Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo at the Tate Modern
Art has always been treated with reverence. Some investigators of cave painting claim early art indicates a time of increasing leisure, as though art was some kind of stone age hobby. This seems unlikely when we remember that cave images were created as mankind struggled through the last ice age 30,000 years ago. This must have been one of the most challenging times in human history, when survivors of climate catastrophe were sandwiched between a parched Africa, and mile high glaciers that came down to just north of present day London. In the caves of what is now southern France life could not have been easy, and it is unlikely that people were just sitting around doodling on the walls to pass the time. Leroi Gourham has argued that cave paintings were used in powerful rituals designed to hold groups of ice age survivors together. At Trois Freres in southern France a collection of paintings and sculptures follows the course of an underground river. Gourham suggests that to follow the "exhibition" through the caves people had to struggle along a dark and difficult route, which would finally end in a small chamber with a statue of a bison at its centre. If cave painting was spare time doodling, why put it in such inaccessible places? Fifteen miles from Trois Freres at Montespar there is a collection of art laid out in a similar fashion, once again along the tortuous course of an underground river. Gourham thinks that the art in these cave systems was part of a ritual where people symbolically struggled through difficult caves, the impact of images heightened by flickering fire light, fearful darkness, and the route's arduous nature. We might picture a cross between a ghost train ride at a funfair, and an army assault course. Ritualistic journeys through these tunnels perhaps served as a kind of training. In darkness and difficulty there was an intense bonding experience, and inculcation of reverence to higher authority, probably embodied in a leader or holy man. We use the word religion to describe this combination of bonding, training, and reverence in the face of authority. Art probably served what we now call religion in ice age caves of southern France, and this continued in the long eons of human history that were to follow.
Elgin Marbles at the British Museum
Moving forward tens of thousands of years to ancient Greece, religion was still the prime concern of art. Greece's most extensive temple building programme was instituted by Pericles (495 - 429BC) in Athens. Central to this work was the Parthenon, dedicated to goddess Athena. Carved marble panels, or metopes, originally decorating the Parthenon's south side can be seen at the British Museum. Greece illustrates a tension which was now to follow art through its entire history. Art was useful in bolstering religion, through its beguiling images and illusions. But art could be so powerful that there was a danger of overshadowing the religion it was meant to serve. There was a danger that art would become an icon in its own right. By 500BC the first secular genre had emerged with the Olympic victor statue. But for decorum's sake these statues were usually dedicated to Zeus, as well as to athletes depicted. Similarly it was not acceptable to give too much emphasis to the abilities of people who actually created the statues. Plutarch apparently remarked that no one would want to be Phidias, creator of the Zeus at Olympia, even though the Olympia Zeus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. "Admiring the work doesn't mean you give its maker the time of day" (Oxford History Of Western Art ed Martin Kemp P12). This same studied ignorance of artists continued into the medieval world which followed on from the ancient Mediterranean civilisations. The potential independent power of art brought about the hostility of early Christianity. Greek art was studiously ignored in Jewish areas of the Middle East. This disregard of art gained strength between the fourth and sixth centuries AD during the slow Christianisation of Europe. Nevertheless it wasn't long before Christianity itself was looking for ways to justify the use of art for its own ends. Unnamed medieval artists began to represent Christ and his saints, their representations based on earlier images of the bearded holy man or sage, which had been evolving for at least seven hundred years. Pictures were used to illustrate laboriously produced sacred writings. A well known example is the illustrated manuscript of the Gospels of St Augustine, traditionally identified as one of the books supplied by Pope Gregory the Great to the missionary St Augustine who arrived in Kent in 597AD to convert pagan Britain to Christianity. This book is kept at Corpus Christi College Cambridge. Other famous examples of illustrated manuscripts, such as the seventh century Lindisfarne Gospels, can be viewed at the British Library.
Stained glass in the Wakefeld Tower at the Tower of London
Gold and jewelry were also popular in Christian art, since these materials seemed to have Biblical justification. The Bible had described four rivers running out of Eden, one of which, the Pision, flowed into the land of Havilah, "where there is gold, and the gold of that land is good" (Genesis 2: 10-12). There was an idea that gold and precious stones, beautiful and incorruptible, were fragments of earthly paradise, washed out of Eden. The fact that these materials were found in the East, and were often recovered from rivers, leant weight to the theory. As the Church became richer, this Biblical justification for art using gold and precious stones was very useful. The close relationship between the Church and political power meant that gold and jewels became general symbols of authority and continuity. Some items housed at the Tower of London's Jewel House date back to 1100, and still do their job of symbolising power and continuity today. Biblical support also lay behind another highly visible genre of Christian art, that of stained glass. In Genesis the first words ascribed to God are "let there be light", and the act of creation itself was the division of light and darkness. This emphasis on light was of course a continuation of ancient religions centred on the sun. Glass, which allowed in light, therefore, had a symbolic significance. Although surviving examples of stained glass before 1000AD are very rare, literary evidence suggests coloured glass was made for churches from the fourth century onwards. By the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries skills in stained glass making were highly developed, as illustrated at Canterbury Cathedral for example. Thirteenth century glass can also be seen at Salisbury Cathedral, in the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey and in the transepts at York Minster.
