Some art historians dedicate their entire careers, and indeed lives, to the work of a single artist. But what about those of us who only have a minute to spare? Addressing the demand for the briefest possible primers on the creators of important art, paintings and otherwise, of the past century or so, the Royal Academy of Arts' Painters in 60 Seconds series has published twelve episodes so far. Of those informationally dense videos, you see here the introductions to Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.
Though short, these crash courses do find their way beyond the very basics. "There's more to Dalí," says the Royal Academy of the Arts' Artistic Director Tim Marlow, than "skillfully rendered fever dreams of sex and decay.
He painted one of the twentieth century's great crucifixions, but it's more about physics than religion, and he was as influenced by philosophy as he was by Sigmund Freud." Duchamp's unorthodox and influential ideas "came together in one of the most ambitious works of the 20th century, The Large Glass, an endlessly analyzed work of machine-age erotic symbolism, science, alchemy, and then some."
In the seemingly more staid Depression-era work of Edward Hopper, Marlow points to "a profound contemplation of the world around us. Hopper slows down time and captures a moment of stillness in a frantic world," painted in a time of "deep national self-examination about the very idea of Americanness." Hopper painted the famous Nighthawks in 1942; the next year, and surely on the very other end of some kind of artistic spectrum, Hopper's countryman and near-contemporary Jackson Pollock painted Mural, which shows "the young Pollock working through Picasso, continuing to fracture the architecture of cubism" while "at the same time taking on the lessons of the Mexican muralists like Siqueiros and Orozco."
Yet Mural also "starts to proclaim an originality that is all Pollock's," opening the gateway into his heroic (and well-known) "drip period." Rothko, practicing an equally distinctive but entirely different kind of abstraction, ended up producing "some of the most moving paintings in all of the 20th century: saturated stains of color." Making reference to classical architecture — going back, even, to Stonehenge — his work becomes "a kind of threshold into which you, the viewer, project yourself," but its soft edges also give it a sense of "breathing, pulsating, and sometimes, of dying."
If you happen to have more than a minute available, how could you resist digging a bit deeper into the life and work of an artist like that? Or perhaps you'd prefer to get introduced to another: Henri Matisse or Grant Wood, say, or Kazimir Malevich or Joan Mitchell. You may just find one about whom you want to spend the rest of your years learning.
See all videos, including new ones down the road, at the Painters in 60 Seconds series playlist.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.