musée Imaginaire, he described what he saw as the important shift in how art was studied, understood and taught in the past centuries:

Long ago, Malraux explained, "art" was almost nonsensical as a category.  Works of architecture, sculpture and painting were commissioned for specific functions, often religious.  While artworks were occasionally analyzed and compared systematically (for example by Winkelman), mostly, they were still tied to their function and to their location.

Then the museum gained popularity.  (Admittedly the growth of the museum is directly tied to the rather unpleasant story of European colonialism, and the wish to bring "exotic" artifacts from far off places back to Europe and show off "savage" beauty to admiring Europeans... but that's a subject for another post.)  The function of the museum, was to bring together works of art deemed of quality and to use them to better teach a story of culture and history.  And they did bring together works, from Ancient Egypt to middle ages Italy, into a gallery in London, say.  These works would never have been in the same country together, let alone the same room, except for the museum.

And then the next revolution happened.  The photographic revolution that is.  As it became inexpensive and practical to make photographic reproductions of art works and put them into books, even more distant works could be placed even closer together, for a viewer to compare and contrast from the comfort of his/her own home.  Anyone who could look at a book had access to a virtual museum.  This is what Malraux called the "Musée Imaginaire".

Here's Malraux sorting the photo reproductions of artworks for the Art History textbook he was writing:

Now students of art history could place a picture of Chartres Cathedral, constructed in Paris, France in between 1193 and 1250 above a picture of, I don't know, what about the Buddhist Temple Borobudur, built in the 9th century in Indonesia (sources for both images are their respective Wikipedia sites):

These are both monumental works of architecture, built to be places of religious worship, so the comparison strikes me as one that could be highly valuable and informative.  Isn't it just shocking however, to think that we can compare these two works so directly, although they are hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart!

Another feature of the Musée Imaginaire is that the size of an artwork no longer matters.  Seeing a work in real life, size, whether the object is a small hand-held portrait, or a giant wall-sized fresco is usually one of the most important aspects of the work's impression.  This gets lost in an Art History book, where all the reproductions are the size of the page.

Neither the museum nor the photographic reproduction completely replaced the visiting a work of art in its real location.  They were just revolutionary add-ons which changed how we could study art.

Now what about the revolutionary new form of the Art History blog, how is that changing our ability to understand Art History?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A wedding document?

Happy Valentine's Day from A New Art History!

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on panel

Have you ever seen this painting before?  It may be the most famous painting of a married couple in all of art history.

It is a painting that reads like a visual riddle.  Each feature included in the painting gives hints at some feature of life in 1434 Flanders.  For example:
- Fertility is a really emphasized value.  The fruit on the chest and windowsill on the left is a symbol of it.
- The woman isn't pregnant, although she might look it to a 21st century viewer. She is holding her expensive dress with the long extra cloth, which only a very wealthy couple could afford, in a way that maximizes the shape of her abdomen and is another symbol of hoped-for fertility.
- The man has his shoes off as a sign that this moment and this place are sacred.
- The dog is a symbol of fidelity, also important for a couple.
- The man stands nearer the window to the outside world, the woman further in, reflecting their gender roles.
- And speaking of reflection, check out that mirror on the back wall.  Not only does it show an accurate depiction of the couple's backs, but the ten decorated circles surrounding it are scenes from the life of Jesus.  Even in this most secular painting, God is invoked.
- And God is invoked too in the lone candle which has been placed in the chandelier.
- Take a closer look at that mirror: there are two other people in the picture, one dressed in red and one in blue.  Who are they?  At least one Art Historian has argued that they are meant to represent witnesses to the wedding ceremony.  The signature over the mirror seems to fit with this theory, as it says "Jan van Eyck was here" -as if van Eyck too was a witness.  The argument then goes further to say that this painting is in fact the legal document that recorded the marriage of this couple.

But I'm a little skeptical of this interpretation.  Why make a painting, both inconvenient to carry with you and very expensive, not to mention beautiful, as a wedding document?  Doesn't it make more sense to sign an actual document, and make a painting as a personal keepsake of the moment?  This riddle of all that this painting really means is far from solved.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Remember what Contraposto means?  Ready for two new Italian-y Art History term?

