Sign in

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of How To Read Paintings:

Artworks that opened up new ways of experiencing the world

IKB 191 (1962), monochromatic painting by Yves Klein. Source Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes a painting or a sculpture breaks through your conscious mind and leaves an impression that last for years, perhaps even a lifetime. I’ve chosen five paintings that had that effect on me and ultimately changed the way I look at art. Each painting has its own special qualities, but what they all have in common is that they opened my eyes to what art can be: not simply pictures but new possible ways of experiencing the world.

Twittering Machine by Paul Klee (1922)

The creative outpouring of Weimar Germany

Detail of ‘Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden’ (1927), by Otto Dix. Musuem of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Source Wikiart

Germany of the 1920s was an enormously creative and liberalised time, no more so than in its capital, Berlin. It was a city of bright lights and bustling streets, of decadent pleasure-spots and fervent nightlife.

During the 1920s, artists adopted new forms of painting and performance art. Nightclubs transformed into cabaret theatres and filmmakers produced some of the most revolutionary films in movie history.

It was a fertile moment in European culture, one made all the more fleeting by the circumstances that followed it. As the 1920s progressed, culminating in the economic depression of 1929, the Weimar Republic — as…

The influence of Japanese ukiyo-e prints on European artists

Hakone (1833–34) from the The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō series by Hiroshige. Source Wikimedia Commons

In the winter of 1886 to ’87, Vincent van Gogh bought several hundred Japanese prints which he came across in the attic of an art dealer in Paris.

Japan held magical, mystical significance for Van Gogh, despite having never visited the country. The prints he bought gave him a window onto a culture he idealised.

Japanese woodblock prints had a unique appeal for a generation of 19th European artists. Attracted by the bright colours and clear forms, vivid contrasts and asymmetrical compositions, artists like Van Gogh, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec were keen collectors of this imported art form.

For Van Gogh…

The ineffable perfection of a View of Delft

View of Delft (c.1661) by Johannes Vermeer. Mauritshuis museum, The Hague, Netherlands. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer is best known for his superbly arranged interior scenes. But occasionally the artist would paint outdoor subjects too. One such painting, titled View of Delft, may well be one of the best paintings he made during his lifetime.

I must admit to having an especially strong fondness for this work. There’s no particular reason for it except that I find the painting to be utterly beguiling in its simplicity, composition and exquisite treatment of light and atmosphere.

Take a moment to look at the painting. It is roughly square, with the lower half of the…

Great works by the master of abstract painting

Composition VI (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in the winter of 1866. His painting career would begin relatively late in life: his decision to become an artist came at the age of 30 after he’d originally studied Law and Economics, and trained as a lawyer.

And yet this was no overnight transformation. Kandinsky’s artistic sentiment had been stirring for many years. He grew up listening to Russian and German fairy tales that kindled his imagination, and even as a child was acutely aware of his heightened sensitivity to colour. …

Benefits of the slow approach

Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

Sometime ago, about 15 years, I began writing a novel. How long does it take to write such a thing? I imagined about six months, or maybe a year, if you include the reworking, the re-reading, and whatever else goes into making something “good enough”.

At the time, the draft I produced seemed to me to be fully-formed, but when I returned to it after a few weeks, I realised that it was just a little short of perfection. So I swapped some chapters around, renamed some of the characters and changed the story ending. …

A remarkable painting depicting superhuman strength stolen by a haircut

Samson and Delilah (1609–1610) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The painting shows a remarkable scene: a man has fallen asleep on a woman’s lap. They are both partially unclothed. Beside them are two figures, one holding a candle to illuminate the lovers, the other taking a pair of scissors to the sleeping man’s hair.

In the background, a troop of soldiers pause at a doorway before entering. They appear to be waiting for something, a sign perhaps, or a signal that “the deed is done.”

This large painting, by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens — the canvas measures 185 x 205 cm — captures the moment when the…

Find a place to sit and learn to look with fresh eyes

Photo by Eri Pançi on Unsplash

Don’t worry about not knowing enough

In the grand halls of an art gallery, we can all sometimes feel confined by our own lack of knowledge.

Now, I’m not one of those people who says your reading of a work of art can never be wrong. Some artworks are made up of a precise collection of signs and symbols that offer a complex and subtle message. Armed with information about that, your engagement with the work is bound to be richer for it.

But there is also a tremendous advantage in seeing a work of art with fresh, untutored eyes, where the textbooks have not yet…

Uncovering the layers of a city

Chain Bridge in St. Petersburg (1903) by Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva. Image source Wikiart.

It’s hard to walk through any city and to not wonder “What was here before?”

That’s what I like about cities, the sense of things having been built on top of other things. Cities claim space not only by spreading over an area of land but also by superimposing themselves upon it over and over again.

Cities tend to be restless like that. There is always a new project on the horizon, a new demolition, along with a new construction to take its place. The same is true for ideas as much as for buildings. …

Christopher P Jones

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store