I recently received a question from Nicholas Wilson, asking: “I've been an aspiring artist since childhood. That being said, I was wondering what your take on theme is. I've been primarily working on honing my technique more than anything else, so I haven't concerned myself with theme too much. I live in the southeast part of the U.S., so I do not frequently use landscapes as a theme. I'm really wondering if your theme was more intuitive, or did you consciously choose to focus on something in particular?” Since this struck me as a good topic for a conversation, I wanted to share it more broadly through this blog.
Theme is a foundation in Art Historical analysis. In Robert Hirsch’s book Seizing the Light, A History of Photography, he gives this example: “The sublime, like a storm on the ocean, can track its origins to awe, terror, and vastness, while the beautiful, a calm harbor sunset, situates its lineage within the organization of society, making them opposite concepts that cannot commingle.” Pg. 51
So what exactly does this mean?
Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was part of an American Artistic movement influenced by the themes of mood, the mysterious, and the natural landscape. In his 1911 photograph The Temple of Ohm ( at the left), Coburn used chiaroscuro to dramatically emphasize the vastness and abstract qualities in the landscape and establish a sense of the Sublime.
In contrast, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), in his photograph Moonlight: The Pond (1906), was interested in aesthetic sensitivity. Evoking the mystery of the beautiful, Steichen’s theme could be described as the sensuality in the atmosphere, and turning a subject into an experience.
These are a few examples of theme that artists can employ. Exploring more deeply, we could think of theme as storytelling – not just the synopsis, but the richness of character development, and the undertones of subplots. Theme can examine the effects of light, or unravel the social narrative. It can be an investigation of form (Coburn) or an emotional experience (Steichen). Theme, to some extent, is employed in every piece of art, and whether the artist thinks of it as intuitive, or conscious, it is unique to that individual. In the early stages of learning the craft, we are more conscious of skill building aspects such as composition, or color harmony, rather than theme. But eventually the artist realizes that in order to move his or her work away from a mere depiction of objects into an impactful communication of meaning, then a conscious consideration of theme must be at work.
But for me, the most important aspect of theme is this: If art is a way of capturing something of visual importance, then theme can be thought of as a multi-faceted collaboration between artist and viewer: the viewer looks at the visual information and develops his or her own interpretations of theme. The more opportunities the viewer has to do this the more interesting the art.
Looking at Emile Carlson's still life, Jade and Ancient Glass (image at left), his theme could be interpreted as an Impressionist approach to light, or the more sublime idea of tension and contrast through the placement of large to small, or an exploration of the beautiful, in the mysterious environment containing his objects. Compared to a painting based upon illustrating specific pieces of fruit, I find this image more interesting long term.
Certainly some aspects of theme attempt to deconstruct the idea of art - Damien Hurst, who uses death as a central theme in his work, wanted to shock viewers as a way to create a commercial commodity. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, Thomas Kinkade depicted images of nostalgia in a formulaic way. But theme exists whether we put it there or not - because the theme comes as much from the viewer as it does from the artist.
How do you use theme in your work? What insights have you discovered? Please share your ideas with your comments.
"When I started my blog in 2007, there were few resources available, so I started writing in response to my own sense of isolation. As a mature artist who was newly entering the field, I was competing with people either half my age, or who had been painting successfully for decades. I had come across a research project that profiled artists in New York City, people who were both unknown and at the end of their creative lives. I realized that the hardest part of being an artist was carrying on the face of rejection – and this was particularly true for those entering the field after the age of fifty, who are often dismissed as hobbyists and not serious artists. I felt that my readers were more interested in the ideas and not in a catalog of my own work, so I tried to keep the two separate. What I wanted to offer was the example of my own struggles, failures, and perseverance."
~from a blog interview I gave in 2014
Art should be viewed as a gift. Knowledge was passed on to me, and I try to pass it on to others.
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