 Tenebroso (also know as Chiaroscuro)

Carravagio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600, oil on canvas

Carravagio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610, oil on canvas

Chiaroscuro means dark-light, and is the use of shading and highlights to make a figure three-dimensional.  Tenebroso is Chiaroscuro taken to its dramatic extreme.

The great master of tenebroso was Caravaggio, an Italian painter who pushed painting into a whole new realm, away from the style Mannerism which was dominant at the time, and into Baroque.  

Baroque art, Caravaggio's art, is visceral, dramatic, mysterious.  Viewers find it hard to look away.  And the light seems magical, as if it is coming from God.  This was the perfect style for the Catholic church in the 1600s, the time of the Counter-Reformation.  The church wanted to defend itself against the numerous, and often pretty valid criticisms of Martin Luther.  One of Luther's critiques was that the church spent too many resources on expensive painting and art, which was wasteful and against the humble origins of Christianity.  So the Catholic church responded by promoting a style of such power that God's presence in it would be undeniable to its viewers.

(It is interesting to note that while Carravagio's art became a brilliant tool of communication for the Catholic Church, as a person, he was a less than stellar example.  He was notorious for violence and brawling, and in one brawl killed a man, leading to his exile from Rome.  He died at age 39; contemporary studies of the bones thought to be his diagnose lead poisoning.) 

Friday, February 10, 2012


This post connects to my discussion of "The Gaze" from last week:

A couple days ago, my sister brought to my attention an article on Jezebel.com, an online magazine which features stories for women that, unlike the stories in so many women's magazines out there, try to be neither shallow nor misogynistic.  The article, "Photoshop of Horrors", presented a set of photoshop-paintings by artist Anna Utopia, showing famous Venuses from Art History whose bodies she had changed to better represent ideas about female beauty as promoted by the fashion and celebrity media of today.  Here is an example:

Anna Utopia, Alexander Cabanel -The Birth of Venus, part of her Venus series, 2010-2011, (project description on artist's website)(Cabanal's original painting is from 1863)

Anna Utopia's work brings up some interesting thoughts.  For one thing, we can see that fetishizing of women's bodies has been around for a long time, in places of both "high" art and "low".  For another, it is clear that the specific aesthetic ideal for a woman's body is not constant, but culturally dependent.

Cabanel painted his work, and displayed it at the Paris Salon of 1863, where it was received with the highest acclaim and soon purchased by Napoleon III (then French Emperor) for his private collection. His painting was erotic without offending anyone, since it showed a goddess and what could be less worldly than that?  Both male and female viewers saw the work, but overall, it was really a man's painting -moving from a male painter, through a male-run art salon, to end up in a male Emperor's private collection.

Images of models today, in contrast, can be found in many places, but a major one is on the pages of magazines marketed to women.  I'm not sure what to make of female interest in the fetishizing of the female body, but I certainly find it interesting, and a striking difference between the meaning of the nude female in Cabanel's Venus, and the meaning of nearly nude females in women's magazines today.  (It also seems to create an important complication for those Art Historians who want to criticize the male gaze as the only problematic one.)

But what I found most interesting of all about the article in Jezebel.com, were comments readers had left.  A few of the comments were phrased rudely, most with great consideration, yet almost none of them related to the Venuses of this artwork as anything other than bodies-as-objects to be visually critiqued.  The comments mostly discussed whether the women were sexier in the original image or in the photoshopped one.  Some comments expressed horror at how the photoshopped versions looked like teenagers and not real women, and wondered when will our society learn to find curvier bodies attractive?

To me, whether or not the Venuses are sexy may be worth a moment or two of discussion, but it seems like focusing on that topic misses the far more interesting points of this art work.
- What does it mean that Venus is shown in such a helpless, passive position?
- What about the choice to make her skin look like marble, and to show no body hair, how does that change the meaning of the work?
- How did her identity as "Venus" and all the associations one makes with this mythological character affect the reaction of viewers to the painting in 1863.  How does it affect viewers today?
- and especially: When it is so evident that the specifics of the ideal are so variable over time and space, in other words, that thoughts about ideal beauty are not universal truths, but cultural opinions, why does the concept of an "ideal female body" exists in society at all?

P.S. Today "A New Art History" is one month old!  I've really been enjoying writing it; thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Painting Feelings

Sorry about no post yesterday.  I was feeling a bit like this:

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, Nasjonalmuseet Oslo Norway

Know the feeling?

