Some years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago I was walking towards gallery 240, just behind a woman and two well-dressed, well-behaved children who were about six and eight years old.  The woman might have been their mom or an aunt.  She bent down to them and said, “And now we’re going to look at Pointillism.”

I was immediately upset and wanted to say something to the woman. But I didn’t know what to say and lingered in that gallery hoping I could handle this gracefully.

Next time I’ll just say discretely but firmly, “Don’t say that to a child.”

Or anybody.

When you go to a gallery or art museum allow yourself to be ignorant.  Ok, how about unknowing.

Even if you go twice a month, enter the building with no expectations. Wander around as if you were illiterate and had never heard of any ism in art history. Let your jaw drop and your mind go non-verbal.

This takes practice.  It’s not easy to be…ignorant…unknowing.

Ignorance is the precondition for astonishment.

Please, let’s all be erudite, elegant and articulate.  But not so fast.  Not when we’re six. Or even sixteen.  Or however old you are when you start looking at art.  You should be allowed, or allow yourself, to look and react with your gut feeling.  Ooh, ahh, yukk, eech, meh, whatever.

But you keep going back and keep looking.  You will inevitably learn a few things about art history. But what’s most fascinating is that you learn something about yourself:  how you react, how you see, how you think and feel.

I pulled the above photo from the internet.  I love it because it shows people really looking.  Whether they’re seeing this for the first time or coming back every week to study Seurat’s technique, they are astonished.

There’s a lot of self-knowledge in the capacity to be astonished.

Georges Seurat, 1859-1891

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,  painted 1884–1886


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





That Fly

This article appeared in The Conversation on October 9, 2020. The author is Sally Hickson, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Guelph 

After this week’s vice-presidential debate in the United States, the fly that landed on Vice-President Mike Pence’s head was more of a sensation than the details of the debate — at least on social media. The fly has already been immortalized as a Biden/Harris fly swatter (sorry, they’re all sold out) and sparked a Halloween costume.

In many circumstances, flies are unremarkable. That’s probably why a French word for spy is connected to the same word for fly, mouche. When a fly becomes famous, it’s worth wondering why.

Flies have long held symbolic meaning in the history of art. In portraits made in Renaissance Europe, the presence of a fly symbolizes the transience of human life (buzzbuzzpfft!). In the great scheme of things, our lives are no longer than that of a fly. For me as an art historian, the fly was a moment to reflect not only on the history of flies in western painting, but to begin considering what the long history of this symbolism may reveal about why the fly generated so much buzz.

Humility, impermanence, illusion

Take, for example, an extraordinary little painting known today as Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, painted in about 1470 by an artist from the German (Swabian) School, now in the National Gallery in London. Her elaborate white head covering highlights a perfect little fly, that’s settled on her just to remind us that our life, like hers, is impermanent.

The corollary is that we’re supposed to do the best we can with the time we’ve got. When it comes to time and eternity, as painter and poet William Blake wrote: “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” The fly is a little reminder of humility.

Painters could also include a fly to draw attention to themselves, demonstrating with their “trompe-l’oeil” (deceiving the eye) tricks that they could paint in a manner that seemed so real, a viewer of the portrait would be tempted to try to swat the fly away. The 16th-century Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, biographer of Italian Renaissance artists, tells a story about the painter Giotto fooling his teacher Cimabue by adding a realistic-looking fly to a painting.

Salvador Dalí, who was pretty much the lord of the flies (he painted them a lot) included a fly on the watch face of his painting The Persistence of Memory (now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). He also used an army of ants to signify the decay of time and life’s impermanence.

All is not what it appears

Portrait of a Carthusian, the most famous portrait featuring a fly, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446. It depicts a bearded monk. The fly perched on the ledge in front of him signifies we’re entering a zone where all is not what it appears: we might say that what seems real is only an illusion. Or, perhaps the artist has enhanced “the quality of the subject’s ‘real’ presence by the fly resting momentarily on the fictive frame,” according to the museum.