Other forms of art, painting and sculpture were all quite literally kept safely in the church. Sculpture was carved into walls of churches or cathedrals, and painters used church walls as their canvas. Wall mural painting dating to 1270-80 by unknown English painters can be seen at Westminster Abbey. A similar painting dating to 1250 - 60 survives at Chichester's Bishops Palace Chapel. Fittingly we know nothing of the artists who did this work, since art served, and was controlled by, the Church. Those who created the paintings, as in ancient Greece, had little significance. But in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century a name emerges, Giotti de Bondone, more often known simply as Giotto (1267 - 1337). This Italian painter and architect was responsible for Nativity frescoes in the lower church at Assisi, and developed early techniques for portraying perspective. The fact that we know Giotto's name is significant, since it indicates that art was just beginning to take on a life of its own. This trend gained momentum when painting moved from mural to more portable forms. Once again recognisable names emerge, in Theodoric, and Tommaso da Modena. The alter pieces which these artists worked on marked the jumping off point for art to move beyond church buildings. Pictures of religious scenes painted on panels were used to decorate alters. These panels could be moved, between churches, then to family chapels, palaces, and homes. In this way secular influence came into play. A famous example of this kind of picture is the Wilton Diptych, which shows Richard II offering devotion to the Virgin Mary, dated to between 1377 and 1399. This picture can be seen at the National Gallery. Many other alter pieces can also be seen at the National Gallery by artists such as Jacopo di Cione who died in 1400, and Carlo Crivelli (1430s - 1494).
By the fifteenth century art was still very much associated with religion, but the idea of an individual artist as a genius was now becoming firmly established. In 1436 Leon Battista Alberti wrote a well known book called On Painting. In it he talked of Donatello (1386 - 1466), Lorenzi Ghibertis (1378 - 1455), Masaccio (1401 - 1478) and Filippio Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446). According to Alberti this group enjoyed "genius for every laudable enterprise in no way inferior to the ancients". All of these artists worked on religious subjects housed in churches: Donatello produced sculptures for the cathedral and guildhall at San Michele for example. But these artists were still being thought of as important people. Then in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, with the work of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), Michelangelo (1475 - 1564) and Raphael (1483 - 1520), a sense of importance stepped up towards veneration. Ironically these artist icons still worked for art's biggest customer, the Church. Raphael designed the Stanze papal appartments at the Vatican between 1509 and 1520, Michelangelo famously painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512, and Leonardo's paintings The Adoration of the Magi and The Last Supper take Christianity as their subject. But Leonardo especially gives a sense that art was about to make a new journey. It is fitting his enigmatic portrait, the Mona Lisa, should defy classification. The Mona Lisa seems to be a world in its own right, a painting that seems to say nothing at the same time as being knowing. Perhaps it was time that art stopped preaching its message and started to wander into uncharted realms of life.
National Gallery, London
The widening of art's scope, perhaps personified in the Mona Lisa did not actually take place in studios of iconic painters but in the everyday world of tapestry making, and decoration of storage boxes, furniture, crockery and cutlery. On all of these canvases a lack of expectation gave wider freedom of expression. Themes included scenes of lovers, chivalric derring do, and allegories of romance. Leading artists, such as Botticelli (1444/5 - 1510), were engaged in painting furnishings for domestic use. Panel paintings with secular themes placed on household items were often removed and preserved as independent paintings. Ornate storage boxes decorated by Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo (1465 - 1522) can be seen at the National Gallery, as can room decoration by Luca Signorelli (1440/50 - 1523), who painted subjects such as Coriolanus being persuaded to spare Rome. Building on the influence of alter pieces, decorative art was generally portable, and helped move art away from its traditional home in churches. Fine art followed on, with the idea of painting onto a portable canvas, instead of using church walls and ceilings. Use of canvas was a largely Venetian invention, with Titian (1485 - 1576) leading the way. Through these various lines of development, individual works of art, and the artists who made them, had left churches behind and were now icons in their own right.
