Art for Beginners – Top 5 Most Famous Artworks in the World

Throwback time! It’s been two years since I started writing for Hindustan Times Brunch. Taking a look at my first article for them in May, 2013 titled “Shortcut to Smart: A lesson in Art, Chapter 1”. Enjoy!


A Lesson in Art!

You’ve seen photos of them, you’ve seen them spoofed on the Web. Maybe you’ve even seen them in real life. But what do you know about them, really? What makes these five, some of the most important paintings of all time? A sketchy introduction.

Take notes Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa is a diva. Every year, nearly six million people drop in to visit the 15th century beauty, painted on a plain poplar panel. The Mona Lisa has been a faithful roomie to Napoleon, survived incorrect restoration procedures and over-cleaning (which is probably what left her without eyebrows) and was stolen in 1911 by an employee of the Louvre, Paris (he walked out with the painting tucked under his coat). Picasso was questioned in the proceedings. The painting was returned after almost two years. More recently a visitor threw a cup at the priceless painting. Is it because she’s not very pretty but we love her anyway? Is she really a man? Suit your fancy. It’s the Mona Lisa.

WLA_metmuseum_Water_Lilies_by_Claude_MonetLes Nymphéas or Water Lilies series – Claude Monet
Monet is the rightful king of Impressionism. His 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise led to the rise of the Impressionist art movement, then a derogatory term, a rebellion taking shape. His Water Lilies, a series of nearly 250 paintings made over the last 30 years of his life, were executed at his home in Giverny, France. He worked in a controlled landscape – his own garden with a pond, water lilies and a bridge – for a near-perfect view but lost that very control on the canvas. Of all the Nymphéas, the crowning works are displayed at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. They are housed in oval rooms and are done on concave canvas panels, 6.5 feet in height and vary from 19.5 to 55 feet in length.

600px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh
Absinthe, the green fairy, was a friend of van Gogh, steering him through exaggerated visions. The bi-polar artist was nicknamed fou roux or mad redhead; in a bout of frenzy, he cut his ear and presented it to a girl named Rachel at a brothel. A few months later (a year before his death), in 1889, he painted The Starry Night while at an asylum in Saint-Remy, France. In the foreground, a cemetery and cypress trees symbolise his obsession with death. Fervent strokes represent the movement of wind and light. He sold but one painting in his lifetime. Today, they sell for obscene amounts. This one is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Les_Demoiselles_d'AvignonLes Demoiselles d’Avignon – Pablo Picasso
Picasso was 26 when he shocked his peers with private viewings of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. It portrays five nude female figures from a brothel in Barcelona. The faces are contorted and bold with primitive elements of African and Iberian masks, their bodies made of crass lines and squares. The almost life-size figures confront the viewer, shocking them and then making them a part of the painting. This was one of the first steps towards Cubism. It has been a fixture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, since 1939. The painting claimed its worth by driving Picasso’s friend and rival Henri Matisse barking mad, dethroning him as the obvious next big shot in shocking Modern Art.


No.5, 1948 – Jackson Pollock

The other famous No. 5, it sold for a whopping $140 million at a private auction in 2006 to a billionaire art collector willing to pay anything for it, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. Pollock was going about his day, smoking a cigarette and painting some figures, when he accidentally spilled some paint on the canvas. The abstract expressionist upgraded to Batman status inventing the drip technique. Time magazine, in 1956, called him Jack the Dripper. Laying the canvas on the ground, moving on all four side and splashing paint on the canvas, he monitored his actions with precision, creating figures out of dripping of paint, layer after layer. Spike the passion and rebellious need to create, a little bit of alcoholism with a sensational personal life. This is the stuff that art is made of!



Cairo Diaries: The Pyramids of Giza experience

The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza

It was an extremely hot day when we ventured out Pyramid sighting in Egypt. Filling up on breakfast, ready to rock a day dedicated to one of the ancient wonders of the world. A task at hand and an hour’s drive to Giza on an early morning to beat the tourists is something that turned out to be a record breaker for our lazy-on-vacations family. We did it, anyway. Needless to say, it was worth every second we spent goggling at the massive triangular structures that stood before us, at a loss of words.

