Why do artists create series? This question, while problematic and a bit slippery, is an important one. Problematic and slippery, because traditionally, artist intention is difficult to argue. Most artists, especially in the more distant past, did not leave much documentation on the purposes and ideas of their own art. Therefore, we can only speculate about an artist’s reasons for making their art in the way they did.
And speculation, in the study of art, is not considered scholarly support. Some artists did, in fact, leave us some information about their work, their process, and their ideas about their own work. We just have to be careful in making generalizations about the reasons WHY artists create the art they do. With that in mind, I’d like to consider a couple of examples.
The first is an artist I feel I can speak about in a fairly knowledgeable way: Francisco Goya. Goya created four major print series: Los Caprichos, Tauromaquia, Los Desastres de la Guerra, and Los Disparates. In the latter part of his life, he also made a series of satirical (kind of his thing) yet very dark (both in subject and in paint application) paintings called The Black Paintings.
His four print series were generally thematic in organization without strict adherence to a specific narrative or timeline, for the most part (Los Desastres is organized into three sections: the war, the famine (which did come after the war), followed by several satirical and fantastical images). In Goya’s early years of studying at The Academy in Madrid, he created many etchings, using Diego Velazquez’s work as his model. This was pretty traditional for Academic study in the fine arts, so it naturally would have been a part of the curriculum (and even, in most cases, stands true today as well), but it’s possible that Goya realized his enjoyment of making prints, which could explain why he made so many.
However, here’s where artist’s intention gets slippery: I don’t have definitive evidence of this correlation, so it’s just plausible, not certain. One of the benefits of print is that it is much less expensive than painting, so Goya was free to create the prints without a commission. Painting, however, especially oils, required a commission in order to pay for the artist’s supplies and his time. But with commissions come a lack of control and agency for the artist, so he was more free to choose the subject matter, style, and mode of representation in the cheaper (and much more numerous) prints. In fact, he took so much personal freedom with Los Caprichos, that it secured himself a seat before the Inquisition. Yikes!
Using Goya as a sort of a case study, there are a couple possible reasons for an artist to create in series: to explore a theme or subject through several images, depending on the medium, to inexpensively make a larger number of works, to tell a narrative or story, or a combination thereof.
The second example I’ll use is much more widely recognized, but honestly, one I’m not as knowledgeable about, so I’ll keep my discussion rather brief: Andy Warhol. In fact, Ben (the hubs) and I celebrated our 7 year anniversary this week, and one of our stops on our weekend celebration was the Fralin Gallery at UVA. There, they were having an exhibition on Warhol, and it was cool to see some of his works in person, including some that I hadn’t seen before.
Warhol’s basic premise is image replication, particularly images from popular culture. His art was part of a larger movement during that time called Pop Art, and several other artists during this period also used both image replication and motifs from pop culture (if you’re interested, check out Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg). When Warhol created a series, generally, it was a copying of the very same image over and over.
Or, he would use the same image as an outline, then screen print variations of color over the outline.
The latter was his more frequently used method, though the Campbell’s cans certainly became iconic as well. Warhol used the notion of a series to create a group of images that are either practically exact copies, or the same image replicated with changes in his use of color. Pop art, more broadly was a commentary on the commodification of products and even people.
Particularly over the last several years, I have been very interested in this idea of the series, why artists create works in series, and how we process these groupings of art. Some artists might put together a series because they would like to create several images about the same idea or theme. It is in our created nature to sort and desire order, not only in the things we make, but also in the things we observe. Other artists might make a series because they want to tell a story, so they make pieces of art that can be arranged in a narrative sequence. This is also in tune with the way we’re created: telling and hearing (or seeing) stories is part of the way we process information and circumstances. The ways we use our senses to receive cues about our surroundings, then impose order on our observations, are incredibly complicated, and speak to both the complex and creative nature of our God.
July 28, 2016