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Art historical analysis (painting), a basic introduction using Goya's Third of May, 1808

Video transcript

there are different methods that our historians use to get at meaning in a historical sense what did the work of art mean to the artists what did it mean to the culture for which it was originally made and how did that meaning change up to the present moment one of the first things you can do when you approach a work of art is to begin describing it normally we walk past the work of art quickly but if you stay with it and interrogate it just on what art historians call its formal properties you can learn a lot formal properties refers just to the physical object itself and formal analysis is really based on a simple act that is looking closely another thing you can start thinking about is the subject matter the content of the work of art is it telling a story from mythology from history from the Bible and then when it comes to modern or it's sometimes that's a little more difficult because sometimes there is no overt story and then the last and perhaps even most important way that art historians try to understand a work of art is to think about the context in which that work of art was originally embedded what was the world like when this work of art was made what was it made for who asked to have it made what was happening politically economically socially at that moment so let's begin with Gaia's 3rd of May 1808 now when I walk up to a painting very often the first thing I'll try to do is understand the painting formally so what decisions did the artist make well for one thing the arts decided to make a large painting that says something about the artists ambition for the work of art and it's important to note that this is oil paint on canvas substantial works of art or oil on canvas this is not watercolor it's not a sketch the next thing that I notice is the extreme contrast of light and dark and the way that the artist has almost divided the canvas into these zones of light and dark so scale material and value that is the use of light and dark are all formal qualities but so is composition think about it as stage direction whereas the artist placing his actors what is their relationship to the landscape what is their relationship to one another what is the artist asking me to look at what is he drawing my eye to and clearly in this painting it's that figure in white with his hands outstretched above him go ahead makes it very clear that we're looking at that man who's about to be shot those guns are pointing right to him but the composition also reinforces that by the artist placing that figure against a hillside so that he is entrapped there our eye is led down to the gunman by the horizon of the hill and then our eye shoots back to the left right back to that bright white shirt the gunmen form a receding diagonal line creating an illusion of depth when we talk about paintings we're looking at works of art that are flat and one of the key questions we can ask is is the artist creating an illusion of space on that flat surface and one of the ways that Goya is doing that is by using this diagonal line that appears to recede into space he also reinforces depth in a number of other ways he does it with light the brightest elements or forward things become dimmer as we move back the level of detail diminishes as we move into the distance and finally the artist also uses scale so the buildings in the distance are small in comparison to the men in the foreground but he's also using light and dark as modeling or chiaroscuro to create a sense that the forms the figures in this case are themselves three-dimensional and you can see that really well for instance in the man's right hand there you can see the fleshy quality of his thumb where there's a white highlight and you can see shadow that is used to trace the contours of that thumb and so you have this grounding in space this volume and all of these are formal elements and if we want to stay on this topic of creating an illusion of space an artist can also do that by using foreshortening that is creating the illusion that forms are coming directly out towards us or receding back into the space of the painting great example of that is the dead figure in the foreground who's fallen toward us after being shot his arms outstretched and you can see his body moved back into space so the artist has distorted the body made it too short but we see that accurately in the illusionistic depth that the artist has created we see that Goya is using a lot of earth tones browns and golds and it's nighttime you talked about the radical contrast between light and darkness and the real reduction of color in this painting helps to reinforce that another important thing to think about is the brushwork now seeing the hand of the artist pushing ain't across the canvas is possible because of oil paint the energy of the brushwork can activate the surface of the canvas and give it a sense of power and motion and for example if we look at the white shirt the brushstrokes are not careful it looks sketchy it looks quick and it gives us a sense the man has just raised his arms that that shirt is actually still in motion look at the facial features of the man his eyebrows are raised up almost too much but because the brushwork is so loose we forgive that it becomes a kind of gesture that speaks yet another decision the artist is making the simplified forms of the face the simplified forms of the neck and then the hair the artists is not spending a huge amount of time finishing this making it perfect and it's a really different quality that results from that kind of brushy sense of spontaneity for me that visible brushwork makes me feel the presence of the artist in front of the canvas there is a sense of immediacy as opposed to an artist who might create a very finished line which we might see for instance in the neoclassical tradition where the figures seem sculptural and they seem timeless this is very much of a particular moment and how appropriate this is of a particular day the 3rd of May 1808 we have a man about to be shot figures on the ground in front of him who have just been murdered and I see another figure with holding his head who's next in this line of fire Goya has taken the static flat object this oil painting and he has suggested depth and the passage of time we could also notice that the figure in white and many of the other figures we see their faces they're human we have empathy for them whereas the soldiers are lined up with their backs toward us and we have the sense of a machine like firing squad confronting these deeply human figures we've now entered into the subject matter into the content of the painting well it's hard to keep those things entirely separate because as we're talking about the formal elements we can see figures who are victims and figures who are the perpetrators of the violence so what is the painting about the narrative and what's actually being conveyed in terms of the unfolding of an action subject matter can be very closely tied to the historical context and this is a perfect example Napoleon Bonaparte is on the throne in France and is asserting his power throughout Europe including Spain now Napoleon through some complex master nations is able to march into Spain is able to depose the king of Spain Charles the fourth and is ultimately able to make his brother the king of Spain but the people of Spain don't take this sitting down there's a popular uprising against the French occupation of Spain and that event is just the day before May 2nd 1808 and in retribution the French then take a series of innocent people from the city of Madrid line them up outside of the city and shoot them and that's what this painting commemorates a group of innocent Spanish people being brutally murdered by Napoleon's army Koya has given us an innocent figure with his arms raised in a position that is reminiscent of Christ on the cross an innocent martyr brutally murdered the formal elements are here in support of Gaia's position regarding this event this is one of the great examples of romanticism this moment in literature in music and in painting when emotional expression came to the fore when painting was no longer about abstract ideas but very much about a kind of emotional response and a more individualized response here we have someone being killed for no good reason the brutal facts of how inhumane human beings can be to one another and one of the ways that he conveys that message that is that content is through the use of symbolism Goa has appropriated a historical symbolic language if we look for instance at the man in the white shirt he is a martyr a martyr to Spain and in fact his arms are raised up as if he's hanging from the cross and if we look very closely we can see small indentations in his palms that are a reference to the holes that Christ received on the cross known as the stigmata so Goya is using this historical tradition in painting for the representation of this modern event and painting that event from this subjective modern viewpoint this isn't about a message from the state or the Pope or a person in position of power this is very much boys point of view and that speaks to the economic environment in which this painting was made this was not a painting was made for a patron somebody did not commissioned this painting but this was a painting that Goya felt was important to paint and so he did it is so clearly about the horrors and the brutality of war the painting and our understanding of it is so much more enriched by understanding its original historical context and the meaning that it had for the artist and for his world in the early 19th century you