Copyright Amisha Chowbey

The Great Pyramid, Giza

There might be reasons that one might not find them “pretty” or “beautiful” in the conventional sense, but the grandeur is something you cannot miss. It’s a wonder that the structure still holds, considering we are yet to figure out for sure how it was built. At that time, the people of Egypt were tinier than we have evolved to be, to imagine them hurling up these huge boulders and building something so improbable is one of the biggest mysteries we are still to crack open! You can read about them, watch countless videos or see numerous pictures, but when you stand before the Great Pyramid looking up to the peak that runs into the sky, there’s a rush of amazement that you seldom experience in a lifetime. I always thought it was smaller, for some reason, and just another extravagant burial chamber. It turned out to be much more than that, etched into an unforgettable memory of disbelief followed with amazement.

Copyright Amisha Chowbey

The Pyramid of Khafre, Giza

Considering that they date back to a little over 4500 years, it still towers above our modern-day structures in calculation and precision. Each piece of cut stone interlocked with one another, resulting in an extremely stable structure the secret to which is based purely on theories. Except for the King’s and the Queen’s chambers, it stands solid, with an estimated 2.3 million blocks of limestone the mass of which is estimated at 5.9 million tonnes. Our chatty guide Nadia from Visit Egypt was a blessing and kept our spirits high with an overload of information throughout the day. The story of the Great Pyramid runs on the lines of King Khufu’s obsession with life after death, like all Pharaohs of the time. He built a gleaming structure for himself and when built, the pyramid’s outer casing was done in polished limestone making it a shiny reflecting surface glittering under the strong Egyptian sun. Through the ages and wear and tear, only an example of the original casing survives at the base of the pyramid (and the tip of the Pyramid of Khafre – Khufu’s son – that is located right next to the Great Pyramid).

Curiosity and greed are the two primary vices that have led to the vandalism of the pyramids throughout Egypt and the Great Pyramid wasn’t spared. The modern-day entrance called the “Robber’s tunnel” is just below the original one, dug out by Abdullah al-Mamun in the mid-8th century. The surface made it impossible to locate the actual entrance to the King’s chamber. It is said that due to the difficulty of breaking through the hard rock, fires were built to heat the rocks, following it up with cold vinegar that weakened the structure, making it easier for battering rams to clear a tunnel. Doing so, a passageway was created to the lowest chamber and the tunnel followed back up to the main entrance. Sounds like a lot of work, but I’m sure the treasure would’ve been worth the efforts!

All in all, there’s only one regret – I wish I’d chosen closer to the winter to visit the pyramids to skip the heat as much as possible. But on the flip side, the swarms of tourists were absent, making it a private affair between us and the Pharaohs.

Copyright Amisha Chowbey





Pictures copyrighted to the author.

Take 5 : Random Art Facts

1. Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest known work is a drawing of the Arno valley in pen and ink, dated August 5th, 1473.


Arno landscape; Leonardo da Vinci; 1473

2. Pablo Picasso’s full name has 23 words in it: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso. In keeping with tradition, named after saints and relatives.

3. Salvador Dali once delivered a lecture wearing a complete diving suit that almost suffocated him by the end of it all. Imagine attending that lecture!

Salvador Dali (in diving suit) with friends.

Salvador Dali (in diving suit) with friends.

4. Before turning to art, Vincent van Gogh aspired to become a pastor. He felt his true calling was in the religious discourses, making him extremely passionate about preaching. He temporarily took up a job as a missionary in the coal-mining district of Borinage, Belgium.

5. There was a movement known as the “fig-leaf campaign” in the Counter Reformation period (after the Renaissance) during which statues were draped with cloth or carved fig leaves over the visible male genitalia. It is also said that a box with fig leaves was kept behind the copy of the David by Michelangelo in the Victoria and Albert museum, for the occasion when women were present. Talk about planned coverage!

Cristo della Minerva; Michelangelo

Cristo della Minerva; Michelangelo

Jack the Dripper feat. Jackson Pollock

Autumn Rhythm (no. 30); Jackson Pollock; 1950

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30); Jackson Pollock; 1950

Art is the most intense mode of individualism the world has known ~ Oscar Wilde

Jackson Pollock is a tough cookie, my love for the complexity with which each canvas is webbed makes it intriguing to attempt an understanding of why he occupies such an important position in the transition of art. His canvases deceive you to believe that they are just dribbles of paint, easy to duplicate. But the sheer size and energy of the paintings make you feel small, it’s these two contradictory emotions that make him stand tall in the realms of American art.

