The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke 1855-64 Richard Dadd 1817-1886 Presented by Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War 1963

 Dadd, The Fairy-Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855–64). Oil on canvas, 54 x 39.5 cm. Tate Gallery, London

What it is that escorts this painting 

This painting took nine years of microscopic attention to detail, layering carefully to produce a 3 dimensional effect.

Dadd wrote a poem to accompany the picture which references folklore and Shakespeare, thus, telling us the composition isn’t just random nonsense.

“Queen” the British rock band also made a song with the same name as this painting because it was Freddie Mercury’s favorite; it shares the complex arrangements: with piano, guitar, drums, harpsichord. The claustrophobic atmosphere within the lyrics, clearly emulate the painting.

Siegfried Sassoon the war poet was a great friend of the Dadd family and presented this painting to the Tate Gallery.

Why the ‘Night Watch’ is one of the most important paintings to the history of art
From the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt is considered one of the greatest artists in European history.

The Resurrection, Cookham

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959 Presented by Lord Duveen 1927

Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1924). Oil on canvas, 2743 x 5486 mm. Tate Britain, London

Where this artist grew up

Stanley Spencer grew up in Cookham on Thames. So happy there in paradise, he painted his village as if it were in the bible with him featuring as part of it!

Christ has children in his arms in the doorway with God by the throne; Moses is with the Ten Commandments by the wall; many people are rising up from their tombs; while the artist painted himself in the center by two gravestones and he is also lying on the bricks in the lower right hand corner.

It is thought to be one of the most important paintings of the twentieth-century.

Why the ‘Night Watch’ is one of the most important paintings to the history of art
From the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt is considered one of the greatest artists in European history.


Hesitate 1964 Bridget Riley born 1931 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1985

Riley, Hesitate (1964). Oil on canvas, 1067 x 1124 mm. Tate Britain, London

Where this image fits in 

This painting implies emotional tension like disturbance, chill, loss and associates apparently to a landscape.

Ahead of its time perhaps, this style is familiar to modern skate-parks and design software (drag and drop) with the easy curves and distorted two dimensional space. The shapes and imagery resonate perhaps more now – 50 years after it was completed; thus, the monochromatic ellipses on a white background give psychological tense and spacious effect.

It is simple, queasy with spatial disorientation and somewhere between normal artwork and special effects, thus the viewer might find themselves in the middle of the whole experience!

How coming from the Parma School makes a difference
Famous for his sensuous and vigorous works, Correggio was from the Parma School of Italian Renaissance art.

Early One Morning

Early One Morning 1962 Sir Anthony Caro born 1924 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1965

Caro, Early One Morning (1962). Painted steel and aluminium, 2896 x 6198 x 3353 mm. Tate Britain, London

Why this is a quintessential Caro artwork 

This is typical of Caro’s early sculpture: light, airy and open in form, it has a fine arrangement of planes and lines on a horizontal axis. There is no fixed visual identity; no single focus of interest and it unfolds and expands with changing appearance depending on where you stand, thus the bright red colour unifies the parts to sum up the whole!

The meaning behind the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ by Titian
Famous for being the largest altarpiece in Venice, Assumption and Consecration of the Virgin is an oil on panel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.

Beyond Marxism in Art

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Where Karl carries us 

Marxist art history shares with normal Marxist theory, a relationship between the economic base and the ideological superstructure.

Many however, believed it to simply just be a reflection of economic circumstance, rather than any fundamental influence.

Antonio Gramsci loosened the ties between economic base and superstructure, but this meant it wasn’t so precise. Thus, what then is the insistence on economics and Marxism when the theory is drifting towards any old set of social values?

GA Cohen defends base and superstructure with functional explanation. That is that ideological superstructure is good for economic base, and comes about because of it in the first place.

If ideological phenomena promotes the economic base it is unclear what evidence there is to support this; thus, many believe it to be far too abstract at this point.

Cultural realm may support the existing ruling order but it is absurd to think this is true of every single work of art.

Some artists may be conservative, Courbet revolutionary, while others seem to have no political position. Can the Marxist theory accommodate all three possibilities?

If Marxism is so ubiquitous surely it becomes unfalsifiable and more like religion than science.

Being unscientific has for many been a virtue though. Science claims to be politically neutral. Therefore, the Marxists argue ideology right from the start.

Marxism is politics and Marxist art history is no different. Peter Weiss presents a working class interpretation of classical art. It provides an interpretation of social purpose.

