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Modern Art Giving You A Headache?

7 Tips for Understanding Contemporary Art

How to appreciate and interpret contemporary art works if you're not an artist? There are some easy tips you surely want to learn. Why don’t you follow YIYU Bespoke’s steps into Tate Modern, you will surely get all the skills by looking at examples throughout the gallery.

So, let’s get started.

1. Who, Where and When

When you stand in front of a painting or an installation, the first things you might like to know are what is the name of the artist and when was he/her born? And how this place he/she lived has influenced him/her? And what is the name of the artwork and when was it made?

Let’s look at two examples.

The first work is called Death of Sun I, and it was created by Kim Ku-lim who is an artist from South Korea. He was born in 1936. The painting was created in 1964, soon after he completed his military service in his native Korea. He explained, ‘I think the work is based on my experience of death. I spent some time in the military hospital during my service where I saw many young men losing their lives. With the lack of medicine and proper medical care, so many lives were being lost, and I felt that human existence was extremely insignificant.’ (Email correspondence with Tate curator Sook-Kyung Lee, 22 October 2013.)

The title of the second work is called Hip, Hip, Hoorah! It was intended to celebrate the artistic freedom achieved by the CoBrA movement (1948 - 1951). This was a group of artists active in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam who sought to revive culture after the Second World War. The figures combine human elements with animal or bird-like features. The bright colours and child-like imagery are typical of CoBrA. Appel often took inspiration from children’s drawings. He believed ‘the child in man is all that’s strongest, most receptive, most open and unpredictable’.

2. Location, Size and Feelings

Next, you would like to ask why this work is put in this display? Is it from the same time period of other works or the works in this display all belong to one artist or one art school?Besides, does the size of the work affect your experience of it? What is your first reaction to the work? What do you think the work is about? What kind of emotion do you think the artist wants to express?

Let’s look at an example.

All the works in the display were created by Mark Rothko, and they are called The Segram Murals. In 1957 Rothko was commissioned to make a series of paintings for a very expensive restaurant in New York. The problem was that Rothko didn’t want his paintings to be hung where rich people were eating, but he thought it might be interesting to see if he could make paintings that were so dark and oppressive, so people would put the diners off their food! Now you know why when you enter this display, you feel so quiet and a bit depressed.

3. Colours, Colours and Colours

We live our lives in colour. Each one of us perceives colour differently, and how we react to colours might depend on our eyesight, our mood or where we are from. Artists often use colour to explore their thoughts or feelings or their place in the world. Artists in the 20th and 21st centuries have tried to expand the way colour is used, from paint to photography to new materials.

People always ask does colour help you see shapes or movement? The answer is yes. Colours are so magical. People may see colours in different way because their different life experiences. Pay a lot of attention to colours, ask yourself what happens when two colours are next to each other? And do the colours remind you of a particular place or time?

Let’s see two examples.

In the first painting, this colour, Yves Klein believed, had a quality close to pure space, and he associated it with immaterial values beyond what can be seen or touched. He described it as ‘a Blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification’. Klein made around 200 monochrome paintings using IKB.

In the second series of paintings, the term ‘history painting’ denotes a traditional genre of European painting, which involves the large-scale depiction of narrative scenes, often from religious scripture, mythology or historical record. However, rather than representing history through painting, Lalic’s series comprises a history of painting itself, presented through a chronology of pigments.

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