Exercise 5 – Finding out more

Exercise 5 asks first to find two still life examples including fish and make quick sketches of them, and second to gain some more contextual information about Damien Hirst’s piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Example 1

Author: Claude Venard (French 1913-1999)

Title: Still Life

Date: 1955-6


Still Life 1955-6 by Claude Venard 1913-1999

Fig. 1


Sketch 1


Example 2

Author: Gino Severini (Italian, 1883-1966)

Title: Natura morta con ruderi e pesci (Still life with ruins and fish)

Date: 1930




Fig. 2


Sketch 2

Both sketches were made on my Ipad using Art Rage application. This is my first try with this app and I must say that the use of tools is very natural. I don’t like much the Ipad hard glass surface for drawing but it’s a convenient app to use when travelling like I am doing.


Conversation about Damien Hirst’s piece on Khan Academy website

I very much enjoyed listening to this conversation and I think that many interesting points were touched upon.

– The title in itself is perhaps a work of art, even detached from the real piece. This is important because it underlines the conceptual aspect of this work, even though the strong physicality of Hirst’s shark does not really allow for a pure conceptual reading of it: and this piece is at the same time conceptual and brutally real. There is a sort of clash between the concept and the physical piece.

– The theme of the inevitability of death runs through art history, all art is ‘in many ways … a coming to terms with mortality’. And this work is a contemporary response to this theme. Vanitas paintings are an example of such type of art.

– Contemporary art is more open to interpretation than art in the Renaissance and the viewer contributes with his ideas and emotions to the meaning of it like first underlined by Duchamp.

– This is a second version of the original shark in formaldehyde realized in 1991 which decayed and was replaced in 2006. It’s open to question if the artist intended it to be so or if dissolution was not designed. Or maybe the artist was well aware that decay can be only posponed and he was just trying to do that, as ancient Egyptians with mummies or all of us when we fight against aging and death with all possible means.

– Much modern art is conceptual and philosophical in its essence, rather than being an aesthetic and formal experience, at the point that today traditional museums might be replaced by museums of philosophy.

This conversation has deepened my first understanding of the piece but along the same direction. What it really makes me think is how open to questions pieces of art like these are and how they can evolve and change in our minds if we consider their different facets and possible meanings. Contemporary art looks ambiguous in its interpretation and never really ended but I am wondering if perhaps also in the past it might have been so on different levels. After all, living in Rome I am surrounded by Baroque art that seems very complex indeed and layered too.

Lastly I read the Damien Hirst review by Adrian Searle for the Guardian and it added to the feeling of almost mind-boggling ambiguity of intentions. The review was written in 2012 on the occasion of Hirst’s exhibition at the Tate and it raises many questions about Hirst and his art: to which extent is it really innovative, and if it was innovative at the start is it still so or is now mosly business-driven. I have the feeling that also on these points is difficult to reach a final answer. Perhaps only time will tell!

List of illustrations

Figure 1 Venard, Claude Still life (1955-6) [oil painting] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/venard-still-life-t00256 (Accessed on 06/08/16)

Figure 2 Severini, Gino Natura morta con ruderi e pesci (1930) [tempera on cardboard] At: http://pinacotecafaenza.racine.ra.it/stampa/vallunga/vallunga.htm (Accessed on 06/08/16)



Sal Khan, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, in Smarthistory, December 8, 2015, At: http://smarthistory.org/damien-hirst-the-physical-impossibility-of-death-in-the-mind-of-someone-living/ (Accessed 06/08/16)

Searle, Adrian (2012) ‘Damien Hirst – review.’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/apr/02/damien-hirst-tate-review (Accessed 06/08/16)


Exercise 4 – Looking at context

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (installation 1991, new installation 2006)


Fig. 1 Damien Hirst’s Shark (2008)

At a first look this striking piece makes me think of the poster of the thriller film Jaws (1975) by Steven Spielberg and I imagine that perhaps the artist too might have had this film at the back of his mind when he conceived this installation. I associate it also with some very unpleasant images of dead human babies in formaldehyde that I saw once in a museum when I was a child.  It reminds me also of those glass shrines showing the corpses of saints and Popes that are quite common in Catholic churches.

The blue colour of the liquid in which the shark is immersed looks like water but it’s a deadly water and even if frightening and huge the fish looks rather small and somewhat alone in that great case with so much liquid around it. So my emotional response is of sadness and not of feat at seeing such a once powerful creature reduced to an helpless object in a museum.

I think this work is about death and terror in front of it, about our helplessness and total sense of bewildered loss when we look at death in other creatures and I believe that the title The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living conveys this deeply engrained and irrational feeling that nothing as terrible as that is ever going to happen to us. So in a sense we are terrified at looking at this dead now defenceless creature but also comforted that we still alive.


