A Little History of Art: Q&A with Charlotte Mullins

Why did our ancestors make art? What does art mean today?

These are the questions answered by Charlotte Mullins in A Little History of Art, the latest addition to the bestselling Little Histories series.

Charlotte Mullins brings art to life through the stories of those who created it and, importantly, reframes who is included in the narrative to create a more diverse and exciting landscape of art. She shows how art can help us see the world differently and understand our place in it, how it helps us express ourselves, fuels our creativity and contributes to our overall wellbeing and positive mental health.

We asked Charlotte to tell us more about her inspiration for the book, the writing process, and why the history of art continues to be told (and updated).

Tell us a bit more about your book…

A Little History of Art is an affable canter through art history, from cave painting to climate change. It is an introduction to art that requires no prior knowledge, therefore appealing to the curious teenager as well as parents and grandparents, aspiring artists and those seeking an up-to-date refresher. There’s no jargon, just fresh accessible writing and enthusiasm for all things art.

The book also updates the story of art by reframing who is included. Earlier narratives simplified art’s story by leaving out entire swathes of artists – often all women artists! – or restricting the art studied to Western Art. A Little History of Art restores artists such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Guan Daosheng and Jacob Lawrence to the narrative, and explores the art of the Niger Vallet, Peru, Java, Rapa Nui and Australia alongside Western examples to broaden our understanding of what art can be.

The singular ‘story’ becomes an array of stories that interweave and create a more diverse and exciting landscape of art.

How did you condense 100,000 years of global art history into one concise narrative?

To deal with the enormity of the subject I started out by creating what may be the world’s first washing line of art! I pegged 40 cards onto strings that crisscrossed my office and slowly covered them with the pieces of art I felt should be in the book to create the 40 chapters.

A ‘washing line of art’ in Charlotte Mullins’ office

When it came to writing, I wanted to take the reader back in time to the moment particular works of art were made, so each chapter opens with a spot of time travel. We journey from ancient tombs to medieval cathedrals, visit artists’ studios and witness art being made.

Some chapters are incredibly diverse and span the globe while others look at events in one particular town or region, but all follow time’s arrow so the reader always knows what time period they are in, whether they are exploring the Nazca lines in Peru, watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel or entering an Egyptian tomb.

What first drew you to study art?

I grew up near the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England and loved seeing the organic shapes of Henry Moore’s sculptures against the landscape.

This led me to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and I’ve been exploring the wonderful world of art ever since.

Why did our ancestors make art? What did it mean to them?

The word ‘art’ itself is a slippery term. Its meanings and values have changed over time. Art can be a funeral lament, an assertion of belief, a way of connecting with nature or a means of personal expression. It can celebrate individual lives or powerful empires.

Ultimately it is created to express something that goes beyond words. When artists sculpt an animal or paint a figure, they are not necessarily trying to create a likeness, but they are trying to express something important about that animal or figure.

This is why art – no matter how diverse it appears on the outside – ultimately shares a common thread.

Artists throughout history (and prehistory) have always searched for the best means of expression for their ideas. This is art’s ‘magic’, the element that allows it to connect with us, to move us emotionally even if sometimes we cannot explain why. Art can help us see the world differently or understand our place in it a little more clearly. It is powerful stuff.

Some of the artworks sit in very different surroundings today. One of the biggest controversies in the world of art is the question of restitution – what are your thoughts on this?

Restitution has been an ongoing battle for centuries. Napoleon famously raided Europe’s galleries and stole masterpieces from across the continent. Fortunately, most of these were returned when he met his Waterloo.

In other cases, however, restitution has taken decades, as with the confiscation of Jewish art collections by the Nazis. Other far older examples of stolen art are only now being discussed in terms of restitution, most notably the Benin Bronzes. Whole books have been written on this single example.

Illustration from A Little History of Art, Chapter 16, ‘Here Come the Barbarians

In A Little History of Art, I wanted to discuss works of art such as the Benin Bronzes in the context in which they were first made. Consequently, the Bronzes appear in a chapter on the sixteenth century that explores the interaction of inter-continental sea trade and African art traditions. The Bronzes reappear in the book at the end of the nineteenth century when they were stolen by British troops after the destruction of Benin City. I felt it was important to mark this later appropriation of African art by the West while firmly rooting my own analysis of them in the time and culture in which they were made.

Are there any common misconceptions that this book sheds light on?

MYTH: There are no great women artists.

BUSTED: There have been great women artists throughout history, not just in the last few decades. Important books dedicated to women artists have been published recently, but A Little History of Art writes women artists back into the narrative alongside their male peers. We see Artemisia Gentileschi respond to Caravaggio’s female heroine Judith, Hilma af Klint beat male abstract artists to the punch and witness Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett’s responses to racial inequality in America.

MYTH: There is a singular story of art

BUSTED: There isn’t! There are many stories that interweave across continents and generations. This book laces together as many stories as possible.

MYTH: Certain countries produced better art than others

BUSTED: Art has always been produced in a network that stretches across countries and seas. Certain countries subsequently wrote more about art and favoured art created on their own doorstep, often wilfully ignoring the wider picture.

MYTH: If it isn’t in the art history books already, then it isn’t good art

BUSTED: Until recently art history books were predominantly written by a particular subset of society, the white middle-class male. Now, when they are written by different subsets of society, different perspectives uncover great artists who were celebrated in their day but who have subsequently been overlooked (often because they weren’t white, middle class and male).

MYTH: Art is elitist

BUSTED: Art isn’t elitist and doesn’t require fancy words to describe it – it is accessible to all of us and this book aims to show how brilliant, moving, powerful, engaging, challenging and magical it can be.

Why is art important today?

Since the earliest cave painting, artists have helped us navigate life and better understand our place in the world.

Art feels more important today than ever. Contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei, Shirin Neshat and Zanele Muholi give a voice to those who have been repressed or marginalised. Olafur Eliasson and Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey use their art to address climate change.

Art is a way of expressing who we are and what we believe in.

Illustration from A Little History of Art, Chapter 40, ‘Art as Resistance

How we look at art is also changing. In 2018 Beyoncé and Jay-Z took over the Louvre in Paris and made a six-minute music video packed full of art for their single Apeshit. This not only shows how far art has entered the mainstream in the 21st century, but also offers a new perspective on what art history could be. The video highlighted works made in Africa and those featuring black subjects. After it was released attendance at the Louvre rose by 25%, with visitors following bespoke trails that highlighted the art featured in the video.

Art taps into something deep inside us, beyond words, and has the power to bring us to tears or inspire joy. There’s nothing quite like it.

Take a journey across 100,000 years of art history with A Little History of Art by Charlotte Mullins.

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