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The Making of a Masterpiece: What Renders an Artwork Unforgettable?

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, 1993-2000

In the year 2013, at Christie’s, New York, the epicentre of the art world, Jeff Koons sent out waves, unsettling both art enthusiasts, and the general public. With his orange ‘Balloon Dog’ selling for a whopping $58.4 million, the sculptor had established a record price for any living artist. He brought down the house. Pockets of air, packed in unconventional but sturdy, stainless steel, the work outraged a lot of critics who considered the piece kitschy. Not so much those who were ardently vying for it at the auction.

So, how does one decide the excellence of work, the perception of which is highly subjective? What are the universal parameters on which both art connoisseurs and pop culture enthusiasts agree to declare a certain piece of art a masterpiece?

What is Art?

But more importantly, what is even the meaning of art for humanity as a whole? At a personal level it may be something that either appeals to one's aesthetic or stirs one's emotions deeply. On a social level, I gather, of all things with ephemeral and transient significance, I can most certainly say, that it is a voice. It is the voice which sounds the truth of a civilization.

Just as a song needs to be sung in perfect pitch and scale, the canvas too must be deliberated upon with equal fervour. A rendering of colors is akin to the setting of mood in music, as in a bubbly ballad, a somber elegy or a mournful dirge.

The composition itself imparts it a genre. It can be as horrifyingly loud as Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ or as wondrously romantic as Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’. Music and visual art are sisters, in essence, very much the same.

There is one difference however, in that any musical recital is temporal, a travel through time whereas visual art is one through space. Together, modern day motion picture is a great amalgamation of these two and other performance arts. We’re lucky to be alive at a time when art is not so strictly confined to religious and ecclesiastical themes.

Artists are no longer blasphemous witches to be burnt at stake, yet censorship prevails in many countries Maybe someday it is accepted beyond the reign of authority, neither will it be an instrument of rebellion and shock, something most prodigious works have historically done. They shake up and stir the world. We have all heard the story of Michelangelo’s dissent which led him to paint a picture of the repugnant bishop in the bowels of hell. Primarily a petulant act of rebellion, it surely enunciates the condition of artists in the yesteryears.

Perhaps one of the most difficult questions today is what we understand of and accept as art.

What qualifies a piece as a legitimate work of art?

This debate is similar to the historic clash of the literary titans, George Bernard Shaw and his contemporary, Oscar Wilde. It is a well known fact, that G.B. Shaw, the author of plays such as ‘Man and Superman’, and ‘Arms and the Race’ often wrote with the incentive of making a statement. The work had a clear purpose. A message cleverly crafted for the 19th and 20th century England. His plays are hence considered didactic because they are a commentary on the values of late Victorian and Modern societies.

A scene from the screen play adopted from Shaw's Pygmalion

Wilde, the other hand, was applauded for his light and frothy wit. Famous for their indulgent aesthetic appeal, his works champion the cause of ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

The contentious argument remains relevant even today.

There are a few points of significance that need to be taken note of. Is it the composition or the color? The subject or the technique? The concept or the product itself? Art is the 'Voice' of the human psyche. Visual Art can be called a song in color and shapes, to be relished by the eyes.

It is a vehicle upon which rides a document of history, travelling to the far reaches of the future. It carries in itself information to be deciphered through symbolism in color, form and composition.

How does one work aggregate the pulse and the heartbeat of an entire generation? That perhaps is the greatest genius of an Artist. Perhaps a true masterpiece is a mirror to the conscience and the predominant values of the period. It is an expression, loud and clear in tone, without ambiguity, yet universal in a sense that its appeal fades not over time.

Some Masterpieces: What makes them so memorable?

That brings us back to the primary question. What is it that makes something a masterpiece?

There are some works so exalted over the times that they have become part of the common verbiage as adjectives, as synonyms for grandeur or perfectionism. Leonardo Da Vinci’s, Monalisa, 1503, is a household term for beauty and artistic creativity.

It is, but, a portrait. Why does the memory of Da Vinci's contribution remain securely hung on the walls of the Louvre to be fawned upon by posterity?