The Situationists believed art was effective in intervening in the historical process.

Writing from a political point of view has become very common in art and this is always going to fall into the Marxist category somehow, bearing in mind politics and economics will never be mutually exclusive.

Politics does change over time and it is one way of understanding the link to art being historically specific and how art changes over time and useful therefore with the hermeneutic problem.

Edouard Manet, The Railway (1873). Oil on canvas, 111.5 x 93.3 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
What it is that is meant by a new realism in art
Edouard Manet helped furnish the path to reality in art and began to include modern, world, themes from the nineteenth-century in many of his paintings: soldiers, factory workers, ship-builders, international traders and those who fought to abolish slavery, were but a few.


Gare Saint-Lazure is a station in the northern part of central Paris and Manet’s studio (according to John Richardson, 1982) was close enough to see the railway bridge just outside, hence providing the inspiration for one of France’s best-loved pictures!

Manet’s 1873 painting The Railway baffled the critics at the Salon de Paris, because the composition was incoherent to them, e.g. a white cloud of steam is the only evidence of a train, plus the metal railings replace the more usual picturesque and outdoor scenery that was normally associated with locomotives.

Victorine Meurent modelled in front of an iron fence for Manet’s most enigmatic piece and Victorine has a sleeping puppy next to an open book upon her lap; she is next to a young girl whose back is to the viewer and watching the train below.

A snapshot of a street scene in real life Paris, the Railway shows part of Parisian life the way Manet saw it, thus he isn’t telling some sort of story, but is presenting us with a glimpse of his capital city one typical morning; to do this, his railings divide the background from the foreground and slice through the canvas like a track through the country. The figures have been brought forward in almost three dimensions, giving the image a realistic feeling, quite like no other.

Completely detached physically and psychologically from the little girl, Victorine looks up from her book with her face devoid of expression. The iron railings compress the picture, pushing the figures out to the spectator more like it was an example of double portraiture.

The Railway is a painting now recognized as a symbol of modernity, thus Victorine is wearing a fashionable hat and apartment buildings can be seen in the distance. Isn’t it ironic though that there is no actual railway track in this picture and the train is missing too?

Manet continually met with rejection, scandal and derision, thus whilst responsible for some of the most iconic paintings of the nineteenth-century, it was actually Claude Monet who almost had to drag Edouard outside of the studio to work in the fresh “en plein” air!

Social Art History


Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers 1849-50, oil on canvas, 159 x 259 cm, Staatliche Kunstasmmlungen, Dresden

Why each social theory falls back on economics 

Stemming from traditional Marxism the various branches of social art history have become very broad indeed.

The new social art history aims to be more historically specific as it evolves.

Instead of using unhistorical analytical categories to explain historical phenomena, art history must (T Clark says) attend to a range of relevant social relations between artists, artworks and institutions; as well as to political argument and economic conflicts; without giving explanatory priority to any one of them.

The economic base and ideological superstructure model was not seen as simplistic and reductive.

Louis Althusser understood ideology as part of the complex power struggle, rather than a mirror of the economic base.

He thought ideologies were the product of state apparatus (legal, political and educational system) which is where the main interests of society come into conflict.

Clark was focusing on image and society relating to politics in France.

Berthold Hinz refused to reduce paintings from Nazi Germany to economic conditions of that period.

Martin Warnke suggested medieval architecture showed diverse ideological outlooks coming together and being brought into harmony with one another (an anti conflict / struggle stance) whilst Horst Bredekamp suggested art being a medium of social conflict over a broad time span.

Clark on Courbet raises most of the issues within the reinvention of Marxist art history in the USA over the last 50 years; furthermore Patricia Leighten on Picasso suggested it is possible to ignore economic structure when writing about a social history of art.

Timothy Clark said art and politics could not escape each other back in 1848. He avoided the general assumptions about class ideologies. He widened it to the studio where production of art began. He avoided analogies between ideological content and form.

Clark uses The Stonebreakers to make his point.

Clark attempts to show what goes on behind the hidden mechanical image of reflection; how background becomes foreground.

Historically formed, historically altered, historically specific. Clark reconstructs Courbet’s intentions. Clark discusses labour and weight about the above picture.

Crucially, the young man and old man frozen in movement with backs turned means labor wasted with the men stiff and wooden thanks to their routine.

