Charlotte Mullins is one of the UK’s most respected art critics, writers and broadcasters. She was formerly the arts editor of the Independent on Sunday, the editor of Art Review, the V&A Magazine, Art Quarterly and is the newly appointed art critic for Country Life.
In her new book, A Little History of Art, Charlotte takes us on a thrilling journey through 100,000 years of art, from the origins of mark-making to art’s central role in culture today on subjects such as climate change and human rights. She was keen to make sure that her research included both renowned and overlooked artists from around the world, and she expands the story of art to present a more inclusive timeline. Mullins introduces readers to the Terracotta Army and Nok sculptures, Renaissance artists such as Giotto and Michelangelo, trailblazers including Käthe Kollwitz, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, and contemporary artists who create art as resistance, such as Ai Weiwei and Shirin Neshat. She also restores forgotten artists such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Guan Daosheng and Jacob Lawrence, travelling to the Niger valley, Peru, Java, Rapa Nui and Australia, alongside Western artists, to broaden our understanding of what art is and should be.
In this interview, I speak to Charlotte Mullins about how art shaped our society, how it shapes our lives, and how the history of art teaches us how to see the world, and who we are today.
Q: Why does art matter?
[Charlotte Mullins]: Art is hardwired into our DNA; we’ve been making it for at least 50,000 years. Art can be anything from small sketches to giant, breathtakingly complex works like the Sistine Chapel. Art is about expression; it goes beyond words. It’s almost magic – it has a mysterious power over us when we look at it and connect to it. Art connects directly with our emotions; it can move us and help us understand our place in the world.
Art, literally is part of who we are.
Q: How can the earliest expressions of art help us understand who we are?
[Charlotte Mullins]: Some of the earliest examples of art are hand-prints from caves, dating back 45-50,000 years. The paint was blown through a hollow bird-bone, over a hand on a wall. In some cases, you can see (from the shape of the hands) that one person was repeatedly using their hand over different parts of the wall – so it wasn’t just done once. It was almost like a sign like they were saying this is my mark, this is who I am.
As an art historian, I’m more interested in the period after figurative art emerged. In 2021, the oldest cave art we’ve found to date was discovered in Indonesia. Three wild pigs, painted onto a wall, some 45,000 years ago. To give this some perspective- we think of Tutankhamun as being ancient, but his reign was only 5,000 years ago. Until recently, we didn’t think this kind of art was possible in prehistoric society. In Spain, the Altamira caves contain beautiful depictions of bison, dating back some 36,000 years. These finds are a long way back in our history and re-write who we think we are now, and who we were in prehistoric society.
Q: Why was the renaissance so important?
[Charlotte Mullins]: To understand the renaissance, we have to go back to ancient Greece. It was one of our first functioning democracies and a place where art flourished. There was patronage, money, and competition together with a desire to show people as they really were. If you think of ancient Egyptian sculptures – they didn’t really show people as they looked, but Greek sculptures depicted humans as they are, as they aspired to be. Men in Greek sculpture were muscly and ripped, and Women looked like supermodels. These sculptures were stolen or bought by the Romans and lost for a thousand years. It was in the early renaissance that these sculptures started to be found again. This coupled with an interest in humanism, a form of philosophy which gave the notion of a good life now, not just in heaven. Much more renaissance art survives today than Greek, and that creates a continuing dialogue. Think of Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper; the first depiction of this subject, which was painted by an Italian nun in the 16th century.
The renaissance spanned 200 years but was at the time when academies were being founded across Europe. It became a pinnacle period of great art, and its’ status was pretty-much unquestioned until the mid-19th century. All of Europe’s art after the renaissance was trying to mirror its image.
Q: How did international influence enter art?
[Charlotte Mullins]: There are interesting examples of cross-cultural dialogue in art. Think of someone like Bellini, an artist of the renaissance who moves from Venice to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to learn from the Persian artists. Think of the Portuguese, who, as they expanded across the coast of West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, went to the state of Benin (now in Nigeria), witnessed artists carving elaborate salt cellars, and quickly added Portuguese elements to these art pieces, before selling them back home. The collection we now know as the Benin Bronzes has a record of their King, Oba, and alongside him are Portuguese figures. These Portuguese sailors made it all the way to Japan. I love the Nanbanjin screens of that period which rightly identify the Europeans as barbarians from the south, and depict them with their baggy trousers (designed to keep mosquitos away). Artists have always been part of networks; Albrecht Dürer exchanged drawings with Raphael and collected miniatures by the teenage sensation Susanna Horenbout. He travelled from Germany to the Netherlands , Venice and beyond. He witnessed Moctezumas’ Treasure being brought back by Cortez on its’ European tour. Art history is more connected than we have believed.