This painting is very well known in our culture, although certainly not as famous as the Mona Lisa, featured in my last post.  It's an image that we have all seen so often in fact that just say "the Scream" and it swirls around in our heads without even needing to see a photo.  I was thus struck, upon searching for a photo for this post, by how vivid the colors are in this painting.  The vision of it in my head had been darker, one of the quirks of memory.

Munch's The Scream is an example (arguably the most classic example) of Expressionism.  This is the name of an art movement focusing not on visual reality but on emotional reality.  The movement came out of post-impressionist experimentation, but it was reacting against the philosophies behind movements like impressionism.  Impressionism is far to big a topic to describe now, but suffice it to say that impressionists were seeking in their paintings to capture a moment of the world as they saw it, focusing on modern figures living in the city around them, and studying light effects.  Expressionists tossed this goal out the window and sought to capture their personal inner worlds.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hot of the Presses: Major Mona Lisa news

There is a new, super exciting, art history story in the news these days.  Have you heard?  A second Mona Lisa has been found in the vaults of the Prado.  This second painting is not a fake or a copy made by some talented but crooked art scammer, it was painted simultaneously with the "original", in Leonardo da Vinci's studio.  (Sorry for all the bolded words -this is just really exciting!)

Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa from the Louvre 1492-1519, and Leonardo's apprentices? Mona Lisa from the Prado 1492-1519, details [image source]

The work had been stuck in a vault a long time ago.  The painting was old and dusty, and the background which matches the Louvre Mona Lisa had been painted over for unknown reasons with black, so art historians did not notice its importance until recently.

But now, the layer of black paint over the background has been removed by art restoration experts.  The painting was carefully analyzed (with scientific techniques of which I am regretfully rather ignorant), and art historians are quite sure it was painted at the same time as the other Mona Lisa.  They theorize that both works were painted on easels next to each other, and evolved together, the apprentices carefully following the work of Leonardo.

What does this mean?
- Well, that we to take a closer look at the workings of Leonardo's studio practices.  We know it was standard in the Renaissance for masters to have a whole slew of apprentices who did a lot for the success of the studio, from cleaning up, to mixing paint, to painting the less important parts of major paintings. But allowing them to make a project on the same level as the master?  This is something unexpected.
- The new find also changes our understanding of the the Louvre Mona Lisa. We know the painting's colors have aged.  Maybe its yellows and browns were originally more like the Prado Mona Lisa in color scheme.
- Finally, it brings up major questions about originals and copies.  These were made simultaneously, so one is not really a copy of the other.  But the Louvre Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous, prized painting in western art.  Should this other Mona Lisa also be given such an exalted status, or does this new find call into question the status of the Louvre Mona Lisa?

Keep up with this exciting story:
The story in: daily mail
The story in: New York Times blog
The story in: LA Times blog

Monday, February 6, 2012

This is not a photograph...

Whew!  Last week was heavy with complicated questions and thoughts on this blog: thoughts about elitism in art history, appropriate use of public spaces, and sexist objectification in paintings.  Today's post should be much more relaxed and fun.

Tromp l'oeil (i.e. trick the eye)

Andrea Mantegna, Camera degli Sposi, Mantua, fresco, 1471-74

This might be one of the most famous examples of tromp l'oeil in the Renaissance (Tromp l'oeil was a favorite Renaissance style -they were really into capturing challenging perspectives back then). Don't be fooled; this ceiling is actually flat.  

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Tromp l'oeil, oil on canvas, 1750, currently at Ermitage, St. Petersburg

Some things just don't go out of style, and tromp l'oeil is something that has successfully thrilled viewers for centuries.  There's a whole sub-genre of paintings that are meant to look like other art and paper forms, like the painting above.  I find I have to remind myself that this is in fact a painting of a sketch tacked to a wooden board, and not a real sketch tacked to a wooden board.    

After the invention of the camera in the 1839 and the beginning of its widespread popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century, theorists predicted an end to ultra-realistic types of paintings, realism in paintings had been usurped by photography.  Luckily, this was not the case, and there was a revival, (and updating) of tromp l'oeil in the art movement photorealism that began in the 1970s.  

Richard Estes, Bus Interior, 1981, currently at Smithsonian American Art Museum

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Art and the Super Bowl

For many Americans, the year's biggest sports event is this weekend.  I'm not going to watch the super bowl, but last weekend was a big sports weekend for me, because US figure skating national championships were on!!!  I used to be a skater myself, and have now comfortably retired into the role of avid fan.

