How to comment an artwork
The Iconographic Method
How an artwork is analyzed? What do I do to comment the fundamental aspects of an artwork to be able to know more about it? It's very simple. What I will write here I could say it in very brief way, but since I have the opportunity to expand it a little, I will do it. If you want to learn to comment artworks for yourself, keep reading.
A discipline that studies the iconography will be devoted to cataloging the themes of the artworks. You have to know the historian Erwin Panofsky, as he created the iconographic method adding the iconology.
By way of introduction before discussing Panofsky I should add that WE Kleinbauer said that there are two perspectives to see the artworks. The intrinsic perspective is the study of the artwork from within, analyzing its physical properties, problems of attribution, dating, provenance, formalism, theme, symbolism and function. The extrinsic perspective considers the artworks from outside, analyzing circumstances of time and place, biography of the artist, psychological problems and social, cultural and intellectual determinants.
Influenced by philosophers such as Hegel and Cassirer, and in matter of history of art by historians as Wölfflin, Riegl and Warburg, Panofsky developed the iconographic method. His work established two ways of understanding art. On one side is the formalist history of art, that is an history of art that explains the artworks by aesthetics, and the contextualist history of art, that explains the artworks as a product of its time, period, artist, social status...
Panofsky said that iconography didn’t distinguish masterpieces. Dilthey says that artworks are not only images but also ideas. Art and thought is unified.
The Three Levels
And here is where I will explain how to comment artworks, the iconographic method that I follow. The iconographic method of Panofsky. In my blog, the comments are not too extend, because I want that my audience to be global, and not only art connoisseurs. So I just write the most interesting. You can always go deeper. And here are the three levels of the iconographic method. To explain it, I will use a painting that I love. The commentary I do here will be very brief, so maybe in the future I return to comment this painting on the blog more extensively.
Perseus rescuing Andromeda, by Charles Antoine Coypel (1726)
Preiconographic Level. This level is about recognizing the artwork in its most elemental sense, by a description based on what is seen, without elaborating. It is the sensitive stage. In this painting a tied woman surrounded by people is seen. You see a man flying that looks that is going to rescue her, a child with wings, and people on land and at sea. There is a monster, and it looks like a storm.
Iconographic Level. This level seeks to find out what the artwork represents, that is, identification of the theme. We must resort to the cultural tradition and the dominance of the iconographic types, allegories, symbols, and literary sources. It is the intelligible stage. It depicts the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus as Andromeda's mother offended Poseidon saying she was more beautiful than the Nereids, so Poseidon punished her by sending a monster to devour her daughter. Above is Cupid with a torch as a symbol of the future love of Perseus, the man who flies, and Andromeda. Perseus has the weapons that used to kill Medusa, as the winged shoes of Hermes and Athena's helmet. At the right side are the parents of Andromeda, and at the left side is the monster and the Nereids. They are ordinary symbols, which determine the theme.
Iconological Level. Also called deep iconographic level, this level is about the interpretation of the intrinsic meaning of the artwork. The context, time, thought, biography of the artist and any informative documents about the artwork and time, and its conditions. On this section, I will say briefly that it is a painting of the XVIII century. At this time neoclassicism was assumed, there was a trend to the classic age, so it was common to represent classical and mythological scenes in painting. This can be extended much more, but in this post I do not see it necessary. They are the cassirian symbols, signs of belonging to a particular time with its historical and cultural context.
Limitations of the iconographic method
Like everything else, this method has limitations that must be taken into account to avoid mistakes that could be a complete nonsense. Sometimes it seems that a iconologist do not worry about the artistic quality of the artwork, that he just cares only about the context, so be careful and evaluate both. Also keep in mind not to commit excesses in the analysis, ie, to see in an artwork more symbolism than the artist really wanted to put.
The historian Gombrich says that the limitations of this method are the excesses in the analysis, that must be taken into account the roles that societies put in the artworks, that artworks can have several meanings depending on the time, and you need to know what the author wanted to communicate. He notes a number of rules that must be known. These are to know what genders predominated in every age, the relationship between decorum and places, theme and content (eg, in a cemetery look good funeral paintings, in a garden look good paintings of gods...) and the discouraged use of dictionaries of iconography because the terms are always open and can mean different things.
Well, this is the method I use when commenting artworks. It's simple, but it requires some knowledge of the history of art. A person without this knowledge at least basic won’t pass the first level. It's nice to have culture and to understand art is very important for understanding the evolution of humanity.