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Humanities

Art history

Spontaneous conversations about works of art where the speakers are not afraid to disagree with each other or art history orthodoxy. Videos are made by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker along with other contributors and maintained at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/.
Community Questions
A thumbnail for: Art History Basics
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Art History Basics

New to art? If so, this is a good place to start. We often think we should understand what we see and that we know what we like, but art can be challenging. It has meant different things at different moments in history. Art gives us access to the way other people have seen the world. Jump in and explore!
A thumbnail for: - 400 C.E. Ancient cultures
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- 400 C.E. Ancient cultures

Humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years, long before there was writing. Why was Egyptian art obsessed with death? Why did the ancient Greeks seek the perfect human form? How did the ancient Romans use art as state propaganda? Why was the naturalism of ancient Greek and Roman art abandoned with the rise of Christianity? This topic explores the art of the ancient world, from the Venus of Willendorf to a 6th-Century Chinese Bodhisattva.
A thumbnail for: 400-1300 Medieval Era
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400-1300 Medieval Era

Were the Middle Ages really all that dark? Hardly! How could we call the period that saw the building of Chartres Cathedral with its stunning stained-glass windows, dark? Sure, the Roman empire collapsed, but with the Christianization of Europe came magnificent churches, illuminated bibles, and intricately designed broaches. This period also saw the birth of Islam, the third great monotheistic religion.
A thumbnail for: 1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance
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1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance

This is a transitional period. In the art of Florence and Siena there is a move away from medieval abstract depictions of space and the human body as artists began to focus on the illusion of mass and space and the expression of human emotion. With hindsight, it is possible to trace elements of Renaissance art back to this period. This century saw the creation of the beautiful poetry of Dante and Petrarch, but it is also the century that saw the worst outbreak of the Bubonic plague (known then as the Black Death) which wiped out close to half the population of Europe—a terrifying statistic, difficult to imagine today. This topic focuses on two Italian city-states—Florence and Siena, both proud republics in the 14th century, and the great painters of those city-states, Giotto and Cimabue in Florence, and Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers in Siena.
A thumbnail for: 1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North
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1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North

This is the century that sees the full realization of the Renaissance and the end of the medieval way of thinking about the world. The Humanist rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture is supported by the wealth accumulated in prosperous cities such as Bruges, Florence, and Venice. New wealth and increasing trade created a demand for an art based on the world we see. The second half of the century saw the invention of the printing press, and Columbus’s voyage. And though he was heading for the East, Columbus landed in the Americas, and suddenly there were vast new continents for Europe to exploit economically and to Christianize. The century begins with the magnificent sculptures of Claus Sluter and ends with the elegant figures of Leonardo da Vinci.
A thumbnail for: 1500-1600 End of the Renaissance and the Reformation
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1500-1600 End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

If there was one century in the past that saw radical changes in established ways of thinking comparable to the 20th Century, it would be the 16th. Before this, in Western Europe, there was only one type of Christianity—under the authority of the Pope in Rome. But in 1517 a German theologian and monk, Martin Luther, sparked the Protestant Reformation. His ideas spread quickly, thanks in part to the printing press. Luther challenged the power of the Pope and the Church, and asserted the authority of individual conscience. At the same time, it was increasingly possible for people to read the bible in the languages that they spoke. It is also during this period that the Scientific Revolution began and observation replaced religious doctrine as the source of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. At mid-century, Copernicus suggested that the sun was at the center of solar system (not the earth), radically repositioning human beings and therefore calling into question our centrality in the universe that God had created.
A thumbnail for: 1600-1700 The Baroque
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1600-1700 The Baroque

The 17th Century is the era of the Baroque style, characterized by energy, drama, and movement. The Church in Rome needed art that spoke to its resurgent power even as the conflict between Protestant and Catholics continued. A new realism—with a special sensitivity to light—also pervades the art of this period across Europe and can be seen especially in the work of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Ruysdael, and Vermeer. But where in Catholic countries, the Church remained a major patron of religious images, in the Protestant Dutch Republic, artists painted an expanded range subjects like still-lifes, landscapes and genre paintings for the middle class.
A thumbnail for: 1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment
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1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment

From the frivolous paintings of Fragonard to the politically-charged moralizing images of David, this tutorial brings us from the King of France and his court—the 1%—to the democratic aspirations of the French and American revolutionaries. The Kings of France ruled by divine right, but Enlightenment thinkers (for example, Voltaire and Diderot) asserted our ability to reason for ourselves rather than rely on the teachings of established institutions. Rousseau in “The Social Contract,” stated that power to govern resided in the hands of the people. In 1788 the new United States ratified its Constitution, and in 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded. Artists in France, America and Britain—some sympathetic to revolutionary ideals, others not—were nevertheless all caught up in the political upheavals of this period.
A thumbnail for: 1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I
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1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I

With the failure of the French Revolution (Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, and after his defeat, a King was restored to power in France), there was a turn away from public, political life, toward personal, subjective experience. In large part, this turn characterizes the new style of Romanticism (don’t confuse this with our own use of the term romantic!), whether we look to art in France, Spain, England or Germany. Where Neo-Classical painters created virtuous and heroic subjects with figures willing to sacrifice for the public good, Romantic painters asserted the primacy of emotion and the irrational.
A thumbnail for: 1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II
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1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II

The art of this period is familiar, since the world of the Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists is much like our own. More and more people lived in cities and worked in factories or shops for wages. Scientific and technological advances increased dramatically during this period and although there was dislocation and privation, standards of living increased sharply. In essence, modern mass culture was born. Artists responded sometimes by embracing these radical changes, and at other times by resisting them. Key here is understanding the authority of the various art academies in Europe, which controlled matters related to taste and art, and which were, to some extent, always connected to the government. A small number of artists rebelled against the strictures of the academy, and against the demand for art to tell clear stories for a middle class audience, and formed what we know as the “avant-garde.”
A thumbnail for: 1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict
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1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict

Europe in 1907 was powerful, wealthy and stable. The British Empire was unmatched with huge territories that stretched across the globe. The Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires remained intact, and the Italians, Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese retained colonies. Nevertheless, the old order would soon collapse, a result of the Great War in 1914. But this trauma was only the beginning. A global financial collapse precipitated by the stock market crash of 1929 allowed Mussolini, Franco and Hitler to seize power. The violence only worsened with the Holocaust, Japanese Imperial expansion, and the Second World War. At the same time, this was a period of radical advances in music (Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.), in dance (Duncan, Graham, etc.) in literature (Joyce, Pound, etc.), science (Einstein, Heisenberg, etc.), and of course, in art (Matisse, Picasso, etc.). In the years between the wars artists explored abstraction and the irrational. After the war, and with Europe in ruins, the focus of the art world shifted from Paris to New York where Abstract Expressionism was born.
A thumbnail for: 1960 -  Age of Post-Colonialism
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1960 - Age of Post-Colonialism

By 1960, the unprecedented violence of the first half of the century had ebbed, replaced by the Cold War and threat of nuclear catastrophe. The vacuum left by European powers as they withdrew from their colonies instigated a global power grab as small nations sought autonomy but became proxies in a global strategic confrontation between Western and Soviet or Chinese ideologies. At the same time protest movements in the West called for an end to war, racism, and gender inequality. Powerful, entrenched conservative institutions such as the Catholic Church were transformed. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., coupled later with Watergate, created a deep distrust for institutional authority. Artists responded by producing exceptionally thoughtful, original and provocative work that became increasingly global in its perspective.
1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict
Europe in 1907 was powerful, wealthy and stable. The British Empire was unmatched with huge territories that stretched across the globe. The Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires remained intact, and the Italians, Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese retained colonies. Nevertheless, the old order would soon collapse, a result of the Great War in 1914. But this trauma was only the beginning. A global financial collapse precipitated by the stock market crash of 1929 allowed Mussolini, Franco and Hitler to seize power. The violence only worsened with the Holocaust, Japanese Imperial expansion, and the Second World War. At the same time, this was a period of radical advances in music (Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.), in dance (Duncan, Graham, etc.) in literature (Joyce, Pound, etc.), science (Einstein, Heisenberg, etc.), and of course, in art (Matisse, Picasso, etc.). In the years between the wars artists explored abstraction and the irrational. After the war, and with Europe in ruins, the focus of the art world shifted from Paris to New York where Abstract Expressionism was born.

