Lesson 16: Learn the Difference Between Subject Matter and Content
One of the most crucial lessons there is!
Is this painting about the pope or insanity? Photo: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/ARTIMAGE 2018
The subject matter of Francis Bacon’s 1953 Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is a pope, a seated male in a transparent sort of box. That’s it. The content might be a rebellion or an indictment of religion. It might be claustrophobia or hysteria or the madness of religion or civilization.
The subject matter of Michelangelo’s David is a standing man with a sling. The content might be grace, beauty — he was just 17, if you know what I mean — pensiveness, physical awareness, timelessness, eternal things, a form of perfection, vulnerability. This content is High Renaissance. Bernini’s David, made 120 years later, is Baroque — all action and drama.
When you look at art, make subject matter the first thing you see — and then stop seeing it.
The content of Michelangelo’s David is beauty. Photo: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
Try to find the content in a painting by Robert Ryman, who has been making almost-all-white work since the 1950s. Ask what Ryman’s (or any artist’s) ideas are and what his relationship to paint is, to surface, to internal scale (meaning what size brushstrokes were used in the work), to color. What is white to Ryman? Note the date: 1960. Why would he make this painting then? Would this have looked like other art at the time? How would it have been different? Ask yourself what else was being made then. How is the work hung on the wall? Is it in a frame? Is the stretcher or surface thick, thin, close to the wall? How is this like or unlike other almost-monochrome works by Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, or Ad Reinhardt? Is the surface sensual or intellectual? Does the painter want you to see the work all at once or in parts? Are some parts more important than others? Is every part of the surface supposed to be equally important? What are the artist’s ideas about craft and skill? Do you think this artist likes painting or is trying to paint against it? Is this anti-art? What is Ryman’s relationship to materials, tools, mark-making? How do you think he made the work? How might it be original or innovative? Why should this be in a museum? Why should it not be in a museum? Would you want to live with it? Why or why not? Why do you imagine the painting is this size? Now try a Frida Kahlo.