Jackson Pollock at work in East Hampton on Long Island, New York

Jackson Pollock at work in East Hampton on Long Island, New York

In all fairness, it can be intimidating sometimes to stand before an artwork, trying to decipher what it’s all about. Take Jackson Pollock, for instance. I’ve had the most troubled time with his works, struggling to grasp onto something. When you see an image of his work for the first time it strikes you as a farce, someone trying to pass on splashes as an artwork, but the more you see the more it intrigues you – I say this from my own experience! A brilliant artist from the Abstract Expressionist movement of art, complete with the makings of one: intense love, alcoholism and a tragic end. Breaking away from the representational painting, he was a master of the action painting technique, where the physical act of attacking the canvas with colors defines the painting rather than the finished product. His contribution of rebellion and intuitive dripping of paint revolutionized American art and led to a different direction of painting and sculpture. More scope for rebellion always signifies a twist in the plot of upcoming art. Even if you decide to dismiss his art, you can never take away his role in the movement of art and shaping its future.

In the early 20th century, artists preferred to experiment beyond the conventional modes of the creating artworks with the mundane paint and brush. Using the drip painting, provided them with the opportunity to fling paint onto the canvas with sticks and syringes in a swift movement, resulting in a painting that was irreversible and could not be replicated. The idea of not planning or the final product and incorporating the element of time, chance and the subconscious made it a unique experience for the painter. This excitement drove them to crave the aggression that came along with action painting, not knowing what the result of their passion would turn out to be. In this, our very own Jack the Dripper was a genius!

So much about his style of painting. Signing off with a few images of Jackson Pollock’s work, and a video of him at work with a bit of details in their titles. Enjoy!

Displayed in Pollock's first solo exhibition, this painting was the first of the artist to be acquired by the MoMA in New York.

She-Wolf; Jackson Pollock; 1943

Displayed in Pollock’s first solo exhibition, this painting was the first of the artist to be acquired by the MoMA in New York.


No.5, 1948; Jackson Pollock; 1948

It’s the second most expensive painting ever sold, clocking in $140 million in 2006.

Summertime: Number 9A 1948 by Jackson Pollock 1912-1956

Summertime: Number 9A; Jackson Pollock; 1948

The rhythms in Summertime reflect his belief that “The modern artist … is working and expressing an inner world – in other words expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces”. (Tate Modern)

Crossing the Threshold

Art can be a bore, I know. Trudging through galleries and museums as a child, going through hours of faffing bums and pseudo talk as I grew up, there comes a time when you can see through all the noise and crave for the very “essence” of communication. The first question that always pops up with every work of an artist is : Is there anything the she/he is trying to say? Anything at all? 

And that’s just one step short of being addicted!

Judith I, Gustav Klimt, 1901

Judith I, Gustav Klimt, 1901

Curiosity always got the better of me, and the quest to figure out what all the commotion was about. There’s always more to see, always something better or something worse. Along the way, it narrows down to what you like to see, it changes constantly and evolves in taste, till you find a niche that suits your palette. It’s where you pause and think, a smile here or a smirk there. That’s the sort of reaction that art triggers if you give it the right attitude and space to communicate. It might be something as simple as Banksy‘s dynamic street art or Marcel Duchamp‘s hilarious Mona Lisa with a mustache, one might make you think and the other might just get away with a chuckle. Point is, at least it got your attention!

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt, 1908

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt, 1908

 It’s an increasingly small world, jet-setting with high connectivity at all times. Traveling extensively and exploring new cultures, there is always time for a dash of art everywhere. This certainly doesn’t mean that you have to spend hours in museums or take up an entire day, it just means to expose yourself to a burst of color for an hour or two. We had one night in rainy Vienna landed us at the Belvedere Museum, where I saw works of Gustav Klimt for the very first time. Easily bored teenagers, my brother and I were on the brink of throwing a tantrum, when we walked into a roomful of the works of Klimt, two of which still stand vivid in memory, sparkling in a glorious gold aura, mesmerizing us into stunned silence. The Kiss and Judith I, you have to see them shimmering, if you get a chance to, not the bland internet reproductions that you see here!

For days after, all we could talk about was Klimt, reading fun books that we picked at the souvenir shop and making pencil doodles throughout the rest of our travel. Our parents must’ve thought us mad with the inside jokes and sneaky doodle competitions. Subconsciously, our career paths altered, my brother went on to become an artist (highly inspired by Klimt) and I turned to capturing visual imagery in words and its understanding. Even if it doesn’t make a life changing impact, it’s worth a visual treat. There’s nothing I can call “bad art”, it’s just relative to personal taste.

Art is not a bore, it can be if you let it. Be the person to explore something you don’t necessarily “understand”, the one who visits museums. Cross the threshold and leave the world behind, they will take jabs at you anyway. Art, on the other hand will nod in peaceful acceptance. Be curious.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. ~ Pablo Picasso