Politically, the class structure in France was riddled with anxiety after the 1848 revolution and this image was unsettling. Identity in class was a struggle and Courbet unsettled it even more.

Clark figured the conditions for a class beyond capitalism did not exist. And communist ideas about it were misguided. Art for Clark can be Utopian but no more.

Art cannot bring social change to the tune of a revolution in the ownership of the means of production.

Clark argued more recently, Picasso failed to be coherent in his cubist works not generating meaning. Wonderful as the paintings are they don’t change the world. It is politically disillusioned.

Leighten traces Picasso’s political activism as an arnarchist. Picasso had newspaper clippings from the First World War that gave an anti war message; there were macabre accounts of suicide, murder and vandalism. She thought it outlined his view of the world in the run up to the war.

Leighten criticise Marxist interpretations of Picasso’s work suggesting there is no conscious political component or relationship with culture in Cubism. She opposes Clark, Marxist art history and ideology being personification of false consciousness.

Clark also didn’t like false consciousness in art but was concerned with what prevents representations as much as what allows it; blindness as much as vision.

Leighten was not trying to reveal Picasso’s blind spots. Just what the artist has intentionally conveyed.

Leighten and Clark both aimed to capture historical specificity of works of art by weaving the artist in without generalisations regarding ideology and economics that previous Marxist focused on.

Both thought art can oppose the dominant ideology.

Clark thought Courbet developed a new form capable of subverting ideology.

Leighten thought Picasso the pasifist was painting in opposition to the warmongering of the time.

Clearly, every art historian differs in their viewpoint but none more than the Marxist art historian.

Marxists are social historians but not all social historians are Marxists. Neo Marxists believe social progress leads to a revolution in the means of production. Non – Marxist social art historians focus on the less conscious political beliefs.

Orthodox is where it stems from though and that is art as part of the superstructure which is a reflection of the economic base.

Leonardo, The Last Supper (1495). Oil on canvas, 4.6 x 8.8 m. Santa Maria delle Grazie
Why this painted wall is so famous
Leonardo’s painting of The Last Supper represents the final days of Jesus life when he announces that someone will betray him and it covers the end wall of a dining hall in Milan.


Each one of the Apostles has a different reaction to the news, with varying degrees of anger and shock.

Bartholomew, James and Andrew are all surprised; Judas, Peter and John form the next group of three. Judas is wearing green and blue and is in a shadow looking withdrawn and taken aback; clutching a small bag signifying the silver given to him as payment to betray Jesus or perhaps being a reference to being the treasurer.

Judas is also tipping over the salt shaker meaning to betray the salt or “one’s Master” thus, he has his elbow on the table, and his head is horizontally the lowest of anyone in the painting!

None of the disciples has their back to the viewer but Judas is leaning back into a shadow unlike a great many normal depictions, where he is seen alone or without a halo. Jesus and Judas both stretch out for bread and Jesus head is located at the vanishing point for all perspective lines.

Leonardo seats everyone in groups of three; there are three windows behind Jesus; and his shape resembles a triangle which represents the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity.

The oranges visible in the painting seem strange because they never appeared in Europe until da Vinci’s time with this event occurring many centuries beforehand.

A doorway was cut through the wall on which The Last Supper was painted in 1652 and then bricked up and this can be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure in the middle; in 1796 French troops threw stones and scratched out the Apostles’ eyes; what with bomb damage in the Second World War; and subsequent deterioration due to pollution; plus misguided restoration attempts over the years such as the refectory being sealed and converted into a climate controlled environment!

The most recent and complete restoration was finally finished after 21 years in 1999, when the painting opened to the public, who must now book in advance and may only stay for 15 minutes.

Mary Magdalene is often seen in the painting as John (the apostle) and the body angles between Jesus and John form the letter M which is another possible reference to Mary!

If you look above Bartholomew a grail-like image appears on the wall and can only be seen in small scale reproductions of the painting. Such “zooming in” reveals a cluster of shapes which appear to form a golden chalice when parts are deliberately occluded.

Marxist Art History


Pergamon Altar, Pergamos, Turkey, c. 165-56 BC. Marble. Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Where the ‘ideology’ fits into the equation

There are different Marxist views within Marxism itself, especially when it comes to artwork analysis.

Karl Marx came to England in 1848. Him and Friedrich Engels in their “Communist Manifesto” called on workers to overthrow capitalism that had the means of production in the hands of a few.

