Animals, Gods, Nature, Ideas..

I’m halfway through giving (and writing) a series of four lectures, based on my book from last year Creation. Art Since the Beginning. They’re being held at St Mary’s Church in Walpole, Suffolk, which has recently become a local venue for art and performance. 

The idea behind the lectures is that the history of art, going right back to the earliest images made by humans, 45,000 years ago, can be divided into four eras. They are the four ages of art, if you like. 

For the first forty thousand years the only subject for art was animals – other animals. This is the theme of the first lecture, ANIMALS, which I (boldly) describe as the Great Untold Story of Art. While there have been some excellent books on the subject, looking at individual periods, this long first era and its aftermath has never (to my knowledge) been tackled as a whole. In preparing the lecture I really benefitted from reading Melanie Challenger’s excellent book How to be an Animal. What it Means to be Human, published a couple of years ago.

Like all the lectures, it is in part an excuse to show and talk about some wonderful works of art, like The Vision of St Eustace by Pisanello, pictured above.

I was very grateful to Jill Cook, the curator at the British Museum for showing me the moving sculpture of the Swimming Reindeer, carved from mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago, which features at the beginning and end of ANIMALS.

Swimming Reindeer, c.13,000 years old. Photographed in the British Museum Storage

The second lecture, GODS, looks at the period from around 3000 BCE to 1300 CE, the rise of world religions, and the ways artists solved the problem of making the invisible visible, as Paul Klee once put it. At the last minute I discovered Karen Armstrong’s recent book Sacred Nature. How we can recover our Bond with the Natural World, which led to a rapid rewrite of the first part of the lecture.

Here is a little taster of GODS:

The third lecture (which I am currently writing), is NATURE and looks at painting since the time of Van Eyck, before taking in earlier types of landscape painting, particularly those from China and eastern Asia. I’m going back to old favourites, such as Kenneth Clark’s Landscape into Art, but also some excellent recent tomes, including the justifiably (for once) weighty catalogue accompanying the Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent in 2020, a book only Thames & Hudson could produce so well.

There are quite a few images in NATURE from the National Gallery. Here is a preview of the Constable moment (in slow, lecture-giving time, and including a twist at the end):

The fourth lecture, IDEAS, is about what happened after 1890, and the notion that art became a branch of philosophy. As a bit of mental stimulus for the contemporary section I borrowed the 2020 book ‘The Story of Contemporary Art’ by Tony Godfrey from the London Library a few weeks ago (also published by Thames & Hudson). It is an excellent overview of the last thirty or so years, by someone who really knows their stuff, and writes in a clear and engaging way. There may be a few surprises along the way with this lecture. Mal sehen!

Writing lectures is never easy: what to put in, what to leave out, how to get by without reading from a script (deadly boring) — and also how to obtain and show images. 

I dream of giving a lecture again with old-fashioned slides, and am (I think) part of the last generation to have done this, at least as a student. Only artists nowadays are clever enough to carry on using this magical technology. The colours and images of the lantern slide were, at their best, much better than flat digital images, and there was a satisifying ‘clunk’ as the slide went in, which somehow structured the talk.

Nowadays however there is the option of putting different types of slide images together, including films, music, and animations (Keynote is the best application for this I find). You can make cinema-quality clips on your phone, and edit them together on your computer. You can also present online, which is in essence a form of broadcasting. 

I wonder if arts documentaries and these homegrown lecture presentations will increasingly converge. This might offer a rich solution to the problem of the old-fashioned ‘talking head’ arts documentary.

The message connecting the lectures is one put forward in Creation. Art Since the Beginning — that throughout history art has always been a record of our changing encounter with nature, from awe to domination. This, I think, is the most important interpretation for us nowadays.

The lectures will be repeated online at the end of the year, and then, I hope, in person elsewhere in 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s