Why You Should Study the History Behind the Artwork
In art, we often focus on the process and techniques used to make the art piece. Though the aesthetic of the product is often mesmerizing, we can learn more about the cultural norms and history when the piece was made by digging deeper into the piece’s past. Each art piece can tell us something about what time period it was drawn in and what was culturally significant through many different factors, such as the materials used, the figures drawn, and much more.
Symbolism is one main factor that can tell us about the culture in which the piece was created. For example, take this Chinese textile piece of a five-clawed dragon that was made during the Ming Dynasty from the years of 1369-1644.
The symbol of the five-clawed dragon holds extreme significance in Chinese culture since dragons were an exclusive symbol of the emperor. Dragons came to represent the emperor’s strength and power, and they were traditionally believed to have powers that controlled the natural forces, such as wind, rain, and lightning. These embroidery pieces were often seen on emperor robes to represent the imperial power. This motif was specialized especially during the Ming Dynasty since five-clawed dragons became exclusive for use inside the Imperial circle, and those who did not follow these orders were accused of treason.
The material of which a piece is made from can also tell us a great amount about what material and clothes were available at the time. Through examination, we learn that the Chinese were the first people to raise silkworms and even invented the technique of spinning silk into thread, making silk a sought-after trade item. This is where the name of the Silk Road, a huge network of trade routes that connected Asia and Europe, comes from.
To learn from different cultural and historical perspectives, we also compare artwork from different locations around the world and timestamps throughout history. By analyzing artworks that may have similar symbols but different interpretations, we can learn about the roles these figures hold in distinct societies and understand experiences that we may personally never go through.
In comparison to Chinese dragons, European dragons in medieval times were often seen as evil. They were often symbols of treachery, fear, anger, and envy and were slain by heroes in old legends.
The piece to the right is named Saint George Killing the Dragon by Bernat Martorell of Spain and was made in the early 1430s. It depicts the legend of Saint George who came across and killed a venom-spewing dragon that terrified the people of the city Silene by demanding human sacrifices. The ways in which the Chinese and Medieval Europeans saw dragons was vastly different, and that gives us insight into how dragons played significant roles in the culture’s legends and folktales.
By learning why these visual objects were relevant and how they were used to communicate, we as artists take much inspiration from understanding how art as a language has changed throughout history. Take a closer look at your favorite art pieces and dig deeper under the surface to learn about history!
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