Entomologist Ron Cherry has explored how insects have long-standing mythological associations with death. In Renaissance thought, which tended to blend medieval fabulist tales about nature with ideas about religion, flies were considered to represent supernatural power, mostly associated with evil and corruption, because they seemed to be spontaneously born from decaying fruit and rotting organic matter.

In the book of Exodus in the Bible, God mustered swarms of flies as punishment. They were harbingers of worse things, like pestilence and death. That’s a lot of deliverables for a bunch of tiny flies.

The point is that flies still remind us of unpleasant things, or as commentator David Frum noted, unpleasant things in a presidency we’d rather ignore — which is why, I suspect, given the administration’s record, some people found it so delightful.


The Conversation is a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers.

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family,’ c. 1470, by an artist from the German (Swabian) School. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York City

‘Portrait of a Carthusian’ (1446), by Petrus Christus, oil on wood. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Original article by Sally Hickson:   https://theconversation.com/mike-pences-fly-from-renaissance-portraits-to-salvador-dali-artists-used-flies-to-make-a-point-about-appearances-147815

SNL: Fly Debate:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI_lxFv203I&list=PLS_gQd8UB-hLlAHDdSUdIYLjk9WCDnjWx



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





For several days I’ve had a tab on my computer for this image of a recent California wildfire.  I would open this photo, stare at it and feel mesmerized.  What must that be like, to have left these houses or to still be in them? What is the sound of that enormous roaring fire in the proximate distance?  How fast is it approaching?  How terrified these people must be!

After several days of this intense emotional involvement with the scene in the photo, I noticed that I found the photo “beautiful.”  Given the content of the photo, this was disturbing.  So I asked myself if the photo was constructed to have this mesmerizing effect on the viewer. I turned on the part of my brain that does analysis.

What I found was a centrally focused composition.  The houses in the middle of the image, i.e. the human interest, were perfectly in the middle. The house in the middle of this cluster stands out because it is brighter than all the rest.  The hills on both sides sloped perfectly towards the middle of the cluster of houses.

Thus we have a symmetrical composition with human life in the middle. The symmetry makes it static with the message that this is not going to change. Human life in the middle hooks us emotionally.  No wonder this image is mesmerizing.  The composition tells us that this terror of the fire is enormous:  it’s here to stay, permanent without any dynamic that may bring change.

You can be sure that the photographer took dozens or even hundreds of frames on this assignment.  We don’t know if this frame came out as we see it here or if it was cropped to achieve this feeling of terror.  Either way, it was not randomly chosen.

A second example makes this power of composition even clearer.  The firefighter is in the middle of the frame.  Because of the stability inherent in symmetry, he appears to be there forever. This makes his situation all the more hopeless and makes the image painful to contemplate.

You can test this out be cropping and moving him off-center. Now the composition is unbalanced and we feel that he is moving.  He’s in danger but he’s at least not stuck.

Analyzing an image like this does not desentize you to its content.  Not at all. You’re still shocked by the content but you’ve added the awareness of how emotions are communicated visually.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





Alain de Botton published this book in 2006. His prose can be purple and dense.  You’ll be inclined to read slowly and thoughtfully.  That’s a good thing because you’ll want to reflect on our built environment.  How does the space you live in effect you—your view of life and your  imagination?

I recommend you savor the book at your own pace whenever you get to it, but watch the three episodes that he narrates on you tube—as soon as possible:


Why the urgency and why now? Simply put, because we go for walks now.  It’s nice to head for the woods, but it’s also stimulating to walk through the half deserted streets of our towns.  Alain de Botton will nudge you to observe and question why buildings are the way they are.  Do the buildings you encounter and the spaces you enter make you feel happy, optimistic, resourceful, energetic?  Or, do you feel, ermm, locked down?


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





Banana on the Wall

A banana in a grocery store is an excellent source of potassium.  You go to the grocery store for practical reasons. You evaluate the displayed fruits and vegetables according to how they will benefit your body.  You pay money for things that will impact your life and improve it immediately.

A banana taped to a  museum wall is a mind game.

