Trapped in history

” People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. ” James A. Baldwin, writer.

When considering the links between an artist and history, one can quickly understand how an artist is trapped in history. An artist’s social, political, racial or cultural history can both enhance or detract, direct or limit their thought processes, their practice and how they present and promote themselves to the outside world.

Yet an artist can find themselves locked in a peculiar embrace with history – they may be forward thinking or contemporary in their approach to art and artmaking but they can also feel indebted to history and unable to fight the need to look back. In fact, artists are often encouraged to embrace history in order to vallidate or contextualise their work.

Art and history, art and its history

Art is also unique in that it also has its own history – as an academic subject, art history attempts to identify and explain creative developments in chronological order, revealing crucial notions about beauty, representation and skill – all of which may be held dear by both artists and art educators. In turn we’re able to understand what history is – the recording of the passing of time, of specific tastes, concerns and personalities.

The art world remains fixated with history. Art educators continue to draw upon the past to educate the next generation, encouraging artists to draw parallels between their practice with others who came before them. In turn, artists look to the past to uncover and understand ideas and working methods in a bid to improve their own contemporary practice.

In the days of studios, apprenticeships, academies and workshops, these practical skills were passed down directly to the fortunate few – the novice mimics the master until the novice exceeds the master, in an endless chain of enquiry that reaches back centuries. It is through history that an artist is able to understand where they stand in the here and now.

 Artists are also encouraged to get creative with their own histories, as dates, past tenses, past successes and past achievements allow them to create their own art history in the form of the artist biography and artist statement – the much-beloved stories-so-far eagerly consumed by other artists, curators, gallery owners and buyers alike, all of whom rely on and relish these chronological rosters.

Artists need history just as history needs artists. Historians use art to mark history just as artists record history in their work – prehistoric cave drawings are our earliest surviving art forms and are essentially historical artefacts, depicting the life and values of early man, and dated at a particular point in human history.

Artists have also been commissioned throughout the years to depict important personalities and events in two or three-dimensional forms that are later treasured or trashed when history allows a new set of styles and high-flyers to emerge.

Something borrowed, something new

In discussing the relationship between artists and history, Dipti Desai and Jessica Hamlin (2009) consider how the role of a contemporary artist is a multi-faceted one, where work “…cross(es) disciplinary boundaries that have pushed art and artists out into the fields of anthropology, biology, philosophy, engineering, architecture and…history…More specifically, artists have begun to borrow historical methods and sources to inform their work.” (Desai and Hamlin, 2009: 48).

Yet, one can argue that the notion of the artist as anthropologist, biologist, philosopher, engineer, architect and historian is certainly not a new one, with artists throughout the years having had to operate in a multi-faceted role in order to complete their work, and where historical methods and sources remain evident in their work.

Figure of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon (

Consider the Ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias whose throngs of battling centaurs charged amidst gossiping goddesses along the sides of the Parthenon. Now housed in the British Museum, the marble sculptures are testament to an artist with an amazing talent for working in marble as well as incredible insight and awareness of human anatomy, of engineering (some thought had to be made regarding how such weighty, delicate work was to be designed, created and placed in situ and the tricky jobs of securing them up there) and of the religious and historical philosophies surrounding the characters and scenarios being depicted.

Desai and Hamlin’s theory can also be applied to a number of Renaissance artists who, in turn, were influenced by the Romans (who copied Ancient Greek sculpture). One only has to look at Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel to recognise the influence of century-old sculpture on his work in a masterpiece that is loaded with historical and philosophical meaning and is in itself a feat of engineering.

His rival Leonardo Da Vinci, the definitive Renaissance man, was also able to apply all manners of scientific, architectural, engineering, historical and philosophical theories and objectives to his work.

One can argue then that Desai and Hamlin’s notion of an artist having to navigate their way through a number of other fields is not a contemporary concern. Their idea can also be applied to a number of artists throughout history and should therefore not be limited to, or used to define contemporary artists or their practices. With the above still in mind, one can also sum that artists haven’t begun to borrow historical methods and sources to inform their work – they’ve been doing it for years.

A collective history, an individual response

Desai and Hamlin also praise those who “offer much more than an illustrated or literal record of history…” (Desai and Hamlin 2009: 49). Yet one can argue their artist choices and works they discuss are  illustrated and / or literal records, with the works chosen featuring figurative forms and text (or a combination of the two).

With subjectivity now increasingly coming into play, one can also consider Desai and Hamlin’s other statements about how such artists engaging with history produce “experiential work designed to involve multiple senses or more often, a physical relationship to stories and ideas about the past.” (Desai and Hamlin 2009: 49).

They later add that this group of contemporary artists “explore the ways that viewers can participate more viscerally, can perhaps even embody the feelings, emotions, and experiences of an idea or event, whether past or present” (Desai and Hamlin 2009: 49) before focusing on the “provocative” images themselves that “…can often feel unsettling, inspiring a visceral, physical reaction that pushes beyond a purely intellectual response.” (Desai and Hamlin 2009: 49).

Desai and Hamlin also celebrate “Artists (who) can challenge linear narratives of the past and the idea of the past and the idea of “objective” representations of history…who are engaged in the subversive function of art…” (Desai and Hamlin 2009: 49).
One can argue that all these statements above can be applied by an individual to all manners of art and art making regardless of place and time or the artist’s relation to history, simply because Desai and Hamlin are considering a particular approach to art and art practices that operates on a more emotional, tactile, reactionary – and therefore subjective level. Therefore, it seems unfair to limit such statements to artists who choose to work with history and historical evidence when one can argue that this has been taking place for centuries and is merely down to audience reaction and individual response.

