The Accessibility of Formal Analysis (08 July)

When it comes to analyzing works of art (especially very old ones), I think formal analysis is more important than the historical context. History and context are very important to understanding what the artist was thinking and what kinds of things were going on around them, but that’s not something the viewer can always know. One example that stood out to me that I think sums this up pretty well is Ambrosius Bosschaert’s Vase of Flowers, pictured on page 91 Westermann’s book (with analysis on page 90):

Ambrosius Bosschaert: Vase of Flowers, c. 1618-1621. Borrowed from the Maritshuis website (it is currently in their collection).

Westermann points out that the bouquet pictured here is impossible—the flowers in this vase don’t bloom at the same time—and mentions that the architecture of the window and the landscape in the background are atypical for the historical and geographical setting. While this is of course correct, the vast majority of viewers don’t have the same knowledge base as an expert on Dutch art. For non-experts, the actual composition of the painting isn’t just more important than the historical context, it’s the only thing we’re actually able to analyze.

I barely had any context for someone like, say, Rembrandt when this class began—honestly, I couldn’t have even told you what century he worked in, let alone what the political and economic factors of the Netherlands at the time. I was still able to find meaning in his art because I instead analyzed those formal elements we read about this week—basically, I drew meaning from what it looked like through my eyes, and how it made me feel and think about the subject. Formal analysis is just more accessible than historical analysis, and the fact that anyone with the ability to perceive the art in question can use it makes it superior.

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3 thoughts on “The Accessibility of Formal Analysis (08 July)

  1. Good defense of formal analysis: personally, this is always where I start: what does it look like? what does the composition seem to be doing? etc. . So, in this particular case, what elements of the work mean something to you? What kind of formal analysis would you apply to explain or discover this meaning? Might it involve light/shadow, the palette of colors, the arrangement of those colors or other features in the space of the frame? And finally, what about viewer context: e.g., what if the viewer is a gardener and knows well that these flowers all bloom at different times? Or what if they know som might be grown in green houses out of season? How might this change the meanings?

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  2. Great post here. I think you make a very compelling argument in favor of formal analysis. If the point of analyzing art is to appreciate the art itself than there is no question that a formal approach is what makes sense. Comparing this to modern day, I think someone who uses historical analysis is akin to the person sitting in a movie theater pointing out every minor historical inaccuracy in a move like the Darkest Hour. I honestly couldn’t care less about accuracy in this sense and, as in the picture you discussed, inaccuracy leads to a better artistic product. That all being said, as someone who love history but struggles to appreciate art I wrote in favor of historical analysis merely because it tends to peak my interest a bit more. Again, this is a very, very strong argument in favor of a formal approach. Excellent writing.

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  3. I agree with Joseph that formal analysis is more accessible than historical analysis, and the fact that almost anyone with the ability to perceive art that is of curiosity to them can, but I do believe that historical context during this time period was important for an artist. During this time, the political climate was not unchallenged and society was not particularly calm by any means. This means that if the artists wanted to call to the attention of the public or spark an interest in the public they most like had their paintings surround the historical context or the political climate of the time. I do believe this could this reasoning of the how the political atmosphere and the historical events that surround this period were important and could be expanded upon.

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