Edwaert Collier, Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ (1696)


Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' 1696 by Edward Collier active 1662-1708

Fig. 2 Still Live With a Volume Of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ (1696)

This painting gives me a feeling of claustrophobia with its high number of objects in an enclosed space. The prevailing earth tones strengthen this feeling. I cannot say that I am emotionally moved by it even if it is a very fine painting.

I can see why vanitas paintings are mentioned in connection with Hirst’s work: they have the theme of death in common, but I think in a different way. In this still life I see human resignation, death is recalled and accepted as an inevitable fact of human  life. In Hirst’s installation I see a non-acceptance of death, as if the hard truth of death were not really understandable and were emotionally denied by who is alive.


List of illustrations

Figure 1. Meier, Allison (2008) Damien Hirst’s Shark (“The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living” 1991 and 2006)  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [photograph] At: http://www.flickr.com (Accessed on 05/08/16)

Figure 2. Collier, E. (1696) Still Live With a Volume Of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ [oil painting] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/ (Accessed on 05/08/16)


Exercise 3 – Reading about art

After downloading from OCA website the excerpt from Art History: The Basics by Grant Pooke and Diana Newall (2008, Abingdon: Routledge), I decided to buy myself a Kindle edition of this book. All references I make here are then taken from: Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) Art History: The Basics. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed on 04.08.16, pos. 452-489)

I wrote down the paragraphs of the first few pages that I find particularly useful to get an initial idea of the theme of the book and lay the basis for the issues to be treated in the following chapters.

In Chapter 1  ART THEORIES AND ART HISTORIES the  authors formulate the basic questions they are going to develop:

What are the origins of art history as an academic discipline and how has it evolved? What is the purpose of art?

And then they they go about establishing  ‘a general set of guidelines for understanding what art is thought to be’, making three main points:

Fine art has traditionally been used to distinguish arts promoted by the academy , including painting, drawing and sculpture, from craft based arts. The latter typically refers to those works created for a function –such as ceramics, jewellery, textiles, needlework and glass which are still termed decorative arts.

A broader definition of art encompasses those activities which produce works with aesthetic value, including film making, performance and architecture.

Contemporary definitions of art are not medium specific (as ideas around fine art tended to be) or particularly restrictive about the nature of aesthetic value (as Modernism was –see Chapter 2 ). These ideas are associated with the Institutional Theory of Art which is probably the most widely used definition. It recognises that art can be a term designated by the artist and by the institutions of the art world, rather than by any external process of validation. On the one hand it provides an expansive framework for understanding diverse art practices, but on the other, it is so broad as to be virtually meaningless.

The authors concentrate then on the concept of art in the ancient Greek and Roman world and in the Western classical tradition derived from antiquity:

In a Western context, art understood as a practical, craft-based activity has the longest history … the Greek word ‘techne’ denoted a skill or craft and ‘technites’ a craftsman who made objects for particular purposes and occasions (Sörbom 2002: 24). …. within the classical world, examples of craft, such as statues and mosaics, had practical, public and ceremonial roles.

Throughout Europe and North America for example, cultural assumptions about what art customarily was were closely linked to the origins and development of the academic subject of art history itself. Of central importance to this were the social institutions such as academies and museums which were established from the late sixteenth century onwards.

And they go on making another fundamental point:

Another point worth making is that to label something as art implies some kind of evaluative judgement about the image, object or process….it is important to understand that the meaning and attributions of art are particular to different contexts, societies and periods.

(Pooke and Newall, 2008: pos. 452-489)

I think I shall study more of this book with special attention to Chapter 2 Formalism, Modernism and modernity and Chapter 7 Exploring Postmodernities.

The concepts and subjects that I propose to research more in the next weeks are:

Formalism and Modernism, Postmodernism, Duchamp and the Institutional Theory of Art.


Definitions of words new to me:

jesmonite: composite material used in fine arts, crafts, and construction. It consists of a gypsum-based material in an acrylic resin

plinth: a heavy base supporting a statue or vase

(definitions from the Oxford Dictionary of English included in the Kindle edition of the book)

Exercise 2 – What is art?


What is art?

As a start I would say that art can only be something that is a result of  human activity, creation or intervention. A beautiful tree as found in nature is not art, but it could become art if intentionally used as it is or somehow modified by an artist for a purpose – I am thinking here particularly of the work of Italian artist Giuseppe Penone (1947).  Also a photograph of a beautiful tree could be an artwork being the tree seen through the eyes of the photographer.

