Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Introductions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso & More

Can great art be explained? Isn’t it a lit­tle like explain­ing a joke? Yet this can be worth­while when the joke is in a for­eign lan­guage or an unfa­mil­iar idiom, a long-for­got­ten dialect or an alien idi­olect. Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, the most com­mon response to Mark Rothko’s mono­chro­mat­ic rec­tan­gles: “I don’t get it.”

Will per­plexed view­ers bet­ter under­stand Rothko’s Sea­gram murals when they learn that “he was found in a pool of blood six by eight feet wide, rough­ly the size of one of his paint­ings,” as James Payne writes, hours after he sent the nine can­vass­es to the Tate Mod­ern gallery in Lon­don in 1970? “His sui­cide would change every­thing and shape the way we respond to his work,” adding a dark­er edge to com­ments of his like “I’m inter­est­ed only in express­ing basic human emo­tions, tragedy, ecsta­sy, doom and so on.”

Last sum­mer, Payne launched his series Great Art Explained in Fif­teen Min­utes, “a bril­liant new addi­tion to YouTube art his­to­ry chan­nels,” Forbes enthused — “enter­tain­ing and infor­ma­tive short films [that] present a fresh look at famil­iar art­works.” There’s much more to Rothko than his trag­ic death at 66. We learn of his love for Mozart, a com­pos­er who was “always smil­ing through his tears,” the painter said.

An artist who seems to embody the oppo­site of Rothko’s trou­bled pas­sion, Andy Warhol gets an explain­er, above, in which Payne takes on the artist’s Mar­i­lyn Dip­tych. He opens with 30 sec­onds of audio from an inter­view with Warhol, who gives char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly dis­in­ter­est­ed yes or no respons­es: “Andy, do you think that Pop Art has reached the point where it’s becom­ing rep­e­ti­tious now?” “Uh, yes.”

Pop Art’s rep­e­ti­tions were the point. Warhol ele­vat­ed the unre­mark­able mass prod­uct to the lev­el of high art, becom­ing the biggest-sell­ing artist in the world. Payne draws a par­al­lel between Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s trans­for­ma­tion from “abused fos­ter child from the rur­al mid­west” to Hol­ly­wood roy­al­ty, and Warhol’s move from a shy, sick­ly child of immi­grants to an inter­na­tion­al art star.

Even if Payne is explain­ing things you already knew about famous art­works like Monet’s Water Lilies, you’ll still enjoy his pre­sen­ta­tion, with its clever edit­ing and com­pelling nar­ra­tion. “I want to present art in a jar­gon free, enter­tain­ing, clear and con­cise way,” he writes. Each video cov­ers one famous art­work, not all of them mod­ern. (We recent­ly fea­tured Payne’s take on Hierony­mus Bosch’s Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights.)

Payne’s work as an art con­sul­tant, guide, “and art and film writer,” Forbes writes, “make him the ide­al pre­sen­ter of this excel­lent new art his­to­ry series.” Crav­ing some con­text on your lunch break? Head over the Great Art Explained in Fif­teen Min­utes and catch a few excel­lent mini-art his­to­ry lec­tures, each one 15 min­utes or less, for free.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

60-Sec­ond Intro­duc­tions to 12 Ground­break­ing Artists: Matisse, Dalí, Duchamp, Hop­per, Pol­lock, Rothko & More

An Intro­duc­tion to 100 Impor­tant Paint­ings with Videos Cre­at­ed by Smarthis­to­ry

Free Course: An Intro­duc­tion to the Art of the Ital­ian Renais­sance

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ama Nkrumah Mensah-Wilson says:

    This is more of a ques­tion than a com­ment, real­ly. Where are the female artists? Don’t get me wrong, I love the con­cept of art explained in 15 min­utes which is why I want more. Would you do a show on Artemisia Gen­tileschi, Mary Cas­satt, or Elis­a­beth Vigée Le Brun? How about Geor­gia O’Keefe, Rosa Bon­heur, or Amy Sher­ald? And more artists of col­or like Charles Hen­ry Alston, Beau­ford Delaney, Elba Light­foot, Robert S. Dun­can­son, or Hen­ry O. Tan­ner?

    Watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to the show on Youtube has giv­en me a greater appre­ci­a­tion of artisits I pre­vi­ous­ly did­n’t under­stand (Picas­so) and deep­ened my appre­ci­a­tion for artists I have always loved (Rodin and Monte). It would be nice to con­tin­ue my art his­to­ry jour­ney with the show… learn­ing more about my favorites and dis­cov­er­ing new favorites.

    Thank you,
    Ama Men­sah-Wil­son

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