You go to the museum for no practical reason at all.  The entrance you pay at a museum doesn’t get you anything.  Why on earth would you go to such a place?!  You go precisely because you feel it’s time for a mind game.  You want to have your brain scrambled.  Name a piece of art that didn’t have that effect on you!

Correction:  Name a piece of MODERN Art that wasn’t a mind game. That’s because art since the middle of the 19th century has engaged the viewer in the literal sense of that word,   meaning involve.  Meaning you have to think about it, to puzzle it out.

Engaging with Modern Art means identifying your assumptions and expectations.  That takes practice.

You don’t even have to go to a museum to practice that, you can do it anywhere, with anything.  Right now, for example.  Go to your kitchen and look at a banana and at the assumptions you have in your head about its characteristics, like the color yellow.

Becoming aware of your assumptions and expectations is actually easier in a museum than in your kitchen. That’s because in the museum the objects are already taken out of their normal, habitual context.  A banana taped to a museum wall is a mind game if you stare down your assumptions about what’s supposed to be on museum walls and what art is supposed to be.

If you think museums should show this…

and this…

and this…

…you’re also being asked to play mind games.  You may think that ancient images are more real and therefore not mind games.  But that’s because we tend to be in awe of very old objects, whether coins, pottery, murals, inscriptions, monuments or paintings.  Even in their own day, they already were mind games.

Actually, you don’t have to think about anything.  But what’s the fun in that?


I recommend this article:



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





At first glance you may see a slap dash watercolor sketch, maybe a preparation for a painting.

Look again.  Take time to look.  Stay with it.

Two things will happen. One, you notice that he works with a very limited palette: blue, green and sepia with a touch of yellow.  Two, the white of the paper showing through serves to define shapes.

To see how brilliant this painting is, let’s mess with it.  Let’s imagine some passer-by looked over his shoulder and suggested he “cheer it up” by adding some bright colors.  Why not put in some flowers?  Like this…

Doesn’t work.  It’s a contemporary cliché to say bright colors cheer things up.  “ Brighten things up,” we say.  By demanding attention, bright colors spoil the overall effect and break up the composition.

Now, what about the composition.  It’s quite rigorous, actually.

Far from being a surface of daubs, this painting hangs together by calculated geometry.

Go back to the top and look at Sargent’s painting again.  Squint a little and eliminate the two figures and their straight-edged objects: books, easel, stool, and palette.  Now the waterfall and the foliage are hardly discernible and the painting really is a mess of daubs.

Watercolor is the most demanding painting medium.  You have to plan way ahead because corrections will gum up your surface.  To make the painting luminous—the desired effect—the white of the paper has to stay pristine.  Meaning, no corrections!

And negative space!  Notice how the painter’s right shoulder is indicated indirectly, by having the background push against its contour.  Ditto the book of the friend.  Find other examples.

This painting , btw, is from 1914.

John Singer Sargent,  1856-1925

Related posts about Sargent:




All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






If the concept of negative space eludes you or you don’t quite see what the big deal about it is, consider this painting.  Notice how the lake pushes against the pine trees.  I don’t mean the actual lake, of course.  I mean the surface on the painting that represents the lake.

Notice how this technique flattens the 3-dimensional landscape into a 2-dimensional surface.  That sounds so banal, doesn’t it, and the word “flatten” sounds so blah.

But the visual thrill of this technique is undeniable.  Even after you have it figured out, your mind loves playing this game:  now it’s foreground, now it’s background.


Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) excelled at this.  I’m grateful to him for making the modern way of seeing so accessible.

Why am I bringing up Fairfield Porter now?  Because of a bit of junk mail.  When I got the L.L.Bean catalog in the mail yesterday, I immediately thought of Porter.  At first glance I thought L.L.Bean, an East coast company,  was using one of his paintings on their cover. Was this a passage from a Fairfield Porter landscape?


Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois.  He moved to the East coast to attend Harvard, then stayed and became a celebrated East coast painter. His influence in this painting on the catalog cover is undeniable.

Could the artist be from the East coast?  I looked for the fine print on the inside cover.  Yes.  The artist is Anne Ireland and the L.L.Bean cover painting, inspired by the Maine coast, is titled “Changing Weather.”