Rubens' ceiling at Banqueting House in Whitehall, London
Development now became increasingly complicated as art spread bewilderingly out from its church confinement. The advent of Protestantism, with its hostility to decoration and imagery meant that religious subjects in many areas of Europe were actually out of bounds. Secular theatre grew out of protestant prohibition of religious theatricals. A similar development happened in the field of art. Art was forced to widen its themes simply because puritanical religion rejected art. One of the few exceptions to this prohibition occurred in 1629 when Charles I harked back to the past in commissioning Peter Paul Rubens to paint a huge religious allegory on the ceiling of Banqueting House in Whitehall, a painting which still survives. This beautiful painting was a reminder of the old immovable Church art: but Banqueting House was a secular building. The Banqueting House painting, even in reminding us of the past, suggests the future.
British aristocrats started building art collections, usually gathered during a Grand Tour of Europe. Collections of this kind can still be seen today, at Petworth for example. Vauxhall Gardens attracted visitors with Roubilliac's statue of Handel, and other works. The wealthy enjoyed having their portraits painted, with Thomas Gainsborough becoming Britain's greatest exponent of this art. With industrialism gaining momentum there was a growing nostalgic interest in landscapes and scenes from nature. As far as Britain was concerned the two greatest painters working during the Industrial Revolution were John Constable and J.M.W.Turner, both of whom reflected on change and stability in their work. Change was now rapid, both in society and art. From the early 1800s, Realism, Impressionism, Neo-impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvisim and Cubism followed each other in quick succession. Fittingly artists became more likely to find inspiration in transient subjects and effects.
Ironically as all this change occurred art seemed to want to move back into its sacred place. This sacred place was no longer a church but a museum or art gallery. These new sacred spaces began with the Louvre in Paris following the French Revolution. Britain eventually followed suit with the National Gallery in 1824. Meanwhile a huge amount of art work was devoted to crockery, furniture, clothing, advertisements, all of which could be found anywhere. It was easy to forget in the age of the artist as icon that ordinary art created what we think of as high art. Without the freedom provided by "unimportant" art forms such as Botticelli's decorated furnishings, art would have stayed in the hallowed precincts of its cathedrals and churches. Similarly modern art, considered so abstract and rarified, actually has always had links through modern design to the things we use everyday. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded in 1929 with the aim of "encouraging and developing the study of modern arts and the application of such arts to manufacture and practical life, and furnishing popular instruction". The architect Frank Lloyd Wright built the Soloman R.Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1943. Wright believed that mass production for the first time in history allowed "the poor as well as the rich to enjoy beautiful surface treatments and clear strong forms". In Britain the Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in 1852 to promote art and design, and so to contribute to the improvement of British goods. From early in the industrial period an artist such as Van Gogh (1853 - 90), already had a sense of the sacred being found in places with low artistic expectations. Van Gogh's paintings are evocative of what he lovingly called "crude things" such as "common earthenware", or street cafes, or chairs in bedrooms. Then into the twentieth century Picasso fractured reality into cubism, but he used down-to-earth non-artistic materials in his work, newspaper, wallpaper, oilcloth. More recently, in 2000 Britain's leading centre for modern art, the Tate Modern opened, fittingly, in an old power station on Bankside in London. In the Tate Modern you can view the work of Andy Warhol who took endlessly reproduced images from the world of industry or film, and created ambivalent works of art from them. And as a final development modern art in its escape from form and content and just about anything recognisable, even found that it remained in the province of religious feeling which created art in the first place. Following World War Two art seemed to fracture into formlessness, in the work of Picasso, and in the seemingly chaotic works of artists such as Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. But even the works of Pollack are less rarified than they appear. His style was based on ancient Native American artistic rituals where different coloured sands were poured on a horizontal surface to build up an image. Pollock grew up in Cody Wyoming, where these artistic traditions still survived. The paints Pollock used were as carefully poured as any Native American coloured sands. Pictures that seem to live in an abstract world of their own are actually rooted in ancient tradition and discipline. As for Mark Rothko, in a fascinating return, he helped create the Rothko Chapel, a non denominational religious building in Houston, Texas decorated inside with fourteen black and colour hued paintings. The Rothko Chapel belongs to no specific religion, and in the widest sense comments on the long journey of art and religion.
Embankment by Rachel Whiteread at the Tate Modern - made from 14,000 casts of the inside of cardboard boxes
Modern art is often thought of as undisciplined. A pile of fire bricks appears in a gallery, the fee paid to the artist is revealed and people are up in arms. But it does take discipline to keep looking at the world anew. We might all wander past a pile of bricks, and hardly notice them. It takes unusual resolve to avoid looking at things in terms of traditional notions of importance. Art as we know it today came into being when simple divisions between the sacred and the profane were broken down. A world where hierarchies are clear is in a sense a lazy world. Much more challenging, and rewarding is a world where art can be found anywhere. Even when a journey involves struggling through a dark confusing cave, there can still be art on the walls.