Anyway, what do sports have to do with art history?  Why am I even mentioning them on this blog?

Art History is in some ways a very traditional discipline.  Founded in its modern form by the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann with his 1764 book History of Ancient Art, it has since then mostly concerned itself with "high arts".  You can imagine those grand old art historians, with their noses in the air, discussing the aesthetics of marble sculptures, masterpiece paintings and the architecture of monuments.

Even today there are things we classify as "high" culture, and things we classify as "low" culture.  Just a few examples:

High Culture                vs.                Low Culture
Opera                                                Pop music
Ballet                                                Breakdancing
Art in museums                                Graffiti
Literature "classics"                          "Trashy" Romance Novels
Philosophy                                        Sporting Events
High Fashion                                    Quilting and Knitting
Monumental architecture                   Household furniture

Recently, more and more scholars are agreeing that these dividing lines show a classist hierarchy that should be strongly questioned, and more and more artists have been blurring the dividing lines in their work (ballet choreographers using breakdancing moves, museum curators displaying quilts etc.)

For those for whom Art History is too stuffy and elitist, a new discipline was founded in the 1960s, called Cultural Studies.  Cultural Studies concerns itself with both sides of the list.

The debate about high culture and low culture in Art History continues, but I think we are moving more and more in the direction of being much more inclusive in what we discuss and analyze.  At least, I hope so.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gaze

Doing research for this blog, I discovered to my surprise that there was another meaning to the phrase "new Art History" then the meaning I meant to imply by my blog title.  According to A Short Guide to Writing about Art, by Sylvan Barnet:

"The study of the social and political history of art, especially of matters of class, gender and ethnicity, in a context of Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory, and most especially when conducted in a somewhat confrontational manner, is sometimes called the New Art History to distinguish it from the earlier art history that was concerned chiefly with such matters a biography, connoisseurship, history of style, and iconography." 

In other words, questions such as "What does this painting tell me about the relationship between men and women in the culture in which it was produced?" or "Why do all famous artists seem to be white males?" are the questions that interested those studying the New Art History.  

Despite my surprise, I was actually quite happy to discover this meaning to New Art History.  My interests in Art History are broad, but topping the list is definitely the interest in questioning and critiquing artworks for values they represents, consciously or unconsciously, which may not all be so positive and universally appealing.   

So let me introduce you to an concept of great importance to the New Art History school of thought, the concept of The Gaze.  (For an introductory article on The Gaze in psychoanalytic theory, click here)

Jean-Léon Gérôme, La Grande Piscine de Brousse, 1885

This painting shows an imaginary scene inside a woman's bath house set in the city of Bursa (today, in Turkey), during the Roman/Byzantine era.  Although the details of anatomy and architecture are impeccable, we cannot forget that the painting is a fiction, not a reality; the artist Gérôme was a 19th century Frenchman, who had never been to Turkey.  

How do we talk about the gaze in this painting?  There are a number of gazes going on in this scene, from one woman to another, but the gaze that dominates is the one that is not pictured: the gaze of the painter/viewer aimed at the unsuspecting women, going about their baths.  I think it's fair to say that by viewing this painting, we at least play at being voyeurs (people who gain pleasure from viewing and inspecting others sexually), even if we sympathize with these women, or are aware of and try to avoid seeing them as sexual objects.  We, the viewers, are actively looking, and the women in the painting can do nothing but be passively looked at.  We can imagine that this voyeurism would have had an even more poisonous role in the painting's original context: in a 1885 salon in Paris, looked at by admiring viewers who had even less consciousness than we have of the demeaned position these women are placed in, in relationship to the viewer.  

Some art historians have gone so far as to argue thus:  The women in this painting do not realize our presence, so we have total power over them.  Looking at this painting is not innocent, it is an act of violent objectification.  

Now, this is a strong and rather unpleasant thesis. (Remember, those New Art History folks like being confrontational).  So I'm curious: do you buy it?  If you do buy it, could art historians use the concept of the gaze to analyze the relationship of the viewer to any painting, and how is this concept complicated if the person in the painting is looking back at the viewer?  Does it make a difference if the viewer is male or female?  If the painter is male or female?