Interpreting Art

Art can — and should — be more than just a pretty picture you hang on your wall to pull the colors in your curtains and couch together. It can inspire you to create, shake up your ways of thinking and quite literally change your brain function. But in order for all that to happen, you have to spend some time with your art. Here’s one way to explore your favorite piece of artwork like an expert.


German art historian Erwin Panofsky suggested a three-level approach to interpreting iconography in a piece of art. The Panofsky method is an easy-to-understand concept that can be as simple or complex as you like. He called his levels primary, secondary and intrinsic. The primary level involves simply looking at a piece. The secondary level involves interpreting the elements of a piece. The intrinsic level involves putting it all in context.


At the primary level, consider your immediate reaction to a piece of art. How do you feel when you look at it? Do you like or dislike it? Do any emotions rise to the surface? Next see if you can easily figure out the subject of the work. What is it that you’re looking at in this piece? Then take in the physical details of the piece. Is it a photograph or a painting? What materials did the artist use to create it? What colors did the artist use? Examine the scale of the piece. Once you’ve taken in all the details, it’s time to move to the secondary level.


At the secondary level, put together all the details you observed in the first level to make an initial interpretation of the art. What do all the details, when put together, say to you? What message was the artist trying to send? How might other people interpret this work? Would someone from another culture interpret it differently than you did?


At the intrinsic level, you can do a little research, or simply rely on your own knowledge. Think about the artist who created the work. What do you know about their lifestyle? Where and when did they live? What was going on in the world when they created the work? What social issues were important to them? What do you know about other artists who lived at the same time or other artworks created in the same time period? How do the pieces compare?


Now armed with the information gleaned in the intrinsic level, go back to your initial interpretation and see if it changed once the piece was placed in context.


This exercise can be a simple one, or it can go on for years. Art historians regularly go through this process many times as they learn about an artwork or an artist and the time period in which they lived. As you add details to your knowledge, your interpretation of a particular piece of work might evolve. Changes in your own life or social issues in your community coming to the forefront can further force your perspective to evolve.


By applying this three-step method to exploring a work of art, it becomes much more than a pretty picture to fill a blank wall. It becomes an exciting, ever-evolving and meaningful story in your home.