Marxists generally agree that society progresses through stages: slavery to capitalism, ending in communism. In the book “Das Kapital” each stage is a result of new techniques.

Exploitation of the working class would eventually mean an uprising leading to a socialist revolution. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 forced many into a reassessment of Marxist legacy, questioning his economic prophecy!

Marxist interpretations in art are loosely based on his economic vision – and taken his name – have since emerged along the lines of class structure analysis, ideologies and multi-causal explanations for the developmental process of art in history; and, as a way of thinking philosophically, rather than the brutal truth as it unfolded.

Marxism has become hugely important to scholarship in many other academic disciplines as well as art history.

‘Class’ always springs out as a keyword in Marxism, hence, the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, thus it reverberates through the art world too and provides a comparison.

While the bourgeoisie owned the means of production, it was the proletariat who only owned their own labor. However, critics have pointed out it isn’t as simple as this; TJ Clark for instance, said the new production techniques bring new classes and hybrids and this is forever continuing and changing into the future.

Nevertheless, the class system is still at the heart of the art world to a lesser or greater degree, and Marxism will always be part of the class system, thus suggesting it is somehow connected to that problem of explaining change in the history of art.

‘Ideology’ springs out as another essential keyword relating to Marxism, and this word – ideology – has been put to good use in a great many ways.

Marx saw all societies as class societies based on one or more ruling classes. False consciousness and inequalities of power, meant people often believed their interests were the same as those that oppressed them.

Marx identifies ideology with the division of labor. Mental and manual.

The first ideologists were priests who supposedly had ideas like they were an independent existence; but ideas are always connected to those who produce them.

By submitting to a social order people adopt ideas of their class and promote their interests more effectively. But if the idea producers are the ideologists, why would these ideas be in the interest of another class, if people produce ideas in pursuit of their own interests?

Marxism represents a science of society but the dividing line between ideology and science isn’t easy to find, hence this makes it even more difficult to sense where art ideology fits into the equation.

Art plays a large part in the attitudes, beliefs, and values within society but it is not clear that art has a so-called ‘false consciousness’ and, something false that was believed to be true, may well not slot into ideology quite so comfortably.

But the image of Venus in Titian’s painting is unlikely to have meant to show how reality is meant to be, so there is all these things to grapple with when doing Marxist art history!

So if art is false consciousness it must be false in some less obvious way. Marxists have responded to this challenge in a number of different ways.

TJ Clark on ‘ideology’ said: “…………..ideology indicates bodies of knowledge in society…..constructs tied to attitudes and experience……..”

Clark goes on to say that ideology includes art as a quality of discourse or imagery and belief, but the boundaries are not clear. False consciousness is not the falsehood that we are familiar with when a belief fails to match reality. Clearly, false consciousness is ambiguous in meaning.

Ideology for Clark is a false consciousness because artists perhaps present themselves with disputable meanings or like they hardly have meaning at all.

Not every social art historian would see themselves as a neo-marxist, but Karl Marx himself appeared to allow art to play both roles: he referred to classical Greek art as representing aesthetic ideals and ideology, despite the social conditions that gave rise to it.

Art has a significance to be able to transcend the limits of the society that produced it. Thus, many Marxist writers saw art as a mode of expression that goes beyond historical determination.

Instead of merely being a piece of ideology, art retains a Utopian capacity. Theodor Adorno postulates art as a critical counterweight to alienated social labor. Adorno saw art not just as an expression of the society which produced it, but a a vision of human freedom.

This is done not by subject matter but the way formal characteristics are determined.

Art is a form of fulfilled labor that is absent from capitalism.

But as Utopian, it is socially unspecific and indirect, thus ideology’s social character is difficult to analyze.

Furthermore, orthodox Marxism which takes art to be determined by the economic conditions of society, gives a solution to the fundamental question about change that occupied art history from Hegel to Panofsky.

The changing means of production form the link between stages of society and the art which is produced in them is Marxism art history the way that the Absolute Idea is for Hegel.

Moreover, Marx understanding of labor as the vehicle for human self-realization resolves what we have called the hermeneutic problem: labor runs through history and connects the present with the past. It must undergo changes like art does.

It is the discussion of this complicated side to Marx and social history – directed at paintings – that enabled art history to break away from the systematic approach it was so used too, in the nineteenth-century!


