DU Art Collection

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Reading Art

Welcome to Reading Art, a Durham University Art Collection online resource for secondary students.

Reading, understanding and forming opinions about art can sometimes be quite intimidating. Taking the time to look closely, learning how to analyse and communicating your own interpretation of an artwork is a valuable skill that can increase confidence, strengthen independent critical thinking and improve communication skills.

This resource will take you through how an arts professional, such as a Curator, approaches interpreting artworks to help people interact with them.


How do we read art?

Reading art is just like reading a book, listening to music or eating food. Each mark made, like a sentence, is communicating to you. The writer or the artist is speaking directly to you as the viewer, but each person will take away a different meaning depending on their own life experience.

“If we give as much as we expect to take from a novel, a poem, an image or an album (or a conversation, or a relationship), it has a greater chance of becoming profound. As readers, we feel this happen when something speaks directly to our experience and we feel the words burning themselves into us...You may forget the exact words, but you carry a relationship with the text through your life. You may think this was entirely because of the quality of the text, but it was also about the quality of your reading.” - Kae Tempest, On Connection

There are many ways to read art. We are going to explore how you can critically engage with an artwork in order to write an interpretative caption.


Listen to staff from Durham University's Art Collection, find out more about the collection, and hear about social artist Lady Kitt's work 89 Ways You Are Worth More To Me Like This. (2018)

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

All artwork captions need this basic information to get started...

Artist's name: 
Title: 

Date: 
Medium: 


Here is an example of this basic information filled in:

Artist's name 
Patrick Caulfield

Title in italics
7. ‘Crying to the walls: My God! My God! Will she relent?’

Date the work was created
1973

Medium The material the work is made from
Screenprint on paper

Print by Patrick Caulfield of clock on yellow background

© The Estate of Patrick Caulfield. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. 

© The Estate of Patrick Caulfield. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. 

Patrick Caulfield
7. ‘Crying to the walls: My God! My God! Will she relent?’
1973
Screenprint on paper

How to read art

Key areas to explore:

  • Artist's life
  • History and context
  • Connection and emotion
  • Subject matter
  • Medium and material
  • Explore existing interpretations

Task:

As you scroll down you will read an interpretative caption of Patrick Caulfield's work 7. ‘Crying to the walls: My God! My God! Will she relent?’ .

The caption has been developed using a Looking, Describing, Communicating and Analysing approach. This was followed by compiling responses, research and then editing to create the final reading.

At the end of this resource, you will find a downloadable worksheet designed to help you analyse Calypso (1973-74) by Dame Elisabeth Frink.

Questions & discussion points:

  • Does the historical context of the work change its meaning?
  • Is this work relevant to you and your life?
  • Approach this work from an alternative view point to yours. Would its meaning change if your gender, sexuality, race or abilities where different?
  • Where is your eye first drawn to?
A piece of paper or a photograph is as much an object, or as 'material' as a ton of lead.  -Lucy R Lippard

Look

Look closely. No, look closer.

How was this work made?

Explore the 7 elements of art:
Shape, Form, Line, Colour, Value, Space, Texture

Art Analysis Sheet

Art Analysis Sheet

Describe

What is the work depicting?

Is this work a representation of reality, or is the work abstract?

Is there a narrative or story being told?

If you could walk in to the work, would you be able to hear, taste, touch, see or smell anything?

What are they talking about resource shows a print of two people by Peter Blake. Above are two speech bubbles which ask...What are they talking about?

What are they talking about? Worksheet

What are they talking about? Worksheet

What are they thinking resource shows a print by Elizabeth Frink and asks...What is the person in the print thinking? What can they hear?

What are they thinking? Worksheet

What are they thinking? Worksheet

Communicate

How does this artwork relate to your life?

How does the colour make you feel?

What do clocks make you think of?

Art was supposed to change things … after studying art history, you realise that’s not always the case, but I love that spirit about what art is supposed to be. Art is part of our larger world so it’s not just by itself trying to do that … yeah, so art does change things.  -Kellie Jones

Analyse

What is the artist trying to tell us?

Is the title relevant?

What is the historical, geographical and social context?

Was this artist part of a movement?

20th Century Art Movements

20th Century Art Movements

Here is an example of Patrick Caulfield's work, 7. ‘Crying to the walls: My God! My God! Will she relent?’ (1973) being interpreted using this method.

Look: Shape, Form, Line, Colour, Value, Space, Texture
Simple shapes, cartoon-like forms, bold thick black lines, bright canary yellow, black and white, opaque, minimal, flat

Describe:
A cartoon-like image of a clock suspended. Facing slightly away. The time on the clock is about 4.06. Is this am or pm? Can hear the clock ticking, battery powered modern clock. You might find it in an office.

Communicate:
Clocks can represent many emotional responses. Clocks remind me of time pressures, of being late or on time and being organised.

Analyse:
Although Caulfield was associated with the British Pop Art movement by critics, he didn't label himself as such. His work was often of objects or interiors.

The title makes the viewer feel as if there is something going on outside of the frame... maybe an argument? Maybe the wall they are crying into is the same wall the clock is hung on.

When you bring everything together and edit your notes, you should end up with something like this...

Print by Patrick Caulfield of clock on yellow background

© The Estate of Patrick Caulfield. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. 

© The Estate of Patrick Caulfield. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2021. 

Patrick Caulfield
7. ‘Crying to the walls: My God! My God! Will she relent?’
1973
Screenprint on paper

In this bright, bold, minimalist print in three colours....

....Patrick Caulfield has made a cartoon-like image of a clock suspended in a canary yellow backdrop. Facing slightly away from the viewer, the time on the clock reads roughly 4:06, but we are unaware if it is the morning or afternoon... 

...Depending on the time, the meaning of this work will change. Clocks and time can remind us of pressure and being overwhelmed...

...The title makes the viewer feel as if there is something going on outside of the frame... maybe an argument? Maybe the wall they are crying in to is the same wall the clock is hung on...

Give your opinion
Interpretations are most interesting when they show the writer's point of view.

Do your research
Finding out about the historic context, the artist's own thoughts and what other people think will help inform your writing.

Keep it simple
Use simple language and words so as many people as possible can read and understand your thoughts.

Now your turn

Use the worksheet below to take notes on Dame Elisabeth Frink's work Calypso (1973-74).


Image of interpretation worksheet which invites you to look, describe, communicate and analyse Elisabeth Frink's work Calypso

Interpretation Worksheet

Interpretation Worksheet

THANK YOU!

If you would like more information about Durham University's Art Collection, or would like to book a school visit, outreach or virtual visit please contact Emily Dowler at 4schools@durham.ac.uk

Durham University Art Resources

Further Reading

  1. Kae Tempest, On Connection (2020)
  2. Grayson Perry, Playing the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle to Be Understood (2014)
  3. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)
  4. Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the art object from 1966- 1972 (1973)
    https://monoskop.org/images/0/07/Lippard_Lucy_R_Six_Years_The_Dematerialization_of_the_Art_Object_from_1966_to_1972.pdf
  5. Harg Vartanian, “Art Does Change Things”: A Conversation with Curator and Art Historian Kellie Jones (2016)
    https://hyperallergic.com/331117/art-change-things-conversation-curator-art-historian-kellie-jones/
  6. George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)
  7. V &A Blog, Writing Labels & Gallery Text (2013)
    https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/creating-new-europe-1600-1800-galleries/labels-gallery-text

For more information about Durham University's Art Collection you can visit our website: https://www.dur.ac.uk/art.collection/

Or email Emily Dowler at e.v.dowler@durham.ac.uk