Yayoi Kusama to Gian Lorenzo Bernini: How To Appreciate Art

For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in art. I used to love going to art galleries as a kid and a young teen, and drawing and painting was the earliest of my creative outlets; I always knew that the only way I could be happy in later life was if I was doing something creative, and so far my younger self has been (almost, there are other things I want to do too) 100% right. While there are a few galleries in London and Los Angeles I like to frequent just to pass a free day (the Saatchi Gallery, the Tate Modern, the (British) National Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art among them), what I especially enjoy are special editions and retrospective exhibitions on special themes or artists that I’m especially interested in. This got me thinking; not everyone loves wandering around galleries as much as I do, and if you’ve never really learnt how to appreciate art, I don’t blame you, but special retrospectives on topics that interest you may prove an excellent way into the world of art. I designed this post to give those of you who are sceptical about art, to find an area they might be interested in. A few tasters if you will, of things I have seen and/ or studied which have have appeal outside the world of art and you don’t have to have studied art or art history like me to enjoy.


Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Fireflies on the Water, 2002

I first discovered the work of Yayoi Kusama while I was studying art on Gala Darling’s blog in 2009, and the mental patient’s (yes, she lives in an institution) use of colour, light, pattern and shape has captivated me ever since. Many of you may recognise her geometric spot patterns from last years collaboration with Louis Vuitton where she not only took over their classic leatherwear, but installation spaces usually right on the storefronts of the brands flagship stores. I finally had the chance to vist one of her exhibitions when they were showing her work at the Tate Modern in Spring last year. I was really excited to see the show, but I could tell Kathryn was reluctant when I dragged her along; but I know she enjoyed it as much as I did, because you don’t have to know about the processes of things such as gold leaf overlay and medieval iconography (two things I know a lot about thanks to an Art History exam focus on the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery one year) to enjoy Kusama’s very visual work. On our way to the gallery Kathryn and I actually ran into Kristabel on Southbank, and her blog post on and photos of the exhibition are really worth a look at. Kusama is pictured above seated in one of her ‘Infinity Rooms’, my favourite part of the exhibition which she has in most places she shows; a room full of tiny lights and mirrors you walk through that create the impression that they go on for infinity.

Gerrit van Honthorst, (b. 1592) The Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1625)

I’ve just finished what will probably be the last Art History course I’ll every take, on 16th and 17th century Dutch Art at UCLA. I hated it, and I really ought to have left my studies at Augustan era Roman sculpture. Anyway, I think the moral of this story is is not to write something off because you’ve had a bad experience with it. I came across this painting of The Denial of Saint Peter by Dutch painter of the period I’ve just finished studying, Gerrit van Honthorst in January at LACMA as part of the Carravagio show. I don’t care much for the details or the subject matter in this painting, or the use of colour. What made me stand in front of the painting for longer than any other piece in the gallery that morning was the use of light in the picture. The way it highlights so much dark and barely discernible space on the canvas. Sometimes there might just be some small detail of a piece of artwork you may not otherwise have been interested in that has you absolutely captivated.

Paul Delaroche (b.1797), The Execution Of Lady Jane Grey (1833)

If you’ve ever been in the East Wing of the National Gallery in London and caught sight of a teenaged girl sitting in front of this painting and gazing for hours at this painting, that would have been me. This is The Execution Of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche and it is one of my all time favourite paintings. It is a fantastic piece of art, but it does not have any of the bells and whistles that some of the other pieces I have included in this post have. However, the reason why I love it so much and why I am so enraptured by it, is a great way to illustrate another way into appreciating pieces of artwork. Yes the rendering of the scene is magnificent; the detailing of the straw beneath the block and the fur on her helpers cloak is amazing, the the use of light in this painting is truly fantastic, but I love this painting because I love the story behind it. I’m a total 16th century history junkie, and the tragic tale of Lady Jane Grey, England’s 9 days Queen is one I am almost fascinated with as the rise and fall of Anne Bolyen. One way into learning about and appreciating art, is to focus on paintings that depict object or scenes (modern or historical) that you already have a strong interest in. 

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (b.1598) Rapto de Proserpina (The Rape of Persephone, 1621-22)

Okay, so while I appreciate that paintings may not be everyones cup of tea (in the same way while I personally adore Ancient Greek pottery I know everyone else rolls their eyes at me every time we stumble upon that particular part of the British Museum), so I thought I’d include one of my favourite sculptures by one of my favourite sculptors; Rapto de Proserpina (The Rape of Persephone) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. You don’t have to have any interest in art at all, and not really much knowledge of the process of sculpture past knowing that marble is hard and it does crack and break, to be blown away by the sheer skill, mastery and detail of this sculpture which is considered one of the best demonstrations of technique in the Western world. 

My favourite, and one of the most famous close ups in Italian art.

Just look at how Hades’ fingers press into Persephone’s flesh, how realistic the indentations in her thigh are, as well as the curves and shape of her flesh. Then remind yourself that Bernini has carved this out of a solid block of marble. If you did not know that this above close up was a photograph of a sculpture, you’d have to think it was a painting because of how realistic the rendering is. I really want to see this piece in, well, the flesh.

Londoners, if you’ve never been to The National Gallery, The Tate Modern, The Saatchi Gallery, The V&A, Angelenos if you’ve never been to LACMA or to the Getty, The Norton Simon or The Huntington, take this weekend out to do so and find something that you like to look at.