Expressionism

Wild Beasts! Les Fauve (wild beasts) is what one critic called the brilliant expressive canvases of Matisse and other artists who exhibited together in 1905. This tutorial traces the work of Henri Matisse from his early Fauvist work with its jarringly bright colors to the stricter geometries he introduced during the First World War. It also tracks Expressionist developments in Germany and Austria with videos on Kirchner, Kandinsky and Jawlensky, artists who adopted a rough, “primitive” style, and on Egon Schiele’s taut, sexually charged paintings from Vienna.

Cubism and its impact

The Spaniard Picasso changed the way we see the world. He could draw with academic perfection at a very young age but he gave it up in order to create a language of representation suited to the modern world. Together with the French artist George Braque, Picasso undertook an analysis of form and vision that would inspire radical new visual forms across Europe and in America. This tutorial explains the underlying principles of Cubism and the abstract experiments that followed including Italian Futurism, Russian Suprematism, and the Dutch movement, de Stijl.

Dada & Surrealism

Do we know who we really are? What parts of our mind do we know and what parts are hidden from us? Should art only focus on the rational, the conscious, or should we also pay attention to the irrational, the uncanny, the powerful impulses that remain unarticulated and just beyond the reach of our awareness. Dada was born during WWI when poets, artists, and actors, sickened by the violence around them, chose to celebrate the irrational. They created an anti-art that challenged the cultural assumptions that they felt supported the ruling elite that had, in turn, caused the war. In the years after the war, Dada gave way to Surrealism which reinstituted traditional forms of art-making but focused on Freud’s theories of the unconscious.

German art between the wars

Germany was defeated and exhausted in 1918 at the end of WWI. The equally exhausted victors imposed harsh terms on Germany. It was forced to forfeit its overseas colonial possessions, to cede land to its neighbors, and to pay reparations. As demobilized troops returned, German cities filled with unemployed, often maimed veterans. The Socialists briefly seized power and by the early 1920s hyperinflation further destabilized the nation. Neue Sachlichkeit or the New Objectivity cast a cold sharp eye on Modern Germany’s hypocrisy, aggression, and destitution even as extremists on the political right consolidated power. The National Socialists or Nazi Party won the chancellorship in 1933 and quickly used art and architecture as a means build the myth of a pure German people shaped by the land and unsullied by modern industrial culture. This tutorial looks at the ways that competing political ideologies each used art for its own purposes.

International style architecture

Towers of glass and steel from the mid-20th Century suggest, for many people, the rationalization of urban space that dehumanized our cities with empty plazas, rigorous geometries and uniformity. But International style architecture was born of the utopian idea that innovative design could improve the lives millions and its forms recall the clarity and harmony of ancient Greek architecture. This tutorial treats the late work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gordon Bunshaft, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

American Modernism

Art had never been especially important in America. Before the Civil War, many of America’s best artists went to Europe and stayed. Even after the war, American artists found little enthusiasm for their work unless it was directly informed by European precedents. By the first years of the 20th Century, a small group of American artists began to paint the gritty streets of New York and were called the Ashcan School for their portrayal of life in the tenements. In 1913 however, the Armory Show exhibited advanced American and European art and helped to create a market for the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and other members of modern galleries like Alfred Steiglitz’s 291 and Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. During the Great Depression artists such as Grant Wood portrayed rural life in the south and midwest and became known as regionalists while other realists such as Edward Hopper rendered the alienation of the modern city. Meanwhile, Surrealist ideas infused a younger generation of artists’ work in Mexico and the US which would result, by the end of WWII, in the first internationally important American art movement, Abstract Expressionism.