Enchanted by the game of charades that the picture plays, we display it on museum walls, revered for all it has to say. The astounding scientific accuracy of the muse’s anatomy and the posture of the model herself, subjects of conversation for their rebellious dissent with the times.

Vincent Van Gogh, Potato Eaters, 1885

Van Gogh and his dreamy landscapes with swirling strokes, were the mouthpiece of a generation as well. Inspired by the Marxian doctrine rooting itself after the French Revolution, his work is an echo. It recognizes the worth of every tiny dot of color. Every speck of paint respected, a ‘proletariat’ of sorts. The merit of the masses communicated in his masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, 1885.

Pablo Picasso's, expansive Guernica, 1937, in its frightening depiction of shock and death, murder and mourning is the epitome of terror. The horrors and the brutality of the Second World War, the pain of the common man, must not be forgotten. It is the loss of a mother. It is an inaudible scream, etched on the canvas. Reminder of what must never occur again.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

The merit of Salvador Dali’s work is the unapologetic confession of his subconscious.

Set against the backdrop of heaven and earth, on a barren landscape, are characters of myth and fantasy, reflection and reverie. His work is nothing, if not honest, even with its physical deception.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbation 1929

The unhindered, unfiltered telling of his unabashed truth, quintessentially a bridge into a modern world based on a pragmatic acceptance of the uncontrollable self. He refused to sweep it under the rug. People followed. What came forth was the birth of the emotive, expressive splatters of Jackson Pollock, the careless yet forceful strokes of Franz Kline, and the immersive canvases of Mark Rothko. The future, often described as Abstract Expressionist, was inspired to hide no more under the yoke of pretense.

Mark Rothko, Blue, 1966?

So, back to the original question, what does truly make an unforgettable masterpiece? For what it’s worth, it must run nothing short of the merits of social narration and personal expressionism.

It must contain within itself, a microcosm of the most intimate of expressions in some ways reflecting the general apprehensions and assertions of the concurrent world. But it must also consist of a macrocosmic original narrative of the world at large. And it needs to be done in a style most descriptive of the soul of the times it is born in.

Going back to the exorbitantly priced ‘Balloon Dog’ by Jeff Koons, one would ask what makes it so sought after? Why are wealthy collectors and industrialists so interested in an apparently cartoon-shaped, almost comical reproduction of a fanciful childish art form?

The answer could be an emphasized assertion of the man-made material stainless steel, which revolutionized the past century. It is a recognition of scientific invention and technology as a veritable part of new-age artistic expression. It could also be the intellectual prowess of humanity, at this point, surpassing that with is transient. The treatment of air, in a sense, capturing it for posterity. A bubble of fancy held inside invincible steel.

Could it be a commentary, on what a caricature of our ancestors that we have become? Sturdy, stable and concrete on the outside, but so empty from within. A question on what we popularize and celebrate as art. Its polished, expansive surface, a reflection of us all.

Influenced by the likes of Dali, Self reflection is quite possibly his favorite theme. Ironically shaping metal and calling it an inflatable because of its form. Makes one wonder and think about internal and external personalities. Internal human fragility. External human strength. Thus concluding, just like music, art too is a form of visual poetry that must be sung in the most expressive ‘voice’. It must be done with both technical perfection and excellence in emotive expression. Only then does it decisively belong in the timeless Halls of Fame, for posterity and beyond. Perhaps someday, if our civilization collapses, these artworks might be the greatest documents of history.

I would like to end with some words describing the lasting effect, the inspiration and the impression both art and music leave on us. An extract from the famous poem ‘The Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth.-

“Will no one tell me what she sings?—

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:

Or is it some more humble lay,

Familiar matter o f to-day?

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,

That has been, and may be again?

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o'er the sickle bending;—

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.”

To see the paintings by Pooja Sonkar, please visit the following link

Pooja Sonkar is an artist and an author. A series of seven books on Indian mythology is in the offing with her own illustrations besides writing.

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