Moral of the story: 1) see if you can switch negative space to positive and 2) notice how interesting your junk mail is.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






You won’t learn anything about existentialism in this post, existentialism being the de rigueur ism to bring up when you need to sound smart in a conversation about modern art.

Instead of being smart, let’s play a game.  Let’s imagine you stumbled upon an exhibit at, say, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where the paintings of Lionel Feininger (1871-1956) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967) were shown side by side. (That’s a game good museums actually like to play, which is what makes them so exiting to go to.  At the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, paintings are moved around frequently so that you can see a familiar painting next to new neighbors and therefore gain new insights without anyone lecturing you about anything.)


Feininger was a prolific artist, who early in his career worked figuratively, even as a caricaturist and cartoonist,  and later tended to work with linear forms in his compositions.  In the 1920’s, when Hopper was visiting Europe, Feininger was teaching at the Bauhaus, first in Weimar and then in Dessau.  There’s no chance that they met, given Hopper’s disinterest in modern art.

No matter.  They were contemporaries, working with architectural forms in their paintings. It’s only fair to put them side by side.

The first thing you notice is the figure in the Hopper painting.  Now try to imagine the painting without the figure.


It doesn’t hold your attention, does it?

Look at some Feininger compositions.  Do they need a human figure to grab you?  No. These compositions are engaging and absorbing as they are.


Hopper seems to be primarily interested in geometrical patterns, but because what he comes up with is flat, hard-edged and obvious, he adds a figure to focus your attention.  The figure inevitably looks isolated and alienated, which makes for a facile match with existentialist jargon.

new-york-office copy


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.






Film noir is defined as “a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.”

The central characters in film noir are often gangsters, detectives and a femme fatale.

Hopper’s paintings are also characterized by “a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.”

Nighthawks, 1942, is his most famous painting.  (The Art Institute of Chicago snatched it up as soon as its paint was dry and it is, along with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, one of the reasons people go to the AI.)

It’s not a Norman Rockwell family scene, is it?  Two guys in fedoras and a skinny redhead in a red dress, smokin’ and drinkin’ coffee way past midnight.  What kind of characters are these?  A gangster, a gum shoe and a dame?  Sounds about right to me.

Film noir drew them in from the late 20’ to the 50’s.  The look of the genre became stylized and predictable. When any art is worked out according to a formula, it can only crank out material for so long before it invites satire and parody.

As does Hopper:





Ten years after Nighthawk, Edward Hopper was still working with his wooden, predictable formula.  Here’s Morning Sun from 1952 and a parody I gleaned from the internet.






All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





In the 1920’s Edward Hopper was working part time as an illustrator for the Hotel Management industry. He hated the job since he thought of himself as a fine artist, but he needed the money. To get away from the illustrator’s grind he traveled to Europe three times in that decade.

A generation of writers and artists woke up after the horrible butchery of the “Great War” to realize that the old war-honoring culture of their forefathers had to be thrown out, the whole corseted, velvety, tasseled, lacy, medallioned, epauletted, pious-pompous  thing.   The new generation invented new ways of seeing and thinking.

During his trips to Europe Hopper stayed mainly in Paris. Ah, Paris in the 20’s!  The city was buzzing with Cubism and Surrealism.  Recently starving artists were now being shown in major galleries:  Picasso, Modigliani, Gris, Leger and Brancusi, to name a few.  When you went out for coffee you might spot James Joyce, André Breton or Hemingway at the next table.  So much to see and learn!

Edward Hopper wanted none of it.  His indifference to new ideas was so thorough that, as he later recalled, he hadn’t even heard of Picasso then.

What about the roar of the roaring 20’s. Would he have buttoned his spats and stepped out one night to catch Josephine Baker showing off her knees in the Charleston? Unlikely.


But we know he took the train to Amsterdam where he admired Rembrandt’s paintings.

Did he ever hop a train to, say, Berlin to visit museums and galleries there?  He might have been interested in German museums.  But galleries in wild, experimental Berlin showing modern art?

No chance of that.  But let’s imagine he did. Next.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.