Does context help or hinder your interpretation of art?


Does context change the way your interpret an image? A piece of art?

Does knowing whether or not the artist is a man or woman affect the way you read the image? Is it important to know how the artist self-identifies? Does it matter if she was an alcoholic? If he was a bastard? If they are schizophrenic? Poor? Rich? Respected? Neglected? Educated? Outsider?

How do you interpret the image above? For me there is such duality:

Frida Kahlo caught in a moment of laughter with a friend [Chavela Vargas?]. So rare to see such a non-posed photograph of Frida. Caught in a candid moment but she she covers her mouth due to her shyness about her bad teeth. A contrast to her friend who laughs so openly, without embarrassment.

Frida is relaxed and happy, but if we know her story, we know her anguish and physical pain. So much wrapped in her mystery. Frida is so distinct and so grounded in her identity as an artist and Mexican. Her friend appears as a woman of her time. The photo is beautiful as an image unto itself. But even more beautiful to me as I see my heroine [whose imagery inspires my art significantly] in this moment of honesty.

A most interesting test re: context occurred during an art event in March 2011. I exhibited a painting of a middle aged farmer climbing over a fence with the hint of pigs in the foreground. I did not title the piece on purpose. I received positive feedback. It looks so Scandinavian. So peaceful and rustic. I divulged after awhile that the piece was indeed a portrait of Robert “Willy” Pickton, a pig farmer and serial killer. The horror was evident in the viewer. And it opened interesting dialogue.

In 2003, I experimented with a class of Grade 7’s regarding context and interpretation. I gave my friend/the Grade 7 teacher, Michele Lavery, the following image taken by a friend of mine:

Photo by Willem de Mooy
Photo by Willem de Mooy

On purpose, I asked her not to explain who my friend was. The following questions were given to the students:



Why do you think the photographer took the picture?

What feelings does the picture bring up for you?

Who do you think the photographer might be?

Why might they may have taken that picture?







The Window

Broken Pain


Shattered Window


Chipped Shattered

Glistening of the Sun

Broken Dreams

Broken Glass

Modern Art Shattered

Broken View

Broken Sunshine


The most popular title: Broken Window


Window panes with bullet holes in them

It’s a picture looking outside to the sky

A window that’s broken

No colour, hard to understand

Broken stained glass where sun comes in

Seems old-fashioned, kind of ugly, sort of abstract, looks like someone was shot

A window, every pain [sic] is broken/shattered

Dark, eery

Sunny, someone looking through a window

It shows the cruelty of the world in a broken window

Someone looking out of a window at a town. It’s very dark


Dreary, sad, you’re concealed

Why do you think the photographer took the picture?

It’s pretty outside

Maybe to reflect his/her feelings

Maybe because his/her heart was broken

It symbolizes something

It’s original and interesting

Something happened in his life

Not like any other picture

It’s different and sad

He or she likes the look of broken windows

He was depressed


What feelings does the picture bring up for you?

Grief, sadness

Cold, darkness

Sad, miserable

Like the world has no colour

A broken soul or heart (the heart is the window of the soul)

Sad, lonely, depressed

Nothing really

Like there is something missing

A boring old day


The cruelty of the world

Broken dreams

Not much, I don’t think it’s so great

Poverty. Repair needed. Maybe the house is on fire.

Who do you think the photographer might be?

Younger, female

Old, sad, lonely

Young person


Old person

Middle aged person who is sad. He lost someone

Middle aged person

Old lonely man

Some old guy

Older person who knows about art

The photographer is maybe a smart middle-aged man

An older person who seems more wiser

Young, sad, lonely

Young woman

Why might they have taken that picture?

A broken heart, something missing in his life

He was tired of life, the darkness

He wanted to show his feelings

Sadness, alone

May have had a loss of some kind that made him want to commit suicide

His life was broken, not worth living anymore

That he was going to kill himself

Might have brought up feelings

As I watch my life break

Feels like he has no privacy

His life was in ruins

Life isn’t worth anything and so it’s wrecked and my heart is broken

He feels shattered, afraid, useless

Needs to release emotion

He smashed the window because he was mad

He had a boring life and he might have felt left out

It fascinates me to read the responses. My friend, an extraordinary soul and talented artist, took his life at age 23 in 1988.


Context May Diminish Art Appreciation

Surprising new research suggests non-experts’ receptiveness to modern artworks may be lessened when contextual information is presented…

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