I also think that the intention behind an artwork is important: the cereals I had this morning at breakfast are something produced by man but certainly not meant to be a work of art. But if an artist takes those same cereals and pours for example some resin on them, they might become a bad or good work of art – probably bad because it seems a very lame idea indeed!

And with this comes another point I think. To me art should be in some way innovative, bring forward a new idea, show something under a different light, give a personal insight in an old concept, stimulate new thoughts, emotions or mental  connections.


How do we know it is art?

I believe it certainly helps if it’s already in a gallery or a museum, because this type of place puts a sort of frame of glory or at least of interest around an object. After all whenever I did a nice drawing at primary school the teacher would say: it’s beautiful, put it in a frame! In any case I think the way of presenting something is undeniably important: if I wish to give someone a sweater for Christmas I put it in a nice package first. And seeing something in a gallery means also that somebody decided that it is actually art before me, it’s like the label of a brand on a piece of clothing. Then of course I can think otherwise.


Who decides what is art?

There are no laws but I think it’s a combination of factors: galleries, art magazines on paper and online, critics, public institutions and museums. And the passing of time: Michelangelo and Shakespeare will be artists forever, this is no more subject to change. I do not see that the public or the audience are really that important in deciding what’s good or bad art. The only thing people can do is agree or not agree with what is shown and like it or not. However,  the favour of the public can exercise an influence on which type of exhibitions are going to be arranged. For example in Rome, where I live, in five years I have already seen two big Chagall’s exhibitions possibly because Chagall is a sure hit with the public. By visiting an exhibition the public can reinforce the idea that something is art and make it more valuable.


Is it enough just to display a found object and say ‘this is art’ because it’s in an art gallery?

Yes, in a way, because of what I have just said in answering to how do we know it is art.


Duchamp said he wanted “to put art back in the service of the mind”. What do you think he meant by this?

I think that he wanted to make an intellectual point here, that art has not to be judged according to aesthetic values,  but for the concept or the process an artist wishes to put forward.


Is technical skill an important quality in an artwork?

To me technical skill is important because I believe that through mastery of techniques, knowledge of media and a lot of practising and experimentation an artist acquires the widest possible freedom when he or she comes to choose the best tools to express a personal vision, is not limited by what does not know and also gradually finds an individual voice. To this end I also believe that another important thing for an artist is to be aware of past and contemporary art movements. Technical skill does not mean that an artist has to make or create everything personally, but I think that also when trusting other people with the physical realization of the piece it helps if an artist is aware of the technical aspects.


Do you think art needs to move you emotionally?

Not necessarily. Sometimes an artwork moves me emotionally and leaves an echo for days, though there are other times that I don’t really like a piece at first sight but there is something in it that engages my thoughts and  acts on me perhaps at a deeper level or makes me aware of things I had not thought before. There are also works of art that I find very aesthetically pleasing and nothing more.


Does art have to be unique?

Not really. Also in the past of some paintings or sculptures existed several copies, even if there were differences because they were individually crafted so in a certain sense everyone of them was an original. Today mechanical or industrial reproduction and very recently 3D printing allow for perfectly identical copies. I think this is fine if this is the choice of the artist.

Exercise 1 – Fountain by Marcel Duchamp


Marcel Duchamp ‘Fountain’, 1917, replica 1964 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Fig. 1 Fountain (1917-1964)


I already knew this icon work by Marcel Duchamp so my reaction cannot be really fresh and innocent, but I shall do my best to see it with new eyes:

– The Fountain is not at all pretty but very forceful, unpleasant and rude, a slap in the face of the onlooker (me), teasing, amusing

– I am not shocked anymore, a century has passed, but it is not difficult to guess the outrageous reactions when the visitors saw it in an exhibition for the very first time in 1917. After all, as Grayson Perry funnily remembered in his first Reith lecture, in many countries the most desirable painting, even today, is still “a landscape with a few figures around, animals in the foreground, mainly blue” (BBC, 2013)

– Having a new look at The Fountain it suddenly came to me that today’s trend – mine included – for reusing the “found object” in the arts and crafts (jewellery, textiles, mixed media paintings and sculptures) has its roots among other things in Duchamp’s ready-mades

I really think that Duchamp is still very vital and influential as an artist and that his ideas are still very contemporary and far from being exhausted.


List of illustrations

Figure 1. Duchamp, Marcel (1917, replica 1964) Fountain [sculpture] At:  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573  (accessed on 31.07.16)



BBC Radio 4 (2013) The Reith Lectures, Grayson Perry: Playing to the Gallery: 2013 1 [online] 15.10.13. At:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03969vt (accessed on 27.07.16)