Understanding Art: Leonardo to Warhol

This course is about how to look at and really see visual images and objects — about how to observe, analyse, interpret and understand paintings, monuments and sculptures.

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Course outline

“You look, but you do not see,” Sherlock Holmes said to Dr Watson.

This course is about how to look at and really see visual images and objects — about how to observe, analyse, interpret and understand paintings, monuments and sculptures.

We explore the life and work of the major Renaissance artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo, followed by the Baroque master of light and dark, Caravaggio, and the artists of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt and Vermeer. In modern society new approaches to art are examined through the work of Monet, Degas, van Gogh, Edvard Munch and Picasso. Salvator Dali and Marcel Duchamp introduce us to the world of dada and the surreal, Mondrian and Kandinsky to abstraction and Warhol to the relationship between artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertising that flourished in post war American society.

A high level of visual literacy is increasingly necessary today in order to navigate our way through the world of images, at times a flood of images in which it is easy to drown. It is not just that visual images are central to everyday life. It is rather that they are increasingly predominant, even dominating, in social and cultural life and communications. To misunderstand them is to be severely disadvantaged.

In this course students will learn how visual images are constructed, how they generate ideas and emotions, how they “work”’ on their consumers (that is, “us”), as well as how they can be interpreted and understood. To these ends the course involves close and intensive study of specific paintings and sculptures. As much as possible the images and objects selected for study are compelling and memorable in themselves.

How and why can we learn so much about seeing and understanding images and objects generally from the close study of individual works? In this course images and objects are studied in terms of their structural, formal, thematic and iconographic (meaning-producing) features. They are also placed in the social and cultural contexts in which they were produced and used in order to more fully understand how the production of meanings are context-specific. The various ways the one image or object can be, or has been, interpreted and understood are studied. This course provides invaluable skills in observing, analysing and interpreting – skills that are fundamental to all disciplines.

Terms & Conditions

This programme gives you the opportunity to attend regular lectures in a selection of courses, alongside enrolled students as an observer. Please note that you are not eligible to attend tutorials, take part in assessments, sit for exams and will not have access to course material online.

You will be provided with a course outline to keep you up to date with the topics discussed in class every week. This is a no-stress learning opportunity.


  • 12 weeks, Tuesday (11am-12pm) and Wednesday (1 - 2pm), 28 July - 28 October 2020
  • $355.00 incl. GST
  • The University of Auckland, City Campus
  • Presented by Dr Robin Woodward and Dr Erin Griffey

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