What do all paintings have in common? Sure, “paint” is a shrewd enough answer, but I’m hinting at something a tad more philosophical. Art’s very much about ideas, after all. What links all artworks, in my humble opinion, is something keen viewers bring to the picture.
Different ways of seeing art ensure each created object is woven through with invisible layers of meaning that first take form in what the artist chose to make visible. From what is seen emerge intangible things, like the ideas and knowledge floating around an artist’s head and the spirit and flavour of the place and era they hail from. If looked at properly, there’s not a single boring piece of art out there. Perhaps not everything agrees with your eye or agenda, but all art talks.
From here I turn the mic over to Erwin Panofsky, the great German-Jewish art historian whose Studies in Iconology of 1939 continues to offer up some fail-safe tactics for better perceiving what any given masterpiece or even not-so-masterfully-done piece has to say.

Erwin Panofsky

Panofsky, too, understood art to have many dimensions regardless of its medium, like a Russian nesting doll capable of spitting out juicier tidbits depending on how deeply one is willing to delve. To take it all in requires a three-prong approach with multiple subtleties of its own, but which is worth grasping the finer points of.
Prong one: pre-iconography. Sounds scary, but it’s simple enough. Some might call it the most limited or crudest way of summing up a work of art, but pish posh to any snobbish sentiments. Most anyone can carry out a pre-iconographic analysis and in the process open doors to other lines of critical thinking. For the scope here entails merely the shapes, colours, lines and spaces — what Panofsky calls artistic motifs — which make up the events or objects rendered by an artist.
We recognise motifs from our practical and daily life experience; what do you see? It’s not so difficult to pick out a painted cat from a table, pink from green from yellow or vase of flowers from a mountain range. And if it is, hopefully someone friendly or at least a little imagination can fill in the gaps. An innocent statement of what you behold goes a long way in acquainting the gaze with an image, and helps narratives and other opinions to start popping out within a composition.
Secondly, there’s just plain iconography. Though it lacks a pre-fix, it does require some savvy if not a good deal of formal education. But that shouldn’t be a total turn-off, for plenty of art takes inspiration from familiar stories and scenarios. Iconography involves looking hard at who and what the figures, props, costuming and scenery depicted are pointing to. Lots of the bits and bobs of art history take their cues from Greek and Roman mythology and allegories, the Bible and other religious lore, little moments of private life, major battles, influential individuals and time-honoured works of music and literature.

It really does come in handy to have a well-rounded cognisance of cultural symbolism, that of one’s own and of other cultures, as well as the changes such meaningful images have undergone over time. But say you don’t know that that buff dude gripping a club and wearing nothing but a lion skin is always Hercules, or that Saint Sebastian is usually the one with a halo and quiver of arrows shot through him; perhaps the motley suit of the gloomy harlequin signifies nothing to you. That’s all right, there’s hope. Those pesky plaques with writing on them in museums are awfully informative, and they’re written just for you. : )
Lastly comes iconology, perhaps the trickiest way of interpreting artistic output. An iconological question is not satisfied by sorting out the characters and themes portrayed within a work, but asks why they were portrayed at all. Issues of general human and individual psychology are investigated, along with observations on historical phenomena and zeitgeists and the quirks of patronage. Here we’re not dealing strictly with subject matter or the blobs of liquid pigment on stretched canvas that smudge together into something appealing to look at, but with the propelling forces, broad and specific, behind all of it.
Why the outpouring of David statues in Renaissance Florence? Why, the biblical king was the emblem of a small city-state prepared to square up with its ducal rivals. Why all the confused cubes and harsh dynamism and perplexing abstractions of the early twentieth century? Why, a generation of young men continually had their artistic vision smeared by the atrocities of ruthless mechanised warfare and the disillusioning spread of fascism. Get the drift? The catalysts that first spark creativity can be just as relevant as the finished product itself.
Most importantly, Panofsky saw pre-iconography, iconography and iconology as three working parts of the whole that is competent artistic analysis. What seem like disparate means of scrutiny must truly feed off of one another to completely inform a discerning viewer and squeeze every drop of potential from the objets d’art that colour our world. Sight and significance are both subjective things, but by attempting to look out at the world with our brains and memories, in addition to our rods and cones, we can conquer misconceptions and share new understandings.
Emily Catrice
Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, originally published 1939, New York: Harper & Row, 1972

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