Q: How much art has been destroyed for political reasons?
[Charlotte Mullins]: A huge amount of our art history has been destroyed from the iconoclasm of the medieval and renaissance periods through to the destruction of art and architecture by the Taliban (including the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas some 20 years ago). Hitler famously held a degenerate art exhibition of art which was ‘cleansed’ from German institutions.
The study of art history is quite a new discipline, and historically it was a discipline led by white men. EH Gombrichs’ The Story of Art is one of the best-selling art books in history, and has sold more than 8 million copies. In the 400 pages of this seminal text, there is only one female artist. History is the story of those who wrote it… I have been trying very hard to add people back into the history of art who should have been there all along. Phenomenal artists like Sofonisba Anguissola, worked for the King of Spain (Philip II). She influenced Caravaggio, corresponded with Michelangelo, and was sought out by many of the greatest artists in history. I see this like Pompeii, these artists exist, but they’re covered in ash. We must excavate them.
Q: Does art contribute to our well-being?
[Charlotte Mullins]: Whether it’s doodling with a pencil, or painting, the practice of art – in any shape or form – is hugely liberating and gets us into the sense, and state, of flow. Cultural tourism is increasing too, and millions of people visit galleries and museums. Art helps us navigate our place in the world, and offers us a place of stillness – much needed in today’s digital world with epic scrolling.
Standing in front of a Cezanne landscape transports you somewhere; it’s just beautiful. People may not associate going to a gallery with mental health, but they know that they’ll feel better for the experience.
Q: Can art change the course of society?
[Charlotte Mullins]: In 1751, William Hogarth published a couple of prints called Gin Lane and Beer Street; these prints changed the gin laws in the UK. Gin had come from the Netherlands several years earlier, and there was an epidemic in London of this alcoholic beverage. Hogarth and his friend Henry Fielding campaigned to have the gin laws changed to save lives. The principle of Gin Lane is that people are dying all over the street, while only the pawnbroker is having a good time. Beer Street is jolly, saucy, patriotic – and the pawnbroker is derelict. He used his art to affect change.
We see the same today. Artists like Ai WeiWei are exiled from their country (in his case, China) for creating art that prods at the government. At one point, Ai was in solitary confinement for 3 months for creating a piece about the government’s handling of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. 90,000 people died, including 5,000 schoolchildren. These deaths are attributed to the shoddy building of schools to corruption. He now lives in Europe and his work continues, influencing the West’ view of China. Artists like Olafur Eliasson, Ackroyd & Harvey are creating works that are stimulating discussion on climate change. Eliasson’s Ice Watch was particularly powerful. Artists really do have a significant impact on our lives.
Today, Putin is purposefully stealing art from Ukrainian galleries. Over 2,000 works have gone. He’s not stealing European masterpieces, he’s stealing specifically Ukrainian and Russian works to undermine Ukrainian identity. The artists of Ukraine are fighting back – and making art in the most horrific circumstances, showing that freedom and peace are important. If we look back at Picassos’ Guernica from 1937, we see that artists have often made anti-war sentiments. In his case, it was against General Franco and the civil war that was going on in Spain.
Q: What would our world be, without art?
[Charlotte Mullins]: Without art, I’m not sure writing would even exist. How would we have the dexterity to make drawings and make words otherwise? How dull would our world be without art? Every day, we walk past murals, sculptures, graffiti, and art in advertising. Sometimes we notice, sometimes we don’t, but that artistic instinct is hard-wired into us.
Art is an international language. In Beyonce & Jay-Z’s video apeshit, they filmed in the Louvre, and in the year that followed, attendance went up 25%. Through their art, they showed the art of the Louvre in a different way – and created a trail showing black subjects in art through history. It was just incredible.
With art, you can create connections you never knew you had. You might look at a Greek vase and the relationship between two figures on it who are playing, and it may trigger something in your mind. It’s time travel. There are works like Frida Kahlo’s portraits which show hurt, and pain in a way we can all recognize and which can bring tears today.
Art deals with things beyond words.