Marxist Art History

Many of the Marxist art historians were forced into exile – which may have been a blessing in disguise because it brought their work to a larger audience.

After Friedrich Antal wrote “Florentine Painting and its Social Background” in exile in the UK, it was to become a classic example of Marxist art history.

Stalin and Hitler repressed the people. Antal studied stylistic changes in Florentine painting from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries, however, it wasn’t about the beauty of the past, but of the class struggle – the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy – long before Karl Marx ever lived!

Antal begins with the economic, social and political conditions of fourteenth / fifteenth century Florence. The economic causes of the rise of the bourgeoisie in Florence, followed by the superstructure of religion, philosophy, literature and then art reflecting that superstructure base; and Antal certainly empathized with this from his own experience.

1434 is the year Cosimo de Medici put an end to warring bourgeois factions and made himself ruler of a declining city.

Antal compares Gentile da Fabriano’s Madonna and child with angels painted around 1425 and Masaccio’s painting of the same subject from around 1426. Two pictures from the same time and place.


Gentile da Fabriano The Madonna and Child with Angels (1425). Egg tempera on wood, 139 x 83 cm. National Gallery, London


The Virgin and Child

Masaccio, The Virgin and Child (1426). Egg tempera on wood, 134.8 x 73.5 cm. National Gallery, London


Antal notes that the first picture lacks the clarity, objectivity and austerity of the second: Fabriano has Mary as a lovely and gracious queen, enthroned in a court of heaven with richly ornamented robes; Masaccio’s figures are plasticy, while, Fabriano defines his by rhythmic undulating outlines.

In contrast to Gentile’s emphasis on decoration, rich materiality and ritualistic behavior, Masaccio (according to Antal) treats space and figures rationally following the rules of foreshortening in a textbook like manner.

This matter of fact conception presents the Madonna and infant Jesus like any mother and child, e.g. Jesus sucks his thumb in a way that most babies do!

How could two such widely differing pictures have been painted in the same time and place? It helps little he says to give a stylistic explanation describing one as late Gothic and the other as classical renaissance. It is exactly this difference which needs to be explained.

The age difference between the artists or them having different regional influences as many might think, will not give enough of the explanation required.

If influences don’t explain change then there must be some fundamental cause for historical appearances and change; for Hegel we know it to be the ‘spirit’ and for connoisseurs it was individual genius, for them formalists it was perception, and for Panofsky it was a rational mind!

Marxism suggests this fundamental cause is the economic structural base of society.

Ideology follows from the means of production which governs the art or the time, thus, the two different styles of Masaccio and Fabriano using the same theme at the same time, shows that societies are antagonistic, hostile and in opposition.

Fabriano has a ritualistic and courtly style expressing the endurance of the aristocracy, for instance; while, Masaccio is rational, natural and realistic reflecting the values of the powerful bourgeoisie.

Arnold Hauser provided an account from prehistoric times to the twentieth-century. He gave the economic and social structure underlying the appearance of styles including those of Gothic, Mannerist and Impressionist.

Hauser agreed with Antal saying courtly artistic taste in Fabriano and Domeico Venziano exist alongside the naturalism of Masaccio, thus he recognized the history of the fourteenth-century (according to Hauser) being the history of class struggle not only between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, but also between the bourgeoisie and the working classes.

As the industrious middle class developed to a class living a life of courtly leisure, so art changed accordingly.

The monumental naturalism of Masaccio, with its anti Gothic simplicity and its emphasis on the clarification of spatial relationships and proportions; the richness of genre in the art of Gozzoli; and the psychological sensibility of Botticelli; represent three different stages in the historical development of the middle class as it rises from frugal circumstances to the level of a real money aristocracy.

Hauser has been known to acknowledge arts capacity to develop independently of social and economic circumstances as well. In 1958 he declared the need to reconcile historical materialist analysis with independent dynamism of art and appreciation of individuality.

Such independent development, however – he still felt – never departs very far from the line determined by the underlying economic reality!

While styles may linger on after the class which they serve has ceased to exist, artistic forms cannot be independently revolutionary.

Orthodox Marxist art historians believe changes are a response to fundamental economic and social changes. Hauser suggested that Gustave Courbet is the prime exponent of anti bourgeois naturalism, yet with Courbet’s proletarian outlook the political force should not be exaggerated which of course was in 1850 with Burial of Ornans.

Bring on the neo Marxist viewpoint.

Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1872). Oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm. Musée Marmottan