It’s a pretty cool feeling to love what you do. It’s a feeling I had when I first curated an exhibit in Baltimore, when I interned at a D.C. museum last summer and when I spent a year at an Art History school in Paris. This summer, the feeling keeps coming up again and again, be it from every day I walk into my internship at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, every article I delve into or every time I encounter the work of a new and emerging artist. Thanks to Hopkins, I’ve had the opportunity to study exactly what I love—Art History—and I can truly say that I’ve loved every minute of it.
There are lot of misconceptions about what it means to study the History of art (e.g. we don’t spend our days fingerpainting—at least, not all of us), so I wanted to give you an honest idea of what it’s like being an Art History major at Hopkins. In the same style as JHU_Genevieve’s blog on being a Film & Media Studies student (CHECK IT), I thought I’d take you through my journey with the help four artworks that epitomize my experiences so far.
My first ever Art History assignment—an eight page visual analysis—was accompanied by my first ever trip to the Walters Art Museum, a renowned, local museum with a top-notch collection of ancient through 19th-century art. At first, I felt in over my head; how was I 1) going to write eight pages 2) about one work of art 3) spanning from ancient to medieval times, a.k.a. not my cup of tea (read: area of specialization) in Art History. Despite the initial challenges, writing the paper turned out to be quite cathartic. Regardless of whether a work resonates with you or not, a visual analysis assignment tests one of the fundamental tools for any art historian: your ability to look. In lieu of Research and expounding upon a thesis, a visual analysis paper poses a number of critical questions ranging from how is the composition constructed to how is the subject rendered. Even though I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about writing on a 2nd century Roman sarcophagus, exploring the basic methodology of the field was both interesting and rewarding. I came to see that I wouldn’t love every work of art that I would write on, but that honing in on one’s critical looking and writing skills never hurts.
With the end of my freshman year came a Research paper for the second half of my Art History intro course—spanning from Renaissance to modern art, we were now in business. I made the trip to DC and chose a compelling, mid-career work by neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns. Finally working within the time period that I love, I delved into the Research with a refreshed sense of excitement. Working on this paper showed me just how incredible the resources at Hopkins truly are—I had an extensive selection of books on Johns at my disposal, my professor, having written a catalogue essay on Johns in the past, was invaluable, and my TA helped me to refine and elevate my argument. Pulling from critical essays on Johns, portions of the artist’s sketchbook and the work itself, I was able to produce a paper that I’m still proud of today.
One of the biggest lessons in my time as an Art History student came from my course “Matisse, Picasso and Twentieth Century Art,” an exhaustive and challenging class looking at the career of two of the most important artists in recent Art History. Despite helping me to see twentieth century artistic practice in a whole new light, I just couldn’t vibe with the professor’s approach to analyze the works we looked at in class. His methodology was heavy on psychoanalysis which, while interesting and practiced by a number of scholars, is far from how I personally choose to look at and study works of art. It came to the point that the mere sight of a Matisse or Picasso—which happens often considering the Baltimore Museum of Art’s renowned collection of twentieth century European art—would bring back unwelcome memories of Freudian psychosexual theory and the unconscious. However, the following year while on a free trip to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia thanks to the JHU Museums Club, I was able to see Matisse’s masterwork, Le bonheur de vivre, in person. The genius of the work was all I could take in and, no longer bogged down by an unfavorable approach to looking at the artist’s work, I was able to remember what drew me to these pieces in the first place.
Along with my favorite class so far at Hopkins—”Sculpture After Sculpture” with NGA curator James Meyer—came my favorite lesson to date. For our final seminar paper, we were each to choose the work of a contemporary sculptor and prepare a twenty-page paper and lecture presentation. I chose to focus on the German installation artist Claudia Schmacke whose work I had first encountered in high school at our city’s local art museum. The task of researching for and writing the paper, while extensive and spanning several weeks of time, never once felt like work. Each time I stepped back to think about the artwork, I was enriched with new ideas and a renewed sense of vigor. Getting to choose the artist that I wanted to study allowed for the undertaking of the assignment to occur quite fluidly and naturally. It was a much-needed reminder of why I love what I do, and there’s not much more that one can ask for than that.