Somewhere between art and archival material

I have an interest in artists who have engaged with history and the notions of history (be it personal or on a wider level) – in their art; artists whose work attempts to reclaim a certain aspect of their history or who create or rewrite their own history, with work that can be read as both art and archival material.

I particularly enjoy how the viewer is asked to question and compare what they’re being presented with alongside the facts that they know or that they’ve been told. The result is work that exists in a space where evidence, fiction and personal interpretation come together in a heady mix – where history is fluid, and narrative sequences give way to open interpretation and questioning.

This is something I explore within my own practice. I continually explore aspects of my own personal and cultural history as part of my practice and am intrigued by recording history and historical evidence and the ideas we may have of historical truth. In turn, I am fascinated by the changeable nature of supposed chronologica, documented facts and the fluidity of narratives via means such as oral history, journals and biographical information.

In my 2010 project, Of All That Is Seen And Unseen, I researched a particular aspect of my own family history, focusing on ghost stories involving my family that I had told since childhood. Interviewing my parents about the stories revealed the inconsistent nature of their histories and their attempts to construct narratives word for word time and time again.

The result was a series of work that could only suggest certain aspects of the true history that bound the stories and the lives that inspired them, and where the audience were readily invited to arrive at their own interpretations and conclusions.

Anselm Kiefer’s “fraught territory”

The German artist Anselm Kiefer is another artist who has tackled themes connected to his own cultural and political history and identity in his work – Treading through the “fraught territory” (1) of Germany’s past, complete with its ideologies, heroes and their mythology, Kiefer’s work contemplates what it means to be German and the impact his country’s history has had on his own individual identity as well as the collective psyche.

His work to date has traced Germany’s past, from its ancient roots through to the Third Reich and beyond, in work that has been interpretated as critical and celebratory of Germany’s history.

About this, Kiefer has said,

“In ’69, when I began, no one dared talk about these things….what the German people ought to remember…was a terrible part of themselves – but not as terrible as pretending the events of the war were just history, never to be spoken of, better to be ignored.” (2)

Anselm Kiefer - Germany's Spiritual Heroes (1976) ( germanys-spiritual-heroes/

Kiefer’s work has proved controversial and provocative – from self-portraits of the artist performing Nazi salutes in European cities (3) through to his 1973 painting, Germany’s Spiritual Heroes that has had critics and audiences second-guessing his motives and ideas, with some even labelling him a Fascist, something he himself has addressed:

“Am I a fascist? That’s very important. You cannot answer so quickly. Authority, competition, superiority…these are facets of me like everyone else. You have to choose the right way. To say I’m one thing or another is too simple. I wanted to paint the experience and then answer.” (4).

Anselm Kiefer - Fünfundzwanzig Jahre Einsamkeit (1998) - /2009 / 03 / anselm- kiefers- books. html

Kiefer’s extensive use of found objects and the creation of artists’ books also raises issues about the use and meaning of archives and artefacts. Along with paintings and sculptures, Kiefer is renowned for his huge lead-lined books that contain further work including drawings, writings and photography.

These are brought together as visually arresting collections, forming large-scale archives and libraries in a gallery space.
Yet the sheer size and weight of the tomes invites questions around who documents their personal history and why, the accessibility of information and what it is to seek and find knowledge.
Boxing clever

Another artist who has used archives and historical materials in their work is Cornelia Parker. Known primarily for her deconstructing and reconstructing found objects, Parker has also explored the power held in archival artefacts and the reverence held for historical materials and the effect it has on an audience.

In 1995, Parker presented The Maybe at London’s Serpentine Gallery where visitors could peer into display cases featuring objects sourced by Parker from various museums and collections.

Cornelia Parker - The Maybe (1995)

Items on display included Napoleon’s rosary, Freud’s seat cushion, Queen Victoria’s stockings and Charles Dicken’s quill. Yet the centrepiece was a glass cabinet in which actress Tilda Swinton slept.

The Maybe effectively explores the idea of what it is to archive objects and to present objects as archival material – thereby bestowing additional meaning and worth to them and then to invite an audience assess their significance and value for themselves.

The presence of a living human – and a famous one at that – boxed and labelled in her own display case also raises questions about celebrity and the transient nature of worth, of time and the present and how history demands that humans are categorised and catalogued.

Art therefore allows artists to examine their own history. Making art can also be part of that examination, with art serving to record history or present a version of history that the artist sees fit to present. It’s also through the experience of making and presenting art, that one is able to consider all aspects of an individual or collective history without the need of a clear answer, because history simply isn’t that clear cut.

History may be trapped in us and we may be trapped in our own history, but art can help us gain the advantage. Art allows for intepretations and reinterpretaions of established and proposed facts and events, and permits us the creative freedom to explore just who we are and where we come from. In turn this can empower us to re-establish our place in the world and what we have to say about it.

Footnotes and sources:

(1) White Cube – Anslem Kiefer – (accessed February 21 2011).
(2). Artists and the Holocaust – (accessed February 21 2011)
(3). Anselm Kiefer: The Matter Of History – (accessed February 21 2011)
(4). Artists and the Holocaust – (accessed February 21 2011)
Desai, D. and Hamlin, J in Desai, D., Hamlin, J and Mattson, R. 2009. History as Art, Art as History – Contemporary Art and Social Studies Education. New York City: Routledge.


About lautier vella

"Some magic's real." Cole Sear, The Sixth Sense
This entry was posted in archival and historical art, tp1011 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Trapped in history

  1. paula roush says:

    Mario, another comprehensive overview of the week’s topic, extending the main test with linkages into other sources. this time the insight into your own use of historical methods provides a valuable link between theory and practice; whilst it could be argued, as yu did, that artists always worked with history, there is a special relation with history that has been taking place since modernism, and this places the art worker at a different juncture, with all the history serving as source material, and this reflective stance is very different from the counter examples you provide.

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