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!



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)