Wiki Art History

15 May 2012


The desire to make knowledge about historical processes more accessible to a larger audience is, in fact, a very old one. Dating as far back as the days of the Renaissance, a number of approaches to this endeavor have employed methods from visualization, providing virtual observation points, “quick” gaze spots, on historical developments that often took place over centuries. Some examples for such visualizations are timelines, genealogical trees and chronological maps – Interested people can have a look at this great book about the topic.

Within the scope of the VSEM project, my personal fascination with this topic emerged from a very interesting lecture about Renaissance art history that I attended at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. This lecture, mainly targeted at art students, tries to introduce art history from the perspective of that time’s artists themselves, giving insight into their lives or more specifically, insight into their initial struggle of finding a master to work for, their everyday struggle for finding patrons and clients, their competition with their peers. Learning to see art historical processes from this perspective quickly revealed a network of people driving these processes, consisting of artists, cardinals, popes, aristocrats, kings, sitters, models and many more persons with various roles.

I am a highly visual person. When I have to learn something new, I usually first try to make a sketch of the structure of the knowledge that I want (or have to ;-) ) to study. This usually results in diagrams outlining the material, giving it some structured form that makes it easier for me to grasp. Well, at least that’s my very personal approach to learning ;-) . In the special case of attending a lecture about art history as seen through the eyes of its very actors, it was almost obvious to start sketching their individual relationships in form of a graph, or, as it is widely called these days, as a social network.


The resulting sketch really helped me with understanding the interconnections of the various historical actors involved, and especially provided interesting insight into the relationships between artists and their patrons and the respective works that emerged out of these ties. Thus, unlikely to be the first person to have this idea, I started looking for literature covering approaches to visualize art history. This revealed a long tradition of work trying to fulfill this goal:

Starting in the early 19th century, which also marks the beginning of art history as a discipline, a number of artist genealogies were established, quite similar to the genealogy trees as they were known from royal houses, for example. The difference to family genealogies was, however, that the majority of the depicted relationships were not of a “genetic” origin, but from various influential ties between individual artists, as, for example, teacher/student relationships, friendships, etc.. By visualizing such artistic ancestry, artists and scholars tried to depict a progression of artistic schools. As with family trees, however, such genealogies also served to distinguish such artistic “collectives” from each other, turning the decision about who to include into a particular genealogy, and who not, into a potentially political one. The tradition of creating genealogies of art was, of course, carried over to the 20th century. A very well known example for visualization of artistic developments is the diagram about Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) by Alfred Barr, founder and first director of the MoMA. An interactive version of this diagram can be found here. The notable difference to a “classical” genealogy is, that its “actors” are now various artistic movements instead of individuals. This is interesting, as it reflects a shift away from the 19th century view of artists being individual geniuses to a more collective understanding of artistic activity. This “model” of the development of modern art became very influential, but was also criticized for depicting american abstract art as the endpoint of the evolution of modern art, leaving little room for developments that simultaneously took place in other places of the (western) world.

Even after this very brief introduction, one might quickly see that creating visualizations of artistic developments include decisions on various levels, from strictly formal considerations regarding artworks, over their respective contents to the persons of the artists themselves, their nationalities, their underlying ideologies, beliefs and political backgrounds, not to mention the huge variety of viewpoints of the respective scholars that study such developments – I am personally just at the beginning of exploring this vast terrain by myself. As a starting point for interested readers, this book gives a very interesting (german) introduction to the topic.

Thus, my initial intention to sketch relationships between art historical actors in order to learn about art history turned out to be a well established desire that is almost as old as the discipline itself. What a beautiful insight :-) .

Most of the historic approaches have, however, one thing in common: They have mainly been created by individual or small groups of scholars or artists, drawing on their own expertise and point of view. This, of course, might introduce cultural bias into the resulting visualizations. Being a computer scientist, this immediately raised the question in me, whether such art historical relationships could be visualized on a large scale, using existing data sources available on the Web that have been created by a huge number of people, thus less reflecting individual viewpoints but rather a collective perception of the process called art history.

A first step towards this goal is described in the paper “Art History on Wikipedia, a Macroscopic Observation“, which is about to be presented at this year’s WebSci conference.

From now on, the website will provide information on the progress of the project, stay tuned !

comments powered by Disqus

About Me

I am a computer scientist interested in data visualization and digital cultural heritage.

Recent Posts