Gustav Spangenberg 🕸 The Witches Ride 🕸 c. 1870. 🦇
Art History Instagram isn’t just the realm of geeks and aesthetes. In 2018, when Gucci launched its beauty line, the inaugural posts on the brand’s Instagram were a series of portraits of opulently clad women spanning at least a thousand years of art history: the first of this series, “Portrait of a Woman” from an unknown British painter, dated 1600, depicts an unidentified woman who was likely to be part of the Elizabethan court thanks to her “richly embroidered sleeves and enormous lace collar” and the “pearl-studded veil that enthroned her hair and shoulders.” Sure, it’s a brand that has funds to invest in content creation and curation, but considering that luxury brands that court millennial women talk to them as if they were adult babies, I consider Gucci’s direction admirable.
View this post on Instagram
Title: Portrait of a Woman, c. 1600 Author: British Painter Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Though the identity of this woman and that of the artist who painted her are lost to history, we can infer her royal status through her luxuriant dress and jewelry. Her richly embroidered sleeves and enormous lace collar were typical of the highly rarified Elizabethan court, complete with a pearl-studded veil that enthroned her hair and shoulders. This portrait, now housed at the @metmuseum, was once definitively thought to be that of Queen Elizabeth, though historians today are less sure. Regardless, the anonymous British painter who captured her likeness did so with a striking attention to detail and level of interest in her fashion. #GucciBeauty #TheMet — @tatianaberg Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1911
When it comes to art history, I enjoy finding elements of camp, salaciousness, and irreverence as much as I enjoy allegory, iconography, and mythology. Following a brief stay in Florence, where I found out I strongly enjoyed ogling at the buttocks of male Renaissance statues and then shared them on my social media, I stumbled upon @museumbums, an account entirely devoted to the portrayal of callipygian subjects of all genders: as long as the buttocks are juicy, well-painted/sculpted or otherwise remarkable, the curators don’t discriminate between time period, style, or medium. On December 2, they spotlighted Charles Meere’s 1938 reinterpretation of the Atalanata myth “Atalanta Eclipse”; a couple days later, they showcased a neoclassical statue depicting a wounded Achilles, made by Filippo Albacini in 1825. These accounts are mostly devoted to a single theme or element throughout art history, in a sense picking up the baton of the highly curated Tumblr channels that served as some of the first eminent examples of digital curatorial projects, but which as a genre fell off the face of the internet when Instagram took over. (Let’s devote a moment of appreciation to Ugly Renaissance Babies and Female Beauty in Art.)
The pleasure I derive from these accounts does not solely lie in the actual beauty of the art they choose to highlight. Rather, they prompt me to study a subject in greater detail: the way the portrayal of Judith slaying Holofernes evolved throughout the centuries (a maiden evolving into a noblewoman evolving into a femme fatale); our current-era obsession with Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic (it projects a feminine, but modest type of beauty); or why baby Jesus looks kind of monstrous in Medieval and Renaissance art (it’s because of the idea of the homunculus, aka a baby that’s a fully-formed human). I am a freelance writer who has to engage in “please pick me” behaviors whenever I pitch an idea, so the more I learn, the more compelling an argument I can make, the higher the chances I am paid to write something, the more I can expand on said ideas (and so forth).
And as someone who mainly covers visual culture, I take issue with the assumption that high art (or art history) goes hand in hand with traditionally pretty and refined girls projecting a glamorous lifestyle and wealth. In 2012, Bravo aired the extraordinary and tragically short-lived reality show Gallery Girls, where a group of aspiring gallerists and curators (all stunning, rich, educated, and impeccably dressed) are taunted into picking petty, middle-school-level fights on top of performing menial tasks at art galleries, such as counting the pebbles in the vase containing a bonsai or dashing to deliver freshly-baked bagels to a private jet.
Instagram-it-girls and fine artists the Kaplan Twins are mainly known for “integrating [themselves] into the work” (their “Chocolate Covered Strawberries,” is a self-portrait of the two of them with their buttcheeks covered in chocolate syrup and with strawberries up their butts), and recently featured on the reality show Ex on the Beach. Zoe Rose Schwartz, a self-taught artist known for her psychedelic portraiture, promotes high-waisted jeans as much as her actual work. Then of course there’s Caroline Calloway, who has a series of collages based on Matisse’s cutouts named “Dreamer BBs” and recently made the women she invited to her December “May Ball” dress as subjects of artworks. Sure, I am thankful to influencers for making art into something cool and aspirational, but it seems unfair to nerds and bleary-eyed academics to see yet another thing (see what happened with paganism, an integral part of the Classical-studies curriculum, and with the A Song of Ice and Fire saga) be taken away from their realm by “cool people” who use it for content.
The truth is that like anything worthwhile, developing an understanding and appreciation of art is hard. Even the Gallery Girls seem to concur. “It’s super hard to sell a piece of art,” one of them says in an episode of the show. “A lot of it has to do with educating people on what it is,” so “it’s important to know your shit.” While sure, she just spoke in those terms to make another girl look dumb, she’s not wrong. The same could be said of writing an article, doing a presentation, of convincing someone to adopt a puppy. Shows like Gallery Girls, or the seemingly endless number of glamorous art-world Instagrammers, simply show you what it means to have the funds and the lifestyle of a person “who works in art” or who “likes art,” but to master the subject, you actually have to commit. Thankfully, Instagram offers a free entry point.